The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America
When, shortly after the triumph of the Castro revolution, Ernesto Guevara took over the direction of the Cuban National Bank, it became his duty to sign the newly minted ten- and twenty-peso notes. This he did with a contemptuous flourish, scrawling the bold nom de guerre “Che” on both denominations. By that gesture, which made those bills a collectors’ item in some quarters of the left, he expressed an ambition to move beyond the money economy and what used to be termed “the cash nexus.” It was a stroke, at once Utopian and puritanical, that seemed to sum up his gift both for the improvised and the determined.
Revisiting Havana recently, for the purpose of making a BBC documentary on the thirtieth anniversary of Guevara’s murder, I discovered that there are now four legal currencies in circulation. The most proud and salient, of course, is the United States dollar. Nowhere outside the Panama Canal Zone has any Latin American economy capitulated so utterly to the usefulness of this green symbol. Once the preserve of the Cuban nomenklatura and of those with access to special diplomatic “dollar stores,” the money of Tio Sam is now the preferred street-wise mode of exchange, and also the essential legal tender in hotels and newly privatized restaurants. Next in importance is the special “INTUR” money, printed by the Cuban Ministry of Tourism for the exclusive use of foreign holidaymakers. Large tracts of Cuba, especially the Varadero beach section outside Havana, have been turned into reservations for this special breed of “internationalist.” Third comes the peso convertible, a piece of scrip with a value pegged to that of the dollar. And last we find the Cuban peso, a mode of exchange so humble that windshield-washers at intersections, when handed a fistful, will wordlessly hand it back.
On this last currency appears the visage of Che Guevara. It certainly, if somewhat ironically, demonstrates the regime’s fealty to his carelessness about money. Meanwhile, under stylized poster portraits of the heroic Comandante, and within sight of banners reading—rather gruesomely, perhaps—Socialismo o Muerte, the youth of Havana sell their lissome bodies as they did in the days of the Sam Giancana and George Raft dispensation. Junk tourist artifacts are sold from stalls outside Hemingway’s old Bodeguita. The talk among the liberal members of the writers’ union, as also among the American expatriate veterans, is all of the surge in street crime and delinquency. With unintentional comic effect, these conversations mimic their “deprived or depraved?” counterparts in Los Angeles and New York. Is it the lack of jobs and opportunities? Or could it be the decline in the moral basis of society? After all, it’s not that long since Martha Gellhorn instructed her readers that mugging in Havana was unknown. The old “moral versus material” debate continues in a ghostly form, as if there were a pentimento of Che concealed behind the partly gaudy and partly peeling façade.
Leaving Cuba and landing in Cancún, Mexico, I buy The Miami Herald and The New York Times. On the front page of the Herald is the news that Hector Silva, candidate of the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front, has been elected mayor of San Salvador. The paper mentions that many of Silva’s enthusiasts “still sport” lapel buttons bearing the likeness of Guevara. When I interviewed him in 1987, the brave and eloquent Señor Silva was a much likelier candidate for assassination than election.
The front page of The New York Times reports from Zaire, and carries the claim of Laurent-Désir Kabila that his rebel forces will be in the capital city by June. The paper’s correspondent, citing the inevitable “Western diplomatic sources,” quotes them as saying that they will be surprised if it takes as long as that. One of Guevara’s first acts, after the overthrow of Batista, was to extend hospitality and training to the embryonic forces of the Sandinista and Farabundo Martí fronts. And one of his last acts, before embarking for Bolivia, was to spend some time on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, attempting to put a little fiber and fervor into the demoralized anti-Mobutu guerrillas. (At this time, he formed a rather low opinion of M. Kabila, whose base and whose tactics were too tribal, who demonstrated a tendency toward megalomania, and who maltreated deserters and prisoners.) Still, Mobutu had been the jewel in the CIA’s African crown. So perhaps not all the historical ironies turn out to be at Guevara’s expense.
The superficial account of Che’s significance is narrated chiefly in symbols and icons. Some of these constitute a boutique version: Antonio Banderas plays a sort of generic Che in the movie rendition of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. As photographed by Alberto Korda with an expression of untameable defiance, Che became the poster boy of the vaguely “revolutionary” generation of the 1960s. (And of that generation’s nemesis: the Olivetti conglomerate once used a Che poster in a recruiting advertisement with the caption “We would have hired him.”) The Cuban government recently took legal steps to stop a popular European beer being named after its most popular martyr.
