The campaign “El Che” Guevara commanded in Bolivia in 1966-67 was a heroic project. It was only in part Fidelista, to reverse the long series of guerrillero defeats in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, and thereby reassert the validity of Fidelista strategy in Latin America (and Fidel’s independence from the Soviet Union). It was in its ambition characteristically Guevarista, conceived not from a Latin American’s concern for his own continent but, after the massive US intervention in Indochina, from a Latin American’s concern to share the fate of the “victim of aggression” on all continents, to accompany the most tormented “to his death or to victory.” The aim, as Guevara expressed it to the Tricontinental Conference, was “to create a second or a third Vietnam…”
The stakes were immense, as much larger than another Fidelista revolution as the provocation of US intervention in Latin America was beyond regular Fidelista strategy. To fight guerrillas in Latin America as well as in Indochina, the United States would have to institute a dictatorship at home, which would eventually collapse, and to disperse its armed forces abroad, which would eventually disintegrate. With the center of international capitalism in ruins, “new men” of comradely spirit could then build socialism in peace. The risks were also immense, culminating in the chance that the United States, in desperation, would resort to nuclear weapons. But they were the risks that Guevara welcomed as the moments of truth, and that he could move his comrades to accept.
If we—those of us who on a small part of the world map fulfill our duty and place at the disposal of this struggle whatever little we are able to give, our lives, our sacrifice—must someday breathe our last breath in any land not our own yet already ours, sprinkled with our blood, let it be known that we have measured the scope of our actions….
Bolivia was Guevara’s best prospect in Latin America. In comparison with other countries it did not present the disadvantage of Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, and Argentina, where Fidelistas had already suffered defeats; or that of Ecuador and Paraguay, too vulnerable to repression; or that of Chile, too stable; or that of Uruguay, too urban; or that of Brazil, the prize, but no place for Spanish-speaking guerrilleros to operate.
On its own terms Bolivia was in poor political condition, ripe for subversion. After a popular revolution in 1952 Bolivians had gone through major reforms, which many of them came to cherish as their dearest rights—universal suffrage, nationalization of mines (the country’s main industry), dissolution of large estates and distribution of land to peasants, militia of organized workers and peasants, national confederations of industrial and rural unions (under Trotskyist and Communist direction), participation of workers in the management of mines. Altogether this had been Bolivia’s “National Revolution.” But in the early 1960s the party that had enacted the reforms, the Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario (MNR), had broken into factions, and in 1964 had fallen from office under a military coup. The new junta had preserved some reforms, like universal suffrage and the peasants’ titles to their plots of land. But the United States, on which Bolivia depended heavily for grants and loans, had insisted on cuts in “Social justice” for the sake of “economic development.” And the junta had duly purged the unions, dismissed workers from management, frozen wages, ordered big layoffs, massacred striking miners, opened previously public agencies to private investment, and loudly invited American capitalists into the country. In mid-1966 it had its chief, General René Barrientos, elected to the presidency.
Barrientos could count for domestic support only on the army, a couple of petty parties that could not otherwise enjoy office, and a few pet peasant unions. He had in opposition all other political factions, which were badly divided along ideological, tactical, and personal lines, but which were still organized, well armed, used to the concepts of socialism and anti-imperialism, and sorely intent on regaining power. To win, the guerrilleros did not need to mount a peasant rebellion or sustain a lengthy guerrilla, neither of which has ever been an effective procedure in Bolivian politics, but only to wreck the army’s reputation in some ambushes, which would bring down the government and allow friendly leftists to take national office.
Moreover, if the guerrilleros won in Bolivia, they had superb prospects for subversion elsewhere. Landlocked into the continent, Bolivia had around its borders five countries that together comprised over half the Latin American population. To the southwest the guerrilleros would let Chile be—the Christian Democratic government there would be strong and sympathetic to them anyway, because they would weaken Bolivia as a national state. To the northwest, however, the guerrilleros could certainly infiltrate armed units and supplies into Peru—through the jungles of Pando province, thence into the Peruvian Andes, there to revive the revolts that had exploded and failed from 1962 to 1965. To the east they could also certainly infiltrate armed units and supplies into Brazil—through the forests along the frontier, thence into the mountains of Matto Grosso, where Brazilian exiles wanted to start a revolt. And to the southeast and south they could certainly infiltrate armed units and supplies into Guevara’s native Argentina—indirectly through Paraguay, where they could also try to start revolts, and directly into the mountainous Argentine provinces of Jujuy and Salta, where Fidelistas had tried and failed at revolt in 1963-64.
