Nov 17, 2005
The Revolution Will Not Be Capitalized: Che Guevara
by Charles Carreon
I don’t know if it was the full moon, high in the sky, that woke me up so early today, or thinking about Che Guevara, whose charismatic image filled my thoughts as I lay tossing and turning in a comfortable bed. But here I am, writing at four in the morning, captivated by the memory of a man whose image is everywhere, and who, although the subject of a recent popular movie, “The Motorcycle Diaries,” remains a big blank to most of us here in the United States. Che is not so poorly understood in Latin America, where he is considered a martyr to the cause of social justice. Just last week, images of Che, emblazoned on huge yellow flags, invaded the front page of the New York Times, waving over the heads of thousands of protesters rallying in the streets of Rio de la Plata, Argentina, against President Bush’s presence at a Latin American trade conference. So who was the man known as “El Che”?
Born in 1928 in Rosario, Argentina, to an affluent family of mixed Spanish, Basque and Irish descent, Ernesto Guevara was the oldest of five children. His father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, was a playboy who attempted some agricultural ventures during his youth, then married and settled down to a relatively unproductive life in a large house with Che’s mother, Celia de la Serna, an attractive and highly intelligent woman who loved her children, and particularly her eldest son, deeply. Although well-off, the Guevara family was known more for its scatterbrained charm than for concrete achievements, and the young Ernesto, who went by the nickname “Fuser” in his youth, dressed in shabby clothes and did nothing to advance his position in Argentine society. Afflicted with life-threatening asthma attacks from early childhood, Ernesto overcame obstacles to physical activity by throwing himself into soccer and other sports with unusual intensity, and early on learned to administer his own injections of asthma medicine.
Guevara entered medical school at the University of Buenos Aires in 1948, but in 1951, took off on a long road trip with his friend and fellow medical student Alberto Granado. The two set off from their hometown of Alta Gracia after an anguished departure from Guevara’s childhood sweetheart, “La Chichina,” the daughter of a wealthy family. As Guevara describes it, leaving behind his beautiful girlfriend to explore the rough reality of Latin America marked the beginning of his lifelong rejection of privilege.
Guevara narrated the story of his trip with Alberto Granado in a chronicle translated into “The Motorcycle Diaries” in 1996. With two full-grown men riding an old British Norton 500 cc motorcycle nicknamed La Poderosa, “The Powerful One,” over primitive roads through the Andean highlands, most motorcycle mechanics would have predicted that the highly-pedigreed mechanical steed would not be up to the task. The two men made it halfway up the length of Chile before the bike gave out after an accident picturesquely described in The Motorcycle Diaries:
“As we went around a tight bend at quite a speed, the screw came off the back brake, a cow’s head appeared round the bend, then lots more, and I clutched the hand brake which, soldered in an elementary fashion, broke too. For a moment I saw nothing but the shapes of cattle flashing by on all sides, while poor Poderosa gathered speed down the steep hill. By an absolute miracle, all we touched was the leg of the last cow. In the distance was a river which seemed to be beckoning us with terrifying certainty. I steered the bike on to the side of the road and it flew up the two-metre bank, ending up lodged between two rocks, but we were unhurt.”
Shortly after this routine collision with a mountainside, “La Poderosa finally gave up the ghost,” but the two determined young men continued on foot. Guevara’s record of the event is laconic: “It was our last day as ‘motorized bums’; the next stage, as ‘non-motorized bums’, looked to be more difficult.” On foot and hitchhiking, the two continued through the Andean highlands of Chile and Peru, through mining areas where the descendants of the Incas labor in virtual slavery, and into a leper colony in San Pablo, Peru. The two young medical students were well-received by the patients, doctors and staff, but because they declined to attend Catholic mass, were refused food by the nuns who ran the colony, and thus dined mainly on scraps smuggled out by the patients. On Saturday, June 14, 1952, Guevara turned twenty-four, and the entire leper colony put on a celebration that he described in a letter to his mother Celia:
“On the 14th, they gave me a party with lots of pisco, a kind of gin which makes you beautifully tipsy. The medical director toasted us, and I, inspired by the booze, replied with a very Panamerican speech, which earned great applause from the eminent, and eminently drunk, audience. The scene was one of the most interesting of our trip. 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.”
