(This article is the first of seven pieces dedicated to the Cuban revolution and its defeat of the US imperialist invasion 50 years ago, April 17-19, 1961, and embraces my half-century struggle.)
I. Sharing Che’s Activism
Che’s penetrating eyes stare at me seriously as I write about him. It is strange that I have never written about him before, other than to quote him. Perhaps it is because Che has been too large a figure for me to tackle? I don’t know. This writing, though, is a commemoration of Che and of my 50 years in our common struggle.
Ernesto Guevara was my greatest personal inspiration and Cuba’s revolution was my greatest collective inspiration—along with the Vietnamese resistance fighters. Nicknamed Che, an Argentine expression, he lived and died as he preached. Che’s internationalist ideals, his consequent actions, his integrity and charm, have influenced my life all these decades.
What immediately attracted me was his forthright manner of speaking and writing, and his bravery and fairness in battle. Che’s dream was to liberate Latin America from the shackles of United States imperialism and its lackey national dictators and murderous straw men. This would be followed up by worldwide socialist revolution.
“I am Cuban and also Argentine…patriotic for Latin America…in the moment it might be necessary, I am disposed to offer my life for the liberation of whichever of the Latin American countries without asking anything of anyone.”
Those are his prophetic words printed on a calendar of photos, which I recently bought in the school room at La Higuera, Bolivia where he was murdered. The images of Che on my walls are important to me, as are some slogans, such as Fidel’s: “To be internationalist is to settle our own debt with humanity”—a moral displayed on Cuban billboards.
I began to share Che’s dream as my first life, that of a follower of the brutal and chauvinist American Dream, drew to a close. In my family, you were either an active American Dreamer, like my career militarist father, or a passive one like my grandmother, whose motto was: “Ignorance is Bliss”. I came to feel that these codes rejected other people. When I severed that knot, I entered a world of humanistic vision and struggle. I still see myself as a youth of the 60s, when many of us across the world fought the profiteering war-making empire-builders.
Reading about Che and Cuba’s revolution was a part of my reeducation. Participatory journalism became important to me, too, when I began reading articles by Lionel Martin in the New York-based weekly Guardian, which I later wrote for. I met the affable Lionel in Cuba years later. I recommend his book: The Early Fidel: Roots of Castro’s Communism.
Che was born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, in Rosario, Argentina, June 14, 1928. Celia de la Serna y Llosa, his mother, and Ernesto Guevara Lynch, his father, were middle-class and of Spanish-Irish descent. In his youth, Ernesto read Jean-Paul Sartre and Karl Marx. He kept a philosophical diary and thought of writing a biography of Marx.
In 1953, Guevara graduated in medicine from the University of Buenos Aires. He made long travels throughout much of Latin America, hitch-hiking and by motorcycle. After witnessing and fighting against US intervention in Guatemala, in 1954, Che became convinced that the only way to bring down avaricious capitalism was through violent revolution.
In Guatemala, he had met a Peruvian revolutionary, Hilda Gadea. They married, in 1955, and had one daughter. Che had also met a Cuban revolutionary who later introduced him to Fidel in Mexico. Guevara signed on as the July 26 Movement’s doctor. In late 1956, 82 men loaded onto a small motor yacht, the Granma, and sailed to Cuba. Seven days later, on December 2, they landed near Cabo Cruz. They’d lost much of their equipment and food during storms. And then they were ambushed at Alegría de Pío by a far superior force of soldiers and aircraft.
Only Fidel Castro and 12 “disciples” (or 16, according to some accounts) survived. They made a base in the mountains of Sierra Maestra from which they attacked garrisons and recruited peasants to the revolutionary army. Che started promoting land reform and conducted educational courses in areas controlled by the guerrillas. He did less doctoring and more fighting. Despite his chronic asthma, he was not deterred by the harsh conditions and war.
Fidel made Che a major (“comandante,” the highest rank), and he led one of the forces that liberated central Cuba in late 1958. One of Che’s fighting companions was Aleida March, who became his second wife in 1959. After victory, January 1, 1959, Che gained fame as an anti-imperialist orator and as the leading figure next to Fidel in the revolutionary government.
In Che’s well known work, “Socialism and Man”, he asserts that the revolution must create the “new man”:
“To build communism, you must build new men as well as the new economic base…The goal of socialism is the creation of more complete and more developed human beings.”
