The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.61/No.46           December 29, 1997 
`Pombo' Speaks On Che's Leadership In Africa  
This selection is part of a series marking the 30th anniversary of the death in combat of Ernesto Che Guevara. Argentine by birth, Guevara became one of the central leaders of the Cuban revolution that brought down the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship in 1959 and, in response to mounting pressure from Washington, opened the socialist revolution in the Americas. Che, as he is popularly known, was one of the outstanding Marxist leaders of the 20th century.

In 1966 - 67, he led a nucleus of revolutionaries from Bolivia, Cuba, and Peru who fought to overthrow the military dictatorship in Bolivia. In the process, they sought to forge a Latin America-wide movement of workers and peasants that could lead the battle for land reform and against U.S. imperialist domination of the continent and advance the struggle for socialism. Guevara was wounded and captured on Oct. 8, 1967. He was shot the next day by the Bolivian military, after consultation with Washington.

As part of the commemoration of this anniversary in Cuba, dozens of articles, speeches, and interviews by those who worked with Che are being published, dealing with the Cuban revolution, its impact in world politics, and the actions of its leadership. Many of Guevara's collaborators and family members have spoken at conferences and other meetings, bringing Che to life for a new generation and explaining the importance of his rich political legacy today. These materials contain many valuable firsthand accounts and information, some of which are being written down and published for the first time. They are part of the broader discussion taking place in Cuba today on how to advance the revolution.

The Militant is reprinting a selection of these contributions, along with related material such as the article above, as a weekly feature, under the banner "Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution."


From April 1965 until November of that year, Ernesto Che Guevara led a contingent of more than 100 Cuban volunteers in the Congo, aiding revolutionary forces fighting the pro- imperialist regime there. The article below on this internationalist effort appeared in a special issue of the magazine Tricontinental, published in Havana by the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The author, Harry Villegas, who fought alongside Guevara in the Congo and later Bolivia, is today a brigadier general in Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces. Originally published under the title "With the Weapon of Moral Authority," the article is reprinted by permission. Translation, subheadings, and footnotes are by the Militant.

When I met him upon joining the Rebel Army in the Sierra Maestra mountains, Che was already an epic figure, the invincible commander, an example. Those were the qualities that help explain the great attraction he exercised on us, the young people there.

Those of us who fought and worked alongside him, first in Cuba, then in Africa and in Bolivia, always refer to a strict and demanding Che, for whom discipline was something fundamental, although it was a conscious discipline that the men internalized. This had great political significance for him, and he began by applying it to himself. It was to play an important role in the battles of the Congo.

In 1965, on returning from his tour of Africa, Che was already convinced that he had done his part in Cuba.(1) He wanted to continue his mission in "other lands of the world," and he had decided to move on. At that time, his objective was not Africa but rather Latin America. As a way of realizing his desire to help other peoples, he agreed to the proposal to temporarily join the struggle in the Congo (Leopoldville), to head up a group of Cuban military personnel who would be supporting the struggle there. Among them, major responsibilities would be held by Víctor Dreke (Moya) and José María Martínez Tamayo (Mbili).

Fidel stuck to the agreement he had made with Che in Mexico, that he would allow Che to leave Cuba whenever the latter desired, regardless of the economic, political, or revolutionary circumstances.(2) But Fidel was also profoundly human, and he tried to repay Che, to some extent, for everything Che had done for Cuba. Fidel proposed to fulfill that moral commitment by providing Che with security, making sure that wherever Che went he would not be alone, and that he would have the support of the Cubans. That is also why many of us found ourselves there, voluntarily. In one way or another we were repaying our debt to humanity.

What was Africa like when we arrived?

It was difficult, practically impossible, for the group to fully comprehend that stage of social development. The customs were a tremendous shock to us. This was aggravated by the deficient cultural level that most of us possessed, although to tell the truth it wasn't easy for those who had a higher cultural level, either.

It was a mixture of primitive communism with feudalism, slavery, and matriarchy. Women provided for the sustenance of the family. They cultivated the land, carrying the children on their backs, while the men remained at home. We were very machista and weren't used to that; we didn't understand it and we resisted it.

There were also religious problems: the famous dawa, the fetish, with different forms and rituals in each zone, in each tribe. For example, when one said, "I am going to eat goat," they would warn us, "No, goats are sacred." We had to eat it and try to make them understand us, but it bothered them. They wound up concluding that we had a universal dawa, more powerful than theirs, which made us permanently immune. And therefore the one who had created that dawa for us, Fidel Castro, was the greatest muganga in the world.(3)

They could not go into combat without the protection of that fetish. They would form a long line to perform it on themselves, and during that time we would occupy defensive positions, turning ourselves into a shield to keep the enemy from arriving and to give them time to finish the ritual of the dawa.

Everything turned out to be very complicated. I, as head of the rear guard, was responsible for organizing the food. There were nearly 3,000 men, and all of them demanded their food be cooked individually. That would have put us in danger of being discovered from thousands of miles away due to the tremendous smoke plume it would have formed. Nevertheless, the best that could be arranged was to have them cook by platoons, 25 men, more or less.