Guevara paraphrased his recollection of the “very Panamerican speech” as follows:
“Although we’re too insignificant to be spokesmen for such a noble cause, we believe, and this journey has only served to confirm this belief, that the division of America into unstable and illusory nations is a complete fiction. We are one single mestizo race with remarkable ethnographical similarities, from Mexico down to the Magellan Straits. And so, in an attempt to break free from all narrow-minded provincialism, propose a toast to Peru and to a United America.”
After the party, the next day, Guevara and his companion Alberto left Peru on a river raft the lepers had constructed for them. They headed for a point downstream, but unable to pull their “little Kontiki” out of the river’s main course, missed their disembarcation point, and ran aground at a nameless river bend in Brazil, where they had not intended to go. After spending much of their remaining money purchasing cut-rate plane fare to Colombia, the two men turned their detour into a sporting triumph:
“What saved the day, though, was that we were asked to coach a football team while we were waiting for the plane which came only once every two weeks. Initially we only meant to coach them so they didn’t make fools of themselves, but they were so bad we decided to play too, with the brilliant result that what was considered the weakest team went into the on-day championship totally reorganized, got to the final and only lost on penalties.”
In Colombia, the two were offered jobs in a medical university, but after a row with police over Guevara’s use of a knife to draw in the dirt, they left for Caracas, Venezuela by bus, where the two travelers parted company. Alberto Granado stayed in Caracas, and Guevara flew to Miami with the intention to fly back to Buenos Aires from there, but due to problems with the plane and the airline, ended up stranded in Miami with one dollar in his pocket. Living in a hotel that he paid with money wired from Argentina, with no resources, Guevara explored Miami for a month before he was able to return to his homeland, but The Motorcycle Diaries, for whatever reason, record nothing of this visit to the US mainland.
Guevara graduated from the University of Buenos Aires school of medicine in 1953, and immediately thereafter went to Guatemala to take witness and participate in the social reform efforts championed by President Jacobo Arbenz, who had been elected by a 65% popular vote. In Guatemala, Guevara acquired the name “Che” from his use of this common Argentine expletive – a word that serves the purpose of “Wow” or “Hey,” as in “Che! This is some great food!” He also met Hilda Gadea, who became his first wife and intellectual inspiration. Together, they had one child, “Hildita,” and shared their zeal for Communism as the remedy for the sickness of class distinctions, exploitation, and poverty. But they were not able to enjoy the liberalized environment of Guatemala for long. Arbenz’s primary goal was to re-distribute land, 72% of which was owned by 2% of the people, and as a result, was grossly underutilized. Since virtually all agricultural production in Guatemala was managed for the benefit of the US-based United Fruit Company, the United States was hostile to Arbenz. Thus within a year of Che’s arrival, although Arbenz enjoyed popular support, he was unseated in 1954 by Col. Carlos Castillo Armas, backed by the CIA. The CIA’s involvement in the coup, then under the direction of Allen Dulles, was well-known even at the time, and the US Ambassador to Guatemala, John E. Peurifoy, was fully complicit in the timing and execution of the coup. See, The Invisible Government, Chap. 11, D. Wise and T.B. Ross (1964). Assisted by US air support, the new regime turned Guatemala City upside down overnight, putting all social activists in immediate danger of arrest, torture and death, Armas’ standard operating procedure for keeping order. Guevara briefly took refuge in the Argentine embassy during the coup, then fled to Mexico City, filled with anger at seeing Guatemala’s populist dream crushed by outside interference.