Cuban revolutionaries defeated the US-equipped army of dictator Fulgencio Batista when I was 19 years old and a lowly airman in the U.S. Air Force, which I was learning to hate for its racism, lies and arrogance towards the entire world outside the U.S., and its military aggression against other nations.
One personal example of its hateful racism is what happened to me because I drank with black airmen at a “blacks only” bar in a Japanese town close to the U.S. radar station where we were assigned. The day after my “betrayal”, several white men in my barracks—all barracks were segregated—tore off my clothes and held me down on a bunk bed while they lit a can of insecticide and burned my public hairs and skin, then held me under the snow until nearly suffocating. The lesson: I was supposed to learn to be racist like them.
Two years later, when I was a college student in Los Angeles, California, I participated in my first demonstration when the Yankees backed a proxy invasion of Cuba, known as the Bay of Pigs. I held tightly onto a picket sign: “US OUT of CUBA”, and marched with a couple hundred others in front of the United States Federal Building. It was April 19, 1961, and the US backed forces were getting their asses kicked in Cuba!
Two days before, US naval ships had landed 1500 exile Cubans on a little beach, Bay of Pigs, in southwest Cuba. The CIA plan was to seize the beachhead and hold it long enough so they could fly in a provisional government of rich Cubans. The US government planned to recognize the new “democratic” government of Cuba and send in military support to smash the revolution.
Unlike the American public, the Cuban government knew such a plan was underway but did not know where it would be launched. Every family had received pamphlets explaining how to defend themselves. Thousands of local defense committees had been organized into armed militias. The CIA had grossly miscalculated the strength of this revolutionary support. It had told the mercenary invaders that they would be welcomed as liberators. Instead they met fierce resistance from civilians before Cuban soldiers could arrive. As we few indignant Usamericans were protesting the US-led invasion, it was being defeated.
I had heard about the invasion over KPFK radio, a non-commercial progressive station, and the in the Guardian. The right-wing Herald Examiner reported that the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) had organized the protests, and claimed it was led by the Communist party (CP) and the Trotskyist Socialist Workers party (SWP), which would have been a unique alliance for these ever- feuding groups. On the front page was a photograph of me walking in front of the CP’s southern California chairwoman Dorothy Healey. The paper used her presence to claim that all demonstrators were Communists.
At least one of the demonstrators decided to make the Hearst paper’s fiction a reality: I promptly sent in a membership application to FPCC. (I still have my membership card beside me as I write.) If I were to be accused of being a Communist for defending the right of Cubans simply to live, then I was going to find out what Communists were all about.
Dorothy’s house was in a black working-class area of south central Los Angeles. I walked past tidy houses with a nervous sensation in my stomach. Was I ready to meet a real live Communist, the enemy of my father and of the entire fatherland? I was surprised to be greeted by a tiny, white woman with bushy hair and a remarkably friendly smile. Her living room resembled a library. During the long interchange, I became enthralled with this engaging person. Dorothy had dropped out of school at 14 to become a full-time revolutionary. She knew a great deal about the US’s evil deeds against Cubans and their government. Dorothy never asked me to join her party but I did, in 1964. I resigned a few years later, in 1969, because of CP support for Moscow’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, and because it had long ago ceased being communist or revolutionary or democratic.
President John Kennedy was furious about being dealt a misguided strategy and disinformation by the CIA and the preceding administration. The failed invasion only strengthened Cubans in their drive to socialize society and in their resolve to nationalization of large US and national capitalist properties, as Che had predicted. A frustrated Kennedy fired several leading and operative CIA officers.
It is understandable yet ironic that key CIA figures, some whom JFK had fired, became likely co-conspirators in Kennedy’s assassination two and one-half years after the defeat in Cuba. Their patsy was Lee Harvey Oswald, a scapegoat who faked membership in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. I watched the assassinations of these two men on TV with my membership card in my wallet. CIA propagandists at first claimed the FPCC was involved in JFK’s murder—part of an alleged Castro conspiracy—but top government leaders decided to go with the lone man assassin lie. Nevertheless, frightened FPCC leaders closed down the committee.
The assassination of Kennedy was especially pertinent to me not only because I was a member of the FPCC but also because I had recently been jailed in Costa Rica and deported back to the US for “attempting to overthrow” the Costa Rican government. I had traveled there in the hope of finding a way to Cuba, where I wanted to learn first hand about the revolution. But the October 1962 missile crisis stopped me en route.
