The Question of Proletarian Internationalism: Che Guevara’s The African Dream

Che Guevara begins the diary of his seven-month incursion in Congo-Kinshasa[1] during the 1963-65 Simba Rebellion with self-criticism: “This is the history of a failure”. If we only cared about the outcome of the expedition, we could stop at this line. But the next should pique our curiosity: “this account [may] have…certain experiences… that might be useful to other revolutionary movements” (1).[2]

These “certain experiences” have hitherto been hidden. In a preface, Guevara’s daughter Aleida Guevara March tell us that the text “remained unpublished” in English until 1997 despite being written in 1965.[3] As Richard Gott says in his introduction to the text: “it is not difficult to see why”: the conclusions were piercingly introspective. The text “remained under lock and key in Havana for more than thirty years, invisible to all but the most trusted supporters of the Cuban government” (ix). Che saw the text as “designed for the eyes of [Fidel] Castro and the leaders of the Cuban Revolution, to provide them with information… that would help them avoid future pitfalls… with revolutionary movements around the world”. The three-decade delay explains why this information is largely unknown.

The diary’s narrative unfolds within Congo-Kinshasa’s history. After “independence” in June 1960, former colonizer Belgium fomented crisis, sponsoring Moïse Tshombe’s Katanga Province secession. To handle Tshombe, Patrice Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union; consequentially, on orders of the CIA, Lumumba was detained and murdered by Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, his Army Chief, and Tshombe.[4] After the assassination, Lumumba’s supporters formed the “Lumumbist” Conseil National de Libération (CNL) to fight for Congo-Kinshasa’s “second independence” against neo-colonialism. In 1963, they launched the “Simba” Rebellion in the Orientale province. Support came from Tanzania, Egypt, China, and the Soviet Union, but there was never a united front: rebel leaders, like Laurent-Désiré Kabila, operated independently. By July 1964, nevertheless, the Simbas controlled three-quarters of Congo-Kinshasa.

The West saw this as an existential threat. With funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and pilots from the Cuban exile community in Florida, the U.S. sent T-28 bombers. Tshombe hired white mercenaries led by “Mad” Mike Hoare.[5] And the U.S. authorized Operation “Dragon Rouge”, where Belgian paratroopers, via American planes launched from Britain’s South Atlantic Base (and approved by British Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson) attacked Orientale. By 1964, the imperialists had reversed the Simbas’ advance.

With the Congolese revolution on the backfoot, Cuba’s young revolutionary government engaged. Guevara spoke at the UN in December 1964 and denounced “the painful case of the Congo… the direct reason for all this is the enormous wealth of the Congo, which the imperialist countries want to keep under their control”. He demanded that “all free men of the world be prepared to avenge the crime of the Congo”.

Guevara had concluded that “Yankee imperialism… has to be attacked in its bases of support in the colonies and neocolonies”. Using a philosophy of “proletarian internationalism”,[6] Guevara declared that he had “fulfilled the… duty that tied me to the Cuban revolution in its territory” and asserted that “other nations of the world summon my modest efforts [in] the most sacred of duties: to fight against imperialism wherever it may be”. And so, speaking with Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in March 1965, Guevara said “I shall go to the Congo because… I think we can hurt the imperialists at the core of their interests”. He saw this as a struggle “not against some puppet like Tshombe but against US imperialism… in its neocolonial form”. Che stressed the “fundamental importance which the struggle for the liberation of the Congo had… a victory would be continental in its impact—and so would a defeat” (7).

Che consulted Cuba’s allies in Africa from 1964-5.[7] Perhaps he discussed neocolonialism with Kwame Nkrumah when they met in 1964. But after meeting Alphonse Massamba-Débat in Congo-Brazzaville, who asked for Cuban support to be provided to the Simbas, Che decided to personally lead the intervention; in his prior organizing of rebellions in Latin America, he had remained behind in Cuba. 200 Afro-Cuban soldiers were chosen to join him; the Congolese leaders argued “it would be… good… if the instructors were black” (6) to differentiate themselves from white mercenaries. On April 1st, 1965, Castro wished the group farewell; they flew to Dar-es-Salaam, where their mission began on April 19th.

