Josip Broz Tito and Che Guevara Speak
HISTORY, 30 Jan 2023
Srećko Horvat | The Internationalist - TRANSCEND Media Service
In 1959, Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito received the members of the Cuba Goodwill Mission led by Dr. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Philosopher and Cabinet member of the Progressive International, Srećko Horvat introduces the historic Tito-Che conversation, contextualizing it in the history of the Non-Aligned Movement and Yugoslavia-Cuba relations.
Introduction: Learning is the starting point of internationalism
In 1959, eight months after the revolution in Cuba and the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship, the Cuban Goodwill Mission led by Ernesto “Che” Guevara embarked on a world tour that would bring the Cubans for the first time to socialist Yugoslavia. After visiting Egypt, India, Burma, Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Yugoslavia would become the only European country they visited.
From 12 to 21 August, the delegation of Cuban revolutionaries travelled across Yugoslavia. First, they visited Belgrade, then Kragujevac, Sarajevo, Jablanica, Konjic, Rijeka, Opatija, Ljubljana, Postojna and Maribor. Although it was initially not clear — for reasons further explained later — whether Tito would be able to receive them, in the end, they met the Yugoslav president and members of his cabinet at his summer residence on the Brijuni Islands on 18 August 1959.
Only after 50 years, two decades after socialist Yugoslavia collapsed with a brutal war, the transcript of this historic conversation was published after being rediscovered at the Archive of the President of the Republic, Archive Yugoslavia.
It is significant for several reasons, not merely because of its clear historical value but also because it envisioned a new Non-Aligned Movement. The conversation explored how cooperation between revolutionary movements and governments could power the emergence of a multipolar order. That, in turn, could confront the intertwined crises that have only accelerated since 1959: from the climate crisis and forever war — both rooted in the logic of capitalist accumulation — to the threat of nuclear annihilation.
But let us first tackle why it took 50 years for the transcript to be published — and why this historic meeting between two revolutionaries and statesmen, Tito and Che, received so little attention at the time.
There are at least two possible explanations.
1. Explanation: “Since this conversation won’t be published in the press…”
One explanation comes from the conversation between Tito and Che itself. In one part of the transcript, Che recounts the Cuban delegation’s Burma experience and says to Tito: “Since this conversation won’t be published in the press…”
Perhaps the Cubans, embarking on their first diplomatic offensive, simply did not want to make their efforts public so as not to endanger the freshly-established diplomatic relations with friendly governments and possible allies. There is also the fact that, in August 1959, the Communist Party of Cuba was still not formed, and it was unclear whether it would side with the Soviet Union.
On the other side, since the Tito-Stalin split in 1948, Yugoslavia had pursued an economic and foreign policy that did not align with the interests of the Soviet Union or its Eastern Bloc allies while at the same time building relations with countries that were not part of the two existing Cold War blocs.
As we can see from the transcript, the conversation between Tito and Che in Brijuni was friendly and pragmatic, but perhaps it was too soon — the Non-Aligned Movement would be founded two years later in Belgrade — to announce the alignment between Cuba and Yugoslavia.
2. Explanation: How Selassie overshadowed Che
Tito and Selassie in Pula, Yugoslavia, 1959
Another convincing explanation, which sheds light on the internal situation in Yugoslavia at that time and its foreign policy, comes from the journalist Giacomi Scotti, who reported Che’s visit to Rijeka for La voce del popolo in 1959.
That day, according to Giacomo Scotti, “the sea and the sky were brilliant, the trains, buses and ships were full of tourists; Yugoslavia was the only socialist country in Europe that opened its borders to globetrotters from the West. Of the five members of the Cuban delegation, four were dressed in simple military uniforms; one had a thick black beard, and the remaining three, including Guevara, had sparse beards… Finally, they were young, the idea of a revolution at the beginning of a long journey.”
Che Guevara in Rijeka, 1959 photo by Petar Grabovac (Novi List), on the far right is journalist Giacomo Scotti.
Scotti also describes vividly the enthusiasm with which the Cuban delegation was welcomed. When they visited the “3 maj” shipyard in Rijeka, they were greeted by more than 2,000 workers. (For context: the factory employed around 8,000 workers at its peak. Today, it employs under 1,000 — another emblematic case of the so-called “transition” period, which was characterized by privatizations and the destruction of the main pillars of the Yugoslav industry.)
However, the visit of the Cuban Delegation of Goodwill — not only to Rijeka — was underreported in the press, earning only brief reports from press agencies. The covers of Yugoslav newspapers were dominated by Josip Broz Tito and the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who was visiting the Marshall’s residence at Brijuni.
This seems like the most plausible explanation. While Yugoslavia was one of the first countries to recognize Cuba’s socialist government, it had a longer and more-established diplomatic relationship with Ethiopia. It established its first diplomatic relations in the postwar period in Africa in 1952, precisely with Ethiopia. Then, in July 1954, Haile Selassie visited Yugoslavia, and Tito visited Ethiopia in 1955 as part of Yugoslavia’s “Third World” diplomacy initiative in the wake of the 1948 split with the USSR.
