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.
When they were ready to leave, the lepers had built them a raft to continue down the Amazon. On the rainy evening they left, the lepers had come out on the dock, given speeches to thank them, and sung good-bye songs while they drifted away in the river’s mist. “It was like something in a dream,” Ernesto’s friend recalled, “for things were all beautiful with the love and the feeling of brotherhood that united us all in those moments.”
In Caracas the friend accepted a post in a leprosarium. Ernesto decided to go home, but only to get his degree and return to live among the lepers too. His dream, he later wrote, was “becoming a famous medical researcher…working tirelessly to discover something which would be used to help humanity….”
Back in Buenos Aires, having crammed a few months, Ernesto passed his exams in March, 1953. His specialty was dermatology. In June he received his MD. In July he left for Venezuela. This, as he anticipated, was the definitive adventure.
Geographically the trip went haywire. After coming as far as Ecuador, Ernesto could go no farther—because of the violence in Colombia he could not get a visa overland to Venezuela, and he did not have the cash to fly. When friends urged him to go on with them to Guatemala, and offered him free passage on a boat up to Panama, he accepted.
But he remained on the course of his dream. Traveling through the continent this time, through the rotten cities and moldy villages, past the dusty shanties along every highway, his mind newly sensitive to misery since he had opened it to the lepers, he had been able to take seriously how miserable many other people were. “I came into close contact with poverty, hunger, and disease,” he later said, which was wrong, because he had often been in close contact with them; only now he felt the outrage of them—“a father’s inability to have his child treated because he lacks the money, the brutalization that hunger and permanent punishment provoke, until a father sees the death of his child as something not important.” The Guatemalan government, his friends told him, was enacting “revolutionary” reforms for its miserable citizens. He still had no trust in governments, but from a concern for lepers he had developed at least a curiosity about treatment of the poor, the hungry, and the sick.
Among his friends in Guatemala City, mostly exiles from other Latin American countries serving in the reformist government, Ernesto went on cracking jokes about politics. But behind the jokes he was shaping into an earnest character. Going on twenty-six, he was for the first time living with a woman, a tough thirty-year-old political exile from Peru. Watching the struggle for public health, rural schools, decent wages, a picayunish agrarian reform, he “began to realize,” he later said, “…that there were things as important as being a famous researcher or making a big contribution to medicine: that was to help those people.”
He began to take notes on how to become “a revolutionary doctor.” And he who still scoffed at governments applied to the government for an assignment. That he got none, because he did not have a Communist Party card, incensed him. Among his political friends he was no longer “El Chancho” but “El Che,” Buddy, the nickname that was, he later said, “the most important and most cherished part of my life…everything that came before it, my surname and my Christian name, are minor, personal, and insignificant details.”
The treatment that he had come to observe and then tried to help, failed. When the United States sponsored a military counterrevolution in June, 1954, the reformist government collapsed. “El Che” flew into a tantrum. Dumfounding his political friends, who were quietly preparing their departures, he rushed around the city exhorting Guatemalans to resist the counter-revolutionaries. But there was no resistance, official or popular, and the counterrevolutionaries took over without a hitch. Following his friends, “El Che” headed for Mexico in his first political exile.
In Mexico City, reunited with his Peruvian, his dream blown, he pinched out an exile’s shabby living—roaming the tourist zone to snapshot gringos for a peso, running allergy tests in a hospital, assisting in a cardiologist’s lab. He now read not only poetry and short stories but also the texts his friends repeatedly thrust on him, Marx and Lenin. He listened more soberly to political debates among other exiles, adding his own bitter comments on the United States, regular armies, and professional politicians. Mainly he refined a thesis for himself. “To be a revolutionary doctor,…” he concluded, “there must first be a revolution…. If one works alone in some isolated corner of Latin America through a desire to sacrifice one’s entire life to noble ideals, it is useless….” In May, 1955, he and his Peruvian married. But he did not trust his passions to her. That summer he trusted them instead to a band of Cuban exiles.
