I met Che Guevara in November 1963 at a reception in the gardens of the Soviet Embassy in Havana, one of those diplomatic occasions held every year to celebrate the anniversary of the October Revolution. He strode in after midnight, accompanied by a coterie of friends, bodyguards and hangers-on, wearing his trademark black beret, his shirt open to the waist. He was unbelievably beautiful. People stopped whatever they were doing and stared at the Revolution made flesh. ‘He had an incalculable enchantment that came completely naturally,’ Julia Costenla, an Argentine journalist told Jon Lee Anderson when he was researching his biography of Guevara. ‘If he entered a room, everything began revolving around him.’
That night he found a seat in a corner of the embassy gardens and everyone gathered round. I haven’t much memory of what was discussed. I was a youthful neophyte with little knowledge and less Spanish, attracted moth-like to Cuba – like hundreds of other rebels, adventurers, mountebanks and discontents from Europe and North and South America – by the flame of Revolution.
It took twenty-four hours to fly to Cuba from Europe in those days, the Iberia Viscount touching down on all the islands in the mid-Atlantic on the way. I had two volumes of the collected works of Thomas Balogh in my luggage, required reading for progressive Latin American economists, as well as a small Stilton cheese in a china jar. This had been purchased at Fortnum and Mason, on the recommendation of my Chilean friend Claudio Véliz, the Latin American specialist at Chatham House. He thought it would be a suitable present for Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, the éminence grise of the Cuban Communist Party. Latin American Communists of that generation appreciated the finer things in life. Later I discovered that Pablo Neruda liked to receive homage in the shape of crates of whisky and tins of caviar.
The officials at Havana airport prodded the Stilton with knitting needles lest it should turn out to be a bomb. ‘Operation Mongoose’, the United States’ fifty-million-dollar campaign to destabilise Cuba in the wake of the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion, had only recently, we now know, been abandoned. One secret CIA report of the time, since released, reveals how an agent passed a pen-syringe to a Cuban contact in Paris, intended for use in assassinating Castro, on the very day in November 1963 that President Kennedy was shot. The Cubans were understandably careful with unannounced visitors bearing gifts. At the end of my trip, I was able to present Carlos Rafael with the rather sweaty Stilton, before we went on to discuss Cuba’s ‘second’ agrarian reform – the vibrant topic of the hour – over which he and Guevara had been in marked disagreement.
I never met Che Guevara again, though four years later I had an almost accidental rendezvous with his barely cold cadaver. At five o’clock in the afternoon of Monday, 9 October 1967, a las cinco de la tarde, Guevara’s body, on a stretcher strapped to the landing rails of a helicopter, arrived in the Bolivian hill town of Vallegrande. He had been shot some four hours earlier, on the orders – we were to discover much later – of the High Command of the Bolivian Army.
I had spent the previous Saturday, with two other journalists, visiting the headquarters of the American military training mission at La Esperanza sugar mill, some forty miles outside the eastern oil town of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. (Granada Television had enlisted me to act as Brian Moser’s consultant on a World in Action documentary.) At La Esperanza, we found the commander, Major Ralph ‘Pappy’ Shelton, a Korean veteran, in an expansive mood. With a handful of senior American officers he was celebrating the end of the six-month crash course they had organised for the Bolivian Army. A team of 16 Spanish-speaking ‘trainers’ had introduced a battalion of six hundred men to the new techniques of counter-revolutionary warfare, and sent them out into the field the previous week.
The following evening, in a café in the central square of Santa Cruz, one of these American officers told us that they had heard on their short-wave radio that Guevara had been captured. ‘He has been wounded,’ we were told, ‘and may not last the night.’
We drove for many hours in the darkness to Vallegrande, the forward base of the Bolivian Army in their campaign against the guerrillas, and arrived at nine o’clock on Monday morning. A jittery military commander refused us permission to travel on to La Higuera, the village thirty miles away where Guevara was being held. Without military permits, it was impossible to move that year in Bolivia.
All morning we twiddled our thumbs. Then, at lunchtime, Colonel Joaquín Zen-teno Anaya, the commander of the Bolivian Army’s Eighth Division, held an informal press conference. He had told me ten days earlier that Che Guevara’s guerrillas were encircled and that they had no hope of escape. Now he informed us that Guevara had been captured and was dead. Many of the Army’s High Command, including General Alfredo Ovando Cándia, the Bolivian Vice President, flew in from La Paz in an ancient DC6 that afternoon.
By early evening, the entire population of Vallegrande was assembled at the side of the grass airfield. When the helicopter arrived, the body it was bearing was whisked off in a small Chevrolet van to the cottage hospital, where it was laid out across the wash stands of an open laundry hut. All this was done under the supervision of a Cuban-American CIA man, known to us as Eduardo González, one of two agents operating in the guerrilla zone. ‘Where do you come from?’ I asked him. ‘From nowhere,’ he replied. He and I were the only people present who had seen Guevara alive, and who could testify that this was indeed him.
The CIA’s involvement was reported by the Reuters correspondent, Christopher Roper, in the story he filed that day, but the crucial paragraph was tactfully removed from the version printed by the New York Time. My own story in the Guardian, which would normally have been reprinted by the Washington Post, was ignored. Not until I had written a detailed account for the Nation did the mainstream American press finally admit, a year later, that US intelligence agents had been present in Bolivia on the last day of Guevara’s life.
