Half a Century of Guevarist Idealism
Although Ernesto "Che" Guevara combined his work as Minister of Industry in 1963-64 with the drafting of articles on the economic strategy that the Cuban Revolution ought to follow, it would not be until 1965, almost on the verge of commencing his adventure in the Congo, that he would write the work that practically synthesizes his thought.
We are referring to the brief essay "Socialism and Man in Cuba," published in the Uruguayan weekly magazine Marcha in March of that year. In addition to addressing morality, politics, the work of the Communist Party, work with young people, and the role that ought to be played by the artistic vanguard, among other topics, the ill-fated guerrilla dealt in these pages with two subjects with which he was obsessed: the relationship between the masses and the government, and his warning that capitalist methods should not be used in the construction of the new society.
Guevara insisted the masses in Cuba did not constitute a sum of elements behaving like a tame flock, but rather a set of individuals undertaking a conscious process of self education. Although he recognizes that they unswervingly follow their leaders, especially Fidel Castro, he justifies this by noting that "the degree to which he has won that trust is precisely due to his thorough interpretation of the people's desires and aspirations, and his sincere struggle to follow through on promises made."
The central figure in the so-called "Cuban economic debate" of the 1960s was Che Guevara. His system of Budgetary Financing, at odds with other methods of economic administration that took into account certain market mechanisms, and that were on the rise in the Communist nations of Eastern Europe, was questioned by numerous experts, both in Cuba and outside it. The first of these included, notably, Marcelo Fernández Font (then president of the National Bank), and Carlos Rafael Rodríguez (who directed the National Agrarian Reform Institute). Foreign critics included the French economist Charles Bettelheim.
The Argentinean-Cuban guerrilla called for iron-fisted, centralized control of the economy that would allow companies almost no autonomy, based on the preeminence of moral over material inducements and a rejection of the existence of the Law of Value in socialism. Neither did Che approve of businesspeople working spurred by concepts like returns and profitability. One of his favorite maxims was that "wealth must be created by consciousness, rather than consciousness being created by wealth."
In "Socialism and Man in Cuba," Guevara reiterates the conceptions that he had set forth during the economic debate. In one of the best-known paragraphs of this essay, he writes that "pursuing the chimera of forging socialism with the help of the worn-out arms left to us by capitalism (merchandise as an economic cell, profitability, individual material interest as leverage, etc.), it is possible to arrive at a dead end.
Nevertheless, time has demonstrated that those "worn-out arms of capitalism" are essential to the success of any economy. In Cuba itself, though at certain times some of Che's ideas have prevailed, the government has had to employ market mechanisms whenever the economy has been on the verge of collapse. Such was the case in the mid 70s, and later, during the "Special Period" in the 90s.
And what can be said about the economic changes implemented by Raúl Castro? If Guevara is truly buried in the mausoleum said to contain his remains in the city of Santa Clara, he must be turning over in his grave after the anti-Guevara direction events have taken on the island. In spite of all the rhetoric spouted in the regime's official propaganda, Che Guevara is, without a doubt, the figure most conspicuously forgotten by today's Cuba.
The essayist Fernando Martínez Hereda, a sort of hard-line, Taliban-like figure championing the regime’s traditional intellectual lines, wrote the following on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the essay and its republication by the Che Guevara Study Center: "It must be said that Che's thought has been abandoned in what is now a wayward region, devoid of the fervor that his actions, career and example continue to inspire."