Much of the attraction of the cult has to do with the grace of an early and romantic death. George Orwell once observed that if Napoleon Bonaparte had been cut down by a musket ball as he entered Moscow, he would have been remembered as the greatest general since Alexander. And not only did Guevara die before his ideals did, he died in such a manner as to inspire something akin to superstition. He rode among the poor of the altiplano on a donkey. He repeatedly foresaw and predicted the circumstances of his own death. He was spurned and betrayed by those he claimed to set free. He was by calling a healer of the sick. The photographs of his corpse, bearded and half-naked and lacerated, make an irresistible comparison with paintings of the deposition from Calvary. There is a mystery about his last resting place. Alleged relics are in circulation. There have even been sightings….
The CIA and its Bolivian military allies chopped off Guevara’s hands in order to make a positive fingerprint comparison with records in Argentina: the preserved hands were later returned to Cuba by a defector from La Paz. We may be grateful that the Castro regime did not choose to set up an exhibit of mummification on the model of Lenin’s tomb. Though I did discover, during my researches in Havana, that the pictures of Guevara’s dead body have never been shown in Cuba. “The Cuban people,” I was solemnly told at the national film archive, “are used to seeing Che Guevara alive.” And so they do, night after night on their screens—cutting cane as a “volunteer,” greeting parties of schoolchildren, orating at the United Nations or the Alliance for Progress, posing in a clearing in the Sierra Maestra or the Bolivian uplands.
One of the special dramas of the Latin American region is that of the desaparecido, or “disappeared person.” From Buenos Aires to Guatemala City, there are still committees of black-draped madres who demand to know the whereabouts of their sons and daughters. And there are also “Truth Commissions” which have come up with the most harrowing evidence of what did happen. Che Guevara is the most famous “disappeared person” in the hemisphere. When Jon Lee Anderson, the author of this intelligent and intriguing biography, published his findings last year on the probable burial site of Guevara’s remains (still undetermined, but very probably underneath the runway of a military airport at Vallegrande in Bolivia), he had the incidental effect of igniting a movement of relatives of the desaparecidos in Bolivia itself.
Another way of describing, and incidentally of de-trivializing, the legacy of Guevara is to place him as a founding figure of “magical realism.” In his Motorcycle Diaries, an account of a continental road trip he took as a young medical student in the early 1950s, we read in Guevara’s own youthful prose about his fact-finding tour of the leper colonies of Latin America. He celebrated his twenty-fourth birthday at one such colony in the Peruvian Amazon. The patients threw him a party at the conclusion of which, flown with locally distilled pisco, he made a speech and said:
The division of America into unstable and illusory nations is a complete fiction. We are one single mestizo race with remarkable ethnographic similarities, from Mexico down to the Magellan Straits. And so, in an attempt to break free from all narrow-minded provincialism, I propose a toast to Peru and to a United America.
As he later described the same occasion in a letter home to his mother:
Alberto, who sees himself as Peron’s natural heir, delivered such an impressive demagogic speech that our well-wishers were consumed with laughter…. An accordion player with no fingers on his right hand used little sticks tied to his wrist, the singer was blind and almost all the others were hideously deformed, due to the nervous form of the disease which is very common in this area. With the light from lamps and lanterns reflected in the river, it was like a scene from a horror film. The place is very lovely….
The boy “Che” drunkenly spouting pan-Americanism to an audience of isolated lepers in a remote jungle—here is a scene that Werner Herzog might hesitate to script, or Gabriel García Márquez to devise. (Márquez once said in the hearing of a friend of mine that in order to write about Guevara he would need a thousand years or a million pages. His non-fiction book Operation Carlotta, a straightforwardly not to say panegyrically Fidelist account of the Cuban expedition to Angola, does deal briefly with Guevara’s earlier foray into the Congo.) But writers as diverse as Julio Cortázar and Nicolás Guillén1 have taken Guevara as an inspiration, and indeed one of his more lasting memorials may be in the regional literary imagination.