For half an hour or so we stared at the open eyes of the cadaver, which two doctors were attempting to preserve with embalming fluid. Crowds of villagers pushed into the laundry yard to get a glimpse of yet another dead guerrilla. Brian Moser took a number of photographs as the light was waning, later to be used to great effect in his Granada documentary. Then we made the eight-hour journey back to Santa Cruz, to try to find a way of communicating with the outside world.
The following day, the Bolivian Government flew in journalists from La Paz to view the body, and the famous photographs were taken – later compared by John Berger to Mantegna’s Dead Christ and Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson. That evening, when the journalists had gone, the two local doctors performed an autopsy, which showed beyond doubt that Guevara had been shot long after capture, though this only emerged later.
To enable identification in La Paz, General Ovando ordered that Guevara’s head should be cut off. The Bolivian officers on the spot, and indeed the CIA agent, refused to do this. Instead, a death mask was cast. The result was botched. The doctors forgot the powder, and the hot wax removed all the skin, and the eyebrows. By the time Guevara’s astonishingly lifelike photograph, taken hours earlier, had circled the globe, to appear in newspapers everywhere the following morning, his face had been destroyed. The doctors were instructed to cut off his hands, again for identification purposes, and these were made available to fingerprint experts from the Argentine police four days later. Then, very early on Wednesday morning, the cadaver was buried under the Vallegrande airfield.
Jorge Castañeda, one of the new biographers of Guevara, has succeeded in tracking down ‘González’ and interviewed him over several days in November 1995 at his home in Miami, where he works selling sports clothes. His real name was Gustavo Villoldo. He was a Cuban exile, recruited by the CIA to train mercenaries in Guatemala before the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and had subsequently fought in the Congo in 1965, with a group of Cuban exiles working for Moise Tshombe. In fact, his career had closely paralleled Guevara’s. At the end of July 1967, he had arrived in La Paz to head the CIA’s ‘Country Team’ and link up with the Bolivian military at the front.
‘I buried Che Guevara,’ Villoldo told Castañeda.
He was not cremated, I would not have allowed it, and I was also opposed to any mutilation of the body. I took the body, together with that of two other guerrillas, in a lorry. I was accompanied by a Bolivian driver, and a lieutenant who may have been called Barrientos. We arrived at the airfield, and there we buried them. I would recognise the spot immediately. If they continue looking, they will find him. They will be able to recognise him by the clinical removal of his hands.
Among the bodies dug up in Vallegrande, in early July this year, was a skeleton with no hands – the remains of an anti-imperialist buried by the CIA.
It was the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli who first brought the famous Alberto Korda photograph – Che in a beret, gazing into the distance – back to Europe in 1967, and it was the Italian Communist Party, feeling its way towards Eurocommunism, that first put the enchanting icon onto its banners. Posters of Guevara were soon pinned to the walls of student bedsits around the world. The implicit message in 1968 was that radical action could and should be taken against the monolithic structures of East and West. Since Guevara was conveniently dead – and, furthermore, martyred – his bewitching image could be used without fear of contradiction to unify a strange assortment of bedfellows in an internationalist, anti-imperialist crusade.
Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born in 1928 in the Argentine town of Rosario. He spent his early years in the northern, former Jesuit province of Misiones, across the Chaco desert from where he died. The Guevara family lived some way upriver from the mission town of Yapeyú, the birthplace of Juan San Martín, the 19th-century liberator of Argentina, Chile and Peru. San Martín, who died in exile in France after unspecified differences with his fellow liberator Simón Bolívar, could in many ways be considered a forerunner of Guevara.
By the standards of the time, Guevara had a fairly conventional upper-middle-class upbringing. His childhood, like his short adult life, was dominated by his asthma. His parents were obliged to move, largely for his sake, from the semi-tropical lowlands of Misiones to Alta Gracia, on the lower slopes of the Andes above Córdoba. Guevara seems throughout his life to have had an extraordinary will to disregard and overcome his quite major disability, even when he found himself fighting guerrilla wars in Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia, where the conditions for asthmatics could hardly have been worse.
His interest in politics came late. In the mid-Forties, when he was studying medicine, Argentina was in thrall to Peronism. By 1948 Fidel Castro, for example, was already a Cuban student leader, caught up by chance in the bogotazo in Colombia – days of serious rioting that followed the assassination of the Liberal leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. But Guevara was more interested in medicine than in Peronist, or indeed continental, politics. As a young man, he apparently advised the maids in his parents’ house to vote for Perón on the grounds that his policies favoured their ‘social class’ – a formulation which suggests that Perón had little to offer the comfortably-off Guevara family. (Very much an Argentine man of his time, he had his first sexual experiences with the same maids he was urging to vote for Perón.) During the Cuban guerrilla war, he called his new recruits descamisados, ‘shirtless ones’ – the Peronist term for rural migrants living in shanty towns. After the revolution, he tried to have Perón, then exiled in Spain, invited to Cuba. A meeting between Castro and Perón would have been a formidable event.
By the early Fifties, the Peronist regime was coming to its natural end. It was a time of political stasis. Guevara spent a few months at sea as a medical orderly on an oil-tanker, visiting a number of Latin American ports. Then he embarked on two epic journeys across the continent, one of them – in 1952 – by motorcycle. He needed to escape from the claustrophobia of home, and, above all, to write.
