02 Oct Che Guevara and the Struggle for Western Sahara
David Seddon examines a largely unknown chapter in Che Guevara’s involvement in the revolutionary anti-imperialist movements in Africa. He focuses on the question of how far Guevara was involved in promoting and encouraging the liberation struggle in what was to become Western Sahara. Did he contribute to the development of the POLISARIO Front which even today continues its struggle for Western Saharan independence?
By David Seddon
In my piece on Che Guevara in the Congo on roape.net and Jacobin, I observed that ‘the earliest Cuban aid effort went to the 1961 Algerian liberation movement when Castro sent a large consignment of American weapons captured during the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion. After the Algerians won independence in July 1962, they reciprocated by helping train a group of Argentinian guerrillas, even sending two agents with the guerrillas from Algiers to Bolivia in June 1963’.
I also mentioned, in passing, Cuban support to both Algeria and to the liberation struggle in what was to become Western Sahara. In this piece, I focus on the question of how far Che Guevara was involved in promoting and encouraging the Saharawis, and thus in contributing to the development of the POLISARIO Front which, even today maintains its struggle for Western Saharan independence.
Che in Algeria
Che had already visited Morocco and Egypt, among other countries during a three month tour of mainly Bandung Pact countries, in June 1959. At the end of 1960, he had visited Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, North Korea, Hungary and East Germany. It was not until after Algerian independence, however, that he travelled to Algeria. The relationship between Guevara and the Algerians began in mid-July 1963, when he arrived for the first time in Algeria, according to Juan Vivés in his picaresque account of his 20 years in Castro’s secret service, ‘El Magnifico: 20 ans au service secret de Castro’.
Ben Bella, who was at that time the first president of newly independent Algeria, had just asked Ambassador Jorge ‘Papito’ Serguera if he could request Cuban aid for the struggle against Spanish colonialism that was just beginning in what was at that time the Spanish Sahara. Vivés claims that he was called upon by the ambassador to interpret in these discussions, in which Che Guevara was also involved. Ben Bella asked the Cubans if they would meet representatives of the Saharawis, who were already engaged in such a struggle. The Cubans immediately contacted Havana to obtain approval for such a meeting. The response was for them to ‘make contact but make no commitments, because of the delicate – indeed tense – relationship between Cuba and Spain’.
Che (and Vivés) rapidly informed themselves regarding the history of the Spanish Sahara and the struggle by the Saharawis since the late 1950s against the Spanish occupation, drawing on various sources including the KGB. Vivés states that Che decided that the Saharawis could be helped to form a political liberation movement which would have its headquarters in Algeria and, as a result, he claims, the Movement for the Liberation of the Sahara (MLS) was born. Most accounts of the origins of the Saharawi’s struggle for independence from Spain, however, make no mention of this involvement on the part of the Cubans, yet it was crucial.
In his lengthy discussion of the ‘Origins of Saharawi Nationalism’, the acknowledged expert on the subject, Tony Hodges, suggests – as indeed do most accounts – that ‘it was a young Saharawi who had studied abroad, in the Middle East, who organized the first clandestine anti-colonial movement in Western Sahara…’ Mohammed Sidi Ibrahim Bassiri was born in 1943 in Tan Tan, then part of Spanish Southern Morocco, but soon afterwards moved south into the Spanish Sahara with his family to Lemsid, near El Ayoun. He was later one of several hundred Saharawi children evacuated by the guerrilla fighters of the Moroccan Army of Liberation (which included Saharawi contingents) in September 1957 to Morocco, where he entered a school in Casablanca on a scholarship.
After passing his baccalaureat, Bassiri studied in Cairo and Damascus, graduating with a diploma in journalism and returning to Morocco in 1966. There he founded a radical journal, ‘Al Chihab’ (‘The Torch’). Towards the end of 1967, however, he left Morocco and returned to the Spanish Sahara where he persuaded the authorities to issue him with a residence permit. He started to teach the Quran and Arabic at the mosque in Smara and used his influence as a teacher to recruit the nucleus of an underground anti-colonial movement.
