“Patria o muerte!”, With that phrase the then Minister of Industry of Cuba, Ernesto Che Guevara, ended his speech on December 11, 1964, before the United Nations General Assembly. Almost 60 years later, the speech and the slogan chosen by him for its closure, remain a beacon for the Latin American continent.
An internationalist revolution
First of all, it must be said that Che Guevara declared, in that historic 19th UN Assembly in New York, the internationalist character of the Cuban Revolution, in addition to the socialist island’s non-negotiable resolve to defend its sovereignty. And he did so with shocking clarity and frankness. Today, his words, while triumphant at the time, cannot but make one sad when considered in the context of the Latin American experience of the last decades.
In the midst of the Cold War, “El Che” also shed light on the reality of the African and Asian continents, drawing attention to the demands of non-aligned countries¹ which, even today, struggle against imperialism and colonialism consistent with the rights memorialized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many other international Covenants.
The long and intense speech, carefully followed by the leaders present, went through the ills of capitalism around the world in the 60s and questioned whether the UN was truly living up to its mission as the organization created with the chief aim of preserving world peace. As chancellor of the Cuban nation, Che greeted other nations in resistance to oppression, such as Palestine and Somalia; defended Puerto Rico’s struggle for independence; denounced the horrors of the Vietnam War; accused the United Nations of colluding with Belgium’s brutal occupation of Congo and the assassination of leader Patrice Lumumba; asked member countries to take a stand against the cruel apartheid regime in South Africa imposed by the United Kingdom; and urged the nations of the world to recognize the legitimacy of the representation of the People’s Republic of China and its status as an indivisible nation at the UN. Che, speaking for the newly-liberated island nation of Cuba, made it clear to the world that Cuba would not only keep its head up in the face of the consequences of having chosen the path of independence, but he also stood as a beacon lighting the way for all other struggles for liberation. It was homeland or nothing.
Homeland or Death!
The battle cry, which underscored the transcendental character of nationhood and deepened the concept of homeland beyond geography (invoking those who died anywhere in the world to defend it) had previously been expressed by the historic leader of the revolution, Fidel Castro – himself inspired by the independence leader José Martí. Fidel had declared these words in front of a crowd, on March 5, 1960, assembled at the burial of the victims of the explosion of the French ship “La Coubre,” which left more than one hundred dead and almost four hundred injured.
It was also during this collective funeral that photographer Alberto Korda took the iconic photo of the Argentine guerrilla, Che Guevara — an image that has become one of the most recognized emblems of the Cuban Revolution itself and which is still examined by academic scholars to the same extent that it has gained popularity all over the planet as a symbol of resistance.
A steam freighter, carrying 76 tons of ammunition, exploded when unloading at Havana’s port. Less than an hour later, a second explosion, even stronger, hit hundreds of volunteers involved in the rescue operation of the victims of the first detonation.
A series of declassified documents soon confirmed that the terrorist attack on the French freighter had been organized by the CIA, with the aim of sabotaging the supply of arms and ammunition to Cuba, leaving the island defenseless against Washington’s offensives, the first of which materialized in the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. This was just one of the many defeats of the USA in its vain, but perverse, obsession with subjugating the Cuban nation.
Meanwhile, as soon as he heard the crashes and saw the immense cloud of dust covering the city, then Minister Che, who was meeting at the National Institute for Agrarian Reform, rushed to the port area and spent hours providing medical care to the wounded.
In fact, Che never stopped practicing medicine, and he inspired Cuba to become what it is today: the greatest example in the world of the duty of the state to provide public health. In the midst of the pandemic, Che’s example is more than alive: at least four vaccines are being produced by Cuba – despite the aggressive blockade – and with guaranteed care for its people, maintaining low numbers of cases and deaths while still sending doctors, nurses and supplies to dozens of countries, poor and rich alike.
While the rich countries of the West increase global tensions by promoting conflicts and wars even during a relentless pandemic, Cuba has shown what true international solidarity looks like. This is why there is a growing campaign for a Nobel Peace Prize for Cuba’s Henry Reeve International Brigade, one which already has the support of more than 17,000 personalities worldwide. Such recognition by the Nobel Committee is the least that humanity can do to show gratitude for such a gesture of universal solidarity.
Cuban doctors incorporate as value and mission the idea expressed by the Brazilian professor and writer Marcelo Biar and which became a symbol of the campaign: “The soul has no frontier, no life is foreign.”
Since Che’s historic UN speech, “Patria o Muerte” became more than a statement; it became a but an almost religious incantation – affective, moral and full of memories – of a nation grateful and determined never to surrender its right to continue becoming itself and to aid the immense community of exploited human beings in the world.
The spectrum that still haunts the world
It is not difficult to see, observing Che’s speech at the UN, the evident political weight of having been applauded with such enthusiasm at that historic moment by that Assembly of Nations. Che was applauded right after his legendary battle cry, demonstrating, as he said in his speech, that Cuba’s cause had “the understanding and support of all the peoples of the world”.