All the new biographies emphasise Guevara’s facility with the pen. He rarely failed to record the events of his life day by day, as they happened. Much of his early note-taking suggests the neutral observation of a journalist, and on his second journey he made a little money by writing magazine articles about his travels. During the travels of 1952, an international network of medics enabled him to meet, among others, Hugo Pesce, a leprologist and Italian-educated disciple of Juan Carlos Mariátegui, the Peruvian Marxist of the Twenties. Few Argentinians of the Fifties had access to the ideas of Mariaátegui, and Guevara was later to acknowledge that Pesce had ‘provoked a great change in my attitude towards life and society’. On this journey, he acquired not only the beginnings of a theoretical framework for his ideas, but also first-hand experience of the grim conditions in which the majority of Latin Americans lived.
He returned to Argentina to finish his medical studies, and set off again in July 1953, at the age of 25, on a train to Bolivia. In the same month, on 26 July, Fidel Castro and a group of armed rebels attacked the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba. It was a disaster, and 69 of the attackers were subsequently executed – a foretaste of the catastrophe that befell Guevara and his comrades 14 years later in the Bolivian forests.
Bolivia had embarked on a unique revolutionary experiment of its own the previous year. A groundswell of discontent, dating back to the Chaco War with Paraguay in the Thirties, had culminated in 1952 with the appearance of armed peasants on the streets of La Paz. The National Revolutionary Movement seized power, abolished the Armed Forces and nationalised the tin mines. Plans were drawn up for extensive land reform. Guevara spent a month in Bolivia that summer, visiting the tin mines and taking a passing interest in land reform. The Bolivian revolution, he felt, was insufficiently radical. Travelling on to Peru and Ecuador, he fell in with a group of leftists who had been exiled from Perón’s Argentina. They spoke of a more serious revolutionary process unfolding in Guatemala. Guevara was keen to know more. He arrived in Guatemala City on Christmas Eve 1953.
The decade of revolution in Guatemala had an extraordinary influence on subsequent events in Latin America. Embarked on by Juan José Arévalo in 1944, and radicalised by Jacobo Arbenz in 1951, the Guatemalan experiment permitted Communist participation in government, which, in the early years of the Cold War, aroused bitter opposition from the US. At the time of Guevara’s visit, Guatemala City was already a Mecca for exiled revolutionaries from the rest of the continent – a phenomenon which was to be repeated in Havana in the Sixties, in Santiago de Chile in the Seventies, and in Managua in the Eighties, as new generations were baptised in these endlessly renewable revolutionary waters.
In Guatemala, Guevara met his future wife, Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian schooled in the populist politics of Haya de la Torre and the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana. She, too, was moving leftwards, and introduced Guevara to the works of Mao Zedong. Through Hilda, he met and became friends with an American Marxist, Harold White, and in due course, with survivors of Castro’s Moncada rebellion. The Guatemalan revolution was nearing its end. In July 1954, an invading army, backed by the CIA, overthrew the elected government of Arbenz and replaced it with a military dictatorship, a traumatic event from which Guatemala has never recovered. It initiated a period of civil war – and ethnic conflict – of almost unparalleled violence, which continues after nearly half a century.
For future revolutions in Latin America to be successful, Che concluded from the events in Guatemala, they would have to do three things: destroy the armed forces of the ancien régime; curb the power of the Catholic Church and the press; and keep the United States at bay by any means. These became the watchwords of the Cuban revolution, in which Guevara’s anti-Americanism was to be far more significant than his interest in Marxism, or in the Soviet Union, or in China. After the Bay of Pigs, he became an ardent supporter of Soviet nuclear missile deployment in Cuba, as a means of keeping the Americans at arm’s length, and he never forgave Khrushchev for giving in to Kennedy.
The Americans, too, drew conclusions from their Guatemalan experience. The CIA began a war on left-wingers in Latin America that reached a climax in the Seventies, when it was enough to be a young student to run the risk of being ‘disappeared’. Alarmed at the possibility that the several hundred Latin American leftist refugees who had sought asylum in the foreign embassies of Guatemala City might be let loose on the continent like a plague bacillus, the CIA director, Allen Dulles, campaigned for them to be brought to trial in Guatemala, but cooler counsels prevailed and they were issued with safe-conduct passes to other countries in Latin America. Guevara travelled on to Mexico City.
‘Dulles’s instincts,’ as Anderson writes, ‘would soon prove correct.’ The embassy prisoners in Guatemala in 1954 did indeed disperse through Latin America and ‘a host of future revolutionaries’ escaped Dulles’s grasp. ‘In Mexico and elsewhere, they would regroup, and, from the ashes of the Arbenz débâcle, eventually re-emerge – often with Guevara’s help – as the Marxist guerrillas who would haunt American policymakers for the next forty years.’
Once established in Mexico City, Guevara followed up his Cuban contacts, and the following year, in July 1955, he was introduced to Fidel Castro, who was organising a guerrilla invasion of Cuba, with a view to overthrowing the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Guevara was soon asked to join the party of insurgents. Another foreigner had been invited to help: General Alberto Bayo, a Spanish career officer who had fought against the Moroccans and against Franco during the Thirties. Exiled to Mexico at the end of the Spanish Civil War, he had begun a new life, training youthful Caribbean revolutionaries. When Fidel (whose own father came to Cuba during an earlier Spanish emigration) was casting around for a military man to train his own rebel band in Mexico, the choice of Bayo reaffirmed the historical connection between the Cuban revolution and the Spanish Civil War.