This, according to Hodges, became known as the Harakat Tahrir Saguia el-Hamra wa Oued ed-Dahab (Organization for the Liberation of the Saguia el-Hamra and Oued ed-Dahab – the two main regions of Western Sahara). It was also known as al-Hizb al-Muslim (the Muslim Party). Hodges does not himself refer to it as the Movement for the Liberation of the Sahara (MLS), although it is entirely possible that it was also known by this name. The main difficulty is that the account by Vivés suggests that he and Che Guevara met various representatives of the Saharawi groups involved in the liberation struggle in mid-1963 and helped them establish a single movement (the MLS); but this was four years before Bassiri is said by most accounts to have formed ‘the nucleus of an underground anti-colonial movement’ in 1967.
The two accounts are not inherently incompatible but, if Vives is correct, then two important elements are missing from the ‘conventional wisdom’. First, there were groups involved in some form of anti-colonial activity before Bassiri returned to Smara and became active in the liberation struggle, and second that the Cubans, and Che Guevara in particular, were not only involved in supporting these groups from a much earlier stage but also effectively helped establish the first named liberation movement – the MLS.
The Army of Liberation
To get to the bottom of this, we need to go back a little to the period when thousands of Saharawis became part of a broad, trans-frontier anti-colonial struggle (directed largely but not exclusively against the French) in 1957-58, when they responded to the insurrectionary appeals of the Moroccan Army of Liberation (Jaysh al-Tahrir), which in January 1956 had appointed Benhamou Mesfioui – who had previously led guerrilla actions against the Spanish in the north of Morocco – as commander of ‘the southern zone’.
On the eve of Moroccan independence (March 1956), Mesfioui took control of a huge area in the extreme south of Morocco. Hodges comments that ‘inspired by the success of the Moroccan independence struggle, Saharawis began to enrol in the Army of Liberation. In June 1956, its units began a series of attacks on French positions near Tindouf in southwest Algeria. By February 1957, they were operating far to the south in the extreme north of Mauritania.
In February 1958, however, the Army of Liberation was crushed by a combined Franco-Spanish counter-insurgency operation, known as Operation Ouragan (Operation Hurricane). The remnants of the Army for the most part sought refuge in southern Morocco, where they were disarmed, disbanded and partially integrated into the Moroccan Forces Armées Royales (FAR), which had finally succeeded in establishing the authority of the new independent Moroccan government in the extreme south of Morocco. The Saharawi units of the Army of Liberation presumably disbanded themselves and disappeared into what remained, after all of this, the Spanish Sahara.
Early Opposition to Spanish Colonialism
Hodges suggests at one point that ‘the ensuing decade saw no significant expression of Saharawi opposition to Spain in the territory that remained under Spanish rule. However, this was to be a period of profound economic, social and political change and when a new anti-colonial movement did begin to take shape, at the end of the 1960s, it took a decidedly different form from the Saharawi units of the Army of Liberation’. This account seems to suggest that there was no ‘significant’ expression of Saharawi opposition until the late 1960s.
This does not fit with the account provided by Vivés in which he and Che Guevara met ‘representatives of the Saharawi liberation movement’ in the early 1960s. Nor is there any mention by Hodges of involvement in the Saharawi opposition, at any time in the 1960s, by the Cubans.
Hodges does accept that the late 1950s and early 1960s were a period of ‘profound change’ and explains how this included a series of political changes that saw the effective unification of Spanish Sahara between 1958 and 1962 as a ‘fully fledged province of Spain’, and the rapid urbanization in the early 1960s of the previously largely ‘nomadic’ Saharawis. He does not, however, as we have noted, identify ‘any significant expression of Saharawi opposition’ until the late 1960s, with the establishment of the Harakat Tahrir.
Vivés claims that Che not only promised the representatives of the Saharawi groups identified as constituting a ‘significant opposition’ the support of Cuba, but specifically proposed to Havana that some of these cadres could be sent to Cuba for political training (in Marxist theory and practice and in guerrilla strategy and tactics). Language would not be a problem as these young men spoke good Spanish.
An issue might be the fact that they were Muslims. But Vivés describes how Che explained to the sceptical Cubans, on the basis of his own first-hand experience in Egypt, the way in which Nasser had established a form of Arab socialism in Egypt and that even the question of their religion might be managed.