Prison leaders isolated me from all prisoners and forbade inmates and guards from speaking with me because I might subvert them. In a ritual of power, two guards shaved off my guerrilla-inspired black beard with sharp knives before all the prisoners to witness. President Francisco Orlich Bolmarcich used me as a scapegoat for a recent murderous event when national guardsmen had killed several demonstrators. He concocted an incredible story that I’d been trained in Russia and sent to Costa Rica to start a revolution. Having gotten out of my presence there what they wished, authorities deported me to the US.
The most moving movement I was part of was with black and white civil rights activists in Mississippi, the Freedom Summer of 1964. Mississippi Goddamn was a 1963-recorded song by the militant singer Nina Simone, which expressed why we organized for civil rights equality there. After that “long hot summer”, as it also became known, another activist-singer, Phil Ochs, wrote the activist song, Going Down to Mississippi.
I later obtained 1000 pages of dossiers kept on me by various of the National Security Council (NSC) intelligence agencies. Some pages dealt with my participation in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) civil rights struggle for black voter registration. Here is a selection:
During the period March 10 through June 7, 1964, RIDENOUR attended the following functions of the Youth Action Union (YAU)…a party sponsored by the YAU for the benefit of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee…According to LA T-3, the purpose of this party was to raise funds for the organization…The April 11, 1964 edition of the PW contains an article which reflects that RIDENOUR was the Vice Chairman of the West Los Angeles Du Bois Club and also the Head of the Ad Hoc Committee to End Discrimination, a group which was conducting demonstrations at various businesses, protesting discriminatory hiring practices.
Unaware of this surveillance, I proceeded to help empower people in Mississippi. After a week’s training in how to withstand violence without using violence, and in Mississippi racist history, conducted at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, I was assigned to a project in Moss Point. I had sat close to Andrew Goodman, who was one of three activists soon to be murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen and sheriffs from Philadelphia, Mississippi. (Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were the other two.)
Four of us who were to initiate the project in Moss Point drove there in my car. A black youth, Charles Glenn, was our director. Howard Kirschenbaum, a white Ivy League college student, was with us. We activists were all put up by brave black residents.
Howard and I stayed together at the Colley’s house. Mr. Colley was a carpenter with a wife and six children. He often dozed through the night in a rocking chair with a shotgun on hand. Howard was one of several activists who prepared black voter candidates for registration. Others taught subjects that black youths were interested in at our after-school Freedom School. I was the project’s administrative secretary and publicist.
One evening Howard and I were out walking, when a police car pulled up and the cops arrested us for “vagrancy, and we’ll see what else”. We spent a harrowing night in jail. We were told by policemen that they knew the three activists had been murdered, before this was public knowledge. We were also told lies that our director had raped a white woman activist and that he had then been tortured to death. We were lucky that our legal support staff was able to get us released the next morning.
In the summer of canvassing, registering and teaching, we were able to make a dent in the numbers of blacks registered, although authorities found devious ways to prevent most from registering. But we were successful in other ways. Bolstering people’s courage was one. Another was what Howard later wrote about as his most significant memory: “the song we sang that summer, night after night, ever so slowly, feeling each word, extending each syllable in the traditional cadence of the Negro spiritual, as we linked arms and swayed to the chant-like melody.”
We have walked through the shadow of death.
We’ve had to walk all by ourselves.
But we’ll never turn back.
No, we’ll never turn back,
Until we all are free,
And we have equality.
We have hung our heads and cried,
Cried for those like the three who died,
Died for you and they died for me,
Died for the cause of equality.
But we’ll never turn back.
No, we’ll never turn back,
Until we all are free,
And we have equality.
One of the most threatening moments, and yet the most moving moments of personal solidarity in my life there was when Senator John Eastland took the floor to speak against me and the civil rights movement because of me. A CIA dossier stated that I was a Communist agitator in Costa Rica two years before, and that I was “armed and dangerous”. This accusation was released to right-wing groups and individuals including Senator Eastland who used it to show that I was this fiend, a factor in the “invasion” in his good state, and that the civil rights movement was communist.
I was devastated by this. It was prime news. Beyond the validity of the content, the damage was to the community. How would this affect our civil rights work; how would the people take it? But when I was next together with people from the community, they stood and applauded me. I was honored. How grateful I felt. How gracious are the sufferers in common.
Once our project was over, I drove my reliable Chevy to New York with comrades from the struggle in Moss Point. I still have the Mississippi license plate, number: J16684. Forty-seven-year-old dirt is ground into the white metal background. It calls to me as I write.
