I went to a Cuban fiesta recently and won a book of Che’s speeches to the youth. I’ve been taking it into work and reading it whenever I get a free moment. Yesterday I had a long and very dull stint with nothing much to do, and I came across this passage:
The nation before you today might disappear from the face of the earth because an atomic conflict may be unleashed on its account, and we might be the first target. Even if this entire island were to disappear along with its inhabitants, its people would consider themselves completely satisfied and fulfilled if each of you, upon returning to your respective countries, would say:
Here we are. Our words come from the humid air of the Cuban forests. We have climbed the Sierra Maestra and seen the dawn, and our minds and hands are filled with the seeds of that dawn. We are prepared to plant them in this land, and defend them so they can grow.
- Something new in the Americas, a speech to the opening session of the first Latin American Youth Congress, July 28th 1960.
The reference to atomic conflict is particularly chilling as that speech took place two years before the Cuban missile crisis, and the Bay of Pigs invasion. So here is Che, two years before Miami exiles launch an attempted invasion and the country becomes the main target in a prospective nuclear war. He pushes on in the knowledge that the US could credibly bomb the country into dust.
Later in the book Che mentions his vision for the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. It gave a very different perspective on the role of the committees. Before I just used to think of them as a bureaucratic organ of local government, like the local Parent Teacher Association or the Parish Council, except… in a Cuban context. Now I see that the committees were formed by people who were far more politically-active. At Playa Girón the committees organised themselves into an informal paramilitary resistance to the invasion.
We don’t have any Home Guard in Britain anymore. And I wonder, if there was ever an invasion of the UK, could we rely on the disparate network of Territorial Army centres and Cadet Forces to transform themselves into a guerilla defence? The royal diamond jubilee was celebrated recently, and across the country people congregated in ad-hoc groups to organise street parties. They put tables in the road, strung up bunting on lampposts. There were no orders or instructions issued from above, people wanted to go out into the streets, and the government stepped aside.
The whole event was totally decentralised, and at the same time it appeared so well organised. I guess this is what a truly popular social movement might look like, if only the context were slightly different.