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The Bolivian Guerrilla

The Diary of Che Guevara

edited by Robert Scheer
Bantam, 192 pp., $1.45 (paper)

Bolivia a la hora del Che

by Rubén Vázquez Díaz
Siglo Veintuno: Mexico

The Great Rebel: Che Guevara in Bolivia

by Luis J. González, by Gustavo A. Sánchez Salazar, translated by Helen R. Lane
Grove, 254 pp., $1.45 (paper)

The Complete Bolivian Diaries of Ché Guevara and Other Captured Documents

edited by Daniel James
Stein & Day, 330 pp., $6.95

Nãcahuasu, La Guerrilla del Che en Bolivia

by José Luis Alcázar
Era: Mexico

Bolivia bajo el Che

by Philippe Labreveux
Replanteo: Buenos Aires

The Death of a Revolutionary: Che Guevara’s Last Mission

by Richard Harris
Norton, 219 pp., $5.95

The campaign “El Che” Guevara commanded in Bolivia in 1966-67 was a heroic project. It was only in part Fidelista, to reverse the long series of guerrillero defeats in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, and thereby reassert the validity of Fidelista strategy in Latin America (and Fidel’s independence from the Soviet Union). It was in its ambition characteristically Guevarista, conceived not from a Latin American’s concern for his own continent but, after the massive US intervention in Indochina, from a Latin American’s concern to share the fate of the “victim of aggression” on all continents, to accompany the most tormented “to his death or to victory.” The aim, as Guevara expressed it to the Tricontinental Conference, was “to create a second or a third Vietnam…”

The stakes were immense, as much larger than another Fidelista revolution as the provocation of US intervention in Latin America was beyond regular Fidelista strategy. To fight guerrillas in Latin America as well as in Indochina, the United States would have to institute a dictatorship at home, which would eventually collapse, and to disperse its armed forces abroad, which would eventually disintegrate. With the center of international capitalism in ruins, “new men” of comradely spirit could then build socialism in peace. The risks were also immense, culminating in the chance that the United States, in desperation, would resort to nuclear weapons. But they were the risks that Guevara welcomed as the moments of truth, and that he could move his comrades to accept.

If we—those of us who on a small part of the world map fulfill our duty and place at the disposal of this struggle whatever little we are able to give, our lives, our sacrifice—must someday breathe our last breath in any land not our own yet already ours, sprinkled with our blood, let it be known that we have measured the scope of our actions….

Bolivia was Guevara’s best prospect in Latin America. In comparison with other countries it did not present the disadvantage of Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, and Argentina, where Fidelistas had already suffered defeats; or that of Ecuador and Paraguay, too vulnerable to repression; or that of Chile, too stable; or that of Uruguay, too urban; or that of Brazil, the prize, but no place for Spanish-speaking guerrilleros to operate.

On its own terms Bolivia was in poor political condition, ripe for subversion. After a popular revolution in 1952 Bolivians had gone through major reforms, which many of them came to cherish as their dearest rights—universal suffrage, nationalization of mines (the country’s main industry), dissolution of large estates and distribution of land to peasants, militia of organized workers and peasants, national confederations of industrial and rural unions (under Trotskyist and Communist direction), participation of workers in the management of mines. Altogether this had been Bolivia’s “National Revolution.” But in the early 1960s the party that had enacted the reforms, the Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario (MNR), had broken into factions, and in 1964 had fallen from office under a military coup. The new junta had preserved some reforms, like universal suffrage and the peasants’ titles to their plots of land. But the United States, on which Bolivia depended heavily for grants and loans, had insisted on cuts in “Social justice” for the sake of “economic development.” And the junta had duly purged the unions, dismissed workers from management, frozen wages, ordered big layoffs, massacred striking miners, opened previously public agencies to private investment, and loudly invited American capitalists into the country. In mid-1966 it had its chief, General René Barrientos, elected to the presidency.

Barrientos could count for domestic support only on the army, a couple of petty parties that could not otherwise enjoy office, and a few pet peasant unions. He had in opposition all other political factions, which were badly divided along ideological, tactical, and personal lines, but which were still organized, well armed, used to the concepts of socialism and anti-imperialism, and sorely intent on regaining power. To win, the guerrilleros did not need to mount a peasant rebellion or sustain a lengthy guerrilla, neither of which has ever been an effective procedure in Bolivian politics, but only to wreck the army’s reputation in some ambushes, which would bring down the government and allow friendly leftists to take national office.

Moreover, if the guerrilleros won in Bolivia, they had superb prospects for subversion elsewhere. Landlocked into the continent, Bolivia had around its borders five countries that together comprised over half the Latin American population. To the southwest the guerrilleros would let Chile be—the Christian Democratic government there would be strong and sympathetic to them anyway, because they would weaken Bolivia as a national state. To the northwest, however, the guerrilleros could certainly infiltrate armed units and supplies into Peru—through the jungles of Pando province, thence into the Peruvian Andes, there to revive the revolts that had exploded and failed from 1962 to 1965. To the east they could also certainly infiltrate armed units and supplies into Brazil—through the forests along the frontier, thence into the mountains of Matto Grosso, where Brazilian exiles wanted to start a revolt. And to the southeast and south they could certainly infiltrate armed units and supplies into Guevara’s native Argentina—indirectly through Paraguay, where they could also try to start revolts, and directly into the mountainous Argentine provinces of Jujuy and Salta, where Fidelistas had tried and failed at revolt in 1963-64.