If we take this as Anderson does—as a chronicle of a death foretold—then it may be related as an intelligible series of chapters and parables. First we have the rebel: the James Dean and Jack Kerouac type. The young “Che”—the nickname is distinctively Argentine and translates roughly as copain, or pal—came from an Irish-Spanish family of impoverished aristocrats with the patronymic of Lynch. He was always a charmer and a wit, and always a troublemaker and heartbreaker. His period of youthful sexual repression seems to have been short: an appealing candor about the physical and libidinous runs through all his writings as it does with very few professional revolutionaries. His family was anti-Nazi and anti-Peronist during a time when this could be perilous in Argentina.
Ernesto took an active if rather theatrical part in local youth and student activism, helping out refugees from Republican Spain and cheeking pro-Nazi teachers and professors. The boy is not yet the father to the man except in two respects: he does not dislike Peron as much as his family does, because Peron is at least a nationalist and a foe of the Yanqui. And he is gravely debilitated by asthma, an affliction which he refuses to allow to incapacitate him. The story of his body-building, sporting enthusiasm, and outdoor effort, all aimed at putting strength into a feeble frame, reminds one of nothing so much as (of all people) Theodore Roosevelt. From this derives an emphasis on “the will” which is essential to the story.
Parable two concerns his resolve to become a physician. Not only did this expose him to encounters with veteran socialist doctors, but it also gave him a first-hand experience of the misery of the region. The Motorcycle Diaries, which reinforce the Dean-Kerouac scapegrace image at one level, also contain some very moving and detailed accounts of this part of his education. A monograph could easily be written on the “radicalizing” effect of medical training on young idealists of the middle class. Guevara was much influenced, on his rattling around the southern cone, by an encounter with the Peruvian leprologist and Marxist Dr. Hugo Pesce. This man, the author of a book on Andean underdevelopment entitled Latitudes del Silencio, was the recipient ten years later of an inscribed copy of Guevara’s first book, Guerrilla Warfare. Clearly its author was interested in more than socialized medicine. (Another attentive reader of that first edition was President John F. Kennedy, who had it rapidly translated for him by the CIA and who then ordered the setting-up of the “Special Forces”—materializing Regis Debray’s thesis that “the Revolution revolutionizes the Counter-Revolution.”)
Parable three brings us to the consummate internationalist. Of mixed nationality to begin with, Guevara married a Peruvian woman and took out Mexican citizenship for his children. He was awarded, and later renounced, Cuban nationality. He died in a country named for Simon Bolívar, and near a town named for one of Bolívar’s lieutenants. His favorite self-image was that of Don Quixote, the rootless wanderer and freelance righter of wrongs. “Once again,” as he wrote on quitting Cuba, “I feel Rosinante’s ribs creaking between my heels.” (It was Alisdair Macintyre who first compared this observation to one made by Karl Marx, who drily noted that “knight errantry is not compatible with all forms of society.”) Indeed, Guevara came late to Marxism. For him, the great personal and political crux occurred as a result of his stay in Guatemala in 1954, where he was a direct witness to the ruthless and cynical destabilization of the Arbenz government by the CIA.
This story has been well told before, notably by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer in their book Bitter Fruit. Our knowledge of the coup, of the complicity of the United States, and of the hellish consequences for all Guatemalans but especially for the descendants of the Mayan indigenes, has recently been sharply enhanced by disclosures from the archive of the Central Intelligence Agency, and by the excavation of an archipelago of unofficial mass graves across the Guatemalan countryside.2 In the Kinzer-Schlesinger narrative, Guevara rated only a glancing mention. Jon Lee Anderson has reconstructed his part in the events with punctilious detail.
Guevara arrived in Guatemala in December 1953, at the end of his long period of bumming around the continent. He decided to stay, and resolved to become more serious about himself, because he could scent both revolution and counterrevolution in the air. Nor were his instincts at fault. The election of the reformist Jacobo Arbenz had set in motion the two things that the reformists most feared—namely the rising expectations of the revolutionaries and the poor, and the direst forebodings on the part of the United States. (The febrile atmosphere of the place and the moment is well caught in Gore Vidal’s novel Dark Green, Bright Red.) Guevara decided to offer his credentials as a physician to the new regime, and hoped to be employed as a “barefoot doctor” among the peasants. Discouraged by the bureaucratic response to this proposal, he mingled at first rather ineffectually with the milieu of stateless rebels and revolutionaries who had converged on Guatemala City: the losers in the battles with Somoza and Trujillo and Batista. As he was arriving, Guevara had written home to say that:
Along the way, I had the opportunity to pass through the dominions of the United Fruit, convincing me once again of just how terrible these capitalist octopuses are. I have sworn before a picture of the old and mourned comrade Stalin that I won’t rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated. In Guatemala I will perfect myself….
