A look at the true legacy of Che Guevara 50 years after his death
ON OCTOBER 14 a truck carrying about two tons of home-made explosives blew up near Zoobe Junction, one of the busiest streets in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. More than 400 people were killed – nearly 150 of them burnt beyond recognition – and hundreds wounded. Families wandered for hours searching for their loved ones in the rubble.
Hundreds of citizens lined up at hospitals for hours to donate blood. Doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers did all they could to rescue the wounded. Grieving and angry Somalis gathered on Zoobe Junction blamed Islamist al-Shabaab militants for the atrocity. Leaders from Turkey, the US, Britain, Canada, France and the UN condemned the attack.
But condemnation isn’t going to help Somalia battle al-Shabaab and its bomb makers. To defeat al-Shabaab terrorism, Somalia requires expertise and equipment that it lacks, and it needs a new paradigm of co-operation between Somali security services and our international partners.
There is no doubt about al-Shabaab, which has links with al-Qaeda, being the perpetrator. Bombings with home-made explosives are a common tactic for these militants in their battle with the Somali government.
The toll in the bombing was so high, however, that al-Shabaab did not dare to claim responsibility and admit its murderous conduct even to its own members and sympathisers.
A few years ago, al-Shabaab controlled almost all of southern Somalia – about half of the country. Since then, Somali and African Union forces have expelled al-Shabaab from most major towns; American airstrikes and joint operations between Somali and United States Special Forces have killed dozens of militant leaders.
But al-Shabaab, which has about 8 000 fighters in its ranks, retains a presence in rural Somalia, keeping many towns under an effective state of siege and disrupting traffic along major roads.
The weapon of choice for al-Shabaab has been the improvised explosive device. It used such homemade bombs in 395 attacks last year, which killed 723 people and wounded more than 1 100 – an increase of 110% over 2015, when 265 attacks were reported.
Al-Shabaab also magnified the potency of its weapons, increasing the average size of bombs from 5kg to 40kg, and the size of the explosive charges in suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (IED) from about 100kg to 200kg, to 800kg to 1 000kg from 2015 to last year.
The greater frequency and potency of bombs used by al-Shabaab have led to increased demand for explosives and other components. Where alShabaab members once relied on military-grade explosives harvested from land mines and artillery shells, they have become increasingly adept at preparing home-made explosives from fertiliser and other commercially available products.
To identify and combat the bomb makers, Somalia needs to be able to use intelligence from the crime scene: explosives and explosive residues, detonators, components, SIM cards, fingerprints and DNA. Yet despite more than five years of external support, in early this year we had just four overworked police teams with no post-blast investigation kits, no forensic laboratory and just one borrowed device for the exploitation of captured cellphones.
Somalia’s young government is still struggling to pay regular salaries for police officers and soldiers, and has no realistic prospect of training and equipping specialised bomb units from its own budget any time soon.
A grave shortage of jammers, robots and other protective equipment means that these teams often operate at extreme risk to themselves. Our intelligence and analysis teams rely on 20th-century, offthe-shelf software platforms to investigate.
We have been operating almost completely blind. International partners offered to provide “technical assistance”, but their good intentions served to blind us even more: the evidence gathered from bombing scenes is handled and removed by foreign “mentors” who treat intelligence as a commodity rather than as a shared asset in our battle against a common enemy. Once taken away, it is rarely, if ever, returned.
Only fragments of post-blast investigations are shared with us; often, we get no information at all. As a result, we are still almost entirely dependent on our foreign friends, instead of acquiring the knowledge and skills to assume our share of the task. Information sharing costs nothing, but for some reason, when it comes to IEDs that chiefly claim Somali lives, it apparently lies beyond the means of our international partners.
In May, Somalia’s minister of internal security assigned high priority to the detection and disruption of the bombers’ network and production cells. The National Intelligence and Security Agency, the agency that I head, was given the responsibility of analysing and exploiting collected evidence in terrorist attacks, developing a strategy to disrupt bombing operations, and preventing attacks.
We tightened the security cordon around Mogadishu to curb the flow of fighters, weapons and explosives. We identified the most common bomb components or “precursors” imported commercially and ways in which we could restrict or regulate access to them.
At the same time, we approached international partners, including the US, Britain and the UN, for the training and technical assistance that we lacked: to help us in developing a basic laboratory, a forensic unit composed of explosives, chemistry and electronics specialists, a joint National Intelligence and Security Agency to prosecute criminal cases, and a national database and reporting capacity. We received no response.
We appealed to our international partners to share all information and evidence that they gathered from bombings in Somalia, with the national authorities. The silence was deafening. Vital information and evidence of crimes committed on Somali soil continue to be exported and analysed abroad, denying us the opportunity to protect our own citizens and to hold the perpetrators to account.
In August, my office approached the FBI for assistance on countering the IED threat in Somalia.
The FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analysis Center is renowned for its expertise on roadside bombs. I requested a meeting to discuss the threat, but received no reply.
This month’s bombing in Mogadishu was a crime against the Somali people and a crime against humanity. But we have no way to assess the evidence, to exploit the intelligence and to build a case against those responsible. Such attacks are likely to continue – not only in Somalia, but also in other countries where al-Shabaab operates.
We need help to ensure that such carnage does not happen again.
To do that, we must not be afraid to confront our collective failure to prevent this heinous attack.
We need more training, better equipment and the capacity to conduct our own forensic investigations inside Somalia.
