Che Guevara in Tanzania
By Azaria C. Mbughuni
The Argentinian revolutionary and hero of the Cuban revolution, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, spent over four months in Tanzania between 1965 and 1966. He entered Tanzanian soil a total of three times, once publicly and twice in secret between February and November of 1965. Che was attracted to Tanzania because it was the headquarters of most liberation movements from southern Africa; it was one of the centers of revolutionary thought in the African continent at the time.
After almost three months of travelling to 6 different African countries pitching a case for a revolution, it was in Tanzania that Che would find a government ready to support his plan and a place to launch his next revolution. Tanzania would eventually become the starting point for a Cuban operation that would see Che together with more than 130 Cubans cross Lake Tanganyika and spend the next seven months fighting in the Congo. Che landed in Dar es Salaam on Thursday, February 11, 1965 from China. He had one mission: to rally support from the liberation movements to create a united army to fight against imperialist an neocolonial forces in the Congo.
Che went to Tanzania with a mission. He wanted a revolution. If there was any place in Africa with a large number of revolutionaries from different countries close to the battlefields in 1965, it was Tanzania.
A war was escalating in the neighboring Mozambique against the Portuguese. Revolutionaries from South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia, were flocking into the country. Tanzania was the one place in Africa that Che had hopes for his mission to recruit fighters and establish a rear base for a revolutionary war.
Che spent the first day in Dar es Salaam and then flew to Zanzibar to attend the celebrations of the anniversary of the Zanzibar revolution on the weekend of February 13, 1965. The anniversary was postponed from January 12 to February 12, 1965 because of Ramadan. Attending the anniversary celebrations of the Zanzibar revolution was a symbolic start for Che’s tour of Tanzania. Cuba had provided military training from numerous Zanzibar comrades who came to play a big role in the eventual victory of that revolution.The security situation in Tanzania was tense in the end of 1964 and the beginning of 1965. A diplomatic crisis between Tanzania and the US erupted in November of 1964 with discovery of documents purporting a plan by the US to help Portugal overthrow the Tanzanian government.
The crisis escalated when on January 11th, 1965, Tanzanian intelligence services snooping on telephone conversation between two American diplomats, Bob Gordon and Frank Carlucci, heard them speaking in codes about what appeared to be a plot against the Zanzibar government. The two US diplomats were expelled from Tanzania in January of 1965. It was a crisis that, according to one American diplomat, Don Patterson, would bring Nyerere to tears during his discussion with William Leonhart, the US Ambassador to Tanzania at the time. Che was in Tanzania during this difficult period for the Tanzanian government officials. The New York Times carried an article on the US and Tanzania diplomatic crisis on February 15, 1965; it noted that the Tanzanian government was hosting Maj. Ernesto Che Guevara amidst the crisis.
Back in Zanzibar, Ali Sultan Issa, the newly appointed Minister of Education, was given the task of hosting Che. Ali was a socialist who had studied in Britain, spent time in Cuba and China. In fact, Ali had first met Che in Cuba in 1962 and again later at a conference in Geneva in 1964. Che stayed at a small house in Buba, Zanzibar. Ali made sure that preparations were made for Che to stay in the house.
Che and Ali would spend two hours discussing Che’s Tricontinental vision. Che wanted to build revolutionary armies from three different continents-Africa, South America, and Asia- to struggle against imperialism. The two also discussed the awakening of African revolutionary thought of the rebels in Congo, freedom fighters in Mozambique and southern African.
Che spent time with Salim Ahmed Salim and his family in Zanzibar. Salim was Tanzania’s Ambassador to Egypt from 1964 to 1965. Salim invited Che to his house for a meal. Salim’s wife, Amne Ahmed, prepared a meal for the renowned revolutionary. Che and Salim spent several hours discussing the Cuban revolution and the strength of the liberation movements in Africa. Che returned to Dar es Salaam after spending several days in Zanzibar. Arrangements were made for a meeting for Che and at least 50 representatives of various liberation groups from 10 countries. The black Cuban Ambassador to Tanzania Pablo Rivalta and Juan Carretero, Head of Latin America Section of the Intelligence Department for Cuba, took part in the talks. The meeting was held at the Cuban Embassy in Upanga, Dar es Salaam. It was at this meeting that Che unveiled his scheme to create an army made up of soldiers from different African countries to be trained in the Congo. Che called his initiative the “common front.” This was a difficult proposal for the various liberation groups to accept. The freedom fighters wanted to focus on the campaigns in their own countries. Che faced resistance and realized very quickly that it would be better to meet with individual groups one at a time. Separate meetings were arranged later for some of the groups.