Che’s text unfolds as a biography of a new kind of revolutionary mission, from its birth to its demise. Throughout, revolution is a living entity, while proletarian internationalism is struggling to be born. But Che acknowledges that there were “birth pangs, which sometimes can be painful.”[8] His background as a doctor informs his appraisal of the struggle; he offers a pain-staking medical report, charting the health of the struggle. By his departure, it becomes a post-mortem. It is a history of failure, but “more precisely, the history of a decomposition” (1). In chapters with titles like “The Patient Gets Worse” “Taking the Pulse”, and “The Eastern Front Sinks Into a Coma”, Guevara examines the vitality of the revolution under a microscope, determined to understand the maladies it suffered from and why it expired. His evaluation confirms a terminal illness; he offers the prognostication that “the Congolese revolution was inevitably doomed to failure as a result of its own internal weaknesses” (27). But in his post-mortem, Che asserts that “the inauguration of the International Proletarian Army must not be allowed to die at the first failure. It is essential to analyze in depth the problems that arise and find a solution” (2).

“Right from the start”, Che notes, “we confronted a reality that would vex us throughout: the lack of organization” (11). Examining the dead body of the Congolese Revolution, Che finds clinging onto the corpse a “parasite” (80), the army, which “did not work, did not train, did not fight”. It “humiliated and mistreated” the peasantry (26). Soldiers of the revolutionary army at various points were “wandering around… taking shelter in villages and extorting things from their inhabitants… the peasants… were very upset by the actions of these vagabonds that engaged in… pillaging” (144). Che concludes that “our military units… were a dumping ground in which everything became rotten” (90).

The revolutionary army dismembered itself through its own disunity. There was a lack of cohesion between fighters; predominantly, as Che observes, different ethnic groups viewing “each other as enemies” (22). Che bemoaned the “excessive lack of trust” (80) and the fact that “any attempt to unite… seemed doomed to fail” (89). The revolution also lacked “real direct communication across the language barrier” (168). Che, who spoke “elementary French” (104), regretted that he “could not speak… Swahili… in my entire time” in Congo-Kinshasa (30). To speak to soldiers, who often spoke neither French nor Swahili, Che would have to rely on Charles Bemba, who translated “into Kibembe, the language in that region” (104).

It was difficult “to achieve unity between the Congolese and Cubans” (146). Che was frustrated by his inability to “get the Cubans to shake off their scornful elder-brother attitude toward the Congolese” (171). This led to the Cubans always feeling “a little bit superior, like people who had come to give advice” (171).

He also found disorder at the head of the revolution. He notes the “open hostility with which people spoke of” the leadership, particularly Kabila, who all “were accused… of being mere transients who were never where their people needed them” (28). What frustrates him is that “[the leadership] received… money to travel”, living “in the best hotels” (124), while “not a cent will reach the front where the peasants suffer every imaginable misery, including the rapaciousness of their protectors” (128). The “leadership” issued orders Che saw as “absurd” with “no preparation” (23). When the first attack commenced on June 29th, it was “a complete rout” (45) and “four Cuban[s]… were killed” (47). After the attack, Che hints at the “disintegration that would overcome the Liberation Army and catch the Cuban troops in its mesh” (49).

The revolution would suffer “a loss of heart” (49). Over time, an “incipient pessimism [began] creeping into the troop’s morale” (20); soon, the Cubans had suffered “contagion by the prevailing spirit” (123). After the defeat, Che notes that “symptoms of the decomposition could be observed among our troop… some compañeros were saying that they…would withdraw from the struggle” (52). Over time, Che could observe “the ferment that had been dissolving the morale of our troops” (132).

Without organic support, the revolution begins “to depend on Dar es-Salaam for everything” (115). As Che notes, with “great pity” the revolution “squandered the resources of friendly countries” (29). Because of this waste, Tanzania declares in October[9] that they “will change the nature of their support”, declaring that “nothing would be given to the Congolese liberation movement until [the Cubans] have withdrawn”. This occurs in a chapter entitled “A Stab in the Back”; Che calls it “the coup de grâce for a moribund revolution” (181).

