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Goodbye to All That

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.

  1. 5

    Shadow Warrior: The CIA’s Hero of a Hundred Unknown Battles, by Felix Rodriguez with John Weisman (Simon and Schuster, 1989). 

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