We know that throughout late 1963 and into 1964, while based in Algeria, Che Guevara, accompanied by Vivés, toured the African continent, visiting Mali, Congo Brazzaville, Guinée-Conakry, Dahomey, Tanzania and Egypt. Vivés make the point that after this extensive tour Che did not return to Cuba, but to Algeria. Then, after visiting Geneva in March 1964, he went to Russia, where he spent a month in Moscow celebrating the 47th anniversary of the October Revolution. In December, he was addressing the United Nations. He returned once again to Algeria, via Canada, and then travelled on to China to request military support for revolutionary movements in the Third World from Chou En Lai, before returning once more to Algeria, which now clearly served as his base.
In February 1965, on the occasion of the Afro-Asian Conference in Algiers, he made a rousing but controversial speech on the struggle against backwardness and poverty as well as for liberation and against imperialism, in which among other things he criticised what he called ‘white’ imperialism and the ‘exploitation of the Third World by the countries of the East’ – which caused a furore in Havana and Moscow, and led to his being effectively declared persona no grata in both capitals.
Vivés mentions the assassination in 1965 of Mehdi Ben Barka, a prominent leader of the left opposition to the royal regime in Morocco, and reports that Fidel Castro swore to punish Morocco for this ‘crime’. He suggests that a series of public anti-colonial demonstrations was organised, in response (presumably with some Cuban and Algerian input), with the MLS, as a result of which ‘hundreds of activists’ were thrown in prison. The last of these demonstrations was held in June 1970 and on this occasion the Spanish Foreign Legion opened fire on the protestors, killing and injuring ‘hundreds’, and arresting and detaining large numbers.
Vivés remarks that Castro decided at this point that a political movement alone was not enough. Military training camps were opened in Algeria. Vivés also suggests that between 1971 and 1972, ‘the movement changed its name’ to refer to itself as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (the POLISARIO Front).
Hodges’ version of things is somewhat different, although some elements are the same. He identifies the growth of the Harakat Tahrir between 1967 and 1970 and the growing concern on the part of the Spanish authorities when, ‘by the spring of 1970, (they) had detected widespread support for the movement among urban Saharawis’ and the fact that the movement had begun to seek aid from neighbouring Arab governments. The organization was able, for example, in May 1970 to submit a memorandum setting out its goals to Algerian officials in Tindouf.
Then, on 17 June 1970, the movement responded to a government-sponsored rally in El Ayoun with a counter-demonstration – the demonstration to which Vivés also refers. The repression that followed the immediate shooting of the protestors ‘shattered the Harakat Tahrir’, according to Hodges. Hundreds were arrested, most of them being released after a few days but the leaders being detained for several months, some of them in the Canaries, and then deported to Morocco or Mauritania. As for Bassiri, he was arrested on the night of 17 June and was never seen again. The Spanish government later claimed that he had been deported to Morocco, but the Moroccan authorities deny that he ever arrived.
The POLISARIO Front
Hodges suggests that the POLISARIO Front was founded three years after the collapse of the Harakat Tahrir, in May 1973, by a different group of Saharawis, implying that there was not the organizational continuity to which Vivés alludes. He states that, by the early 1970s some forty or so Saharawi students had gained entry to Moroccan universities and that it was at Mohamed V University in Rabat that several of the students who were to play a part in the formation of the POLISARIO Front in 1973 first came together.
The most influential among them, according to Hodges, was a young man who was later to become the POLISARIO Front’s first secretary-general, El Ouali Mustapha Sayed (‘Lulei’). El Ouali was born in 1948 and settled with his family, about ten years later in Tan Tan, where Bassiri had been born a decade earlier. Although from a poor background, he was able to attend school, pass his baccalaureat and enter the faculty of law at the Université Mohamed V in Rabat.
These Saharawi students in Rabat first sought assistance from the Moroccan opposition, but soon realized that they could expect little effective support from this quarter. They also made contact with anti-colonialist Saharawis in the Spanish Sahara, many of whom, Hodges admits, were ‘former members or supporters of the Harakat Tahrir’, and with Saharawis further afield, in centres of the Saharawi diaspora, such as Zouerate in northern Maurtania and Tindouf in south west Algeria. A particular effort was made to recruit support from the Saharawis of southern Morocco.
