Guevara, an Argentine-born revolutionary, had joined the July 26 Movement in Mexico in 1955 as the Cuban revolutionaries were preparing to relaunch the insurrectionary struggle against Batista. In the course of the revolutionary war, Guevara became one of the central commanders of the Rebel Army.
At the time of the revolutionary victory, the class composition of the student body and faculty at Cuba's three universities—located in Havana, Santiago, and Santa Clara—reflected the exploitative society Cuban workers and peasants were now striving to leave behind.
As the accompanying article by Mike Taber points out, Cuba's revolutionary government, from its earliest days, instituted measures to begin redressing these class inequalities and the racist discrimination inherent in capitalist social relations. Che Guevara addresses the challenge of advancing this working-class course in Cuba's universities too, opening up these virtually all-white enclaves to sons and daughters of workers and peasants, and transforming their character and curriculum in line with the new revolutionary tasks.
A system of racial segregation stigmatizing blacks and mulattos was reproduced daily by the workings of capitalism in prerevolutionary Cuba. Africans had been brought to Cuba as early as the Spanish conquest in the 1500s. For more than 300 years they toiled as slaves on sugar plantations, and the wars to win the island's independence from Spain in the latter nineteenth century were intertwined with the fight to abolish slavery, which was eliminated only in 1886. Many former slaves fought as soldiers and commanders in those wars.
Throughout the opening six decades of the twentieth century, blacks in Cuba faced the worst conditions in city and countryside whether in employment, education, health, or housing. A system of segregation modeled on the Jim Crow South of the United States prevailed in much of Cuba as well. Among the first steps of the new revolutionary government were implementing laws that confronted this racist inequality. Speaking to a rally in Havana on March 22, 1959, Fidel Castro, in a speech that appeared in the April 19, 1999, issue of the Militant as an earlier installment of this series, announced that discrimination against blacks in employment had been outlawed. Several weeks later, Law 270 declared all beaches and other public facilities open to everyone—black, mulatto, or white. Clubs, businesses, and other establishments that refused equal access and service to blacks were shut down. These laws were enforced by the Rebel Army, the newly formed Revolutionary National Police, and the popular militias.
As noted by Guevara in the speech that follows, his visit to Las Villas coincided with the "First National Forum of Cuban Industries," organized by university students there. Since October 1959, Guevara had headed the Department of Industrialization of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, and in November he was appointed president of the National Bank as well.
This translation is copyright © 1999 by Pathfinder Press, and reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.
I must begin my talk by stating that I can only accept the degree bestowed upon me today as a tribute to our army of the people in general. I cannot accept it as an individual for the simple reason that anything that does not reflect what is really meant lacks any value in the new Cuba. How could I as an individual, Ernesto Guevara, accept the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa conferred by the School of Education, since the only education I have imparted has been that of guerrilla camps, harsh words, and fierce example? [Applause] And I believe such things certainly cannot be transformed into a cap and gown. That is why I continue to wear my Rebel Army uniform, even as I come and sit before you in this Faculty Senate, in the name and on behalf of our army. In accepting this designation—which is an honor for us all—I also wanted to present our message, that of an army of the people, a victorious army.
I once promised the students at this campus a brief talk presenting my views on the role of the university. Work, however, and a mountain of events prevented me from doing so. But today I am going to do it, bolstered moreover by my status as Professor Honoris Causa. [Applause]
That is the first message—one which I would have liked to express in the first days following the victory, [Applause] in all three universities of the country, but was only able to at the University [of Oriente] in Santiago. If you were to ask my advice on behalf of the people and the Rebel Army, and as a professor of education, I would say that in order to reach the people you must feel as if you are part of the people. You must know what the people want, what they need, and what they feel. You must do a little self-analysis, study the university's statistics, and ask how many workers, how many peasants, how many men who make their living by their sweat eight hours a day are here in this university.