The Castro brothers were not like the Cubans “El Che” had known before, blowhards who gabbled interminably about incredible shoot-’em-ups back on their island. They were actually veterans of a revolutionary assault on an army base in Batista’s Cuba, just amnestied from jail and exiled, and plotting to return for another try against the dictator. The reforms they projected for their island were not much more than the moderate measures the Guatemalans had tried. But they insisted that they would enforce them and defend them by arms. Raúl, whom “El Che” met in June, “doesn’t fool around,” he told his new wife. And Fidel, who arrived in July, bowled him over. The night “El Che” first met him and heard him expound his plans for a national uprising in Cuba, he doubted that the effort could succeed. Even so, before morning, in “a bond of romantic and adventurous sympathy and the consideration that it was worth it to die on a foreign beach for an ideal so pure,” he signed on as doctor for the expedition. Fidel, he poeticized a few months later, was “a fiery prophet of the dawn.”
That winter “El Che” went all out in the military training for the revolution. Not even the birth of his first child distracted him. And when in November, 1956, the revolutionaries sailed for Cuba on the Granma, “El Che” was on board as the medic. The thrills he expected were exotic.
But in the Revolutionary War “El Che” came into his own. For the national uprising flopped, the revolutionaries retreated into the island’s mountains to operate as guerrilleros instead, and “El Che” soon found himself in the miserable settlements of Cuba’s destitute mountaineers. There he was back in his element. He shrank from treating the mountaineers like a doctor, except to pull teeth or diagnose malnutrition. But “those consultations with the guajiros of the Sierra converted my spontaneous and somewhat lyrical resolve into a force of greater value and more serenity…. There is nothing that educates an honest man more than to live through a revolution…the people themselves teach the leaders….”
As the war went on, his resolve deepened. “The guerrilla group and the peasantry began to merge into one single mass, without our being able to say…at which moment the words became profoundly real….” The sense of union with “suffering and loyal” protégés tightened into a conviction of union, which locked “El Che” into the commitment of his life.
In the little Rebel Army he was “one of those people,” Fidel observed, “who is liked immediately”—medic, joker, and good buddy. As always he distinguished himself. He suffered more than other rebels, because of his asthma. He read odd books, like Emil Ludwig’s Goethe; at night he wrote notes in a diary. And combat he found a “relief,” a “luminous moment…that carries everything to a convulsion of joy and puts new vigor in everybody’s steps…the climax of the guerrilla life….” This was “one of his principal characteristics,” Fidel later remarked, “his willingness to instantly volunteer for the most dangerous mission. And naturally this aroused admiration, and twice the usual admiration, for a fellow combatant fighting at our side, who had not been born here,…and who was nonetheless so altruistic, so disinterested, so willing to always do the most difficult things, to constantly risk his life…. If as a guerrillero he had his Achilles’ heel, it was this excessively aggressive quality, his absolute contempt for danger.”
Rank by rank he gained military authority, from the medic who “occasionally” entered combat to comandante of the brilliant campaign in Las Villas that finally broke the dictatorship. But more important was his soaring moral authority, which he exerted to keep the Rebel Army solicitous of the mountaineers and other rural decrepits, and suspicious of partisans elsewhere, Yankee well-wishers, professional politicians of the opposition, or even Rebel agents in the cities.
Emerging in glory in 1959, an international celebrity at thirty-one, “El Che” promptly came on as a Cuban. He took Cuban citizenship. He divorced his Peruvian wife and married a Cuban, by whom he was to have four children. He legally adopted the name “Che,” which was how the Cubans knew him. But he was only indicating how much he assumed of the island.