In Mexico City, Guevara met Fidel Castro, recently exiled from Cuba by Gen. Fulgencio Batista, the island dictator who ruled an empire of corruption with the approval and aid of powerful US interests, including organized crime. The meeting shaped the history of Latin America. Fidel Castro, an attorney and powerful speaker, combined pragmatic goals with a willingness to take extreme, often badly-calculated risks. Guevara, a doctor and an avid of reader of Marx, was eager to join any revolution with prospects for overwhelming the entrenched plutocracies he had found everywhere during his travels in Latin America.
The Cuban revolution started badly and ended well. On December 2, 1956, Castro and Che, with a group of supporters, launched their attack from the United States, sailing in an old boat dubbed the “Granma,” and landed on the Southeastern coast of Cuba near Niquero. Although they’d planned their arrival to coincide with a planned uprising in Santiago de Cuba two days before, the Granma was carrying four times its prescribed load of passengers, and had to negotiate tough seas, so it was late. The uprising in Santiago had been put down, and there was nothing to distract Batista’s forces from tearing apart the expeditionary force, that landed ashore in a swampy, exposed area and was promptly decimated, leaving only fifteen survivors. Guevara had come as a doctor, but dumped his medical supplies and instead hauled a crate of ammunition into the jungle. While healing the body politic was his passion, his approach to the project was surgical.
On the day of the invasion, there was nothing to do but flee to fight another day, but once they were established, the movement grew with a sense of inevitability. Castro and Che formed a complementary bond and built a stronghold in the Sierra Maestra mountains. As the group grew, Che proved a valuable organizer of the illiterate workers and former criminals who formed the backbone of the rebellion. Fidel, on the other hand, was a master with the bullhorn who loved to engage the enemy in a standoff, then take the opportunity to harangue the opposing military leaders with diatribes against Batista and exhortations to act as honorable men. He addressed an idealistic argument to the opposition, speaking to them as a friend and compatriot. He reminded them that they were all Cuban patriots, honest men who wanted to see a free Cuba, a goal that was blocked by the puppet dictator’s US-backed regime. Fidel’s preaching was so convincing that he repeatedly talked Batista’s troops into surrendering weapons, vehicles, supplies, and soldiers, all in a single package.
After a few months in the Sierra Maestra, Castro promoted Che to the rank of Commander (“Comandante”), awarding him the single star that adorned the dark beret he is wearing in the iconographic photograph. He gathered a cadre of loyal soldiers around him, and established discipline within the revolutionary ranks. As the movement grew in popularity, it faced the risk of degenerating into gangsterism.
Local militias, headed by small-time strongmen, often merged with the revolutionary forces to gain armed strength, but didn’t adopt revolutionary ideals of honesty and respect for the citizenry. Thus, Che established revolutionary courts that heard accusations of criminal conduct such as rape and theft, which occurred commonly, and executed the perpetrators. Soldiers fighting under Che were required to study more than military tactics. They learned to read, absorbed Marxist doctrine, and became committed, well-informed leaders of other people like themselves. This legacy of Che’s work raised the rate of literacy in Cuba to over ninety percent, up from 10% before the revolution, and currently the highest in Latin America.
Che also led the decisive attack in the Cuban revolution, attacking and conquering Santa Clara, and derailing a troop and supply train that arrived to relieve government troops. Che and Castro clinched the victory over Batista in 1958, when he fled to the US-controlled Dominican Republic, then to Portugal, and finally to Spain, where Generalissimo Franco had managed to hold onto his dictatorial rule quite effectively. Batista died in Spain in 1973 after authoring “The Growth and Decline of the Cuban Republic.” Franco died two years later.