Once infiltrations began anywhere, a counterrevolutionary intervention would almost certainly follow—not from Peru, which Chile would hold in check on the Pacific, but from Argentina or Brazil (or both), whose armies were eager to act as Pan-American police. Once the crack forces of Argentina or Brazil (or both) were busy in Bolivia, then the governments of Argentina or Brazil (or both) would certainly suffer domestic crises that would endanger their military establishments. And once the armies of Argentina or Brazil were in danger, then the United States would very probably intervene—first with extra advisers from its Southern Command in the Canal Zone, and then with conscripted combat troops. By a progression of likelihoods there could well be “another Vietnam.”
The failure of the Bolivian guerrilla is famous, and key private records of the failure are already famously public. The most revealing single record, Guevara’s journal, has been out for almost three years in several editions in several languages. Its publicity is doubly secure in the Bantam edition, The Diary of Che Guevara, which is “the authorized text” in English and Spanish (nearly half the Spanish strangely printed in cursive), along with Fidel’s “Necessary Introduction,” some “exclusive” but by now familiar photos, and a glossary.
An even more revealing collection of documents has been out for two years in English, The Complete Bolivian Diaries, where Daniel James, in an unusually restrained style, introduces the journals of Guevara and three Cuban aides in Bolivia, “Rolando,” “Pombo,” and “Braulio.” James’s translation is inferior to the “authorized” version, but it comes with many still interesting photos, a handy chronology of the campaign, a useful appendix on individual guerrilleros, and maps. In these diaries, accumulating in entries scribbled in private rests in the Bolivian jungle by men who were living a disaster but could not tell it, is the story of the disaster—the chief’s achingly disciplined change of plans for victory into plans for hiding his troop and enduring; the troop’s helpless decline from proud confidence into weary confusion; then no more entries—all an open book for the curious, a feast of material for opinions.
The guerrilleros established themselves in isolation in Bolivia. Geographically, they put their base not in a western or central province, in the cold Andean highlands or the lush valleys sinking down from them, where the rural population was densest, but in eastern Bolivia, in the dry hills of Santa Cruz province, where the population thinned out to an average of twenty-five persons over ten square miles, where there was only enough game for a few hunters at a time. “The sun rises blazing each morning on the dusty valley, baking the raw earth and the brown brambles,” an American reporter later wrote of the canyon where Guevara was captured. “The teeming insect life—monstrous flies and mosquitoes, spiders and stinging beetles—swarm in the dead stillness. The heat and the dust and the bites turn the skins of humans to a cloak of misery.”
Politically, the guerrilleros had no formal connection with any of the parties or organizations in the Bolivian opposition, the MNR, the Trotskyists, the regular Communists, the pro-Chinese Communists, the miners unions, or with the militant local separatists in Santa Cruz. They had only a small apparatus of urban agents in the capital, La Paz, and two or three other cities.
The isolation was deliberate, and reasonable. Out in the wilds Guevara and his Cubans could remain incognito, and train Bolivian comrades without inviting serious suspicions. (On a tip that the base they were constructing was a cocaine factory, the police came out for a bribe and then left.) When the guerrilleros were ready, they could move west into the more thickly populated provinces to stage major attacks. (In training they took lessons in Quechua, which local folk did not speak but which peasants in the highlands and valleys did.) “You couldn’t pick a worse place in the hemisphere to deal with guerrillas,” an American officer later complained. “It’s a natural place for a guerrilla training center.”
Politically, by refusing to cooperate with one party in the opposition, the guerrilleros made no enemies among the others. Besides, they could not compromise themselves with parties intent on gaining national power, for the strategy of their struggle was global. And for a start they needed only a small urban apparatus.
Most important to Guevara, the very isolation of the guerrilleros would determine the quality of the Bolivians who joined them, and the political trajectory of the struggle. Recruits would not come on a lark, or out of a hunger for the glory of a stint with “El Che.” Nor would they come on orders, because their party or their union sent them (later maybe to recall them). Rather, the dramatic emergence of guerrilleros fighting alone in the hills against the army would draw to their ranks only the best recruits from every party and no party, no doubt only a few men at first, but individuals of extraordinary altruism and courage, who would quickly toughen in their commitment to the cause, and attract others like them to join too. As the guerrilleros hit the army, increasing their appeal and their recruitment, the parties and unions of the opposition would have to give them support—not as allies with claims on them, but only as partners to their lead.
Once the guerrilla took root in Bolivia, Guevara would leave the sharpest and toughest Bolivian guerrillero in command, and, still incognito if possible, turn with his Cubans to the subversion of the neighboring countries.