Fidel Castro’s failed but already legendary attack on the Moncada barracks in Cuba had taken place the preceding July, and Guevara fell in (initially as a doctor for one of their number) with some of his exiled comrades. The talk was all of a coming confrontation with the colossus to the north, and its local octopus clientele. And indeed, the script for the events reads like a primer in elementary Leninism. The Dulles brothers and their corporate friends did embark on an armed destabilization of the elected Arbenz government. They did engage the support of neighboring oligarchs such as General Anastasio Somoza. They did find and pay a military puppet named Castillo Armas. And they did invade Guatemala with a mercenary force. Guevara and his “internationalist” friends watched all this with a mixture of shame and incredulity, convinced that their predictions about the uselessness of gradualism were being confirmed, so to speak, before their very eyes. But they were impotent.
Chased into the sanctuary of the Argentine embassy by the coup he had long foreseen and tried vainly to resist, Guevara spent some very concentrated time with desperate militants who would, in the succeeding decades, become guerrilla commanders in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala itself. Together, they reviewed the lessons of the defeat. Chief among these, they felt, was Arbenz’s failure to distribute arms to the people. Next came his refusal to take action against the CIA’s clever manipulation of the local press. It was a crucible moment: a young man receiving an indelible impression at a formative age. Up until then, Guevara had even by his own account been playing at revolution. Henceforth, he would not joke about Stalin. Rather, he would school himself in the intransigence of the “socialist camp,” and begin to study the canonical work of its lately deceased but not-yet-disowned General Secretary.
In the succeeding parable, Guevara decides that he has found a mission in life. Guatemala must be avenged. Imperialism must pay for its arrogance and cruelty. To a friend he writes an agonized letter, saying that the Arbenz government was defeated and betrayed, just like the Spanish Republic, but without the same courage and honor in its extremity. Indignantly, he repudiates the stories about atrocities committed by pro-Arbenz forces, adding ominously: “There should have been a few firing squads early on, which is different. If those shootings had taken place the government would have retained the possibility of fighting back.”
Chased from Guatemala to Mexico, when he encounters the young Fidel Castro he needs no persuading that this meeting was meant to happen. Before long, he is pursuing a more intensive study of Communist literature and a rigorous training as a guerrilla fighter.3 (Iconographic note: When the rebel-bearing vessel Granma beaches on Cuban shores and runs straight into an ambush, all later accounts stress that this left the nucleus of revolutionary disciples at the numinous number twelve.)
Trotsky once remarked that what distinguished the revolutionary was not his willingness to kill but his readiness to die. The anti-Batista war conducted by Castro, Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Frank País was, by most standards, a near-exemplary case of winning “hearts and minds” and recruiting popular enthusiasm. Some informers and deserters and backsliders were executed out of hand, but Guevara seems at first to have shown no relish for such work. Indeed, he cashiered one of his deputies in Camaguey province, a bizarre American freebooter named Herman Marks, because of his undue eagerness to take part in reprisal killings or on-the-spot battlefield punishments. Yet Anderson has unearthed a suggestive detail. Once in power in Havana, and immediately charged by Castro with purging and punishing Batista’s police apparatus, Guevara set up an improvised drumhead tribunal at the harbor fortress of La Cabana, where he sent for Marks again and re-employed him as an executioner.
Some justified this kind of “people’s court” as utilitarian. Herbert Matthews of The New York Times had a go at defending them “from the Cuban’s perspective.” (The paper wouldn’t print his efforts.) But other foreign correspondents were appalled by the lynch trials, ordered by Fidel Castro himself, that were held in the Havana sports stadium. Raul Castro went even further in the city of Santiago, machine-gunning seventy captured Batistianos into a ditch dug by a bulldozer. When challenged by friends and family, Guevara resorted to three defenses. First, he claimed that everybody at La Cabana had had a hearing. The speed at which the firing squads operated made his argument seem exiguous. Second, as reported by Anderson, “he never tired of telling his Cuban comrades that in Guatemala Arbenz had fallen because he had not purged his armed forces of disloyal elements, a mistake that permitted the CIA to penetrate and overthrow his regime.” Third, and dropping all pretense, he told a protesting former medical colleague: “Look, in this thing either you kill first, or else you get killed.”