Collaboration with Congolese fighters
So Che's first task, his permanent struggle, was to persuade us and make us understand this situation: that we were among an extremely backward people, who had been subjugated by the colonialists for more than four centuries.

When one saw the way he acted toward the Africans, one appreciated again Che's greatness, his extreme humility. He believed in the principle that collaboration involved a degree of subordination, although later on the experience in the Congo made him reconsider this tactic in the case of Bolivia, where he was more demanding with Mario Monje.(4)

His disposition to unconditional subordination explains why one could see him sitting in a hut waiting for months to be able to have a meeting with the main leaders of the National Liberation Army of the Congo (ELNC). This, after he had been an influential person in the building of socialism in Cuba, minister of industry, president of the National Bank and of the Central Planning Board. He was only able to have a brief discussion with Laurent-Desire Kabila, the second-in-command of the movement.

It was necessary that a native African assume the leadership of the movement in Kibamba. On arriving at this site, Che found a brave and capable man, Leonard Mitoudidi, who was the head of operations, but as chance would have it, Mitoudidi died after being there only a few days. Later Idelphonse Massengo was sent to take on responsibility as head of the general staff, and he found a degree of acceptance among the heads of the front, but not the amount required. He remained there the rest of the time, and continued the struggle after Che left. He died in combat, I am told.

I should point out that prior to our departure for the Congo, according to reports received in Cuba, more than half the country had supposedly been liberated. But that wasn't the reality; the information was wrong. There were some inexact estimates, even in regard to geography. According to initial reports, the mountains came up almost to the shore of Lake Tanganyika, but that wasn't the case. The person who compiled the information had observed the coast at a distance from the lake.

The time came when Che determined that he could no longer wait for the leadership of the movement, and he decided to go to the battle front. Then a different phase began, one of marches, ambushes, attacks. It was in the assault on Front de Force, the most intense battle, that we lost some comrades.

The Cubans thought it wasn't a good idea for us to attack. Che thought so too, but he was flexible, and he accepted the proposal by the head of the front to launch an assault on Front de Force. The coordination of our actions broke down, and they were not carried out as planned. Basically, combat was supposed to begin with the impact of rockets we fired at the retaining wall of the dam at a hydroelectric station. That rocket strike was not carried out, but all the other forces continued their advance, penetrating the sectors of enemy fire.

The enemy troops, dug in at the bridge, had all the access routes well covered with mortars which they had aimed precisely at the roads beforehand. When combat began, it was very easy for them to launch a pinpoint artillery barrage with the mortars, because they had already adjusted their aim, and had practiced several times. They had prepared a good defense. This, together with our lack of coordination and the fact that many [Congolese] combatants retreated spontaneously, forced us to withdraw without having attained our objectives. This resulted in a hard blow for the morale of our people.

In any of the written accounts of Che's presence in Africa - among them for example, the one by General William Gálvez, El sueño africano del Che, [Che's African dream] - one can appreciate Che's very strong convictions, among which was his concept of the role that we Cubans were called on to play: that of educator, of social reformer. That's why he demanded that we always be an example, and he called on us to show great humility, capacity for sacrifice, and understanding of the particular circumstance, of the fact that all problems of attitude had a basis in social psychology, given the cultural difference between the two groups.

Che sought to maintain unity, morale
In the midst of a conjuncture in which a group of comrades wanted to return to Cuba, where there was a lack of internal cohesion among the various groups of the Congolese movement, and where there was distrust within the movement toward the Rwandans,(5) Che sought constantly to bind the different groups together, to maintain discipline and fighting morale, which were indispensable for guaranteeing the unity in struggle necessary to lead the war. This required him to be firm and demanding; he could not allow anything that might lead to chaos.

Faced with the obligation to solve these conflicts he was involved in, he appealed to persuasion, to convincing people, to his moral authority. He could do so because of the prestige he had gained in Cuba and because of that high degree of rigor, toward himself above all, which made him capable even of punishing himself if he committed an error.

One day we woke up to find a pile of rifles; the combatants had dropped them on the ground. Che called over a Congolese combatant and came to agreement with him on a reprimand, and that he should react by acknowledging that Che was right and picking up his weapon. Che began his talk in French, and the man forgot it all. Then Che told him, "Hey, my friend, hadn't we agreed that you'd pick up the rifle?" The Congolese picked up his weapon and all the others did the same. This gives you an idea of the psychological state that prevailed at that time.

We were already deep within Congolese territory when it was decided out of utter necessity that we should leave. Che analyzed all those internal conflicts. He wanted to go looking for Pierre Mulele, the head of one of the other three battle fronts, who was at the opposite end of the country. He would have had to travel almost to Brazzaville. Che's idea was to cross all the way through Zaire, in an invasion like the one the combatants of the Rebel Army had carried out from eastern Cuba to Las Villas(6) (in the central zone), only bigger - a huge march by nearly a thousand men, crossing a country of approximately three million square kilometers.