There, “El Che” inevitably became a preferred target of the United States, having in fact been assassinated a few years later. But also for this reason, he became the greatest representation of the hero converted, by his own enemy, into a world icon of dignity and self-determination of peoples.
Che’s martyrdom had the opposite effect of those who wanted to silence him, resulting in a specter that still haunts and will continue to haunt generations of cowards.
The terrorist Felix Gutierrez Mendigutia, known as El Gato, not only murdered Che Guevara at the behest of the United States, but also ensured that Che’s hands were cut off and sent to the CIA so that the death of such a legendary character could be proven. But neither Che nor Cuba ever threatened any nation in the world, except with its “Battle of Ideas”, which Fidel Castro spoke of, and which continues today as the great lump in the throat of those who need to destroy the living idea of the possibility of building a “New man” in opposition to selfishness, individualism and all human misery. This battle is even more critical in light of the current world-wide pandemic.
For those today who wish to follow in the footsteps of Che Guevara, any step back on the road of liberation must be regarded as an act of betrayal to the sacrifice for which Che sacrificed his life. Che himself certainly was aware at the moment of his great sacrifice that he represented and represents thousands of others, anonymous heroes of human liberation — heroes of all genders, races and creeds.
The extensive speech that Che – himself proclaimed of ‘Cuban origin’ by the revolution but because of his history of life and ideas, also an irremediable internationalist – transmitted to the world that day, contained a universal concept that is intergenerational and adaptable to any culture or nation, and that fits completely in a single sentence of the national anthem of Cuba: “to die for the homeland, is to live!”
Check below the translation of fragments of Commander Ernesto Che Guevara’s historic speech representing the Republic of Cuba at the 1964 UN General Assembly:
Mr. President; Distinguished delegates:
The delegation of Cuba to this Assembly, first of all, is pleased to fulfill the agreeable duty of welcoming the addition of three new nations to the important number of those that discuss the problems of the world here. We therefore greet, in the persons of their presidents and prime ministers, the peoples of Zambia, Malawi and Malta, and express the hope that from the outset these countries will be added to the group of Nonaligned countries that struggle against imperialism, colonialism and neocolonialism (…)
In some cases, it is a blindness provoked by the hatred against our revolution by the ruling classes of the Latin American countries. In others — and these are sadder and more deplorable — it is the product of the dazzling glitter of mammon².
As is well known, after the tremendous commotion of the so-called Caribbean crisis, the United States undertook certain commitments with the Soviet Union. These culminated in the withdrawal of certain types of weapons that the continued acts of aggression of the United States — such as the mercenary attack at Playa Girón and threats of invasion against our homeland — had compelled us to install in Cuba as an act of legitimate and essential defense.
The United States, furthermore, tried to get the UN to inspect our territory. But we emphatically refuse, since Cuba does not recognize the right of the United States, or of anyone else in the world, to determine the type of weapons Cuba may have within its borders.
In this connection, we would abide only by multilateral agreements, with equal obligations for all the parties concerned.
As Fidel Castro has said: “So long as the concept of sovereignty exists as the prerogative of nations and of independent peoples, as a right of all peoples, we will not accept the exclusion of our people from that right. So long as the world is governed by these principles, so long as the world is governed by those concepts that have universal validity because they are universally accepted and recognized by the peoples, we will not accept the attempt to deprive us of any of those rights, and we will renounce none of those rights.”
The Secretary-General of the United Nations, U Thant, understood our reasons. Nevertheless, the United States attempted to establish a new prerogative, an arbitrary and illegal one: that of violating the airspace of a small country. Thus, we see flying over our country U-2 aircraft and other types of spy planes that, with complete impunity, fly over our airspace. We have made all the necessary warnings for the violations of our airspace to cease, as well as for a halt to the provocations of the U.S. Navy against our sentry posts in the zone of Guantánamo, the buzzing by aircraft of our ships or the ships of other nationalities in international waters, the pirate attacks against ships sailing under different flags, and the infiltration of spies, saboteurs and weapons onto our island.
We want to build socialism. We have declared that we are supporters of those who strive for peace. We have declared ourselves to be within the group of Nonaligned countries, although we are Marxist-Leninists, because the Nonaligned countries, like ourselves, fight imperialism. We want peace (…)
This new will of a whole continent, of Latin America, is made manifest in the cry proclaimed daily by our masses as the irrefutable expression of their decision to fight and to paralyze the armed hand of the invader. It is a cry that has the understanding and support of all the peoples of the world and especially of the socialist camp, headed by the Soviet Union.
That cry is: Patria o muerte! [Homeland or death]
¹ The Movement of Non-Aligned Countries (MNA) brings together more than 100 countries, almost all developing nations, with the objective of creating an independent path in the field of international relations that allows members not to get involved in the confrontation between the great powers.
² Biblical term used to describe material wealth, greed or literally, money.
Review by Dan Kovalik
To access the Che’s full speech at the UN: https://www.marxists.org/archive/guevara/1964/12/11.htm