After a short stay in New York, I drove cross-country to Los Angeles. The trip gave me time to reflect on that summer. I concurred with Lawrence Guyot, one of our leaders: “The Freedom Summer was the most creative, concentrated, multi-layered attack on oppression in this country.”
We also made strides in creating space for equality. Decades later it became obvious that because we had fought the good fight, Barack Obama would become president of the United States. Unfortunately and predictably, President Obama does the “man’s” bidding for profiteering labor exploitation and oil wars. Nevertheless, he is black and that is a positive step; as it is that women can also be bankers and “bastards” just like white men. Yes, we have more enemies now, but who can deny the universal right to equality?
Another positive aspect was the participatory democracy practiced by SNCC, and the Students for Democratic Society (SDS). This egalitarian decision-making methodology allowed for the acceptance of differences within the movement. Even in heated debates there was no belittling of those with whom one did not agree. If someone did become aggressively antagonistic, he/she was spoken to, and if necessary isolated. In contrast, in the CP, and other communist parties, there was a heavy atmosphere of self-righteous adherence to “the correct line”. Dissent was tantamount to betrayal.
Our civil rights movement inspired the next phases of the black liberation movement, and all other minority liberation movements: the Mexican-American/Chicano “La Raza” movement, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Native-Americans’ AIM, Philippines for Philippine sovereignty, and the radical women’s movement. These were the roots of the New Left.
Shortly after the long hot summer, black nationalist Muslims, aided by the New York City Police Department, murdered one of the most articulate black liberationist voices, Malcolm X, on February 21, 1965. He was one of my teachers, indirectly. The other most prominent voice for justice of the races was Martin Luther King. He, too, had to be “taken out” (June 6, 1968). Both men who were dangerous to the white elite, for capitalism and its wars. Malcolm X had come to see the need to unify people of all colors who were exploited by capitalism. Martin Luther King had long been convinced about racial unity and then, fatally, he began to protest capitalism’s war against Vietnam. It did not aid his chances for survival that he also took up the cause of the working class for its struggle to gain decent working conditions and a living wage. He was in Memphis on this crusade when he was assassinated.
Among my political activities was the on-going protest of police murders and racist brutality. I lived in a century of “acceptable” lynchings of black people. Between 1882 and 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, whites had murdered 4,500 blacks by lynching alone. During the latter part of that period, when J. Edgar Hoover was chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (1924-72), half that official number had been lynched, but there were also many more unrecorded lynchings. Like Roman worker-citizens applauding the slaughter of slaves in amphitheaters, whole families gathered picnic-style to watch a lynching and sometimes the burning of a live human being (“Strange Fruit”, Billy Holiday). Hoover did nothing to apprehend these cruel murderers, nor did local police forces in the south—almost never.
This repulsive behavior made me sick. I sought answers. If we are not to be guilty of societal-based crimes, then we cannot be passive about them; we cannot live by my grandmother’s “ignorance is bliss” code. In 1946, Sartre wrote “Existentialism and Humanism”:
When we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men…One ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing; nor can one escape from that disturbing thought except by a kind of self-deception.
I chose to accept responsibility for my actions and in so doing I have never felt guilt for the state of “human nature”. And, instead of giving futile alms to poor beggars, I strive to create an economic base, a social structure where poverty would be non-existent. We have enough wealth for all to live well but many humans seek to live better.
Such a philosophy often makes me feel sad and can be isolating from most people—especially when there are lulls in protest movements. It was especially the civil rights movement that gave me the fortitude to struggle onward. It brought me the warmth of fellowship, a sense of the possibility that the goodness in some people can penetrate the hearts and actions of others and eventually win over the death machine.
Our movements had a positive impact on many Europeans too. Movements for democracy in the schools and anti-war movements forced some bourgeois governments to make reforms in schools and to criticize the US’s aggressive war in Indochina. We also helped inspire and support African liberation movements, which felt stronger with our solidarity, and which helped defeat the colonialists.
Many of us activists, of all colors, also supported liberation movements fought by blacks, browns, Native Americans, and radical feminists. I was the organizer of a white support group (Committee United for Political Prisoners) for Black Panther Party political prisoners. I also supported Central American liberation armed struggle movements. For these struggles, I was jailed a dozen times, once for half-a-year, for supporting a textile strike.