In Revolutionary Cuba his assumptions quickly became the principles of organization and policy. This was not because only he had them, and tricked or argued the other Rebel chiefs into imposing them. It was rather because the other Rebel chiefs, whose intimate friend he remained, vaguely shared his assumptions; and he, distinguishing himself in “fearlessness and truth,” embarrassed them into acting on their agreement. “El Che” was not “Castro’s Brain,” but he was the Fidelista conscience. Developing their regime—Rebel Army rule over rival revolutionary factions, “dialectical unity with the people” instead of elections, massive agrarian reform, socialist planning, economic independence from the United States, treaties with the Soviet Union, industrialization, patronage of guerrillas on the Latin American continent (“to re-create the Sierra Maestra in the Andes”)—Fidel and the other chiefs operated as if to prove that they were not afraid to act as they knew they should. Inevitably, therefore, they and “El Che” botched problems of administration, political and economic. But they kept at a high pitch the fantastic spirit that made the Cuban Revolution, which better administrators could not have done. And writing and speaking as director of the INRA, president of the national bank, minister of industry, delegate to sundry conferences, “El Che” articulated his assumptions about Cuba into an account of the world.
He made his statements abundantly, in more than 300 published articles, speeches, letters, and interviews. Only about a tenth of them appear in the volumes now available for review. But the message is manifest in any selection. It is various and vivid in Bonachea’s and Valdés’s Selected Works, the most useful single volume for serious consultation, including most of the pieces that other selections have (missing mainly the article “On the Conception of Value”), as well as nine interviews, a nearly complete bibliography, and an index, which other selections do not have. The message is longer but more harping in the Obras 1957-1967 (the “official” Cuban selection and the best in Spanish), Fernández Retamar’s Obra Revolucionaria, Gerassi’s Venceremos!, González’s Scritti, the Opere, and the Oeuvres, which are all substantially the same selection, containing more articles and speeches than Bonachea’s and Valdés’s, but not the interviews, etc. It is short and monotonous in Mallin’s “Che” Guevara on Revolution, Lavan’s Che Guevara Speaks, and Brandstiftung oder neuer Fried?
Almost always the statements were hortatory or polemical, even if they came in the guise of strategic studies, budgetary analysis, or wisecracks. Because they were morally urgent, “El Che” could never develop them into a system of explanations. The “rigorous coherence” that Lowy describes in his useful booklet, La Pensée de Che Guevara, was a feature not of the thought itself but of the character that produced it. Because he appealed publicly to feelings, he could no longer keep his own feelings private, where he had them in fine control. In his two Cuban books, Guerrilla Warfare and Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, where he let his literary talent go, some passages on military affairs are worthy of Hammett or Traven, but the passages on “love of the people” read like Kahlil Gibran. But welling purely out of his life, carrying the full momentum of his conviction, his statements rolled into powerful themes.
The world was a dark and bewildering place, where malevolent giants ruthlessly exploited the ignorant and helpless.
Physical danger was illuminating, the only condition in which a man or woman could recognize how oppressive the world was, believe the perception, and revolt. The more intense the danger, the more certain the grip on reality, the more determined the revolution.
Danger was humanizing, for it allowed sympathy among the endangered, dissolved divisions of class, intelligence, geographical location, ideology, race, politics, nationality, even health, and nurtured “new men” in revolutionary solidarity. In revolution men and women would “graduate as human beings.”
Revolution was a pledge of allegiance to men and women in danger everywhere, which obligated revolutionaries not merely to feel the anguish of others, but to strive to take the worst torment on themselves. Revolution was a competition for the most terrifying and lonely duty in the world, the vanguard of the struggle, which was the highest honor. “One wins or dies if it is a real revolution.”
The consequence, “El Che” decided, was Marxism—the expectation of communism. The decision was not a conversion, intellectually or politically. “El Che” had developed in Cuba no special concern for workers, much less an interest in the parties that pretended to represent them, less still a need for superior sanctions for economic planning and anti-imperialism; and in Marxism he did not change. The decision was more like the abstraction of a proof. “El Che” made it because the resolution of honesty, generosity, and commitment into belligerence, which he had managed himself, became “scientific” in Marxism. He made it because he found the “new man,” more than kin, more than friend, more than buddy, in the image of the comrade, the soul of revolutionary virtue, who figured only in Marxist theory and traditions.