A glance into the pragmatism of two revolutionaries
In the end, both explanations can be true at the same time — the Cubans did not want to reveal details that they were discussing with Tito publicly because their global diplomatic offensive was just beginning, while Yugoslavia was careful to maintain its newfound non-aligned status and attached more significance to its diplomatic relations with Ethiopia.
Whatever the reason, the transcript is a fascinating account of a meeting between two revolutionaries who now led socialist governments. It represents a unique glance into the pragmatic cooperation and strategies of non-aligned countries even before the Non-Aligned Movement was officially founded.
In fact, it would be founded just two years after the Tito-Che meeting — in 1961 in Belgrade. Although the cornerstones for NAM were already laid on Brijuni Islands in 1956 when Tito hosted Nehru and Naser, and of course, its origin has to be traced back also to the year 1955 and the Bandung Conference.
When Che and Tito met at Brijuni Islands, a luxurious kurort of the Austro-Hungarian Empire since the mid-19th century now turned into Marshall’s summer residence, it was a meeting of two revolutionaries: one who just came to power after the successful Cuban Revolution on a diplomatic tour, and the other who was a guerrilla leader during WWII and would remain in power long after Che’s death.
When they met, Che was 31 years old. Tito was 67. A few years later, Che would leave Cuba, travelling across the world and supporting or leading revolutionary struggles. He would meet his end at the hands of US military-backed Bolivian soldiers on 9 October 1967, at the age of 39. Tito would die, aged 87, in 1980. His last foreign visit, in tense and almost hostile conditions, was in 1979, when he met Fidel Castro in Havana.
In a way, the Brijuni conversation between Tito and Che represents the very beginning of the long journey of both Cuba and Yugoslavia — and the Non-Aligned Movement. For that reason, it should be of interest to internationalists across the planet.
The diplomacy of Non-Alignment before NAM
The conversation between Tito and Che sheds light on the very beginning of the relationship between Cuba and Yugoslavia. Over time, that relationship would be strained as Yugoslavia and Cuba began to pursue conflicting paths. This divergence culminated with the NAM meeting in Havana in 1979 when Castro called for the transformation of NAM into a “strategic reserve” for the Soviet bloc. Tito was opposed to the idea, and the Yugoslav stance prevailed at NAM, although Cuba was the host country and Castro organized everything in order to win. In short, Castro didn’t like Tito because he was too close to the West, and Tito didn’t like Castro because he was too close to the Soviets.
Later that year, in December, the situation became more complicated for NAM. The Soviet Union intervened in non-aligned Afghanistan to support its communist government against the US-backed Mujahideen insurgency. The next month — in January 1980 — Tito died. Both events changed the future of the Non-Aligned Movement forever. Ten years later, socialist Yugoslavia collapsed. The Cold War, it seemed, was over.
Now, we were told that we live in the happy 1990s, at the “end of history”. Concretely, in the case of ex-Yugoslavia, that meant massive privatizations and a period of structural adjustment, casting the population into debt and poverty. Built over decades, Yugoslav diplomacy collapsed overnight — with rare exceptions, like Budimir Lončar — and NAM lost one of its leading and founding members.
What makes the Tito-Che conversation interesting today is not only that it unveils a missing link in the chapter of our common revolutionary history and the history of the Non-Aligned Movement.
It is not simply a meeting between two revolutionaries coming together to join arms in the struggle against imperialism, colonialism, hegemony and oppression. What we see here is a glance into successful diplomacy and the politics of non-alignment before the Non-Aligned Movement emerged.
Not only did Tito promise to support Cuba at the United Nations, one of the concrete outcomes of their meeting was the opening of embassies both in Belgrade and in Havana already in the same year.
Agrarian reform, weapons, and the economy
Agrarian reform was one of the central themes of the conversation. No wonder because only three months before Che and the Cuban delegation met Tito, Cuban’s revolutionary government had already eliminated latifundios — large-scale private-owned farms — and nationalized corporations that owned arable land.
So after the introductory exchange, Tito and Che — who was at that moment Minister of Industry and governor of the Cuban National Bank — swiftly turned to practical matters.
In the transcript, Che asks Tito what a reasonable limit on the size of property might be in the process of implementing agrarian reform. Yugoslavia had already walked that path in 1945 when its agrarian reform abolished bigger properties and expropriated properties from banks, companies, churches, and major landlords.
After exchanging practical advice, they dive into the theoretical possibilities of an invasion of Cuba and the role of the United States. Tito warns Che that “Cuba is becoming an example, and the Americans are therefore afraid that there will be a disturbance in their neighborhood.”