The legacy of Spain is crucial. Many members of the great Spanish Republican diaspora were domiciled in Russia, and after 1959 a number of these Spanish-Russians made their way to Cuba. Among them were Major Angel Ciutat, who became an officer in Fidel’s intelligence service and helped train Guevara’s Argentine guerrilla group of 1963-4; and Trotsky’s assassin, Ramón Mercader. Alexander Alexiev, the first Soviet Ambassador to Havana, was also a veteran of the Spanish war. Exiled Spanish Republicans and their families were to spread out over the whole of Latin America, stiffening the sinews of the local Left with fresh recruits whose ideologies had been hardened by war and defeat. The first political memories of the young Che, like those of many of his generation, were of the Spanish war. His parents were active in the local Spanish Republican support committee, and Guevara called his dog Negrina after the Spanish Prime Minister, Juan Negrín. A refugee family with children of Guevara’s age, whose father had been a member of Negrín’s government, had arrived in their town in 1938. Spain’s gift to the Cuban revolution was General Bayo. He was the first person to identify Guevara, once enlisted in Fidel’s rebel band, as an excellent shot and an outstanding commander.
After his experience in Guatemala, Guevara openly described himself as a Communist, as, with greater circumspection, did Fidel’s brother Raúl. Even his most recent biographers find it difficult to explain how and why Guevara’s ideological position evolved quite so rapidly. The entire Latin American Left in this period could be described as marxisant, and Guevara, you could say, was just catching up with a general trend. He had long been interested in, and supportive of, what was happening in the Soviet Union and China. But it was only in Mexico that he began to define himself as ‘a Communist’. He had time to develop his dialectical skills, condensing his innumerable philosophical notebooks into a 300page volume that set out his political beliefs, derived from a detailed reading of Marx, Engels and Lenin.
Jorge Castañeda, the most critical of the new biographers, suggests that Guevara’s experience in Guatemala led him to become, and remain for some years, an old-fashioned Stalinist, isolated from the dramatic events of 1956 that led many people elsewhere to have second thoughts about the great Soviet fatherland. Castañeda cites various sources suggesting that Guevara believed the Hungarian uprising of 1956 to be ‘a fascist conspiracy’, that he supported the Soviet invasion, and that he regarded Khrushchev’s speech to the Twentieth Party Congress that year, denouncing Stalin, as ‘imperialist propaganda’.
This clearly was Guevara’s attitude during the Cuban revolutionary war. At the time, his mind was hardly focused on events in Eastern Europe. Yet he had no enthusiasm for party discipline. He never joined an old-style Communist Party, either in Mexico or Cuba, though he became a member of the Cuban Party cobbled together after the revolution. In later years, after some experience of ‘actually existing socialism’ and its material and spiritual poverty, and shocked by the October missile crisis, he became a fierce critic of Soviet Communism – from the left.
In June 1956, along with all the important Cuban revolutionaries, Guevara was arrested by the Mexican police and interrogated. According to Anderson, who has read the interrogation notes kept by the police, he ‘openly admitted his Communism and declared his belief in the need for armed revolutionary struggle, not only in Cuba, but throughout Latin America’. Fidel, always keen to emphasise his nationalist and democratic credentials, was not pleased when he heard what Guevara had said, suspecting that it would soon get into the hands of the CIA; it did. Anderson notes that his uncompromising statements have never appeared in the histories written in Cuba.
Guevara’s political position was rather far from the majority view of Castro’s 26 July Movement. When Guevara finally met the urban leaders of the movement, in the mountains in Cuba early in 1957, he was shocked by ‘the evident anti-Communist inclinations’ that prevailed among them. There was an angry exchange of letters at the end of that year between Guevara and René Ramos Latour, the moderate leader of the movement in Santiago. ‘Because of my ideological background,’ Guevara wrote, ‘I belong with those who believe that the solution of the world’s problems lies behind the so-called iron curtain.’ Ramos Latour replied: ‘Those with your ideological background think the solution to our evils is to free ourselves from the noxious “Yankee” domination by means of a no less noxious “Soviet” domination.’ Disputes of that kind were to continue throughout Guevara’s life, though some years later, acutely aware of the dangers of the Soviet embrace, he argued that the Soviet Union was not so much the solution as part of the problem.
There is an old romantic notion that when Castro’s guerrillas landed in Cuba, the peasants of the Sierra Maestra flocked to their standard. From Anderson’s account, a different story emerges. Castro’s guerrillas entered what was already an area of armed conflict between squatters and landowners’ narks. Célia Sánchez, the woman charged with organising a support system for the guerrillas in the Sierra (and who later became Fidel’s lover), simply turned to a squatters’ leader, Crescencio Pérez, who had long operated on the estate where she grew up.
‘Pérez was a curious figure to find later established as one of the founding fathers of the successful revolution,’ Hugh Thomas wrote in Cuba, or the Pursuit of Freedom (1971), ‘since he was a bandit more than a radical, a common criminal believed to have committed murder.’ Fidel’s political skill was to realise that Pérez would be useful. Criminal he may have been, but he was immediately made a member of Fidel’s five-man general staff, and told to find peasants for the cause. With years of experience, and doubtless many old debts to collect, Crescencio was a natural recruiting sergeant. Later, Guevara was to recruit a landowner’s agent, or mayoral, as one of his own messengers.
