Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life
by Jon Lee Anderson
Grove Press, 814 pp., $35.00
The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America
by Ernesto Che Guevara, translated by Ann Wright
Verso, 155 pp., $11.00 (paper)
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.
1 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. ↩
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. ↩