The Living Che
A review of Che Guevara, A Revolutionary Life, Grove Press, 1997, Author: Jon Lee Anderson
Ernesto "Che" Guevara is re-entering our consciousness. This semi - forgotten 1960's guerrilla fighter, statesman and Marxist intellectual whose luster seemed to be fading with the countless defeats suffered by revolutionary insurgents, has re-emerged in the late 90's as pop art handsome and suitable for exploitation.
Why is Che back with us? Why does a British company distribute "Che" beer? And what about the Che wristwatch, books and the upcoming Mick Jagger produced feature film spectacular?
Jon Lee Anderson's massive Che Guevara - A Revolutionary Life easily provides the answer. Che Guevara was a hero of larger-than-anybody's life proportions. Anderson benefits from unprecedented access to Che's closest comrades, his second wife Aleida, his bodyguards and members of Cuban and Russian intelligence. The biographer also met with Bolivian Rangers and the CIA agent who hunted down and murdered Guevara.
Anderson studied previously unrevealed documents including an uncensored look at Che's many diaries, his yet unpublished political essays as well as East German intelligence files. Anderson went very native, he lived in Cuba for three years and even employed the same nanny who helped raise Che Guevara's children.
Blessedly, Jon Lee Anderson did not let the big one get away. His abundantly detailed description of Che's life from cradle to grave and the aftermath strongly resurrects not only the legendary revolutionary, but also the spirit of the times in which he lived. And this biography makes clear beyond question, Guevara not only contributed to that rebellious geist, he was its absolute and limitlessly heroic embodiment.
Ernesto Guevara is lionized or excoriated as a quintessential political revolutionary guerrilla fighter. In the 60's he quite literally wrote the book on revolutionary warfare, his treatise on the subject was read from Berkeley to the Pentagon. ButAnderson introduces us to the young early 50's Guevara as a rebel without a cause. A declasse Argentine bohemian who went on the Andean road via motorcycle just because he craved adventure. A young medical student from a down at the heels aristocratic yet progressive family, Che read Freud and Sartre and wanted to discover authenticity and identity before making tough career choices.
Anderson puts significant stress on Guevara's severe asthma. From early youth, the Argentinean was in a constant state of war with his body. Guevara had to keep proving to himself that he could transcend the limitation of pain and disability. From an early age he took chances, lived wild, joined gangs, played Rugby and all this in an environment of kindly, intelligent but quarreling, emotional and physically distant parents. Touring South America was part of Che's effort to discount the limitations of a failing body.
Guevara's journey through Argentina, Peru, Columbia, Bolivia and Miami, on a cycle until it broke down and then by hitching, recalls Kerouac's adventures but with an important difference. The young Ernesto certainly resorts to all the opportunistic gambits required "on the road" and his diary demonstrates a penchant for myth, romance, and irony but unlike most of the beats this rebel takes note of the wretched proletarians he encounters in the cities and countryside. Perhaps his personal familiarity with pain and limitation opened him to these feelings? He doesn't as yet have an answer to social exploitation and misery and at this stage of his quest the young Guevara isn't at all sure he will take personal responsibility for the lamentable situation. Like a true liberal aristocrat he believes those in power must soon take some measures, whatever they are, to alleviate great agony. If they don't do this, Guevara predicts; there will be trouble. He doesn't predict that he will be the major trouble maker.
Che returns to Argentina and Anderson finds the young student, still frustratingly apolitical. He has come back to finish his degree. The Peron's rule Argentina and in arguments with his parents he half defends their authoritarian nationalism for its anti-Yanqui component but mostly Guevara concerns himself with finishing his medical degree so that with diploma in hand he can return to road. This time perhaps Paris and Madrid will be included on his agenda.
In 1953 Che's second road trip brought him instead to Guatemala, a Central American country whose newly elected left-wing government was in rebellion against being owned by the United Fruit Company. The government of Jacobo Arbenz was introducing a moderate land reform program that, if successful, would reduce the degree of foreign control over the Guatemalan economy and bring a measure of social justice to the impoverished Indian nation.
The State Department and the CIA, controlled respectively by John Foster and Allan Dulles was collaborating with United Fruit in an on-going attempt to overthrow Arbenz.