We cannot any longer outsource our investigations and intelligence analysis to private contractors driven by the profit motive. We must acquire the means to exploit intelligence and evidence ourselves, to prosecute the criminals in Somali courts and to develop a Somali-owned strategy to defeat this enemy. We owe it to the victims of Mogadishu. – The New York Times
Sanbalooshe is the director-general of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency
MEXICO CITY: Ernesto Che Guevara died 50 years ago in the wilds of Bolivia, near Vallegrande. He was captured in Quebrada del Yuro, a barren ravine close to the town of La Higuera, where he spent his last night in a small schoolhouse, which is still there. The following morning he was executed, on the orders of the Bolivian president and the Central Intelligence Agency officer present during his interrogation.
His body was flown to Vallegrande, where it was exhibited to the press. That was when the iconic photograph of a Christ-like Guevara was taken and made famous, along with the photo Alberto Korda shot in Havana in 1960, of Guevara with his starred beret. It appears today on millions of T-shirts and posters all over the world – a world he would not recognise.
Half a century since his death, Guevara’s legacy and relevance is practically nil, in terms of his aspirations and achievements. He became a symbol of historical changes that he did not identify with, that he did not fight for and that only came of age after his death. He is remembered far more for the events that took place less than a year after he perished, when in 1968 hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets in dozens of capitals and universities across the globe and changed the way they, their children and today their grandchildren live.
Guevara, an Argentine doctor, stood for various ideas and causes. All failed or were discarded. Although initially he was a passionate advocate of the young Cuban Revolution’s alliance with the Soviet Union, by the mid-1960s he became a critic of the crucial role Moscow was playing in Cuba. That mattered little. By July 1967, when the then-premier Alexei Kosygin visited Havana, Fidel Castro had aligned his regime unconditionally with the USSR.
In August 1968, Castro supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the end of the Prague Spring. Similarly, Guevara opposed Cuba’s former dependence on sugar cane. But by 1970, Castro had committed his country to producing 10 million tons of sugar for the Soviet Union, disrupting the island economy, yet nonetheless failing to achieve his goal.
Guevara also fought for the creation of a “new man” under socialism in Cuba, and against the vices of the former regime, centred on tourism, prostitution and gambling. Little did he know that not only would there be no new man in Cuba but also, nearly 60 years after the revolution, one of Cuba’s main sources of income continues to be tourism.
Widespread prostitution has endured for half a century, at levels not dissimilar to those during the Batista era, and thousands of Cubans try to leave the island nearly every day, any way they can.
Guevara was known for seeking to spread the Cuban Revolution. He sought to do so as an insightful, but ultimately mistaken observer and participant in what actually occurred in the Sierra Maestra: revolution through the barrel of a gun. He preached the armed struggle to young enthusiasts across Latin America and in Africa; he gave his life for it, and they lost theirs.
Until 1979 in Nicaragua, not one of the fires he or Castro tried to light throughout the region survived, let alone burst into flames. The results were not glorious snapshots of the barbudos entering Havana in January 1959, but rather military coups, torture, disappearances and thousands of student lives lost in vain.
When the Left finally reached power in many Latin American nations, its path and features did not at all resemble Guevara’s vision. Gifted labour union and indigenous leaders, charismatic intellectuals, scheming military officers and persistent mayors and legislators made their way gradually up the ranks of their political parties, their electoral systems and their countries’ governments.
Once in office, they did not govern like Guevara would have wished. They were everything but idealistic revolutionaries: social-democratic reformers, moderate globalists, nationalist demagogues, corrupt couples or dynasties and would-be dictators. Some extracted millions of their countrymen from poverty and inequality. Others strengthened democratic institutions. Others plunged their countrymen into destitution and violence as in Venezuela.
But the millions of young people everywhere who wear Guevara’s effigy on their chest are a product of what he came to symbolise. The students who took to the streets just months after his death were already carrying posters and banners of the martyred revolutionary.
They, unlike their hero, did largely change the world, though obviously not in the manner he would have hoped. Theirs was an existential, cultural, generational and anti-war rebellion that laid the groundwork for the freedoms we enjoy today, at least in the Western nations, Latin America and parts of Asia.
Women’s freedom to use their bodies as they see fit and to fight back against abuses; the freedom for people of colour to elect who they wish and fight racism where it shows its face; the freedom for university students to participate in the design and execution of educational plans; the expanding possibility of people with different sexual orientations to come out from the shadows: all these joys of life in the 21st century stem from those years in the 1960s.
Guevara became a cultural icon, not a political or ideological one. Today’s world is an enormously better one than that in which the generation that followed him grew up. It is far less poor, less unequal and far more tolerant, diverse and enlightened.
So which Guevara should we recall? The autocrat who executed hundreds of Batista collaborators outside Havana in 1959? The dishevelled guerrillero captured in Bolivia? The warrior whose irreverence is a symbol all over the world? Or the unwilling icon of the cultural revolution of 1968, to which we owe the lives we live today? He would have preferred being remembered as the martyred revolutionary, but those who survive him today can only thank him, despite himself, for becoming the cultural icon he did. That is his legacy, relevance and glory. – The New York Times
Castañeda, Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, is a professor at New York University and the author of
Somali security forces and others search for bodies near destroyed buildings at the scene of the October 14 blast in Mogadishu, Somalia. More than 400 people were killed – nearly 150 of them burnt beyond recognition – and hundreds wounded.