One must not forget that the presence of the Cuban column in the Congo (Leopoldville) depended to a certain extent on the policy laid out by the OAU [Organization of African Unity](7) at its meeting in Addis Ababa, of providing support only to national liberation movements, and not to internal struggles. By November 1965 there was an internal change, in which the dictator Moise Tshombe(8)(the one behind Patrice Lumumba's murder) was deposed. So the OAU reconsidered our presence there.

Che was authorized to decide whether we would leave, and in compliance with the mandate of the OAU he prepared for us to withdraw in the most organized fashion possible. But at the same time he strove to find someone in charge of the movement who would sign a document requesting the withdrawal of our forces. He wanted to make it very clear that we Cubans were not leaving the Congo voluntarily, but rather that we were compelled to so by the conjuncture in the country.

No one appeared who would sign the document. We began to retreat toward the lake, under great pressure, evading the pursuit of airlifted troops. I remember Che's words about psychologically avoiding the idea of defeat, about how the loss of combativity eroded morale and became our most dangerous enemy. He told us about a Russian novel, in which a guerrilla detachment suffered those effects when it came up against the reality of a setback.

Our departure was quite complicated. The plan was to cross the lake before dawn in two small boats that Captain Lawton (Changa) had obtained. But that was impossible, and we had to leave by day. Bright sunlight caught us in the middle of that fresh-water sea, and the people were utterly exhausted.

We had installed a cannon on the boats, which we could not fire because the recoil itself would have destroyed the boat and wiped out all the men riding in it. Nevertheless, this stratagem served to convince the Congolese enemy, when they started to circle around us in two rapid Petit Vedette boats with Belgian crews, that we were capable of fighting. They avoided a confrontation, and let us pass. If they had decided to confront us, they could have cut us all to pieces with four shots. At the end of the day's journey, we got out.

Today I believe that the presence of Che in the Congo played a very important role from the psychological standpoint. It really contributed in a very positive way, and at the same time it had a powerful symbolism. The most important thing is the ideological message, the revolutionary message of fraternal cooperation, of sacrifice that he brought there, expressing the humanistic essence of the Cuban revolution and of Fidel.

1. Guevara made a three-month visit to Africa December 1964 to March 1965, advancing Cuba's relations with African governments and liberation movements. Among the countries he visited were Algeria, Mali, Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea, Ghana, Dahomey [Benin], Tanzania, and Egypt.

2. In 1987, Castro told an Italian journalist: "When [Che] joined us in Mexico ... he did ask one thing: `The only thing I want after the victory of the revolution is to go fight in Argentina ... that no reasons of state will stand in the way.' And I promised him that."

3. A muganga was one who administered the dawa, which was supposed to protect a combatant from any kind of danger.

4. Mario Monje was the general secretary of the Communist Party of Bolivia. He sabotaged the revolutionary struggle led by Che in that country. Che rejected Monje's demand that Monje be the military commander of the guerrilla front.

5. A contingent of Rwandan volunteers was participating in the Congolese struggle.

6. A reference to the Rebel Army's westward march from the Sierra Maestra in eastern Cuba to the central province of Las Villas. It was conducted between August and October of 1958 by the columns led by Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. That effort helped seal the fate of the Batista dictatorship.

7. The OAU, which had originally called for world support to the struggle against the Congo regime led by Moise Tshombe and its Belgian and mercenary backers, changed its position when Tshombe was ousted October 13, 1965, a and the new regime pledged to send the mercenaries home.

8. Patrice Lumumba was the leader of the Congolese struggle for independence from Belgium and the country's first prime minister in 1960. With the backing of the U.S. and Belgian governments, Moise Tshombe led a war against the Lumumba government that was aided by United Nations "peacekeeping" troops. Lumumba was murdered by Tshombe's forces in January 1961.

This week's article concludes the Militant's series "Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution." If you missed any of the articles, you can still order the issues of the Militant in which they appeared for $1.50 each. Use the list below to order by issue number, and send your request together with payment to: The Militant, 410 West St., New York, NY 10014.

No. 36 - `Che continues to instill fear in the oppressors' - speech by Ricardo Alarcón

No. 37 - Central goal of socialism is the creation of new man - interview with Orlando Borrego

No. 38 - Guevara: `Human beings are no longer beasts of burden' -speech by Enrique Oltuski

No. 39 - `I see Che and his men as reinforcements, as a detachment of invincible combatants' - speech by Fidel Castro

No. 40 - `This was the work of a giant' - interview with Arturo Guzmán

No. 41 - `Che Guevara was energetically devoted to anti- imperialist solidarity' - interview with Manuel Piñeiro (part I)

No. 42 - `Aim was to spread anti-imperialist fight' - interview with Manuel Piñeiro (part II)

No. 43 - `I am daughter of an internationalist' - interview with Aleida Guevara March

No. 44 - `Urbano' speaks on experiences with Che in Bolivia - interview with Leonardo Tamayo

No. 45 - Che in the Congo: `a return to our internationalist roots' -article from Trabajadores

No. 46 - Pombo speaks on Che's leadership in Africa - article by Harry Villegas

Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home