‘For all the post-triumph revolutionary lyricism about the “noble peasantry” of the Sierra Maestra,’ Anderson notes caustically, ‘it is clear that, in these early times, Fidel and his men were very much on alien ground. They neither knew nor understood the hearts and minds of the locals, but relied on Crescencio and his men to negotiate for them.’ What makes these corrections to the historical record so important is that the welcome the peasants would extend to revolutionary forces was crucial to Guevara’s theory of guerrilla warfare. Two years after the victory of the Revolution, early in 1961, he published one of his most substantial texts: ‘Cuba: Historical Exception or Vanguard in the Anti-Colonialist Struggle?’ This stirring call to arms, influential on the left all over Latin America, argued that ‘the peasant class of America, basing itself on the ideology of the working class, whose great thinkers discovered the social laws governing us, will provide the great liberating army of the future, as it has already done in Cuba.’
Nearly forty years later, this text seems completely irrelevant. But in 1959, things were very different. The population of Latin America, today largely urban, then consisted mostly of landless peasants. ‘Land to the tiller’ was still an appropriate demand. The effect of the Cuban revolution was to force the US to support, if only with words, the expropriation of its oldest Latin American allies, the land-owning oligarchy. In parts of the continent even the Catholic Church gave (some of) its land away. Guevara was not alone in seeking a new deal for the peasant.
There was, of course, a political purpose behind his championing of rural guerrilla warfare. War was bound to be a radicalising process, and the guerrillas would always prove to be more revolutionary than their allies in the cities. Guevara had observed with interest how, during the Cuban war, other political groups in the country had constantly tried to outmanoeuvre Fidel. He learnt to appreciate the advantage enjoyed by politicians with guns in their hands. All those directly involved in fighting the war in the Sierra Maestra were convinced that the revolution would only be safe under their control. This was Guevara’s enduring concern in the elaboration of his theories – and of his practice in the Congo and Bolivia. Political leadership had to be kept by the guerrillas themselves, in the jungle or the mountains; it could not be the prerogative of remote figureheads in the cities.
Cuba’s Congo excursion of 1965 proved to be a further educational experience in this respect. The notional Congolese leader, Laurent Kabila, was almost never there when he was needed. Crucial decisions were endlessly postponed. Two years later in Bolivia, Guevara was determined that he, the guerrilla commander, had to be the ultimate boss – ‘El jefe soy yo,’ he said; ‘I am in charge.’ He was not prepared to cede power to Mario Monje, the political chief of the Bolivian Communist Party. This was harsh but dangerous realpolitik. A fascist band, after all, might have made the same demand. Guevara himself seems to have behaved with great propriety, however, even if he could be very hard. In Bolivia and the Congo, people wanted to give up, and in some cases deserted, but there were no punishments. In Cuba, things were tougher, and during the brief Argentine campaign led by Guevara’s protégé, Jorge Masetti, they clearly got out of hand. Masetti seems to have been a psychotic killer and an anti-semite: two Jews within the guerrilla ranks were killed by their own side. This was the dark strain of Argentine nationalism, with its origins in the right-wing Catholic milieu from which Masetti sprang. But the facts, gleaned and recounted by Anderson, leave a bitter taste.
In Cuba, even after the victory, there were accounts to be settled. When Fidel’s barbudos marched into Havana in January 1959, Guevara was assigned control of the military base at the fort of La Cabaña. There he was in charge of many of the trials and executions of people closely involved with the repression of the Batista years. Castro gave Guevara the task because he knew him to be a tough and unsentimental operator, and perhaps, too, because he was not a Cuban.
Guevara saw it as a job that had to be done – to safeguard the revolution. He still had memories of Guatemala in 1954. After the fall of Arbenz he had complained, to a friend, about the false propaganda being spread by the Americans. ‘There were no murders or anything like it,’ he had written. ‘There should have been a few firing squads early on, which is different; if those shootings had taken place the Government would have retained the possibility of fighting back.’ In Cuba, Guevara was put in charge of the kinds of shooting he would have favoured in Guatemala.
Miguel Angel Duque de Estrada, a young Havana lawyer, was involved in the ‘cleansing commission’. More than a thousand prisoners, he told Anderson, were held in La Cabaña.
Che consulted with me. But he was in charge, and, as military commander, his word was final. We were in agreement on almost 100 per cent of the decisions. In about 100 days we carried out about 55 executions by firing squad, and we got a lot of flak for it, but we gave each case due and fair consideration and we didn’t come to our decisions lightly.
In the end, Fidel put a stop to the wave of executions, after hearing of adverse reactions abroad.
In the months that followed, there was some difficulty in deciding what Guevara’s role in the revolutionary government should be. He was one of Fidel’s chief lieutenants, but he was also an outspoken anti-American Communist of indeterminate allegiance, in a period when the direction of the revolution itself was still undecided.
In June 1959, he was sent off on a visit to the countries of the emerging Third World, signatories of the Bandung Pact of 1954, a group that expressed its strong desire not to be aligned with the US or the Soviet Union. An almost accidental decision, it proved to be one of the defining moments of the revolution. The French war in Algeria was at its height; the British war at Suez was three years away; much of Africa was under European imperial control. The United States was hungrily waiting for the old European colonies to fall into its lap. Judging correctly that Cuba would at some stage be politically isolated, Guevara began a search for allies, looking where no one had thought of looking before. He travelled for over three months to 14 countries, including Egypt, India, Indonesia and Yugoslavia.