It was in Guatemala that Ernesto Guevara discovered his life's purpose. It was in that "banana republic" that he turned from a strong sympathy for "the wretched of the earth" to a ferocious revolutionary commitment, what he would later call "a great feeling of love." All the rage and frustration he had acquired over a life time of physical pain and emotional denial would be released and sublimated in the proletarian cause.
In Guatemala Che struck up a friendship with Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian leftist, and obtained access to her Marxist library. Gadea was associated with a social democratic Peruvian organization, and was part of large leftist community of South American exiles who were making progressive Guatemala their main political hope and new home base. Surrounded both by outspoken and adventurous Marxists and a paranoiac political climate fostered by CIA plots Che committed himself to joining with the exiles in their efforts to protect the Arbenz regime. And he cherished the new sense of community he was experiencing. Guevara's ideology would now mix Sartrian existentialism with Leninist class struggle.
But he still didn't do very much. Che spent most his time in Guatemala trying unsuccessfully to get a doctors job working for a government program. But he ran up against bureaucratic suspicion. He was foreigner and possibly a communist agent. The Arbenz government had a working alliance with the Communists but this had hardly seeped down into that nation's impenetrable bureaucracy. And the local Communists were loath to help him because the still individualistic Guevara refused to join their ranks just to get a job.
A CIA directed coup put the brake on human progress in Guatemala. United Fruit returned to absolute power and a very bloody thirty year civil war ensued. Che loudly lamented the reformist government's failure to arm the people. After holding up in the Argentine embassy he and other exiles, against the wishes of the American Secretary of State, were allowed to leave the country.
Mexico City was the next step on his journey. By now Ernesto Guevara MD was a committed revolutionary and the CIA's overthrow of the reformist Arbenz government rid his mind of any hope for peaceful change. A tight moral logician, and chess aficionado Che felt he had no move to make other than his embracing revolutionary warfare.
As fate would have it, Cuban exile and leader of the 26th of July Movement, Fidel Castro who was living in Mexico City at this time and planning to "invade" his native country and overthrow it's brutal dictator.
After military training in Mexico under direction of a Spanish Civil War veteran, Castro, Guevara and a handful of men headed for Cuba in a yacht. Poor planing and a lack of co-ordination almost led to complete defeat. But 12 members of the band, including a wounded Che, survived and the battle against the corrupt Mafia dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista had begun. In Sierra Maestro and Escambray Mountains of Cuba Che Guevara would prove himself an almost faultless soldier and leader. He inspired his men and women not only with words, and Anderson recalls how these could be cold, harsh, stingingly ironic and even cruel but by his deeds. Did any human being ever come closer than Che in practicing what he preached? Any danger, discomfort or sacrifice he required of his soldiers, he applied to his asthma suffering self in triplicate. He was the very incarnation of "body on the line" authenticity.
Even Fidel Castro, Anderson tells us, gave in to his gourmet proclivities and had a private chef in his mountain headquarters. Tasteless and rotting food drove Castro to distraction and depression but, according to Anderson, Guevara thrived on green rotten meat. And it was this stoic ferocity which inspired his brigade into winning great victories against terrible odds and into adoring their daring Comandante.
Anderson shows that Castro's guerrillas were not an army of plaster saints. Their ranks included the expected radical intellectuals and landless peasants, but the original band was trained in hand to hand fighting by two Mexican professional wrestlers, and the rebel army grew to include bandit war lords and marijuana growers. The "marijuaneros" were not the most reliable fighters since they would occasionally leave camp to steal each other's crops.
The "upset" victory of the revolutionary guerrillas and their early years in power are a source of endless debate among, historians, journalists and members of the Intelligence communities. Just what was the process by which the "liberal democratic" Fidelistas of the "26th of July Movement" turned into "dictatorship of the proletariat" Marxist- Leninists? Was it a preplanned Castro-Guevara conspiracy or did the reactionary policies of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations force the young bold idealists into an extremist mold.