Once infiltrations began anywhere, a counterrevolutionary intervention would almost certainly follow—not from Peru, which Chile would hold in check on the Pacific, but from Argentina or Brazil (or both), whose armies were eager to act as Pan-American police. Once the crack forces of Argentina or Brazil (or both) were busy in Bolivia, then the governments of Argentina or Brazil (or both) would certainly suffer domestic crises that would endanger their military establishments. And once the armies of Argentina or Brazil were in danger, then the United States would very probably intervene—first with extra advisers from its Southern Command in the Canal Zone, and then with conscripted combat troops. By a progression of likelihoods there could well be “another Vietnam.”

The failure of the Bolivian guerrilla is famous, and key private records of the failure are already famously public. The most revealing single record, Guevara’s journal, has been out for almost three years in several editions in several languages. Its publicity is doubly secure in the Bantam edition, The Diary of Che Guevara, which is “the authorized text” in English and Spanish (nearly half the Spanish strangely printed in cursive), along with Fidel’s “Necessary Introduction,” some “exclusive” but by now familiar photos, and a glossary.

An even more revealing collection of documents has been out for two years in English, The Complete Bolivian Diaries, where Daniel James, in an unusually restrained style, introduces the journals of Guevara and three Cuban aides in Bolivia, “Rolando,” “Pombo,” and “Braulio.” James’s translation is inferior to the “authorized” version, but it comes with many still interesting photos, a handy chronology of the campaign, a useful appendix on individual guerrilleros, and maps. In these diaries, accumulating in entries scribbled in private rests in the Bolivian jungle by men who were living a disaster but could not tell it, is the story of the disaster—the chief’s achingly disciplined change of plans for victory into plans for hiding his troop and enduring; the troop’s helpless decline from proud confidence into weary confusion; then no more entries—all an open book for the curious, a feast of material for opinions.

The guerrilleros established themselves in isolation in Bolivia. Geographically, they put their base not in a western or central province, in the cold Andean highlands or the lush valleys sinking down from them, where the rural population was densest, but in eastern Bolivia, in the dry hills of Santa Cruz province, where the population thinned out to an average of twenty-five persons over ten square miles, where there was only enough game for a few hunters at a time. “The sun rises blazing each morning on the dusty valley, baking the raw earth and the brown brambles,” an American reporter later wrote of the canyon where Guevara was captured. “The teeming insect life—monstrous flies and mosquitoes, spiders and stinging beetles—swarm in the dead stillness. The heat and the dust and the bites turn the skins of humans to a cloak of misery.”

Politically, the guerrilleros had no formal connection with any of the parties or organizations in the Bolivian opposition, the MNR, the Trotskyists, the regular Communists, the pro-Chinese Communists, the miners unions, or with the militant local separatists in Santa Cruz. They had only a small apparatus of urban agents in the capital, La Paz, and two or three other cities.

The isolation was deliberate, and reasonable. Out in the wilds Guevara and his Cubans could remain incognito, and train Bolivian comrades without inviting serious suspicions. (On a tip that the base they were constructing was a cocaine factory, the police came out for a bribe and then left.) When the guerrilleros were ready, they could move west into the more thickly populated provinces to stage major attacks. (In training they took lessons in Quechua, which local folk did not speak but which peasants in the highlands and valleys did.) “You couldn’t pick a worse place in the hemisphere to deal with guerrillas,” an American officer later complained. “It’s a natural place for a guerrilla training center.”

Politically, by refusing to cooperate with one party in the opposition, the guerrilleros made no enemies among the others. Besides, they could not compromise themselves with parties intent on gaining national power, for the strategy of their struggle was global. And for a start they needed only a small urban apparatus.

Most important to Guevara, the very isolation of the guerrilleros would determine the quality of the Bolivians who joined them, and the political trajectory of the struggle. Recruits would not come on a lark, or out of a hunger for the glory of a stint with “El Che.” Nor would they come on orders, because their party or their union sent them (later maybe to recall them). Rather, the dramatic emergence of guerrilleros fighting alone in the hills against the army would draw to their ranks only the best recruits from every party and no party, no doubt only a few men at first, but individuals of extraordinary altruism and courage, who would quickly toughen in their commitment to the cause, and attract others like them to join too. As the guerrilleros hit the army, increasing their appeal and their recruitment, the parties and unions of the opposition would have to give them support—not as allies with claims on them, but only as partners to their lead.

Once the guerrilla took root in Bolivia, Guevara would leave the sharpest and toughest Bolivian guerrillero in command, and, still incognito if possible, turn with his Cubans to the subversion of the neighboring countries.

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