In The Fall of Che Guevara, Henry Ryan, a former US diplomat, argues that Guevara’s diplomacy on behalf of the Cuban regime has often been obscured. It was in this role, Ryan points out, ‘that he best served the Cuban revolution’. From the start, he was associated with the global aspirations of the revolution, and, with his gift for public speaking, he was the international voice of the new Cuba for the next five years.
On his return to Havana, at the end of September, he started speaking out in favour of his new dream: revolutionary Cuba was to be a model not just for Latin America, but for Africa and Asia as well. There would be an international anti-imperialist alliance across three continents that would ‘destroy, once and for all, the anachronistic presence of colonial domination’. In that strange twilight era when protests against the French war in Algeria merged seamlessly into those against the American war in Vietnam, the possibility of such an alliance was one of the attractions that led so many to put their faith in Che.
By now Fidel had found Guevara a proper job in Cuba. Raúl had been given control of the Army, Guevara would have the economy, and in due course he was made president of the Central Bank. He was, in effect, Cuba’s economic tsar. As such, he was a focus of fierce controversy, both at home and abroad. At the Bank, where he signed the bank-notes, ‘Che’, he was soon embroiled in an argument with the architect over the design of the new premises (a hangover from the Batista era). Why did the windows have to be imported from Germany? he asked. Why were there so many lavatories? Why did it need elevators? The planned building had 32 storeys, but ‘Che said he thought stairs would do.’ If he, with his asthma, could climb them, why couldn’t everyone else? The bank was never built, and the architect was soon on the plane to Miami.
This was also the period when Guevara became the cynosure of an endless stream of visiting intellectuals from Western Europe, Latin America and the US, many of them invited by Carlos Franqui, one of the great propagandists of the Cuban revolution, who went into exile in Italy in 1968. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, C. Wright Mills and René Dumont, Ernesto Sábato and Charles Bettelheim were all dazzled. For one visiting British delegation, Eric Hobshawm acted as Che’s translator.
In the autumn of 1960, in search of economic agreements, Guevara made his first visit to the Soviet Union. Anderson reveals that there had already been contacts with the Russians during his tour of the Third World in 1959. Fidel wanted to sell sugar to the Soviet Union, and to that end Guevara embarked on secret negotiations with the Russians in Cairo. These were the first formal contacts between Cuba and the Soviet Union. Now, in November 1960, the contact was very much out in the open as Guevara stood next to Khrushchev at the annual anniversary parade in Red Square. Further visits followed that year to Prague and Pyongyang, and to Beijing, where he met Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. This was his first experience of the Communist world, seeking deals on sugar exports after the Americans had pulled out of their agreements. ‘Those who knew him,’ Anderson recounts, ‘say he returned from his first trip to Russia privately dismayed by the élite lifestyles and evident predilection for bourgeois luxuries he saw among Kremlin officials, in contrast with the austere living conditions of the average Soviet citizen.’ Yet several of the critical notions for which Guevara subsequently became famous were already in place. According to Soviet reports that Castañeda has dug out, Guevara told his Soviet hosts – as early as 1960 – what he was beginning to think of the Communist Parties of Latin America: ‘Leftist leaders in Latin American are not taking advantage of the revolutionary situation, they are not going up into the mountains to begin an open struggle against their corrupt governments.’
The Russians at that moment had more important matters to consider. Guevara had journeyed to Moscow and Beijing just as the Sino-Soviet dispute was about to become an open split. He was to share the puritanical Chinese line on the corruption and degeneration of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and Anderson quotes an American intelligence report, commenting with interest on ‘his apparent siding with the Chinese on several key points in the Sino-Soviet dispute.’
Guevara had arrived in Moscow with hopes of securing support for his ambitious industrialisation programme. He believed that the Russians were wealthy enough simply to provide the steelworks and car factories that Cuba required to escape from its colonial sugar economy. Guevara’s economic policies, as Castañeda points out, were not in themselves dramatic. Nor were they very different from those put forward for Latin America as a whole by his Argentine compatriot Raúl Prebisch, the head of the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America; indeed, many of Prebisch’s young economists were Guevara’s advisers. What was new was Guevara’s idea that the Russians would pay for everything – a notion that survived into the Seventies in parts of the Third World: influential elements in Allende’s Government believed that the Russians could provide the markets, the technology and the financing that would replace their structural dependency on the US. Only bitter experience changed people’s minds.
The Bay of Pigs landings followed within months of Che’s first trip to Moscow and Beijing. Che played no great role during the fighting; he had military responsibility for an area of the island where nothing significant happened. Yet, as Castañeda points out, it was Guevara’s organisation of the popular militias in earlier years that proved crucial to the success of Castro’s defensive strategy in April 1961. Remembering the downfall of Jacobo Arbenz, Fidel had eyes and ears at all points on the island where the CIA’s mercenaries might have come ashore.
The landings further radicalised the revolution. Castañeda quotes a wonderful summary from Herbert Marchant, the British Ambassador in Havana, who wrote that Fidel was only able to take his country into the Soviet camp ‘against the wishes and instincts of the majority of the population’ as a result of the April invasion, ‘which made the Suez campaign look like a successful picnic’.