The guerrilleros began action against the army in March, 1967, three weeks after Guevara had judged them ready for “fighting and decision.” They were a respectable force of fifty well-armed men, twenty-nine Bolivians and three Peruvians learning from eighteen Cuban veterans. In the following months two young renegades from the Bolivian Communist Party, “Inti” and “Coco” Peredo, became “steadfast revolutionary and military cadres.” Other Bolivians proved plain good soldiers, like “Willy,” an ex-official of a pro-Chinese Communist miners union, “a short, strong, dark man,” whom Guevara doubted toward the end, “who may take advantage of some skirmish to try to escape alone…,” but who a few days later tried to save his wounded chief in the last ambush, and was captured and executed with him. Other Bolivians proved slouches, “…two deserters, one ‘talkative’ prisoner, three quitters, and two slackers…. They are dregs… They want to do no work; they want no weapons; they want to carry no loads; they feign illness, etc.”
For four months the guerrilleros hurt the army in Santa Cruz. They themselves lived wretchedly and suffered damage—the arrest of urban agents, the accidental division of their force into two columns that could not reconnect, the capture of Régis Debray, several painful casualties, and the official revelation that Guevara was alive and leading the guerrilla. But ambush by ambush they pushed the government into a crisis.
In April the government appealed to the United States for help, and got radios, small arms, helicopters, and a Special Forces team to train Bolivian troops in counterinsurgency. But it could not decide where to concentrate its force, to control the miners in the west and center of the country or to chase the guerrilleros in the east.
In May the army’s continuing losses in Santa Cruz became “a growing concern” to US military advisers. “The Bolivians are spread very thin,” one commented. “The threat of the guerrillas throws everything out of balance.” But the United States followed the advice of its ambassador in La Paz, and refrained from sending troops, bombers, or napalm. Except for CIA agents and the Special Forces instructors, the Bolivian government was on its own.
In June President Barrientos declared a national state of siege, and arrested scores of prominent politicians in the opposition. But the miners defiantly declared the mines “free territory,” and announced a “defense pact” with student associations. Barrientos ordered the best units of the army to occupy the mines, which they did in another massacre. But then Bolivian bishops protested, La Paz University students declared their school a “free territory” too, and the miners went on an indefinite general strike. Even in the wilds Guevara noted “the political convulsion of the country…. Rarely do you see so clearly the possibility of the guerrilla acting as a catalyst.”
In July, after the guerrilleros briefly occupied a town on the only highway between the center of the country and Santa Cruz, the government almost collapsed. The political coalition supplying Barrientos’s cabinet dissolved, and the army verged on a coup, which would sap its military competence. Yet through these months no new recruits joined the guerrilleros, or started guerrillas in other zones. “The government is disintegrating rapidly,” Guevara noted in July, “it is a shame we do not have 100 more men at this moment….”
The guerrilleros remained in isolation, while the government held together in the crisis and mounted a counteroffensive in Santa Cruz. By early August the guerrilleros had units from the Bolivian Fourth Division pressing them from the east and south in Operation Cynthia, and units from the Eighth Division containing them in the west and north in Operation Parabano. They found no refuge among the scattered local farmers, who, paid or scared by the army, often informed on them. The entries in Guevara’s journal became dismal.
August 8—“…I am just a human carcass…at some moments I have lost control of myself…”
August 14—“A black day…reports about the taking of the cave…Now I am doomed to suffer asthma indefinitely. They also took all types of documents and photographs. It is the hardest blow they have given us…”
August 24—“At dusk the macheteros [hacking a path through the brush] returned with the traps, a condor and a rotten cat. Everything wound up inside us, together with the last piece of elk.”
August 30—“The situation had turned anguishing; the macheteros were suffering fainting spells, Miguel and Dario were drinking their own urine, and Chino was doing likewise, with the ominous results of diarrhea and cramps.”
The next day, twenty-five miles away across the brush-filled canyons, the other column waded into a stream and an army ambush, nine of its ten members dying, the other talking for all he was worth. Monthly analysis—“It was without doubt the worst month we have had so far in the war.”
September 19—“Sign of the times. I have run out of ink.”
September 24—“I with a liver attack, vomiting, and the men exhausted from marches that accomplish nothing…we killed a pig sold to us by the only peasant who stayed home…the rest flee at the sight of us.”
September 26—“Defeat… The sound of firing all over the ridge announced that our men had fallen into an ambush…Miguel, Coco, and Julio had fallen…”
September 27—“…the most grievous loss is Coco, but Miguel and Julio were magnificent fighters, and the human value of the three is beyond all praise.”
September 28—“A day of anguish, which at one moment seemed to be our last.”
September 29—“Another tense day.”