Anderson provides much new material on the subject, but alas it only serves to further confuse matters. If you're looking for early secret contacts between the KGB and East German Intelligence and the Castro regime they did indeed take place. But, surprise, the Fidelistas also received funding from the CIA when they were fighting in the Sierra Maestra. And while Fidel's brother Raul and Che were Leninists by the time the victorious Fidelista army triumphantly marched into Havana on January 1, 1959, neither of them were Communist Party members. The majority of the 26th of July Movement's high command, as well as various Cuban allies were militantly anti-Communist. As for Fidel Castro, he seems to have been in the middle of the political spectrum; wanting to introduce radical reforms into Cuban society but cautiously fearing that by doing this he would alienate the more moderate members of his coalition.
Anderson provides evidence of an early secret alliance between Castro's government and the Cuban Communist Party. But the Communists initially opposed Fidel Castro's guerrilla strategy as "adventuristic" and Che Guevara considered the Cuban Communists to be suffering from a severe case of "dogmatism." It's also true that while secretly courting the Communists, Castro was also trying to make a deal with Cuba's business community. And after a short honeymoon, Che Guevara became decidedly disillusioned with both the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China.
Was a principled rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba possible? The answer does not come easily. But in sorting through the maze of Cuban, Soviet and American initiatives, I can't but believe, based on the moral emphasis of Castro and Guevara's brand of socialism, that the situation was fluid and that if America were ruled by a "politics of meaning" president rather then a Republican, the Cuban revolution would not have located itself in the Moscow sphere of influence.
Che Guevara became revolutionary Cuba's top banker and than its Minister of Industries. It was his task to determine just how the newly nationalized industries would be run. A major debate broke out in Cuba between those who identified with the Soviet model and who were favoring the use of cash incentives and various bonus plans to encourage workers and peasants to work with more enthusiasm and discipline and a more value and meaning oriented faction of the revolutionary leadership.
Guevara was the chief spokesperson for those who had higher expectations than the cash nexus for building socialism and what they called "the new man." Che based his arguments for "moral incentives" on a belief that buying labor from workers only fostered alienation and re-enforced the system of domination and exploitation. Citing the philosophic writings of the young Karl Marx, Che argued that the human essence sought creativity, community, giving, play, and transcendence and that the relationships of production which were taking shape in Cuba should reflect these humanistic needs. To reduce the work experience to one of forcing workers to give up their deepest emotional needs in exchange for money was to reproduce the capitalist system under a different name. Indeed Guevara speculated that bureaucratic "socialist" governments might one day topple because of this enforced alienation. Che's long standing passion for personal authenticity had survived a brief flirtation with Soviet Stalinism. For Che, no amount of statistics, quotas and mathematical formulas could substitute for actual human experience. Life in a socialist factory had to be meaningful and transformative, otherwise it was a fake.
Reviewers of "Che - A Revolutionary Life," like Christopher Hitchens in the New York Review of Books point to dark shadows in Che's life and legacy. They focus on the executions which took place after Castro's victory and his regime's general authoritarian bent.
Che Guevara's first task for the new government was to take charge of its revolutionary tribunals. Without defending the use of firing squads, Anderson points out that while the trials were of a summary military nature, legal niceties were respected. The accused had lawyers, accusations were based on real evidence and all convictions were subject to appeal. Those charged were not simple opponents of Castro's policies, they were accused of torture and sometimes multiple murders. Critics of the executions seldom say their subjects were unjustly accused. When defending the tribunals as just, Castro and Guevara pointed to the extreme punishments that were exacted in Europe after World War II against those who had collaborated with the Nazis and fascists.
The early years of the Cuban revolution were dominated by a fierce struggle between the Guevarists and the cadre from the Partido Socialista Popular (PSP) , Cuba's old pro-Soviet communist party. And besides economic and philosophic issues, arguments developed over culture and art, with the old-communists pushing "Socialist Realism," and censorship. Anderson cities incidents where Guevara protected abused poets and found work for them in the industries he controlled. In these battles Fidel Castro played a typically centrist role. By and large he agreed with Che's humanistic views but he knew Cuba was too dependent on Soviet support to completely ignore their preferences.
