Che: Selected Works of Ernesto Guevara
Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War
Che Guevara und die Revolution
Venceremos! The Speeches and Writings of Ernesto Che Guevara
“Che” Guevara on Revolution: A Documentary Overview
Che Guevara Speaks, Selected Speeches and Writings
Scritti, discorsi e diari di guerriglia (1959-1967)
La Pensée de Che Guevara
Che, Vida y Obra de Ernesto Guevara
Ernesto “Che” Guevara
Viva Che! Contributions in Tribute to Ernesto “Che” Guevara
The Black Beret: The Life and Meaning of Che Guevara
El Che Guevara
My Friend Ché
Che: The Making of a Legend
“Che” Guevara, ¿Aventura o Revolución?
Brandstiftung oder neuer Fried? Reden und Aufsätze
The guerrilleros of Latin America are in for racking trouble in the next few years. Never protected by Moscow or helped by Peking, and now forsaken by Havana, they must fight on alone. But reduced in numbers, at odds with each other, short of allies and resources, nearly out of room to maneuver, they are hardly up to defending themselves, much less “liberating” the continent. Their strategy itself is in confusion, for they bear a prodigious legacy—that of the most attractive revolutionary the West has seen in thirty years, “El Che” Guevara, the meaning of whose life has come into question.
The consensus among revolutionaries is that “El Che” was a hero, and evidently he was. He came abruptly from nowhere, to make his portrait an emblem and his nickname a byword in cities around the world. His daring, frankness, ambition, and wit impressed everyone who met him, and many more who have only read about him. He operated consciously on a grand scale, figuring ultimately as a champion of all the wretched of the earth.
Moreover, he committed himself to his struggle completely, positively, happily, without the normal reservations of guilt. In this commitment he thrived, his confidence so mounting, his sincerity so clearing, his humor so cutting, that his dedication seems to have been no sacrifice but a satisfaction. Even the skeptics grant his “integrity.” And at the end, after the stupefying campaign in Bolivia, he died beautifully as the brave captive. No one who knew him grieved as if his death were a surprise. It was, as Fidel suggested, “part of his personality.” Like ancient heroes, “El Che” had always beamed premonitions that there was nothing amazing he might not do in living or in dying.
The question is, what difference does a dead hero make to the guerrilleros?
He learned his way to power as a baby, too soon ever to change and too well to keep to his own class or country. In the Argentine winter of 1928 he was born to quarrelsome parents stuck on business in a factory town in the pampas. He was their first child. Father Guevara was a restless and tender man, descended from provincial notables, schooled skimpily as an engineer, one of twelve heirs to very little. Mother Guevara was a willful and pretty girl, pedigreed from the viceroyalty, a star in fancy escapades in her native Buenos Aires, heiress to a large estate. One cold fall day when the baby was almost two—after his mother had taken him swimming at her yacht club in the Buenos Aires suburbs—he had an attack of asthma. Recurrent attacks panicked the parents out of their quarrels, into frantic anxieties about the child. In 1932, for his sake, the Guevaras moved to a town in the hills in the interior, Alta Gracia. “What determined a great part of our life,” the father eventually concluded, “was Ernestito’s furious asthma.”
Through the 1930s the Guevara house in Alta Gracia was a mess. More babies were born. “Disorder reigned everywhere,” the mother’s sister fretted. “They never really cleaned except when they had a party…. There were leaks. If the dog pissed upstairs, it ran down to the first floor.” But the mess was a method. In its clutter and stink and racket the house pulsed with lessons.
From his father Ernestito learned to take his friends as he found them. “All kinds of kids came to my house,” the father later boasted, “from the sons of the Alta Gracia hotel manager to the caddies from the golf course and the sons of the field hands who worked in the hills around.” From his mother, who often kept her asthmatic boy at home, Ernestito learned to read, write, and count as he pleased. From his parents’ laments about business, which went badly, he learned that the world was vicious, that the rich were mostly thieves, and the poor always victims. From their free-thinking snorts about religion, he learned that the display of piety was a sure sign of corruption. From their cracks about politics, he learned that governments were hopeless.
At home he also relearned the original lesson—that withdrawing from his family gave him influence over it. Like other boys, he retreated into soccer standings, chess, books from his father’s library (Salgari, Verne, Dumas). But too often he retreated into himself. “He was rather sullen,” his aunt observed, “very quiet, introverted. Maybe because he knew he was smarter than other kids.”
On the streets and in school he learned variations on the original lesson. A ram loose in a vacant lot, frightening other children? Ernestito wrestled him until he rode him bareback. Whispered warnings in the classroom that chalk and ink were poison? Ernestito dipped his chalk into his ink, bit off a chunk, took a sip of ink, and dried his mouth on his blotter. The risks he took in front of his friends brought them under his captaincy. If asthma hit him while the gang played, they carried their captain home, and waited until he could lead them out again.