September 30—“Another day of tension.” Monthly analysis—“It should have been a month of recuperation…but…now we have remained in a dangerous position…”
October 7—“…an old woman grazing her goats came into the canyon where we had camped, and we had to take her prisoner…At 5:30 in the afternoon Inti, Aniceto, and Pablito went to the old woman’s house where she has two daughters, one crippled and the other half-dwarfed. They gave her 50 pesos, telling her not to say a word, but with little hope that she will keep her promise. The 17 of us set out under a very small moon, and the march was very tiring…At 2 a.m. we rested, for it was now useless to go on advancing.”
About 10:30 the next morning the guerrilleros came under fire from the ridges above the canyon, and fired back. They did not know it, but they were at last doing battle with the Bolivian Green Berets, B Company of the Second Ranger Battalion, which had finished its Special Forces training only two weeks before and was now in its first fight. In the next few hours two of the seventeen guerrilleros were killed, and three captured, including Guevara, wounded in the leg. On October 9 in the schoolhouse of a nearby hamlet, after the local CIA agent had his inning with Guevara, the three captives were shot to death on orders from La Paz. Later, seven more guerrilleros were run down in the brush and killed. Five eventually escaped, “Inti” and another Bolivian to remain in hiding in their country, and “Pombo” and two other Cubans to Chile, and finally home to their island.
How to describe the failure? This is a chronicler’s problem, not a historian’s, for a history of the affair is not yet possible. For the time being it is literally a question of respecting the facts, not just having them right, but taking a tone about them that does due honor to the conviction and courage and fear that charge them. The best books on the Bolivian campaign, the most accurate, the most tightly composed, the most enlightening, are by Bolivian newspapermen who have known how to honor the commitment of the army and the guerrilleros.
González and Sánchez Salazar, whose Great Rebel is excellent, nicely sketch the Bolivian background to the campaign, scrupulously represent the guerrilleros’ preparations, and then carefully report the course of the guerrilla, ending in Guevara’s execution, the government’s contradictory explanations, and the miraculous escape of the last Cuban survivors across the mud and snow of the Andes into Chile. They include some stunning photos, and append brief biographies and pen portraits of the guerrilleros. The translation is good. Unfortunately the one map is obscure, and there is no index.
Vásquez Díaz’s Bolivia a la hora del Che is less about the guerrilleros than about the hell they raised in the country—the army’s massacre of the miners in June, the government’s tribulations in July, the views of the opposition leaders about the guerrilla in August (while it was collapsing), then the last slaughters, the trial of Régis Debray, and the hopes for another guerrilla.
Alcázar’s Nacahuasu (the name of the canyon where the guerrilleros put their base) is a war correspondent’s account of Bolivian troops staggering nervously but loyally through the brush, falling into awful ambushes, and then slowly beating the guerrilleros, who were suffering even more in their duty. Its many photos show well the thicketed and scabrous terrain of the action, the strain on the troops waiting for fire, the horror of death in the wilds, the relief and cruelty of triumph.
In the same tone a French journalist, Labreveux, has written Bolivia bajo el Che. It is a collection of short but commendable reports on two separately defined themes—the guerrilla and its impact on the country, and the decay of the “National Revolution” since 1964, in its agrarian reform and nationalized industries.
Two Americans have done the job differently. Richard Harris, a professor of political science, and Daniel James, a journalist “who knows his Latins,” have both produced creditable studies of the Bolivian campaign, Harris’s Death of a Revolutionary sympathetic to the guerrilleros, and James’s Introduction to The Complete Bolivian Diaries hostile to them. Both studies derive from substantially the same material that the Bolivian and French reporters use, and both amount to substantially the same story as the others. But they differ from the others in purpose and tone. They are attempts to explain the guerrilla, which explain it away.
Harris writes as if the guerrilleros would have fared much better if only they had known what his research assistant told him. James writes as if the guerrilleros must have been fanatics or dunces to start a campaign that he now knows, because they failed, would end in failure. Though both authors have the facts right, mostly, they both betray disrespect for them in not taking the guerrilleros seriously—which is to misunderstand the integrity of the guerrilleros’ commitment, and the magnitude of their failure. The same disrespect pervades scores of articles published in the last three years in American, Western European, and Latin American journals to explain how the guerrilleros could not have been serious, because they failed.
In answer to them stands a remarkable letter that a Peruvian refugee from the defeated Peruvian guerrillas of 1965 wrote to a compatriot in Paris.* The letter deserves as much publicity as it can get, to exercise the imagination and conscience of future students of defeated guerrillas.