FRELIMO leaders from Mozambique met with Che separately. The list of attendees included, Marcelino dos Santos, Samora Machel, and Eduardo Mondlane. Once again, Che took the time to make a case to FRELIMO to send soldiers to train and fight in the Congo. FRELIMO leaders were not impressed with the plan. What followed was a long debate between Che and FRELIMO leaders.
According to Marcelinos dos Santos, they informed Che about some of the details of the war in Mozambique and Che questioned the veracity of some of the claims. The debate became heated and acrimonious at one point. Mondlane, the President of FRELIMO, was offended. The meeting was adjourned, but not before numerous pictures were taken.
The most productive meeting for Che in Dar es Salaam was with the Congo rebels based in Tanzania, Laurent Kabila and Godefrei Tchamlesso, and later Gaston Soumialot. Che had at least three meetings with the Congo rebels in Dar es Salaam in February of 1965. He was particularly impressed with Kabila. Che wrote in his diary that Kabila “made an excellent impression on me.” He presented a clear plan of action and identified US imperialism as the main enemy; this is something that made an impression on Che. The Congo rebels eventually accepted Che’s proposal. The initial plan was to send 30 Cubans to train the rebels. Che never told the Congolese rebel leaders nor the Tanzanian officials that he was planning to lead the group of Cubans himself. The Cuban plan for the Congo would not have had a chance of succeeding without the approval and support of the Tanzanian government.
Rivalta set up a meeting between Che and President Nyerere. There was a reception at the State House and Che got an opportunity to speak to Nyerere, the Foreign Minister Oscar Kambona, Joseph Lusinde, Minister of Interior, Abdulrahman Babu, and the Vice President, Rashidi Kawawa. Rivalta was present at the meeting.The meeting was productive. Che made a case to the Tanzanian officials about Cuban assistance to the Congolese Liberation Movement. Cuba would support the Congo rebels by providing supplies and training. Tanzanian government promised the Cubans that instructors and supplies would be given a safe passage to the Congo. Che stayed in Tanzania from February 11 to 18, 1965. He gave a press conference in Dar es Salaam on February 18th before he left the country. Che told reporters that his African tour had “reaffirmed his conviction of the possibility of a ‘common front’ against imperialism and colonialism.” He told reporters that the “common front” would include Latin-American countries, Socialist African and Asian states.
The Americans were paying close attention to his visit to Dar es Salaam. The New York Times carried article of Che’s press conference in Tanzania on February 19th. Che left Tanzania for Egypt and then Algeria. He did not return to Cuba until March 14, 1965. The trip to Tanzania had been a resounding success. He convinced the Congo rebels to accept assistance from Cuba; Che and Rivalta had secured the approval of the Tanzanian government to allow them to transit Cuban trainers and supplies to Congo. Che’s dream of an all out war against imperialism launched from the shores of Lake Tanganyika was getting closer to becoming a reality.Preparations were made for Cuban soldiers to go to fight in the Congo in Cuba. The Cuban soldiers had to travel to Tanzania first and then sneak into the Congo secretly.
Che and his men arrived in Dar es Salaam on April 19, 1965 according to most accounts.Ambassador Rivalta received a cable from Cuba to go pick up three Cubans at the Dar es Salaam airport prior to their arrival. He was not told who the three men were; he did know that they were part of the group going to fight in the Congo. Che passed through the Tanzania immigration using the assumed name Ramon Benetiz. The name did not raise any suspicion about the true identity of the man carrying the diplomatic passport. He was clean-shaven, wore glasses, and had prosthetic devices to alter his look. Rivalta who had known Che well did not recognize him. Che eventually leaned over and told his old friend “Stop being a fool, and take it easy.” Rivalta then recognized Che, an old comrade from the Cuban war of revolution.He later wrote “I almost peed in my pants.” Rivalta took Che, a black Cuban soldier named Victor Dreke and Jose Maria Martinez Tamayo to a hotel in the city. A Cuban diplomat named Rogelio Oliva picked them up the next day and took the trio to a house about five kilometers from the city. The Cuban embassy obtained the house for the operation. The house had a small farm and it would have been in the outskirts of the city back in 1965. Che and his men did not stay at the farm for very long. According to Dreke’s account, Rivalta went to the farm one night and took some of the Cubans on a tour of Dar es Salaam. It is not clear if Che was included in that short tour of the city.