Guevara’s anti-American rhetoric could now be safely projected on the international stage. Just before the landings, he had made a speech, quoted by Castañeda, describing the Americans as ‘the new Nazis of the world ... who have been defeated by history’. In August, he was sent to Punta del Este by Fidel to represent Cuba at the founding conference of the Alliance for Progress, Kennedy’s answer to the Cuban revolution. All the new biographies give good accounts of Guevara’s impact on the conference, and his inconclusive private discussions with Richard Goodwin, one of Kennedy’s advisers. But this is well-trodden ground, and there is little new material. Many Latin American governments were still run by civilians, and under popular pressure to extend the hand of friendship to Cuba. But the American dollar proved a more conclusive argument for all but Mexico. Government after government broke off relations with Cuba, until the island was almost entirely isolated. In the years that followed, many of these governments succumbed to military take-over.
As the continent united against Cuba, Havana embarked on a programme of guerrilla insurrection in Latin America. By the spring of 1962, Guevara was overseeing the work of a new bureau. Juan Carreterro, a Cuban intelligence officer code-named Ariel, has given Anderson some of the details. He had begun working with Guevara, he said, to create ‘a transcontinental, anti-imperialist, revolutionary theatre in Latin America’. The following year he moved to the Cuban Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia being one of the few countries that had not, at that stage, severed diplomatic relations.
Argentina became a revolutionary priority for Guevara after the military overthrow of President Frondizi in March 1962. The northern marches of the country, along the Bolivian border, looked well suited for a guerrilla war – Guevara had biked through the area in 1950. He settled on Jorge Masetti as the leader. An Argentine journalist who had interviewed him in the Sierra Maestra during the Cuban war, Masetti had been instrumental in setting up the Cuban news agency, Prensa Latina, recruiting many Latin American writers to its corps of reporters and analysts, but had fallen foul of the Moscow-line Communists, both in Cuba and in Argentina. Guevara sought further advice about conditions in Argentina from his old motor-cycling companion, Alberto Granado.
Before the year was out, however, he was embroiled in the missile crisis. He had already flown to Moscow in August 1962 to agree the final details of the Cuban-Soviet defence deal that had been negotiated a month before by Raúl Castro. Of all the Cuban leadership, Guevara was the most enraged when the Russians caved in and withdrew the missiles. Castañeda recounts a riveting exchange with Mikoyan, at the time Soviet Deputy Prime Minister, shortly after the crisis had been resolved. Guevara feared that the Soviet decision would lead to a permanent split in the socialist camp which would impede Cuba’s Latin American ventures: ‘Many Communists who represent the Latin American Parties, as well as other groupings, are wholly confused. They are all distressed by the actions of the Soviet Union. Many groups have split.’ Mikoyan, the most astute survivor of the Russian Revolution, defended the Soviet position:
We did everything possible to avoid Cuba being destroyed. We recognise your disposition to die beautifully, but we do not think it worthwhile to die beautifully ... We have given a lot of backing to Cuba in the material and moral sense, and in the military sense as well. Think for a moment. Are we helping you out of our overabundance? Do you think we’ve got immense surplus capacity? Why, we’ve not even got enough for ourselves. Of course we want to preserve the socialist base in Latin America. You were born as heroes before the situation in Latin America had ripened, and the socialist camp still does not have full capacity to help you. We have given you ships, weapons, technicians, fruit and vegetables.
Then, thinking that Guevara perhaps had the Chinese in mind, Mikoyan continued: ‘China is a great country, but for the moment it is poor. The day will come when we will overcome out enemies. But we do not want a beautiful death.’ No one coming from a country that possessed nuclear weapons could have disagreed with him. But Guevara was right to emphasise the extent of the public relations disaster. The missile crisis was to lead to the final disaffection of the Chinese, the fatal split in the Latin American Left and the downfall of Khrushchev.
In the aftermath of the crisis, Guevara returned to the Argentine project. There is no doubt that he was planning to participate in it himself. Although he did not abandon Cuba until 1965, the seeds of his disillusionment, and his desire to move on, had clearly been sown during 1962.
Senior Cuban officers took part in the Argentine expedition – as they would later in the Congo and Bolivia. These were not merely Che’s pet projects; they enjoyed the full backing of the Cuban state. The guerrillas were trained for several months in 1963 in Ben Bella’s Algeria, Cuba’s first real friend in Africa. One of Castañeda’s coups was to have interviewed Ben Bella before his death. Ben Bella was in Havana during the missile crisis, and was an influential intermediary during the Cuban intervention in the Congo.
The Argentine project, according to the evidence given to Anderson by Ciro Roberto Bustos, a poet and artist, and another of Che’s Argentine contacts in the planning stage, began to take serious shape towards the end of 1962. A young German-Argentine woman, Tamara Bunke (later, ‘Tania’, a casualty of Che’s Bolivian campaign of 1967), was sent by Guevara to lie low in La Paz. Then, in May 1963, a small guerrilla troop of Cubans and Argentines – accompanied by two Algerians – arrived in eastern Bolivia. They established themselves on a farm close to the Argentine border. As usual, almost everything that could go wrong did.
The Argentine venture was not a one-off. In the same month, a Cuban-trained group of Peruvian guerrillas crossed from Bolivia into Peru. Led by Héctor Béjar, the Peruvians had the help of cadres from the Communist Party of Bolivia, who assisted their passage through the jungles of north-western Bolivia. At the Peruvian border town of Puerto Maldonado, the guerrillas met with disaster. The Peruvian Army was waiting for them, there was an ambush, and the surviving guerrillas were forced to retreat into the bleak territory of the Madre de Dios.