Then they talk about weapons. Cuba was, Che said, quite isolated, while Yugoslavia had already supported anti-colonial struggles not only through diplomacy but also by supplying weapons to resistance movements across the so-called “Third World” (which includes Tito smuggling a load of arms and ammunition for the Algerian Liberation Front on his iconic ship Galeb).
Besides the question of agrarian reform and weapons, both sides were interested in economic cooperation. The Cubans needed agricultural machinery, generators and household appliances, which Yugoslavia was interested in exporting. At that stage of Cuba’s historical trajectory, just after the revolution, Yugoslavia was important not just for its role in the Non-Aligned Movement. It also served as an example of how the economy could be democratized, giving workers management rights in companies and industries while distributing surplus value to the working class and society.
“We came to Yugoslavia to learn”
At one point in the conversation, Che Guevara says to Tito, “We came to Yugoslavia to see your experience and to learn from it in the best possible way.” The Battle of Neretva — which Che learned about on his visit to the town of Vogošća — obviously left a big impression on the young revolutionary, who raises the issue with Tito in their conversation.
The Battle of Neretva, named after the Neretva river in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was the final stage of the Fourth Enemy Offensive when the combined Axis powers launched an offensive against the Yugoslav Partisans throughout occupied Yugoslavia in 1943. The Yugoslav side faced heavy losses — the Germans claimed to have killed about 11,915 Partisans, executed 616, and captured 2,506 during the offensive. But the Partisans succeeded in regrouping and continued the guerrilla war. They would emerge victorious, liberating Yugoslavia and establishing a socialist self-management system. “We consider your victory in the war to be truly epic”, Che says to Tito.
Che’s conversation with Tito speaks to the critical importance of education — and of learning about our common history — in the process of revolutionary construction. Che indicates that Cuba would be interested in sending a number of people to study in Yugoslavia, but fears that language may be a problem, as “our peasants barely know how to read and write”.
The Yugoslav side responds that language learning has never been an obstacle for students from Asia and Africa, and Tito says: “in our school Sudanese, Indonesians and many others got an education.”
In fact, thousands of African and Asian students studied in Yugoslavia during the years of actually-existing socialism and the most propulsive period of the Non-Aligned Movement. And, vice versa, as the Croatian historian Tvrtko Jakovina shows, Yugoslav experts were asked to establish universities in Angola and Madagascar: “Yugoslav experts also taught in Addis Ababa, while thousands of foreign students came to Yugoslavia to study. In the late 1970s, three Ethiopian ministers were Yugoslav students. Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who was supported by the SFRY in various ways, expressed his gratitude to Tito for ‘training Palestine pilots’ in Yugoslavia.”
The transcript of the Brijuni conversations ends with Che sharing a story with the Yugoslavs: “In India, I talked with Krishna Manon about establishing bilateral relations, and he told me to send a professor or a doctor to India as our representative. I laughed and answered — what professor, we do not have any.”
As Tanja Petrović points out in her magnificent essay on the Tito-Che conversation, in the years after the Cuban mission, Cuba managed to educate professors, doctors, engineers, and artists. Both Cuba and Yugoslavia raised literacy dramatically. According to UNESCO, Cuba’s literacy rate among people older than 15 is 99%. While in pre-WW2 Yugoslavia (in 1921) 50% of the population older than 10 years was illiterate, in 1948, due to a mass literacy campaign during the war, and after it, the percentage dropped to 25%. In 1961, 21% of the population was illiterate, and in 1981, illiteracy was reduced to 9.5%.
Reducing illiteracy, providing free education, universal healthcare, public housing, self-management, and building the Non-Aligned Movement — these were all fundamental contributions provided by actually-existing socialism not only to 20th-century history but to humanity itself. Today, both reality and memory are dominated by actual-existing capitalism. It is our task not only to recover memory but to save the dead from an enemy who never ceases to be victorious, as Walter Benjamin puts in his sixth thesis.
What the Tito-Che conversation shows is that the struggle against imperialism and colonialism, “peaceful co-existence” and “the right to self-determination”, non-interference in the affairs of other states and complete disarmament — to name just some of the fundamental principles of non-alignment — cannot be achieved without learning, without the recovery of memory and without saving the dead from the enemy.
Tvrtko Jakovina, [“Yugoslavia on the International Scene: The Active Coexistence of Non-Aligned Yugoslavia”]
Srećko Horvat, [“Is Yugoslavia an ‘alien’ or are we alien to Yugoslavia”]
Tanja Petrović, [“When Che Guevara Visited Yugoslavia”]
Giacomo Scotti, “Fotografija s Che Guevarom” (Izdavački centar Rijeka, 2011)
Paul Stubbs, “The Non-Aligned Movement: Lessons for a Renewed Progressive Internationalism”, forthcoming in The Internationalist.
Bidimir Lončar, Wikipedia [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budimir_Lončar]
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Tags: Che Guevara, Cuba, History, Socialism, Yugoslavia
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