Once you have asked yourselves this, you must also ask yourselves, by way of self-analysis, whether or not the government of Cuba today represents the will of the people. If the answer is yes, if this government really represents the will of the people, [loud applause] then one must also ask the following: This government—which represents the will of the people—where is it at this university and what is it doing? We would then see, unfortunately, that the government representing virtually the totality of the Cuban people has no voice in the Cuban universities with which to sound the alarm, to provide words of guidance, and to express, free of intermediaries, the will, the desires, and the feelings of the people.
Private enterprise will naturally play an important role in this stage of the country's growth. But the government will establish the guidelines, and will do so based on its own achievements. [Applause] It will do so because it raised the banner of industrialization in response to what is perhaps the most deeply felt aspiration of the masses, not in response to violent pressure from the country's industrialists. Industrialization, and the effort it entails, is the child of the revolutionary government, which will guide and plan it for that reason.
The ruinous loans of the so-called Development Bank have disappeared from here forever. This bank, for example, would loan 16 million pesos to an industrialist who would put up 400,000 pesos (and these are exact figures).
These 400,000 pesos did not come out of his pocket either; they came out of the 10 percent commission he received from the salesmen he purchased the machinery from. Even though the government had put up 16 million pesos, this gentleman who put up 400,000 pesos was the sole owner of the company. And since the government held his debt he could pay at easy terms and at his convenience.
Now the government has stepped in, refusing to recognize this state of affairs. It claims for itself any company set up with the people's money. If "free enterprise" means a few spongers enjoy all the money of the Cuban nation, then this government states quite clearly that it is opposed to "free enterprise," to the extent the latter is dependent upon state planning.
Today we are working tirelessly to transform Cuba into a different country. But the professor of education standing before you today does not deceive himself; he knows what he is capable of doing, whether as professor of education or president of the Central Bank. If he must perform one or another task, it is because the needs of the people require that of him. None of this is accomplished without the people themselves suffering, because we are still learning in each case. We're learning on the job. Since we hold new responsibilities and are not infallible—we weren't born knowing what to do—we must ask the people to correct the errors.
This professor standing before you was once a doctor, and by force of circumstance was obliged to take up arms, and after two years graduated as a guerrilla commander—and will later on have to graduate as a bank president or a director of industrialization of the country, or perhaps even a professor of education. [Applause]
This same doctor, commander, president, and professor of education wishes that the studious youth of the country prepare themselves so each of them in the near future may occupy the positions assigned them, without hesitation, and without the need to learn on the job.
Naturally, it never occurred to me to demand that the current professors and students of the University of Las Villas perform the miracle of enrolling the masses of workers and peasants at the university. We still need to travel a long road, to go through a process all of you have lived through, a process of many years of preparatory studies. What I do hope to accomplish, however, basing myself on my modest background as a revolutionary and rebel commander, is for the students at the University of Las Villas to understand that education is no longer anybody's property, and that this campus where you carry out your studies is no longer anybody's property. It belongs to the people of Cuba as a whole, and it will either be given to the people, or the people will take it. [Applause]
I began the ups and downs of my career as a university student, a member of the middle class, a doctor who shared the same horizons, the same youthful aspirations you have. In the course of the struggle, however, I changed and became convinced of the imperative need for revolution, and of the great justice of the people's cause. That's why I would hope that you, who are the masters of the university today, would turn it over to the people.
I am not saying this as a threat, to forestall you from taking it over tomorrow. No, I am simply saying that if the masters of today's University of Las Villas, the students, turn it over to the people as represented by their revolutionary government, that would be another of the many beautiful examples being set in Cuba today.
And to the professors, my colleagues, I have something similar to say to you: You must color yourselves black, mulatto, worker and peasant. You must go to the people. You must live and breathe as one with the people, which is to say, you must feel the needs of Cuba as a whole. When we achieve this, no one will be the loser. All of us will have won, and Cuba will be able to continue its march toward the future on a stronger footing.
And it won't be necessary to include, as a member of your faculty, this doctor, commander, bank president, and now professor of education, who bids you all farewell.
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