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Sunday, May 11, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kabila Didn't Impress Che Guevara

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

When Ernesto "Che" Guevara met Laurent Kabila 32 years ago, the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary saw the Congo rebel leader as a man who understood that their enemy was "North American imperialism."

But during Guevara's disastrous six-month campaign in what is now Zaire, he soon began writing of Kabila as a vacillating leader who drove a Mercedes-Benz and seldom visited his ragtag troops on the front lines.

Kabila today stands at the door to Kinshasa, leading a surging column of well-armed rebels as ailing President Mobutu Sese Seko appears to be on his way out.

No longer considered a Marxist, Kabila now has the backing of a U.S. government that once sent CIA agents and Cuban exiles to help put Mobutu in power and fight his foes.

Guevara's Congo venture, detailed in "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life" by Jon Lee Anderson, was part of his vision to export Cuba's guerrilla experience throughout poor nations of the Third World.

But the experience was nearly as disastrous as Guevara's later campaign in Bolivia, when he was denied support by local farmers and was eventually captured and executed by CIA-backed government troops.

"This is the story of a failure," Guevara wrote in the opening pages of his account of the Congo campaign, during which 120 Cuban fighters tried to mold rebels equipped by the Soviet Union and China into an efficient guerrilla force.

After meeting him, Guevara wrote that Kabila "understood perfectly that the principal enemy was North American imperialism." He added: "In the name of the Cuban government I offered some 30 instructors and whatever arms we might have, and he accepted with pleasure."

When a group of Congolese rebels returned from Soviet-bloc training bases, they complained they had no place to store their luggage and demanded a two-week vacation to visit their relatives, Guevara wrote.

He decided to personally lead Kabila's Cuban trainers but did not notify the rebel leader until after arriving in the Congo.

Kabila was out of the country at the time of Guevara's infiltration in April 1965 and returned only briefly during the Cubans' six-month stay.

What Guevara found in Congo was an undisciplined fighting force that was often drunk on yucca beer, regularly disobeyed officers' orders, ran away at the first sign of combat and could not handle its weapons.

"Almost nobody had the least idea of what a firearm was," Guevara wrote. "They shot themselves by playing with them, or carelessness."

"To win a war with such troops is out of the question," Guevara wrote.

He was right. With CIA backing and white mercenaries, government troops eventually drove deep into the rebels' territory, forcing some guerrilla leaders to sue for peace and others to disband and flee.

Guevara and his men escaped to Tanzania. He holed up for months in Cuban safe houses in the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam and in Czechoslovakia.

Mobutu, then an army general, seized power in late 1965 and two years later renamed the country Zaire. Guevara went on to Bolivia, where he was executed in 1967.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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