Though Che insists “we cannot leave” (185), the enemy begins to advance “with relative ease, as the combatants were deeply demoralized” (117). The retreats and half-hearted defensive operations fall “into total chaos” (209). He receives word that “a lot of… high-ranking officers have gone over to the enemy” (162) and that “some officers are urging the revolutionaries to lay down their weapons” (170). Worst of all, the revolutionaries had “lost the trust of the peasants” (184). Che observes “the local population… beginning to work with [the enemy]” (192). During the final retreat, Che faces “the enemy’s troops guided in three groups by peasants from the region” (191). He concludes that the enemy “seemed to be treating the peasants with the greatest deference, while we were paying for past errors” (201).

After “the Congolese have heard the news [of Tanzania’s withdrawn support]” they begin “leaving” en mass (206). Che resolves that he will stay in Congo-Kinshasa “as symbol of Cuba’s dignity” (211), but he has lost the support of the Cubans; “no one was disposed to keep on fighting” (211). During the final retreat across Lake Tanganyika to safe territory in Tanzania, he laments that “it was a sad, inglorious spectacle” (217). He existentially concludes that “during those last hours… I felt alone, in a way that I had never felt… in any of my wanderings around the globe” (218).

In exile in Dar-es-Salaam, Guevara amended the text to acknowledge that “victory is a great source of positive experiences, but so is defeat” (1). Che sets out all his concluding reflections on the struggle in an epilogue which he uses “to draw some conclusions about… the future of the Congolese revolution” (219). He ponders “what could the Liberation Army offer the peasantry? This is question always bothered us” (223). He points out clearly the “exploitation to which the peasants are subjected”. But “what did we have to offer?” Che wonders, when “we did not offer protection… nor any education”. Che recommends that “some deep thought be devoted to… revolutionary tactics… among the peasantry” which is the “main social layer in this region” (224). In another reflection, he analyzes the contradictions of solidarity. He laments that the Cuban solidarity was thwarted as they felt “superior… and they made this clear all too often”, reminding the Congolese of the “past insults at the hands of the colonialists”, and leading them to feel “it in the core of their being when a Cuban displayed distain toward them” (231).

Che’s conclusions on the revolutionary leadership are especially severe. He castigates the “pliable and domesticated revolutionaries” who “almost never participated in any fighting” and only wanted “a leadership position” (228). This leads Che to conclude that to “replace colonialism with neocolonialism, or one group of neocolonialists with another group… is not a correct revolutionary strategy” (244). From this, he builds an analysis of the “liberation struggle against new-style colonial power” (235). Che sees neocolonialism as the enemy, saying that in the “new imperialist plan, there is no contradiction of any kind between the national bourgeoisies and the neocolonial powers. Each individual country, when drafting its plan for the liberation struggle, must start by regarding as enemies not only the imperialists… but all the nouveau riche” (237). This leads Che to “update some Marxist analytical schemas” (236), writing “what is the primary contradiction of the epoch? … there are more and more serious reasons to believe that the primary contradiction is between the exploiting and exploited nations”. Thus, he insists that “a clearly popular, anti-imperialist struggle is… a socialist struggle” (237). In the last words of the book, Che asserts that the real anti-imperialist, socialist leaders “somewhere inside the country starting to write the real history of the liberation of the Congo” (244).