At a certain point in the mid- 60's Ernesto Che Guevara came to a dramatic conclusion. He could not win his battle for a morally based socialism if Cuba remained isolated in the American hemisphere and dependent on Soviet economic aid and its attendant advisors. Revolutionaries could not wait for "objective conditions" supporting armed struggle to develop, by daring, aggressive and violent actions they would create the circumstances. The goal was nothing less than declaring a second "Vietnam" war in the American hemisphere. In an almost unprecedented act he voluntarily removed himself from power and privilege. The "bureaucrat" behind a desk, (do you remember a similar scene in Brando's "Viva Zapata?") would once again return to the third - world's jungles and mountains as a revolutionary guerrilla fighter. The effort appears even more amazing in light of Che's unimproved asthma. The years that had passed since his Sierra Maestra days had not been kind to his health. Che's abandonment of power and his complete disappearance from public life was the sources of ceaseless rumor and speculation. I remember being told by some members of a Maoist group that Che had been murdered by Castro at the behest of Russia. Trotskyists floated comparisons between the Stalin - Trotsky feud and feared the worst. Anderson documents that there was no Che - Fidel falling out.
Both leaders came to a common political understanding. Cuba should support, finance, train and guide the spread of revolutionary warfare in the Americas. If this tactic was successful both the "peaceful coexistence" Russians and the Chinese "dogmatists" would enter a bidding contest to court favor with a new guerrilla leadership. Che and Fidel had a very audacious goal. It was nothing less than, altering the world's balance of political power in favor of genuine revolution.
It was at this morally and politically splendid moment in Che Guevara's life that all his great dreams and plans began falling apart. Initially, Guevara was going home to Argentina to begin the war for continental liberation. Soldiers were trained and an advance team was sent ahead to create a base area and to await Che's arrival. The expedition was a fiasco. From the beginning it was marred by an absence of intelligent decision making. Additionally, its tactical leader became mentally unbalanced and this former Peronista may also have been an anti-Semite. He had a knack for persecuting Jewish members of his group.
Che knew nothing of these developments. Had he been informed, he would have been enraged. As a high school student in Argentina he physically defended a Jewish kid against an attempted beating by local Nazis. And while in power in Cuba he was visited by a Jewish friend who was privately representing the Israeli government. The visitor suggested efforts be made to improve Cuba's relationship with Israel. Guevara agreed.
Che did know things were going badly in Argentina in a general way and he was growing impatient. Pending appropriate circumstances being created there, he decided to take his best fighters, those who like him were willing to forsake comfortable sinecures in Cuba, and journey to the former Belgian Congo where a rebellion against neo-colonial rule was underway. The official Congolese government was surviving through the intervention of white mercenary soldiers. Former followers of the murdered Patrice Lumumba had liberated a portion of the country and the situation looked very promising. But only from a distance.
When an extremely disguised Che arrived in the Congo he discovered an immense unwillingness on the part of his putative African allies to actually engage in battle. Superstition, ego ambition and corruption were much stronger than revolutionary philosophy or intentionality. Eventually the white mercenaries conquered the liberated territory and installed Joseph Mobutu as a dictator for life. Guevara and his troops narrowly escaped. Cuban intelligence had a new plan and Bolivia was at its center. Che's army would join with Bolivian revolutionaries and establish a foothold in Bolivia while new efforts were being made to create an armed revolutionary presence in Argentina. At the appropriate moment Che and his soldiers would cross over in to his homeland and the Bolivians would fight on under their own command. Tactical support would be provided by Cuba.
The Bolivians and the Cubans trained along with Che in Cuba. Among their ranks was a leading Bolivian Communist Mario Molina Monje. Anderson's investigation of Monje's duplicitous role is worthy of a detective novel. Monje appears to have been opposed to the Bolivian campaign from the very beginning. But he pretended otherwise because he wanted to know what Guevara was up to. In order to ingratiate himself, he promised full support from the Bolivian Communist Party. Monje would regularly report to Soviet Intelligence which was also not too happy about Cuba's foreign policy. Much against KGB wishes Guevara was opening his ranks to New Leftists, Maoists and Trotskyists.
Che and his brave comrades would go down to defeat and death in Bolivia. The local Communist's withheld support. And the Guevarist band's presence was discovered early. Military fighting began before the rebels had sufficient strength. When the CIA discovered Che Guevara was involved they entered the fray with full force.