From his experience he avowed Marxism, not as a set of eternally valid laws, in economics or sociology, but rather as a particular field of research and operations, the field of revolutionary ethics, the discipline of belligerent honesty, generosity, and commitment, the practice of comradeship. His avowal met its test when he denounced the Soviets in the name of Marxist ethics, for not behaving like comrades. He would always, he wrote to Fidel, “feel the responsibility of being a Cuban revolutionary”—which meant a total and constant revolutionary, the truest comrade.
Until 1965 “El She” remained a Cuban revolutionary in Cuba. But by then “the focal point of all contradictions,” as he later called it, had shifted to another small country on another continent. “This is the sad reality,” he like many others saw: “Vietnam—a nation representing the aspirations, the hopes of a whole world of forgotten peoples—is alone…. It is not a matter of wishing success to the victim of aggression, but of sharing his fate; one must accompany him to his death or to victory.”
His shift into a new dimension was difficult. Retreating into a hospital, his asthma at its worst, he reportedly had hallucinations that his bravest Cuban buddy (killed in a plane crash in 1959) was urging him to ignore his “antagonists” and “extend the revolution.” Whether he was going crazy or not, he disturbed Fidel. After April, 1965, he never appeared in public in Cuba again. The Cuban G-2 foxed the CIA into believing he died in the Santo Domingo rebellion. And outside Cuba the rumor prevailed that he had died.
But through the spring “El She” managed the decision to leave for “other sierras.” To his five children he left strict orders: “Always be ready to feel in your bones any injustice against anyone anywhere in the world.” To Fidel he asserted (“with a mixture of joy and sorrow”), “The time has come for our separation,” and formally renounced his post in the party, rank in the army, office in the government, and Cuban citizenship: “I have fulfilled the part of my duty that tied me to the Cuban Revolution in its territory.” To his parents he wrote with inimitable ironic pride,
Again I feel Rocinante’s ribs beneath my heels. I am back on the road with my shield on my arm…. In essence nothing has changed, except that I am more conscientious, my Marxism is rooted and purged. I believe in armed struggle as the only answer for people who fight to free themselves, and I take the consequences for my beliefs. Many will call me an adventurer, and I am, but of a different kind, one who risks his skin to prove he is right…. I have loved you dearly, only I have not known how to express my feelings; I am extremely stiff in my actions, and I think that at times you did not understand me…. Now a will I have polished with an artist’s care will hold up shaky legs and tired lungs. I will do it. Remember sometimes this little condottiere of the twentieth century….
To Latin American leftists he wrote epiphanally, “Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”
The first field of new duty was Africa. Late in the summer of 1965, with troops and funds Fidel provided, “El She” moved secretly into the Congo, near where Schweitzer had been, into the region where seventy-five years before Conrad had discovered the heart of darkness. There through the tropical winter of 1965-66 he fought incognito for the Kinshasa rebels, only to discover that “there was no will to fight, the leaders were corrupt, there was nothing to do.” Still incognito, he returned to Havana to plan another campaign.
The next field was Latin America again—no longer in continental terms, to repeat the Sierra Maestra in the Andes, but now in a global vision, to start “Two, Three, Many Vietnams.” With Fidel “El She” decided to subvert Bolivia for a base against other countries. And there he settled in disguise in the fall of 1966. “In a couple months,” he noted in his diary, “I’ll be myself again.”
The guerrilleros started their campaign in March, 1967, in almost complete isolation, just as “El She” wanted, lost in Bolivia’s southeastern wilds, without political connections. For a while the campaign went clumsily but not badly. When the Bolivian government announced in June that “El She” was leading the guerrilleros, it was on the verge of collapse. But the guerrilleros remained in isolation, geographically and politically, and the government recovered the initiative. In October “El She” was captured in an ambush, and executed. The international furor exploded about the circumstances of his death and the disposition of his body and diary, and the legend began—at least among the newspaper-readers of the world.
