Che Guevara wanted to ignite the fires of revolution throughout Latin America. He failed. But the United States is acting as if it wanted to do the job for him.
Consider: Fidel Castro's overthrow of the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba in 1959 emboldened the revolutionary left throughout Latin America. It looked possible, at last, to complete the wretchedly incomplete revolution that began under Bolivar and San Martin and in most countries still remained unfulfilled, its promises squandered in greed and empty nationalism.
With a burning faith reminiscent of the first Jesuits, devoted with a devotion to the wordsof Marx and Lenin as to the Word of God, the revolutionaries of the 1960s threw themselves against the vast intractable continent.
And largely to no avail. The uncomprehending peasants of Bolivia were not the hospitable sea in which Guevara hoped his guerrillas would swim. Father Camillo Torres of Colombia, hunted down and killed by the army, left only a romantic aura of heroism and naivete, still shimmering amid the revolutionary and bandit violence that has torn the nation for decades. The revolutionary students who in the 1960s controlled the Central University of Caracas failed to spark a general revolt as free election after free election in Venezuela deepened its devotion to democracy.
Not that democracy or indifference alone dampened the fires of revolution. By no means. The right stirred, brought in the soldiers, fought fire with fire; fought, too, honor and decency with torture and death. The continent's bloody history continued. And still continues--in Chile, for instance, and Central America.
Yet as time passed, for reasons as disparate as the inherent moderation of the Brazilian people and the martial folly of the Argentine military, democracy and a decent respect for the opinions of mankind have returned to much of Latin America.
Through this period one great and probably irreversible change occurred. The Roman Catholic Church, in one of the most striking rifts in the 2,000-year history of the institution, shifted its weight from being the protector of the status quo to becoming the advocate of profound social reform. The church turned against its own history in Latin America. Not everywhere, to be sure, and not always consistently. But, on the whole, the church has set out to complete, in its way, the failed revolution of the Liberators, building on their quest for independence the zeal for social justice exemplified by Emiliano Zapata.
In the great drama of these years the United States has played a role that has in turn been bold, petty, generous, cruel, engaged, indifferent--but always a role, and a major one, because geography has ordained what the will and the heart, in both North and South America, often wish to deny. We occupy the New World together.
Therefore everything that the United States does in Latin America must be done with all of Latin America in mind. As it pursues its own interests toward one Latin country, it must never forget the others.
It is on this point, in the matter of Nicaragua, that the United States is acting as if it wanted to do Che's work for him.
To the Latin intellectuals of the left, not to speak of the committed leftist revolutionaries, it is inevitable that the United States will intervene, will bully, will exploit; for them it is ordained that the United States will never in the end allow Latin America either the freedom or the dignity to which it is entitled and of which it always has been robbed.
President Kennedy's Alliance for Progress was loathed by the revolutionary left because it denied this determinist and indeed manipulative view of history; because it attempted to change historical U.S. attitudes; because it tried, to paraphrase Mexican novelist and diplomat Carlos Fuentes, not to take the United States out of Latin America but to make its presence civilized. The alliance withered--in part a victim of Vietnam, in part of historical diffidence.
That it has not been revived is a matter of deep regret. That it is now being replaced by a crude new war against a small, unimportant nation pushed around so many times before is a tragedy for both the United States and Latin America. Blind to the history of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua and in Latin America, the Reagan Administration does not see the bitter irony of its actions: The United States is proving a basic tenet of the revolutionary left--that the transformation of Latin American society can be defined only in terms of the United States as the Arch-enemy.
The Administration does not see that the democratic leaders of Latin America are fearful of a resurgence of the revolutionary left, and then of the military right. The Administration does not see how the conflict is agitating the emerging reformist church. Defining the conflict, against all evidence, as an extension of the East-West conflict alone, the Administration does not see that by rejecting the admittedly complex path of diplomacy for the simple-minded path of war, it is encouraging the cause of the revolutionary left. Che Guevara would say I told you so.