Che Guevara's last days are detailed in his own words in his diary . They evoke a sense of stoical unreality and a fierce determination to continue fighting unto the end. Wounded and captured in battle, Guevara would not beg. It seems that Felix Rodriguez, the CIA agent on hand wanted to keep Che alive for a trial. But he did not press his point. Guevara was murdered by the Bolivian Rangers. His hands were cut off for purposes of identification and he was buried in an unmarked grave.
In an interview with Anderson, Rodriguez stated that up to his capturing Che he had enjoyed good health. Since the murder of Guevara, Rodriguez has been suffering from, of all things, asthma.
Most of Che's comrades fell in battle or were murdered. Among them Haydee Tamara Bunke, much better known to world by her clandestine non de guerre, Tanya. Born in Argentina, of German and Jewish parents. She came to Cuba from East Germany. Although some have questioned her role, suspecting KGB involvement, Anderson's best evidence indicates she joined Che's band out of sincere love and loyalty to him and his revolutionary dream.
Death ended Che's string of bad luck. He became an instant saint. Peasants in the Bolivian village where he was murdered described the Marxist revolutionary as "Christ like." And to the young radicals of North and South America, like myself, he became a magnetic exemplar, a perfected model of revolutionary behavior.
Che's photo was carried by thousands of admirers at the enormous 1967 Pentagon sit-in which took place shortly after his demise. Peruvian truck drivers pasted decals of Guevara to their vehicles. A statue of Che Guevara was unveiled in Santiago Chile. And across the continent armed revolutionaries wreaked havoc on the ruling elite's desire for imperturbable domination. Cuban supported groups like the MIR in Chile, the Tupamaros in Uruguay and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua took up Che's weapons and his cause. The revolutionaries met with varying degrees of success, gruesome defeat in Argentina and transitory victory in Nicaragua but the spirit of Che's martyrdom drove them to follow his path to victory or death.
Che's current popularity is held suspect by some. they fear his handsome and heroic image is being turned into an exploitable product. Since global capitalism will find a way to exploit "moshiach" when s/he finally stops tarrying, I'm sure there is some fraudulence in the Che market. But the indigenous Zapatistas of Mexico with their Che- like leader "Subcomandante Marcos" and the recent free election of a socialist as mayor of Mexico City indicate that the issues that Guevara staked his life on are still very much at hand, as are "the wretched of the earth," only now they exist in much greater numbers.
The Soviet Union and their East European allies are gone but the absolute impoverishment of body and soul brought on by bureaucratic corruption, the cash nexus, drugs and capitalism are still very current. Back in the mid -60's, Che Guevara once told a group of visiting North American leftists, including the late Jerry Rubin, that he envied them. They,
The inspiration of Che's courage endures. He suffered from serious asthma which could have curtailed his life and aspirations. But Guevara would not be overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness. He had the will to discover his real as opposed to imagined limitations. And Che's courage and willingness to take risks went beyond both the rugby and battle fields. He once wrote "at the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love." He discovered a sense of community and belonging in the company of revolutionaries. And Che knew that this sense of meaning and purpose was essential to the human essence. That we need something more than money and consumer products. We must love and be loved. His efforts to turn the Cuban economy into an extended and transcendent community of practical love may have been, given the circumstances of under-development, utopian. But for those seeking compassion, friendship and creative work they remain an outstanding inspiration.
We minimize the memory of Che Guevara by just sitting on the side lines and rooting for third-world guerrillas while belittling the importance of our own oppression. Guevara was not about organizing cheering squads. We must find appropriate ways to transform our own personal and social circumstances in the direction of deeper and wider love and compassion. And we must be willing to take risks and endure cynical put-downs. Those of us, who desire a "politics of meaning" must develop economic and political strategies that will give substance to our dreams. And we must act boldly on our ideas. We have as a powerful asset, the example of Che Guevara. We can learn from his extraordinary achievements and monumental defeats, through it all he never abandoned his vision.
The Che consumer product will be highly unreliable. It's bound to become an audacious trouble maker. Ernesto Guevara was not without fault, but in an era when spin control opportunism has replaced genuine personality and almost all our leaders are as hollow as dum-dum bullets, his biography remains an inspiration. If a person's life reflects not only what they did but also their influence, then Jon Lee Anderson's mighty effort may turn out to be just a highly successful preliminary sketch.