Now the biographies accumulate. So far all have been rush jobs, each with its own imbalances in coverage, its own errors (like the place of the subject’s birth or the date of his first marriage), its own half-baked interpretations (that the subject was a Marxist long before he came to Cuba, that he was always an idealist, or a cynic, that he was a mama’s boy gone suicidal). In contrast Rojo’s My Friend Ché [sic], a memoir, not a biography, is a genuine book. Though devout Guevaristas have attacked it for presenting their man as less than the Compleat Ideologue, “El She” does live there in funny stories, slangy quotes, and nice sketches of scene, freshly translated.
Some of the current biographies are useful as tentative compilations of material. Gambini’s El She Guevara (in Spanish) is the most thorough and most accurate. The biographical introductions to the selected writings are reliable summaries, Bonachea’s and Valdés’s dry record more than Gerassi’s effusion and the others’ evocations. Ebon’s Che, Gavi’s Che Guevara, and Nattiez’s “Che” Guevara are also worth consulting, as much for the interpretations they attempt as for the material they contain. Valuable also are the seven biographical essays in Che Guevara und die Revolution. But the other publications available for review are only curiosities. The daintiest is Sinclair’s Guevara. The zippiest is Resnick’s Black Beret. The most monomaniacal is Rodríguez’s “Che” Guevara. The slipshoddiest is Sorel’s Che. The puffiest is Pierini’s “Che.” The thickest, the most pompous, the most gossipy, and the most devious is James’s Ché [sic] Guevara, which does to “El Che” dead what Victor Lasky did to Bobby Kennedy alive.
Now also mockery becomes inevitable. It is obvious why kids from comfortable families in cities here, in Europe, and Latin America have taken “El Che” for a big-brotherly sponsor of shoplifting, smoking pot, passing bad checks, and breaking windows. In a world evidently grinding toward regimentation or destruction, their respect for “El Che” is a rededication to the faith in personal defiance, a resistance against the fear of futility, which is nevertheless futile.
It is obvious too why intellectuals on the New Left here, in Europe, and Latin America have canonized him, and do him such homage as in Alexandre’s Viva Che!, a psalm-book four-fifths of whose chants are wailings about impotence. Against the bad faith of their established colleagues, four-fifths of whom would find an excuse not to revolt against the worst tyranny, they see “El Che” as posing the most pertinent and hurtful political questions. Do they themselves mean what they say about liberty and justice for all? How do they know they mean it? Do they have to take risks to prove they mean it, or is writing an article enough? Does the scarier risk prove the cleaner belief? Is the authenticity of belief a matter of guts? Should those who fear taking scary risks say they must never have meant what they said before, and crawl into their shame? How can they still honorably claim their belief? Can they invoke a revolutionary God, who gives one man the grace to take risks, but not another? Should a man not in a state of revolutionary grace revolt anyway, as if he were? All just questions.
The difference “El Che” makes to the guerrilleros of Latin America is like the difference that he earlier made to his family, friends, and comrades. He bequeaths them a provocation and an inspiration, which together make a challenge. The legacy is confusing, because the injunction to act on conviction, on conscience, on love, is a politically indiscriminate demand, which falls equally on every soul. The injunction now applies as tightly to the armies of Latin America as to the revolutionaries. And among the revolutionaries, as “El Che” once granted, it has had as much allegiance from the regular Communist “cadres who can silently endure the most terrible tortures in jail” as from the Fidelista “cadres who can take a machine gun nest.”
In itself the injunction is not a strategy of revolution, nor does it prescribe a specific strategy, like rural instead of urban actions. Ultimately it is no more than the hero’s battle cry, “Victory or Death!” In slacker times it would quickly have lost its ring, echoing only as a slogan. But because the struggle in Latin America has turned ugly, because the guerrilleros there dread that they might flinch, the hero’s challenge haunts them with a vengeance. As the struggle here also turns ugly, the challenge haunts the guerrilleros among us too.
(This is the first part of a two-part article.)
January 28, 1971