He had already seen most of the city in his visit two months before.Che gave his men new names based on Swahili numbers. He gave Dreke the name Moja (one), Tamayo became Mbili (two), and he named himself Tatu (three). The wait in Dar es Salaam was short; but Che was restless nevertheless. He was anxious to go to the Congo. The longer they stayed in Dar es Salaam, the greater the chances they would be detected by enemies. The Tanzanian government was not informed of his presence at the time. Exactly when the Tanzanian government was informed of Che’s presence is not clear. Che spent at least one day in Dar es Salaam by most accounts. He left on April 20 with a group of about 14 people. Tchamlesso and a member of the Tanzanian police accompanied the Cubans. The Tanzanian police joined them to make sure that they did not have any problems along the way. The men travelled in a convoy of three cars: one Land Rover, three Mercedes Benzes, and two jeeps. The vehicles carried some of the weapons they would use in the Congo. The Cubans, including Che, took turns driving the more than 1,700 Kilometers from Dar es Salaam to Kigoma. It was a long journey on dirt road that took two days. The group was delayed at one point because they had to wait for a barge to cross a river. Che read a book about the Congo when he was not driving.The group arrived in Kigoma on the night of April 22, 1965. Kigoma was a city of about 70,000 people at the time. Congo was about 50 Kilometers directly across Lake Tanganyika, one of the deepest lakes in the world. Kigoma was a busy city.
Refugees were escaping the Congo and rebel soldiers came in and out of the city in large numbers. The Cubans split up into two groups. Che, Dreke, Tamayo, Zerquera, and a couple of other Cubans went to stay at the residence of Sinfua, the Regional Commissioner of Kigoma.Che and his men spent one night in Kigoma. The Tanzanian Regional Commissioner of Kigoma, Sinfua, warned Che during their discussions that the Congo rebels were undisciplined. Che would admit later that Sinfua had been correct. The Cubans boarded a boat just before midnight on April 23, 1965 for the Congo. Che and his men would spend the next 7 months fighting in the Congo. Tanzania was critical for the Cuban operations in the Congo. Che could not have lasted seven months in the Congo without cooperation of the Tanzanian government. The heart of the Congo operations was at the Cuban Embassy in Dar es Salaam. All supplies came through Tanzania had to be sent to the Congo.Che’s whereabouts was unknown to the public. Very few people were aware of Che’s presence in Tanzania and in the Congo.
According to most accounts, Westerners did not know Che’s whereabouts. Larry Devlin, the CIA chief station in the Congo, claimed that he reported Che’s presence in October of 1965, but was ignored. Some recent reports indicate that the Americans had a ship in the Indian Ocean along East Africa monitoring communication between the Cuban Embassy in Dar es Salaam and the Cuban soldiers in the Congo. Interception of the communication does not necessary mean that Americans knew Che was among the soldiers, even if they had their suspicions. There is one report that indicates the possibility that someone may have known where Che was at the time. Rumors emerged in Cairo and Dar es Salaam in October of 1965 that Che and Soumialot were killed in the Congo. The reports forced Soumialot to give a press conference in Dar es Salaam in October 17, 1965. The Times of London reported Soumialot’s press conference that same day, October 17, 1965. Soumialot told reporters that he was well and alive. He denied claims that Che had been in the Congo and that he was killed in an ambush. The situation in the Congo was desperate for the Cubans by the end of October 1965. A group of white mercenaries and Congo soldiers led by Mobuto SeseSeko and an Irish mercenary named Mike Hoare, started closing in on the Cubans by October. To make matters worse, the Congo leader Joseph Kasa-Vubu went to the OAU conference in Ghana from October 21 to 15, 1965, and promised to remove foreign mercenaries. He managed to secure OAU resolution calling for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Congo. Nyerere called Ambassador Rivalta shortly afterwards and asked the Cubans to withdraw their troops.