In 1941 the Guevaras moved to the provincial capital, Córdoba, where they had already enrolled Ernestito in secondary school. There the family remained for six years, its fortunes slipping annually. The house turned into the familiar wreck, books and magazines piled everywhere, kids wheeling bikes around inside, do-it-yourself meals at any hour. And Ernestito grew into a compelling young man.
He made close friends again, now among the juniors of the local upper crust, whose rites of initiation he easily passed. He stayed in the right school, the Colegio Nacional Deán Funes. He picked up French, his mother tutoring him. He became handsome and robust, as his asthma relaxed. Although he could not tango, he was good at sports, first in soccer (as goalie) and then in the game he relished, rugby (as scrum-half, the quarterback, center, and middle-linebacker all in one). He also read poetry, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Lorca, Neruda, lines of which he would recite.
But even as he fit among such peers Ernesto distinguished himself from them. Their nice Catholicism he lambasted—if Christ stood in his way, he told a girl mooning over Renan’s sweet Jesus, “I, like Nietzsche, would not hesitate to step on him like a squishy worm.” And their politics he ridiculed—Perón, whom they despised, he would demonstrate against “only if they give me a gun,” and Churchill, whom they worshipped, he dismissed as another old windbag. When friends had him to dinner, he would gobble his food, talk while he chewed, slurp, and gulp. The worst deviation was his clothes. In the company of acutely sensitive fashion-hounds he wore rags salvaged from the trash can—a nylon shirt gray with dirt (which he bragged he washed once a week), slick droopy pants, mismatched shoes. For years he went by the nickname of “El Chancho,” Slob.
By the new risks he gained new advantages. The girl he courted, Chichina Ferreyra, the elegant daughter of a local magnate, confessed that “his obstinate look and irreverent style fascinated me.” Another girl, Chichina’s cousin, later remembered him as “always intense, vibrant, radiating the taut intensity of a feline: exquisite control over enormous energy.”
In 1947 Ernesto went off to the University of Buenos Aires to study medicine, to play rugby, and to find his own element. But medical school soon bored him. Although he did enough for exams, he assured a friend he would not “incarcerate” himself in the profession. Rugby became impossible, for in the city his asthma often turned so furious that he could not breathe without an inhaler. Chasing girls was no substitute as a sport, for the triumph was too lonely. And politics was not tempting either, neither Peronismo nor anti-Peronismo, not because it was violent, which he rather liked, but because it was all a run-around. As he pressed to find where he belonged, Ernesto withdrew deeply into himself.
It bothered him now that he was diseased, that there was a foreign presence in him, feminine in gender, which set him apart from regular fellows. He built a lab in his room where he studied his asthma, and started research on allergies. It worried him that his mother should lose a breast because of cancer, that disease should actually deform and stigmatize. He brought rabbits into his lab, to do experiments to discover a cure for his mother. And he plunged into meditations on the classic disease of disfiguration, dehumanization, and exile—leprosy. He began to talk about Schweitzer.
Among his friends he became famous for his trips out of the city, rambling alone, dirty and free, hitch-hiking, biking, motorcycling once as far as the Andes. Often he visited an older friend who had a lab at a leper colony in the interior. There he would read Goethe to the lepers, like Schweitzer in Africa. The report set his proper friends agog.
In his mind Ernesto was traveling faster and farther. The stories of Jack London and the gauchesco epic Martín Fierro were his entertainment. The book that became his bible was Nehru’s The Discovery of India. There he found his lepers again, the untouchables. There he found Gandhi, who had just led his people into independence, and had just been assassinated. And there he found a reason for withdrawal and degradation. Gandhi, Ernesto read,
…does not favor the soft life; for him the straight way is the hard way, and the love of luxury leads to crookedness and loss of virtue. Above all he is shocked at the vast gulf that stretches between the rich and the poor, in their ways of living and their opportunities of growth. For his own personal and psychological satisfaction, he crossed that gulf and went over to the side of the poor, adopting, with only such improvements as the poor themselves could afford, their ways of living, their dress or lack of dress…. The essence of his teaching was fearlessness and truth, and action allied to these…. A new technique of action was evolved which [skip the perfectly peaceful phrase]…involved non-submission to what was considered wrong, and…a willing acceptance of the pain and suffering involved in this.
The book, a friend observed, was “heavily annotated.” At costume parties Ernesto came wrapped in a sheet as Gandhi. “Yes or no,” he wrote to a friend, “has been made for people like me…. I have the capacity to use these terms in fundamental decisions.”
In 1951-52 he and his leprologist friend took their big trip, to see the sights and study leper colonies throughout South America. On a rickety motorcycle they rattled into Chile, then bummed into Peru, boated north down a tributary of the Amazon to the Colombian border, lucked into gratis plane and bus rides to Venezuela, and finally stopped in Caracas. Their adventures had been exciting, from a trek to the Inca ruins at Macchu Picchu, to a run-in with the Bogotá police. But most poignantly they remembered their stay at a little leper colony lost in the heart of the continent, in the jungle along the upper reaches of the Amazon. There they had lived among the lepers, playing soccer with them, taking them to see the nearby Indians, helping them hunt monkeys.