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Goodbye to All That

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.

  1. 2

    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. 

  2. 3

    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. 

  3. 4

    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. 

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