Methods and rationalizations of this kind have a way of establishing themselves, not as “emergency measures” but as administrative means of dealing with all opposition. That was the point made by Rosa Luxemburg in her original criticism of Leninism. The Luxemburg example was brought up in a fascinating interview given by Guevara to the American socialist academic Maurice Zeitlin on September 14, 1961. In this discussion, the new minister came out firmly for “democratic centralism,” praised the Soviet example, and flatly opposed the right of factions or dissidents to make their views known even within the Communist Party itself. Asked by Zeitlin about Luxemburg’s warnings on this score, Guevara replied coolly that Luxemburg had died “as a consequence of her political mistakes” and that “democratic centralism is a method of government, not only a method of conquering power.” It was clear, in other words, that his authoritarian stance was taken on principle and not in response to “tactical” considerations. Huber Matos and other allegedly “bourgeois” supporters of the original revolution who were imprisoned had already found this out, as had the Trotskyists who dared to criticize Fidelism from the “left.”4
The final parable is the one in which Guevara recognizes that, in a sense, his kingdom can never be of this world. Those who sympathized with the Cuban revolution at the time very often did so because they explicitly hoped for a non-Soviet model. In the figure of “Che,” some of them, at least, thought they had found their exemplar. And they were, in one unintended sense, not mistaken. Guevara was privately critical of the Soviet bloc, already well into its post-Stalinist phase, on the grounds that it was too soft. It wanted “peaceful coexistence” with the American imperium abroad, and a system of capitalist emulation at home. There is a good deal of evidence that he privately sympathized with the emerging position of the Maoists—especially for the “countryside versus city” theses of Lin Piao, where the immiserated peasants of the world were supposed to surround the debauched metropoles and overwhelm them by sheer force of numbers—and might have done so more openly if not for the close yet surreptitious friendship between the Castro brothers and Moscow.
It is certain that he was enraged by Khrushchev’s compromise with Kennedy over the missiles, and by the generally lukewarm attitude of the Warsaw Pact toward revolution in the Third World. In February 1965, while addressing an “Afro-Asian Solidarity” meeting in Algiers, he went so far as to describe the Kremlin as “an accomplice of imperialism” for its cold-cash dealings with impoverished and insurgent states. This, and the general chaos arising from his stewardship of the Ministry for Industry, made him an easy target for inner-party attacks by the unsmiling elements among the Cuban Communist Party: people for whom the very words “romanticism” and “adventurism” were symptoms of deviation. His dismissal from the ministry followed immediately on his return from Algiers, and he soon afterward set off for Africa with no very clear mandate or position.
The word “romantic” does not make a very good fit with his actual policies as industry minister. The French economist René Dumont, one of the many well-meaning Marxists who advised Cuba during this period, recalls making a long study of the “agricultural cooperatives.” He told Guevara that the workers in these schemes did not feel themselves to be the proprietors of anything. He pressed him to consider a system of rewards for those who performed extra tasks in the off-season. As Dumont records, Guevara’s reaction was tersely dismissive. He demanded instead:
A sort of ideal vision of Socialist Man, who would become a stranger to the mercantile side of things, working for society and not for profit. He was very critical of the industrial success of the Soviet Union [!] where, he said, everybody works and strives and tries to go beyond his quota, but only to earn more money. He did not think the Soviet Man was really a new sort of man, for he did not find him any different, really, than a Yankee. He refused to consciously participate in the creation in Cuba “of a second American society.”
It’s worth noting at this point that Guevara made almost no study of American society, scarcely visited the country except as a speaker at the United Nations, and evinced little curiosity about it in general. When asked once, again by Maurice Zeitlin, what he would like the United States to do, he replied, “Disappear.”
In view of the resemblance of Guevara’s Spartan program to other celebrated fiascos and tragedies like the Great Leap Forward, it deserves to be said that he was unsparing of himself. He worked unceasingly, was completely indifferent to possessions, and performed heavy lifting and manual labor even when the cameras were not turning. In the same way, he wanted to share in the suffering and struggle of those, in Africa and elsewhere, who were receiving the blunt end of the cold war. The murder of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, for example, seems to have affected him in very much the same personal way as did the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz. He was, perhaps, one of those rare people for whom there is no real gap between conviction and practice.