In his appraisal of neocolonialism, Che is “ruthlessly honest, and unsparing of the weaknesses of friends and allies” (ix). But his critique almost seems prophetic when compared to the contemporary history of the DRC. When Kabila overthrew Mobutu in 1997, he did so as a puppet of the U.S.-backed Rwandan leader Paul Kagame and had long renounced Marxism. But compradors find themselves so easily betrayed; Kabila was assassinated by the United States and Rwanda during the second of two wars fought for control of Congo-Kinshasa’s mineral resources, and over 5 million civilians were murdered with him. The imperial domination of Congo-Kinshasa persists, and neither Kabila’s “revolution” nor the ascendancy of his son Joseph Kabila have overthrown this domination.
Only criticizing the Congolese without “the most difficult analysis of all—that concerning my own role” (233) would be insufficient. Through this self-criticism, Guevara reflects on the contradictions of internationalism, particularly race. Even prior to the mission, Che was warned by Nasser against becoming “another Tarzan, a white man among black men” trying to “lead them” (xiii). Nasser’s warning was sincere: a Congolese commander “complained that I rebuked him like a child”, and Che’s attitude is compared to that of the Belgians (155). But he is self-aware; he acknowledges “the pain… felt when a white man rebuked [the Congolese] like in the old days” of colonialism (157) and admits that “my being white influenced matters” (231). This contradiction of race has lent itself to allegations of Guevara’s “white saviorism”; indeed, his position within an African struggle is at times tenuous. But he does not exalt himself as a savior. He asserts that “the Congolese, after all, had to liberate the Congo” (80).[10]

Nevertheless, Che’s text has been maligned today by reactionaries offering “reviews” to discredit proletarian internationalism itself. These “reviews” have connections to imperialism. U.S. Special Operations Historian Troy Sacquety, whose biography says he “worked several years for the CIA”, summarized the reactionary view in a 2008 article entitled Che Guevara: A False Idol For Revolutionaries. He argued that Che’s operation in Congo-Kinshasa “failed miserably” and that he “blamed his lack of success on the African rebel leaders and troops”. This is echoed by media like the Libertarian Reason, which argued that Che is “an old-fashioned racist when it comes to evaluating his black brothers in arms”, something repeated by the likes of the Heritage Foundation, America’s Future, Fox News, the Cato Institute, PragerU, and the Huffington Post, which have all used the African Dream to “prove” Che’s “racism”. Che’s own words say otherwise when he admits “we failed… my responsibility is great” (235), or that his analysis “does not reflect a derogatory opinion of the Congolese people”. Those who want to discredit Guevara really seek to discredit anti-imperialism; their bad faith engagement is an inadequate way to approach internationalism’s contradictions.

There is a constructive acknowledgement that these contradictions “will be hard to avoid early on in the next phases of the struggle in Africa” (232). This advice is directed for the future of Cuban deployment in African struggles. He insists that for future missions “a cadre policy should be followed” (232),[11] and stresses that “aid should be conditional; if not we run the risk of the aid… becoming money that allows the lords of the revolution to enjoy princely holidays… to… sell out their people… If that happens, we [become] allies of imperialism” (244).” In reflecting on this book, we can concur with Richard Gott that “subsequent events suggest that the Cubans took [Che’s] lessons to heart” (x). One example is Cuba’s intervention in Angola from the 1970s to 1990s, where instead of aid, 400,000 Cuban soldiers helped the Angolan MPLA defeat Apartheid South Africa, winning freedom for Angola and causing the downfall of Apartheid in the 1990s.[12] Synonymous with Castro’s view that the struggle against Apartheid was “la causa más bonita de la humanidad”, Gott explains that “the Cubans were internationalists in the purest sense: they had come to combat the American imperialists… and to further the interests of the world revolution” (xxvii).

Che as an individual preceded these 400,000 internationalists. But rather than a “Great Man” history that further romanticizes his image, the text celebrates all the “foreigners who risk[ed] their lives in an unknown land where people… were linked to them only by ties of proletarian internationalism, so that a method not practiced in modern wars of liberation was thereby inaugurated” (2). This “new method” has been championed by thousands of Cuban soldiers and doctors, who have committed to African liberation to this day.[13] They follow Che’s motto: “I am not a liberator. Liberators do not exist… people liberate themselves.”

The preface’s final words stress that the account “in no way detracts from the heroic character of the effort [which] flows from… the Cuban people. Our country… on the doorstep of Yankee imperialism, sends its soldiers to fight in a foreign land… in waging a relentless struggle against Yankee imperialism lies the heroic significance of our participation in the struggle of the Congo.” We must celebrate the Cuban mission in Congo-Kinshasa as just one of the early steps of a growing proletarian internationalism between different peoples in shared struggle.