“Open letter to M. Américo
“I venture to write to you, in all humility, after reading your judicious essay…in the November issue of that bible of revolutionary thought, Vanguardia Revolucionaria. And my humility is no pretence, as I myself have taken part in a crazy guerrilla adventure which today I am able to deplore and reject, thanks to the light shed by your article. This forces me, in addition, to write to you under a pseudonym, as it is my misfortune to be hunted by the [secret police], and I have not had the opportunity of escaping to Europe there to carry out a serious investigation into the revolutionary situation in our country.
“And, in all humility, in the face of the expertise that is yours, I shall proceed with my analysis of the events that have taken place in Peru and that have, to such little purpose, claimed the lives of sub-lieutenant Vallejo, the amiable Mayta, the poet Javier Heraud, Luis de la Puente, Guillermo Lobatón, Máximo Velando, Raúl Escobar—the latter’s death doubly purposeless, as I believe he had left Paris to take part in the guerrilla struggles—Rubén Tupayachi, well…one could go on forever. Now you have made me realize that all of them were lacking in theoretical training or ideological understanding, having failed to learn the lessons of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, etc., and that they threw themselves into a suicidal struggle against the oligarchy and imperialism without consulting you. This is a mistake that I, at any rate, will never in any circumstances repeat.
“…there are also those young ELN puppies at Puerto Maldonado who will benefit from your advice… These ignoramuses were bound to get what was coming to them for failing to consider the consequences of such an absurd action, and to make a thorough-going theoretical preliminary survey…. That’s the stuff to give these improvisers, who had the temerity to carry on a peasant war without consulting you, you and your well-known gifts. You could at least have told them which elementary handbooks to look up before launching themselves into such lunatic adventures.
“But that is not all. With the authority that your extraordinary revolutionary work…in the years 1963-65 [has] given you, you put the entire national left in its place when you say that…’the only position that reflected an extensive and profound study of the rebel organization and the conditions in which it would have to develop was the one adopted by Vanguardia Revolucionaria in VR No. 4.’
“And here I have one regret. Unfortunately, I was in the mountains with these ignorant revolutionaries and was unable to read it…and I did not return home! There is another thing: no doubt it was because of the great efforts that went into this historic publication that you and your friends forgot to inform Héctor Béjar and the young people of the ELN that instead of taking to the mountains in order to help the MIR rebellion, they would have done better to have started analyzing, reflecting, diagnosing, prophesying, observing, commenting, etc….
“I should like to continue by drawing attention to the gems in which your magisterial study abounds, but I do not wish to over-extend this piece. You may rest assured, dear master, that I have learned the lesson well: no more guerrilla warfare without a full-scale preliminary grounding in Marxist-Leninist theory, which will take years to acquire, even at the risk of seeing the revolution postponed indefinitely—no matter; never again to ignore the lessons of China, Cuba, Algeria, Vietnam, etc.; no further action without consulting you…
“I have forgotten one other thing. Stay in Paris, or in Rome, analyzing the mistakes of those who venture to carry on a guerrilla struggle. Imagine our misfortune if, in addition to suffering defeats, to dying in battle like those madmen of the MIR and ELN and of so many other groups that have not yet learned their lesson, we would have to bear the loss of someone like you, with your ability to write critical epitaphs on the guerrillas…”
After the failure of Guevara’s campaign, it did become practically suicidal to start another guerrilla in Bolivia—and elsewhere in Latin America. Revolutionary operations in the cities, fashionably (and inanely) styled as “urban guerrillas,” have recently had successes, above all in Bolivia. But the classic guerrilla, the “little war” out in the country, is now an act of desperation everywhere in Latin America. Even so, some have gone on trying it. They have done what a Latin American does when he wants to burn himself alive, to protest offenses that he cannot stand.
In July, 1968, “Inti” Peredo published a manifesto in Bolivia that he would reorganize the guerrilla. “The struggle of our Vietnamese brothers is the struggle of all the revolutionaries of the world,” he declared. “They are fighting for us, and we must fight for them.” On September 5, 1969, he published another manifesto that the new guerrilleros were ready for action. Four days later one hundred soldiers and police surrounded him in a house in downtown La Paz, and shot him to death.
Last July some university students tried to start a guerrilla in the bleak mountains north of La Paz, but they were not physically up to it. One starved to death. His comrades, too weak to dig him a grave, carried his corpse with them for days. Others sought refuge in the mine fields, where the miners, who did not approve of their strategy, sheltered them anyway for “humanitarian reasons.” In early October the student leaders were captured. One was another Peredo brother, “Chato.”
A new military government, trying to keep up a leftist front this time, let the leaders go into exile in Chile and offered amnesty to the students still in the mountains.
(This is the second part of a two-part article.)
February 11, 1971