The movement that I was most active in for the longest consecutive time was the anti-Vietnam War movement—14 years, until Vietnam freed itself, aided by our solidarity, on Mayday, 1975. I took part in hundreds of actions, advocating a diversity of tactics: mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, leafleting people at public areas, going door-to-door canvassing, direct actions.
One successful direct action was kicking Dow Chemical job recruiters off our campus at California State College at Los Angeles, December 1967. Dow was the producer of scorching-to-death napalm. We forged an alliance with black and white students, and a few Chicanos, against the war in Vietnam and against militarist recruiters. Our boisterous anger, and a dose of stink, scared the Dow men away. In fact, they departed through a window. I was suspended from school and could not graduate until the next year, but Dow Chemical said it would never return.
In a brief period of post-war Vietnam, and during the Watergate scandal, the US government lightened up a bit, hoping to dampen our movements’ anger. One concession the government “gave” to our movements was the release of some of its record-keeping, a result of the Freedom of Information Act. The spies listed me in various categories of subversive “indexes”: chaos, agitator, rabble rouser, and the highest: Security Index Priority I. Agents, and snitches within our groups, recorded my attendance and political positions expressed at innumerable meetings, rallies and demonstrations. They noted first-hand when I changed residences or jobs, and where I traveled. Here is a sample:
On February 4, 1972, a Special Agent of the FBI observed Ridenour boarding Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 351, at 4:50 p.m., at Hollywood-Burbank Airport, en route to Oakland, California.
A few weeks later, I am observed taking off for London, and then to the:
World Assembly for Peace in Versailles, France, as a delegate of the United States during the period February 11, 1972, through February 13, 1972.
The NSC did not limit itself to keeping tabs on “subversives” like me. It also leaked dossiers to civilian friends. Right-wing propagandists used these secret dossiers to fan the flames of “patriotism”. Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, known as “the white voice of the south”, used secret dossiers to denounce me as a subversive in an attempt to taint the civil rights movement. LAPD red squad officer Russell D. Meltzer testified in Washington DC before a Senate committee, in 1968, that I was “the leader of that demonstration” in which Dow Chemical was ousted. The “Fire and Police Research Association of Los Angeles”, portrayed me as a “professional agitator.”
I was proud to learn that I was one of 4,000 persons singled out by the Nixon regime to be interned in concentration camps. Before we could be rounded up, however, Nixon fell from grace and had to resign.
Our militant and massive actions both embolded and frustrated US soldiers in Vietnam. Some gave up the imperialists’ war while others lost their humanity. A group of the latter systematically murdered about 500 unarmed civilians at My Lai on March 16, 1968. The then Major Colin Powell was sent to investigate. He secured his future appointment as George Bush’s Secretary of State by whitewashing the wanton murder of mostly children and women, many raped and tortured before being killed.
This is a quote from Powell’s whitewash:
“Relationships between the American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”
After this atrocity finally made news, on November 12, 1969, thanks to a well-researched and documented story by Seymour Hersh (Dispatch News Service), my name was sometimes confused with the original source of information for Hersh: Ronald Ridenhour (with an “h” unlike in my name). He was a soldier elsewhere in Vietnam who had heard about the massacre, which was only one of hundreds but also one of the worst. Ridenhour wrote to politicians about it. After being ignored, he contacted Hersh. Once the story hit the mass media, some of which were becoming critical of the dirty war without end, we held massive and angry demonstrations. This media revelation was a good example of what the “fourth estate” should be about, and this information increased opposition to the war. Middle America began to wake up from its “ignorance is bliss” slumber.
And the Vietnamese took their country back. But then what happened? Slumber has returned, most significantly in the first world but also in the renewed second world. Slumber allows the same corporations to start new wars for wealth and dominance. Today, it is in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan, Libya…The “masses” in the “democracies” nod their sleepy heads as their rich leaders’ mercenaries launch one deadly missile after another.
What would Che have thought and said? What would he have done? I don’t know the answer for certain. I don’t think there is a “politically correct” slogan. But yes, solidarity must be present, always.
I am certain of one thing: he would not have stood for it!
RON RIDENOUR, who was a co-founder and editor with Dave Lindorff in 1976 of the Los Angeles Vanguard, lives in Denmark. A veteran journalist who has reported in the US and from Venezuela, Cuba and Central America, he has written Cuba at the Crossroads, Backfire: The CIA’s Biggest Burn, and Yankee Sandinistas. For more information about Ron and his writing, go to www,ronridenour.com