Che and the Cuban soldiers crossed Lake Tanganyika and entered Kigoma on November 21, 1965. Oliva and another Cuban diplomat named Coloman Ferrer, were in Kigoma to welcome Che and the Cuban soldiers back to Tanzanian soil. The Tanzanian police went to the boat and took all the weapons. Che took a bath, changed clothes, and ate food. He and his men slept on the floor of a waiting room in Kigoma. This was the third and last time Che would enter Tanzania; it was a bittersweet moment for Che. The mission had failed, but his determination to continue the struggle remained strong. Coloman received instructions to take Che and a few men he selected back to Dar es Salaam. The group left on a van for Dar es Salaam. They barely made it on time for the last ferry that crossed the river at 7pm. Coloman was instructed to keep the Cuban embassy informed of their whereabouts. He made a call from Morogoro to inform the embassy of their location.
Coloman and Che went to the house owned by the Tanzania Director of Prisons, near the airport when they reached Dar es Salaam. Che and other comrades spent the first night at the house. Coloman went to see Che the next day and bought some supplies for him. Che would spend another two or three days at the house near the airport, just outside the city. So it was, Che was in Dar es Salaam once again in the end of November 1965. Eventually he moved from the house on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam to a two- bedroom apartment on top of the Cuban Embassy in Upanga, a suburb of Dar es Salaam. He would spend the next four months in the apartment without venturing outside.Che kept himself very busy in Dar es Salaam. He contemplated about the shortcomings of the Congo operation and considered his next move. Che was clear about one thing: he wanted to fight. However, he was not sure where he would launch his next campaign against imperialists. He did not want to return to Cuba.
The failure of the Congo mission weighed heavily on him. The Cubans kept Che’s presence in Tanzania top secret. Very few people in the Cuban Embassy knew of his presence. There were only about three people who were allowed to enter Che’s apartment: Rivalta, Oscar FernandezMell, Padilla, and Delfin, the telegraph operator. Che spent his time reading, playing chess, and writing diaries of his Congo experiences. Spending four months in an apartment without going outside would be difficult for most people. This was not the case for Che. The few Cubans who interacted with Che during that time did not notice any signs of distress. He welcomed the new year of 1966 in Dar es Salaam with Rivalta, Padillla, and Fernandez Mell. Che spent his time reading, playing chess, and writing. He spent considerable time working on his Congo diaries. He dictated the text to Ferrer and Ferrer would later transcribe it. Che revised and corrected the final manuscript. One of the best moments for Che in Tanzania was when his wife Aleida March came to visit him secretly sometime around February of 1966. Aleida and Che would spend the next month, clammed up in the two-bedroom apartment.
According to Aleida, this was to become one of the best times the couple spent together. They spent day and nights together catching up on lost time. The couple had not spent much time together since they got married in 1959. And so it was in Dar es Salaam that Che would rekindle romance with his wife. Aleida recalled later that “it was the first time we had ever been alone together” and closest thing to a “honeymoon” that the two had enjoyed. She would allude to “making up of all the lost time.” The reunion would be the first and last time the two spent considerable time alone. Che slipped out of Dar es Salaam secretly sometime in March of 1966. He went to Prague, Cuba, and eventually, to Bolivia where he was killed with the help of the CIA. Just as his secret entrance to Dar es Salaam, his secret departure was without fanfare. He came to Tanzania seeking a path to fight a revolutionary war; a war against neocolonialism and imperialism. He was full of hope; he wanted to build an army that would defeat the imperialists in the Congo. This dream was never realized. Yet Che left an indelible mark on this part of Africa. His was a story of commitment and dedication; a story of both setbacks and triumphs. It is ultimately a story of sacrifice and willingness to pay the ultimate price for a cause that one believes in. Che wrote in his last letter to his wife and five children before leaving for Bolivia: “Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world. This is the most beautiful quality in a revolutionar.
Writing By Azaria C. Mbughuni