Joseph Mullen is a student at Cornell University and an editor of The Cadre Journal, a student-run podcast and journal on anti-imperialism

[1] A note on naming: during the Simba Rebellion, what is today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Congo-Kinshasa, was known as the Republic of the Congo, or Congo-Léopoldville; it would be renamed Zaire in 1971. This is because Léopoldville had not yet been renamed Kinshasa, as it would be in 1966. To avoid confusion with the DRC’s western neighbor, Congo-Brazzaville, now known as the Republic of Congo, I use the anachronistic but more contemporarily understandable “Congo-Kinshasa” throughout.

[2] Throughout this review, I use pagination from Guevara, Ernesto Che. The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2001”, but much of the translation from Guevara, Ernesto Che. Congo Diary: The Story of Che Guevara’s Lost Year in Africa. New York, NY: Ocean Press, 2011. These two translations differ slightly, so pagination may not entirely reflect the wording in the Grove Press edition.

[3] The debate on why the text was published in 1997 is likely related to the fact that Kabila overthrew Mobutu in that year; a release of the text during the continued opposition to Mobutu may have been seen as interference in the affairs of the “revolutionary” movement. Other versions of the text had been published prior, such as this one in French: Guevara, Che, Paco Ignacio Taibo, Froilán Escobar, and Félix Guerra. L’année Où Nous N’étions Nulle Part: Extrait Du Journal De Ernesto Che Guevara En Afrique. Paris, France: Ed. Métailié, 1995.

[4] For an excellent analysis, see Williams, A. Susan. White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa. London, UK: Hurst Publishers, 2021.

[5] Many were from the racist regimes in Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa, as well as Belgium, America, and West Germany (largely former Nazis), joining a unit called 5 Commando. The fanatical Hoare declared that he fought to eliminate “the greatest cancer the world has ever known—the creeping, insidious disease of communism” and said that “killing communists is like killing vermin, killing African nationalists is as if one is killing an animal”. See AFP. “Mercenary ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare Dies Aged 100 in South Africa.” The Citizen, October 8, 2021.

[6] For a definition of proletarian internationalism, see Castro’s view that it was “manifesting fraternal solidarity with all the countries and peoples who fight against oppression and exploitation” in Fidel Castro, “Exclusive in Soviet Trip to Siempre,” July 3, 1963, Castro Speech Data Base, Latin American Network Information Center, University of Texas at Austin,

[7] After meeting Nkrumah in 1964, Che met with revolutionary leaders like Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria, Nasser of Egypt, Julius Nyerere and A.M. Babu of Tanzania, Sékou Toure of Guinea, Amílcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau, and Modibo Keïta of Mali, visiting Sudan, Senegal, and Dahomey as well. Che’s visit would also be extremely significant for the future of Cuban involvement in Africa, as he would meet Angolan revolutionary leader Agostinho Neto and Mozambican freedom fighters Samora Machel and Eduardo Mondlane in Brazzaville as well. See Seddon, David. “Che Guevara in the Congo.” Jacobin, April 4, 2017.

[8] Guevara, Ernesto Che, and David Deutschmann. Che Guevara Reader: Writings on Politics and Revolution. Melbourne, Vic, Australia: Ocean Press, 2007.

[9] See the Accra Declaration here.

[10] For a larger discussion on this subject, see this article by the All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party, as well as King, Amy J. “Opposing Worldviews: A New Perspective on Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s Failure in the Congo.” PALARA, 2021.

[11] What Che means by this is teased out throughout the text. He argues that the soldiers that should be sent “are those with a revolutionary strength of mind much greater than the average—even the average in a revolutionary country—with practical experience gained in struggle, with a high level of political development, and with solid discipline” (232). His view is expressed further in the essay “The Cadres: Backbone of the Revolution”.

[12] For further on this subject see Gleijeses, Piero. Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2016 as well as Puri, Shalini, and Lara Putnam. “Cuban Narratives of War: Memories of Angola.” Essay. In Caribbean Military Encounters, 193–211. New York, NY, U.S.A., NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

[13] See Díaz-Briquets, Sergio. Cuban Internationalism in Sub-Saharan Africa. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1989.




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