Radical Objects

Radical Objects: Che Guevara’s Africa Notebook

In December 1964, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara embarked on a three-month ‘Goodwill Tour’ of Africa, meeting various heads of state, ministers, and leaders of liberation movements. On behalf of Cuba, he established diplomatic relations, committed support to various countries and movements, visited key industries, and assessed the revolutionary potential in the continent. The tour was instrumental to Guevara’s decision to lead a guerrilla force in the Congo, as well as to the decades-long relationship that followed between Cuba and Africa. 

Working in the archives of the Centro de Estudios Che Guevara, a research centre established and directed by Guevara’s family, which works tirelessly to promote his work, I came across a file sent to the centre by the Algerian embassy in Havana. It was labelled ‘Che’s Africa Trip, 1964/5’, and contained a single notebook. Well aware of the challenges of qualitative research in Cuba, and the ubiquity of Guevara’s published writings, I was astonished to read Che’s personal notes from his Africa tour – unpublished – but unmistakeably Che’s words, in their characteristic tone and typical doctor’s calligraphy.

Che Guevara’s Africa Notebook, Front Cover, Centro de Estudios Che Guevara.

The notebook itself is in extremely good condition; it is likely that it remained untouched for years, gathering dust, locked away – a forgotten artefact of global history. The cover, a ‘Compétition’ French school notebook, gives away no sense of the revolutionary writings within.  

I set to work transcribing the sixty pages of notes, copying out the words I could decipher to my own notebook, leaving question marks around those I couldn’t, and returning to fill in the rest as I understood them. I cross checked these notes with my existing research on the trip, the timeline of events, and the key people – protagonists of anticolonial liberation struggles across the continent – who met with Guevara. With an increasing aptitude for understanding his handwriting, I pieced together the hidden history within this seemingly forgotten object.

It became clear to me that Che’s notes were not a personal diary; they were briefings of his key meetings and observations, to be relayed to the Cuban government via their Embassy in Algiers, the last stop on Guevara’s trip, where we can presume he handed in the notebook. He describes meeting leaders of liberation and guerilla movements, discussing the economies of nations, agricultural reform, architectural projects, and the balance of imperialist interests and socialist movements around Africa. There are also numerous requests from these leaders for Cuba to provide financial and military aid, including the training of soldiers.

Ink blots inside the Notebook, Centro de Estudios Che Guevara.

The handwriting itself tells a story. Names and regions are often misspelt. It is erratic, at times outside the lines, and ink markings indicate informality and impatience. The multiple languages, translations and traditions that were invariably involved in such meetings explain the spelling, while the anarchic writing – inconsistent calligraphy, the omission of accents, almost illegible sentences – reflect the chaotic nature of Guevara’s meetings and tell us quite confidently that he wrote these notes in the meetings themselves. He wrote quickly and directly. 

Also clear is that Guevara was assessing the various guerrilla movements with a view to being involved himself. He records his thoughts on those he met, and summarises the various locations of struggle around the continent. He visits universities, factories, and hydroelectric plants, and learns about both historical and contemporary political tensions and conflicts. Crucially, the topic of how Cuba can help is always present. This voyage would mark the real, quickening development of Guevara and Castro’s increasing interest in Africa. The trip was an education for Guevara and for Cuba.

As a researcher of Guevara for several years, this notebook immediately reveals Che’s essence; his style is direct, urgent, at times ironic. He is clear about those who impress him, those who do not, those who are useful, and those who have nothing to offer. He describes one group as simply ‘worse than the capitalists’. Guevara does not mince words and cares little for diplomatic etiquette. It appears cold but it reflects the reality of a man who fitted more into six years as a member of Cuba’s revolutionary government than most do in a lifetime.

The notebook also illuminates existing political tensions. While he goes into great detail on meetings with worker brigades, guerrilla movements, and foreign office ministers, he does not waste ink describing his meeting with the Soviet ambassador in Ghana. Barely a month later Guevara would be giving a vehement speech in Algeria, asserting that the socialist countries are ‘accomplices of imperialist exploitation’. These notes may shed new light on why Guevara chose this international forum to direct such criticisms towards the socialist bloc. 

‘Meal with the Soviet Ambassador. Nothing new.’ Notebook, Centro de Estudios Che Guevara.

At times, Guevara details the tensions he observed between different factions, the way he was received by certain ministers, and his analysis of the approaches these countries were taking in their development. In one of several meetings with Ahmed Ben Bella (Algerian President 1963-65), the notes reveal a tension between Algeria and China in the context of the Sino-Soviet split, as well as an offer from Ben Bella for Guevara to work in his country, ‘telling me that [Algeria] was not Brazzaville [the capital of the Congo], referring to what we had spoken about regarding my proposition’. Guevara’s proposition would be his idea of fighting in the Congo, which Ben Bella strongly opposed. Not only do these notes offer fresh insights into relations between the socialist and ‘underdeveloped’ world, they also tell us more about Guevara’s decision to renounce his Cuban responsibilities and leave for the Congo in 1965. 

The notes complement Guevara’s Congo Diaries (first published in 1997) in that they reveal more details of the initial meetings and discussions with key guerrilla leaders. They tell us even more about Guevara’s – and Cuba’s – preoccupation with the situation in Africa, and which areas and groups were involved in the different regional, national, and global struggles. But they also demonstrate Guevara’s role as Cuban Minister of Industries and as a Marxist intellectual. Guevara describes in detail the factories under self-management in Algeria, the ‘backwards’ nature of Ghana’s industries, and the potential for Cuba to emulate Guinean machines for producing matches. He offers his own analysis of the ways in which other nations underdeveloped by colonial powers responded to the same problems facing Cuba.

Exchange with Ahmed Ben Bella, Notebook, Centro de Estudios Che Guevara.

In April 1965 Guevara, the second most important figure of the Cuban revolution, disappeared from public view. Unknown at the time, he had travelled clandestinely to the Congo to lead a guerrilla force in support of the Congolese rebels struggling against Moise Tshombe’s government. These notes demonstrate Cuba’s desire to aid other underdeveloped nations, their willingness to learn from other development and management strategies, and the erratic nature of Cuban-African diplomacy at the time. 

As for Guevara, his notebook contributes to our understanding of him as diplomat, revolutionary, industrialist, and Marxist. His impatience at returning to the physical struggle is evident, as is his continued concern of how nations can develop after such a struggle is won. Che Guevara’s Africa Notebook expands our knowledge of the beginnings of Cuban involvement in Africa, and uncovers new understandings of the most famous face of the twentieth century. 

This radical object is a reminder that new discoveries can still take place, even for the most researched areas of history, and even for the most well-known people. That new histories can emerge even of Guevara, and have such resonance (see ‘Josip Broz Tito and Che Guevara speak’) should tell us that there is still history to be told, and indeed a lot more to learn and uncover about the extent of anticolonial and socialist internationalism. Perhaps this notebook speaks to a contemporary present in meaningful ways too, not just as an artefact of Guevara’s meetings, but as an example of revolutionary potential, transnational cooperation, and international solidarity in the making.

With thanks to María del Carmen Ariet García at the Centro de Estudios Che Guevara in Havana, Cuba.

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