In January, 1959, Castro and Che were the two most powerful men in Cuba. Che was commander of the largest military prison, and the chief prosecutor of ex-Batista secret police, traitors, and torturers. He tried and sentenced many people to death, using firing squads in which all of the higher officers were required to take positions, so that responsibility was shared at all levels. Until the mid-sixties, Che was unquestionably Fidel’s right hand. He served as the head of the Cuban National Bank, and also undertook to reorganize production to supply basic needs after the United States imposed an embargo on all Cuban products, devastating an economy based almost entirely on the sale of sugar. Although he married a second wife, Aleida, and divorced Hilda, he remained a devoted father to Hildita and visited her almost daily despite a heavy schedule that included working nights and weekends in fields and factories after he had completed a full day of administrative work. Che and Aleida had four children. Declaring that he had set nothing aside to care for them, he expressed no concern for their welfare after his death, asserting that the State would care for their needs.
By 1965, however, Che was a bit of a third wheel. The Soviet Union had replaced the US as Cuba’s trading partner, and Che was first suspicious, and then strongly critical, of the USSR’s style of communism. After his position became clear, he became a political liability for Castro in the new age, and despite efforts to paper over the rift, Che increasingly found himself marginalized within the government.
Perhaps some people can never retire, can never hang up their guns. Certainly Che did not even try. Throughout 1965 Che devoted himself to the struggle against the remnanats of colonial rule in the Belgian Congo, renamed Zaire under the liberal leader Patrice Lumumba, who was killed by Belgian assassins in 1961. In February of 2002, the Belgian government apologized to the Congolese people, and admitted to a “moral responsibility” and “an irrefutable portion of responsibility in the events that led to the death of Lumumba.” Despite his desire to assist the people of Zaire, Che was unable to achieve anything of value. He collaborated with Gen. Kabila, but had little faith in his ability or commitment. As long as Africa was led by persons of Kabila’s stripe, said Che, the people of Africa “have many more years of slavery to look forward to.”
From 1965 to 1967, Che’s whereabouts were undisclosed. Castro, however, made public the contents of an undated letter that Che had written to him, describing his desire to go forward with international work beyond Cuba’s borders, and resigning all official connection to Cuba. The reasons why Che wrote this letter, and the reasons that moved Fidel to make it public, remain unclear, but it certainly served to prevent Che’s return to Cuba. Che spent time in Tanzania, East Germany, and Prague, writing and contemplating his situation and that of the world.
In 1967, Che was in Bolivia, attempting to start a revolution in that desperately poor country. After some early successful operations, however, President Renee Barrientos put the Bolivian army to work tracking down the famous guerrillero. The CIA and Special Forces trainers came to Bolivia and created a crack unit of 400 local soldiers. Felix Rodriguez, a Cuban CIA agent who had survived the Bay of Pigs fiasco, led the hunt. Applying a scorched earth policy, the Bolivians continued a campaign of arresting, interrogating, and torturing anyone who might have information about, or sympathies with, Che and his troops. On October 8, 1967, the Bolivian soldiers ran Che to ground. As he climbed up a narrow chimney of rock that might have led to safety, he was confronted by two Bolivian soldiers above him. He raised his rifle, but it jammed. He pulled his sidearm and attempted to fire, only to find that the magazine had fallen out, and there was nothing to shoot. Thus, he was taken prisoner, and on direct orders of Barrientos, was executed after his body was riddled with bullet wounds to make it seem as if he had been killed in a gun battle. His pain was evidently severe and protracted. It is reported that he told his killer, who had been chosen by lot and wasn’t up for the job, “I know you are here to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man”. Then next day, his body was strapped to the landing struts of a helicopter and flown to Vallegrande, where it was exhibited to the press. Rodriguez kept Che’s Rolex watch and showed it off as a trophy. Che’s hands were removed by a doctor and given to the CIA to check the prints to be sure the right man had been killed.
On October 15, 1967, Castro acknowledged that Che was
dead, and proclaimed three days of public mourning. Thirty years
later, Cuban scientists unearthed the skeletal remains of a handless
body from where they had been concealed beneath an air strip near
Vallegrande. The remains were positively identified by DNA matching,
and returned to Cuba. On October 17, 1997 the remains of a soldier
who died at the age of thirty-nine were entombed with full military
honors in Santa Clara, Cuba. His memory now belongs to the ages.