And he did have a saving element of humor. I possess a tape of his appearance on an early episode of “Meet the Press” in December 1964, where he confronts a solemn panel of network pundits. When they address him about the “conditions” that Cuba must meet in order to be permitted the sunshine of American approval, he smiles as he proposes that there need be no preconditions: “After all, we do not demand that you abolish racial discrimination….” A person as professionally skeptical as I.F. Stone so far forgot himself as to write: “He was the first man I ever met who I thought not just handsome but beautiful. With his curly reddish beard, he looked like a cross between a faun and a Sunday-school print of Jesus…. He spoke with that utter sobriety which sometimes masks immense apocalyptic visions.”
Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they probably begin by calling “charismatic.” The last few years of Guevara’s life were a study in diminishing returns. He drove himself harder and harder, relying more and more on exhortation and example, in order to accomplish less and less. In the case of the Cuban economy, the argument over “moral” versus “material” incentives became muddied, with the system eventually resolving itself into one of material non-incentive, periodically prodded by slogans, along Eastern European lines.
On the front of the “world revolution,” which is more fully treated by Anderson, Guevara’s tricontinental activity (Asia, Africa, Latin America) was sometimes ahead of its time and sometimes behind, but never quite on target. For example, he lent his support to a catastrophic guerrilla operation in the wilds of his native Argentina—catastrophic in the sense that it was an abysmal failure and led to the deaths of most of its members as well as of a few civilians, but catastrophic, too, in that it began the quasi-bandit phase of radical politics in Argentina. Like Trotsky in exile, his guesswork sometimes allowed him to make important predictions, or even to compose moving post mortems. But he could do no more than dream of a new “international.”
He was among the first to appreciate the central importance of the war in Vietnam: a place where the hated American empire had made itself morally and militarily vulnerable. But his most celebrated speech on the subject, which called for replicating the Vietnamese experience across the globe, sounded bombastic at the time and reads even more so today. His voyage to Africa, to combat Mobutu and his white mercenaries in the Congo and to open a second front against apartheid and colonialism, was conducted on a moral and material shoestring. He was humbled on the battlefield as well as sabotaged by the anti-Ben Bella coup in Algeria and an outbreak of second thoughts by the Tanzanians. As Guevara scuttled his last positions on Lake Tanganyika in 1965, he did not try to delude himself:
A desolate, sobering and inglorious spectacle took place. I had to reject men who pleaded to be taken along. There was not a trace of grandeur in this retreat, nor a gesture of rebellion…just some sobbing as if [I], the leader of the escapees, told the man with the mooring rope to let go.
Guevara’s health—another subject on which he did not delude himself—had deteriorated further in Africa, and his fortieth birthday was looming up. It was evident to him that he had only one more chance to deal a decisive stroke at the detested imperial power. He had had Bolivia in mind for a long time, because its altiplano abutted several other countries and a guerrilla foco, properly inserted there, might act as a lever on an entire region. The extreme altitude, desolation, and underdevelopment of the area do not seem to have struck him as a disadvantage until far too late, although it was at this time that he began to recur to the subject of his own death, which he always prefigured as a defiant one in the face of hopeless odds.
Anderson’s reconstruction of the Bolivian campaign is exhaustive and convincing. It is clear that the Bolivian Communists regarded Guevara’s adventures as an unpardonable intrusion into their “internal affairs,” and that they had the sympathy of Moscow in so doing. The persistent rumor that Castro, too, was glad to be rid of a turbulent comrade is rated by Anderson as less well founded. A successful revolution or even upheaval in Latin America would have strengthened his hand and perhaps helped end his isolation and dependence: Havana kept in touch with the doomed expedition for as long as it could.
But of course it also had, in the case of a defeat, the option of declaring an imperishable martyrdom. Since 1968, the “Year of the Heroic Guerrilla,” Cuban children have been instructed in almost Baden-Powell tones that if they seek a “role model,” they should comport themselves como el Che. This strenuous injunction only emphasizes the realization that Guevara’s Cromwellian, ascetic demands on people bordered on the impossible: even the inhuman. The grandson who is said most to resemble him—a young man named Canek—has quit the island in order to pursue the vocation of a heavy-metal guitarist in Mexico, and it is a moral and material certainty that many of his generation wish they could do the same.