By March 1972, Hodges remarks, ‘this student group’, as he calls it, was beginning to appeal for support from a range of Arab governments, notably that of Algeria. The group was by now also beginning to experience harassment from the Moroccan authorities, and in March and May 1972, anti-Spanish demonstrations by Saharawi students and other youth in Tan Tan (now part of Morocco) were broken up by the Moroccan police, and a number of the demonstrators, including El Ouali, were detained.
The Tan Tan incidents confirmed the group’s fears that the constitution of a Saharawi liberation movement within Morocco would carry serious political risks. El Ouali had already established links with another nucleus of Saharawi militants, including two veterans of the Army of Liberation who had also been active in the Harakat Tahrir, in Zouerate, and the Zouerate group was able to secure residence permits for El Ouali and some of his comrades.
So, it was in Mauritania, according to Hodges, that the final preparations for the establishment of the POLISARIO Front were made. The founding Congress was held somewhere near the Mauritanian-Spanish Sahara frontier on 10 May 1973. ‘The POLISARIO Front’, the Congress declared, ‘is born as a unique expression of the masses, opting for revolutionary violence and armed struggle as the means by which the Saharawi people can recover its total liberty and foil the manoeuvres of Spanish colonialism’. The first attack in what would become a protracted war of liberation took place only ten days after the founding of the Front.
Hodges comments that ‘some small-scale aid’ had been received by the POLISARIO Front from Libya, but notes specifically that Algeria ‘did not aid POLISARIO significantly until the spring of 1975’. He refers to the ‘self-reliant and exclusively Saharawi participation in this organizing work’ which he argues ‘tended also to encourage ideas of Saharawi distinctiveness and autonomy’.
The support that they had anticipated from other Arab governments was largely not forthcoming at this crucial early stage and the ‘self-reliance’ to which Hodges refers became a hall mark of the Saharawi struggle for liberation and for independence over the next 45 years. This ‘self-reliance’ did not, however, mean that the POLISARIO Front was isolated or cut off from the rest of the Arab world, or indeed from sub-Saharan Africa.
So, can we confirm the involvement of Che Guevara in the origins of the POLISARIO Front and the subsequent Saharawi struggle for liberation and independence, as Vivés suggests? He was certainly in Algeria in mid-1963, for the First Seminar on Planning (at which on 16 July he outlined the experiences of the Cuban Revolution) and it seems entirely possible that during this time he met and encouraged the representatives of the very earliest Saharawi anti-colonial militants, including those who went on to be the backbone of the Harakat Tahrir, some of whom were also, later, involved in the formation of the POLISARIO Front.
There seems to have been more continuity in the movement and in the liberation struggle between the ‘early’ participants and those who established the POLISARIO Front. In this sense, it could be argued, that Che was indirectly involved in the origins of the POLISARIO Front, even if the kind of support he envisaged and proposed was not realized and what military training was provided seems to have taken place in Algeria – possibly with Cuban assistance.
Che certainly used Algiers as his base during 1963 and 1964 as he toured the world making contact with anti-colonial movements across Africa and Asia. It is entirely possible that, during this time, he maintained contact with the Saharawis, although there is no direct evidence to this effect.
After April 1965, when Che renounced his positions in the Communist Party in Cuba, his rank of commandante and his Cuban citizenship, his focus moved elsewhere – to the Congo, where he had already identified a potential revolutionary situation and where he was to spend seven months supporting the rebellion against the neo-colonial regime in the country.
Hodges suggests that the growth of the Harakat Tahrir took place between 1967 and 1970 – well after Che had left Algeria, and indeed after his death. So, his direct involvement must, in any case, have come to an end in 1965.
But there can be little doubt that his own life and his involvement in the revolutionary anti-imperialist movement worldwide through the 1960s had an impact on generations of Saharawis fighting until the present day – for the status of Western Sahara remains a matter to be resolved even now, half a century and more since the struggle began – for liberation, for independence and for the revolutionary transformation of their society.
David Seddon is a researcher and political activist who has written extensively on social movements, class struggles and political transitions across the developing world.
Featured Photograph: Bob Marley and Che(e) Guevara on the back of truck in Ouagadougou – Burkina Faso (July, 2010).