On Oct. 9, 1967, Che Guevara faced a shaking sergeant Mario Teran, who was ordered to murder him by the Bolivian president and the CIA, and declared: “Shoot coward, you’re only going to kill a man.”
The climax of Stephen Soderbergh’s new two-part epic, Che, in real life this final act of heroic defiance marked the defeat of attempts to spread the Cuban revolution to the rest of Latin America.
But 40 years later, the long-retired executioner, now a reviled old man, had his sight restored for free by Cuban doctors, paid for by revolutionary Venezuela in the radicalized Bolivia of President Evo Morales. Teran was treated as part of a program that has seen 1.4 million free eye operations carried out by Cuban doctors in 33 countries across Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. It is an emblem both of the humanity of former Cuban president Fidel Castro and Guevara’s legacy, but also of the transformation of Latin America, which has made such extraordinary cooperation possible.
The 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution this month has already been the occasion for a regurgitation of Western media tropes about pickled totalitarian misery, while next week’s 10th anniversary of Venezuelen President Hugo Chavez’s time in power will undoubtedly trigger a parallel outburst of hostility, ridicule and unfounded accusations.
The fact that Chavez, still commanding close to 60 percent popular support, is again trying to convince the Venezuelan people to overturn the US-style two-term limit on his job will only intensify such charges, even though the change would merely bring the country into line with the rules in France and Britain.
But it is a response that utterly fails to grasp the significance of the wave of progressive change that has swept away the old elites and brought a string of radical socialist and social-democratic governments to power across the continent, from Ecuador to Brazil, Paraguay to Argentina, which is challenging US domination and neoliberal orthodoxy, breaking down social and racial inequality, building regional integration and taking back resources from corporate control.
That is the process which last week saw Bolivians vote, in the land where Guevara was hunted down, to adopt a sweeping new Constitution empowering the country’s long-suppressed indigenous majority and entrenching land reform and public control of natural resources — after months of violent resistance sponsored by the traditional white ruling class. It’s also seen Cuba finally brought into the heart of regional structures from which Washington has strained every nerve to exclude it.
The seeds of this Latin American rebirth were sown half a century ago in Cuba. But it is also more directly rooted in the region’s disastrous experience of neoliberalism, first implemented by the bloody regime of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s — before being adopted with enthusiasm by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former US president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and duly enforced across the world.
The wave of privatization, deregulation and mass pauperization it unleashed in Latin America first led to mass unrest in Venezuela in 1989, savagely repressed in the Caracazo massacre of more than a 1,000 barrio dwellers and protesters. The economic meltdown of the 1998 financial crisis unleashed a far wider rejection of the new market order. The international significance of this revolt against neoliberalism on the periphery of the US empire could not be clearer as the global credit breakdown rapidly discredits the free market model first rejected in South America.