Having been captured in the first days of October 1967, Guevara was killed in cold blood. The self-serving account of his last hours given by Felix Rodriguez, the Cuban-American CIA agent on the scene, at least makes this clear.5 Rodriguez wastes a lot of time explaining that he was full of doubt and remorse, and that he had no authority to overrule the Bolivian military, but succeeds only in drawing a distinction without a difference. The Bolivian Special Forces would have done what they were told and it seems that, Rodriguez notwithstanding, they knew what was wanted of them. As always in these cases, a “volunteer” executioner was eager and on hand. Che’s surviving disciples managed to escape in a wretched state across the Chilean border, where they were met by a then-obscure physician named Salvador Allende and given by him a safe-conduct to Easter Island and home.
Guevara’s exemplary final days, which Rodriguez describes as suffused with “grace and courage,” demonstrated yet again and conclusively that he was no hypocrite. The news of his murder somehow helped to inaugurate the “hot” period of the 1960s, in which, however much the image of “Che” was to the fore, it was the hedonist Utopians rather than the rigorous revolutionary puritans who made the running. Thus, in a slightly bizarre manner, the same Che was able to achieve the impossible, or at least the incompatible, by simultaneously summoning an age of chivalry and an age of revolution. That posthumous accomplishment was necessarily brief.
Our own age of sophists and calculators has thrown up some of the surviving actors in secondary roles. Felix Rodriguez, for example, having gone on to serve the CIA in Vietnam and El Salvador, surfaced again as George Bush’s embarrassing underling in the Iran-contra scandal. He was stunned, while being questioned on other matters by Senator John Kerry’s committee of investigation into illegal drugs and guns, to be asked from the chair why he had not tried to save Che Guevara’s life.
As Jon Lee Anderson’s work serves to remind us, when Che Guevara first spurred Rosinante into the field the world was a radically different place. Most of South and Central America was in the safekeeping of military caudillos. The Portuguese empire was secure in Africa. Vietnam was still (just) a French colony. The Shah of Iran had been crammed back on his throne. Nelson Mandela was a semi-clandestine human-rights lawyer. Algeria was French and the Congo was Belgian. The Suez Canal zone was British. In the processes that overturned this situation, Guevara was a nebulous and elusive but nonetheless real presence. The very element that gave him his certainty and courage—his revolutionary communism—was also the element that condemned him to historical eclipse. In setting down the whole story in such a respectful but objective manner, Jon Lee Anderson has succeeded in writing, for himself and I suspect for many others, a nuanced goodbye to all that.
The imagery of these texts tends to be nationalist-heroic rather than socialist or revolutionary. Though a highly orthodox Communist himself, and a contemporary of Neruda, Nicolás Guillén composed an ode in 1959 comparing Guevara to Martí and San Martín. Julio Cortázar wrote a death-paean for Che, offering his own hands and pen as a replacement for the hands chopped off by the killers. ↩
See, especially, Peter Kornbluh, The New York Times, Op-Ed page, May 31, 1997, on the CIA’s published plans to assassinate the Guatemalan then-leadership, and Larry Rohter, “Guatemala Digs Up Army’s Secret Cemeteries,” The New York Times, June 7, 1997. ↩
According to Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali in “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964 (Norton, 1997), which is based on recently released Soviet archives, Guevara went to the length of becoming a formal member of the Cuban Communist Party as early as 1957. ↩
The entire interview, which is replete with the most lugubrious orthodoxy, can be found as an appendix to Robert Scheer and Maurice Zeitlin, Cuba: An American Tragedy (Penguin, 1964). Until relatively recently, it was the custom among certain apologists for Castro to say that United States policy was “driving him into the arms of the Soviet Union.” Now that the Cuban one-party state has outlived the Soviet one, this excuse is at least no longer vulnerable to the charge that the embrace of the Soviet Union had been the preferred destination in any case. ↩
Shadow Warrior: The CIA’s Hero of a Hundred Unknown Battles, by Felix Rodriguez with John Weisman (Simon and Schuster, 1989). ↩