This was bad news for the embryonic Argentine guerrilla movement. In July, there was a further setback. The guerrillas had planned to spearhead a campaign against the military dictatorship. But the military not only decided to hold elections: they allowed the successful candidate, Arturo Illia of the Radical Party, to take power. Argentina suddenly seemed infertile ground for a guerrilla struggle against dictatorship. ‘Our project disintegrated just like that,’ Bustos recalls.
There were signs, too, even at this early stage, that the Communist Parties of Argentina, Bolivia and Peru were not prepared to be Guevara’s accomplices. They had struggled for years for legality, and were now enjoying a modicum of freedom to organise. They had no desire to exchange these obvious gains for a rash, insurrectionary adventure. Anderson argues convincingly that the Argentine CP, led by (yet another) old Spanish Civil War veteran, Vittorio Codovilla, was the party most hostile to Guevara’s plans, and most influential with the Soviet Union.
Another of Anderson’s sources for this period is Mario Monje, leader of the Bolivian Communist Party. Anderson found him living out a long and sad exile in Moscow, one of the few foreign Communists still bunkered down in the former Soviet capital. Monje has often told the tale of his disagreements with Guevara at the guerrilla camp at Ñancahuazú on New Year’s Eve 1966, which effectively deprived Guevara’s Bolivia campaign of significant political support, but he has rarely been questioned about these earlier events. He tells of a meeting in Havana in 1963 in which he explained to the Cuban spy chief, Manuel Piñeiro, known as Barba Roja, that Stalin had backed guerrilla struggle in Latin America in the Thirties and it hadn’t worked. ‘They pushed armed struggle here, guerrillas there,’ he told Piñeiro. ‘They tried it in different countries and failed, and now you are trying to repeat what they did.’
Monje also recalls a conversation with Guevara from the pre-Bolivia period. Che had said: ‘Hey, Monje, why don’t you get a guerrilla war going in Bolivia?’
‘What will it get us?’ Monje asked. Che accused him of cowardice.
No, Monje said, you’ve just got ‘a machine-gun stuck in your brain, and you can’t imagine any other way to develop an anti-imperialist struggle.’
Differences of this kind, personal and political, were to overshadow all Guevara’s subsequent efforts in Latin America. He had solid support from Cuba, but was never able to secure the political backing in Argentina or Bolivia – from the Communist Parties or indeed from anyone else – that Fidel had had in Cuba from his 26 July Movement. Nor could Bustos, and his other operatives on the spot, deliver the kind of local peasant network that Célia Sánchez had been able to deliver up in the Sierra Maestra.
The failure of the Argentine guerrilla foco left Guevara high and dry. He had planned to join it: now he had nowhere to go. ‘Here you see me,’ he told his old friend Alberto Granado. ‘behind a desk, fucked, while my people die during missions I’ve sent them on.’ The Cubans and Guevara decided to reactivate their tricontinental ambitions. A revolutionary movement in the Congo, led by survivors of the Government of Patrice Lumumba, had begun operating earlier that year. It was supported by the Soviet Union and China, and by a number of radical African states. The Cubans had been kept fully informed about it by Ben Bella and other Algerian contacts. They decided to send an expeditionary force.
Guevara’s African reconnaissance in the early months of 1965, and his ‘disappearance’ from Cuba, gave rise to the idea that he had quarrelled with Fidel. It did not seem remotely probable to anyone who knew Cuba at the time, and it receives little support in the new biographies. Yet one crucial source is missing from all these books. El gran ausente is Fidel Castro himself, who was not available for interview. His closeness to Guevara, and the respect and admiration the two men felt for each other, have been well-documented in his own speeches and writings. The Cuban revolution was a family affair. Che was incorporated very early on, not so much an honorary Cuban as an honorary member of Castro’s extended family. The guerrilla projects in Africa and Latin America were Cuban projects that Guevara participated in, rather than personal adventures undertaken by Guevara, which the Cubans happened to support.
The details of the Congo war, unknown five years ago, receive a lot of attention in the biographies, and make depressing reading. As Ben Bella pointed out to Castañeda, the Cubans arrived too late. There was a real possibility of success for the Congolese liberation struggle in 1964. By 1965, it had been all but destroyed. The Cubans were taking up with a defeated band, and (in Laurent Kabila) an absentee leader, and faced stiff opposition from South African mercenaries introduced by Colonel ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare. When political support from outside was withdrawn at the end of 1965, Che returned to Dar-es-Salaam, wrote up his diaries, and flew to a Cuban safe house in Prague to consider his next move. His ambition, as ever, was fixed on Argentina. The Cubans believed that intervention there would be disastrous. Maybe, too, they were frightened by the opposition of Codovilla and the Argentine Communist Party. The next Latin American struggle, they argued, should be in neighbouring Bolivia. Guevara was persuaded to return secretly to Cuba and join in the preparations for a Bolivian expedition. He arrived in the country late in 1966. The planning, such as it was, had been done. Cuban cadres were in place, a number of Bolivians had been recruited, a farm bought in a remote area. The pattern of earlier adventures was being faithfully repeated, down to the very last disaster.
Three of the surviving participants in the Bolivian episode have recently published material that casts new light on what happened, though rather more emerges from the interviews they have given to a succession of biographers. Harry Villegas – ‘Pombo’ – was one of Guevara’s closest collaborators; his Bolivian diaries and subsequent reflections on the campaign have appeared in a handsome new English translation with excellent maps and photographs. Alongside Guevara’s own diaries, they provide a sobering commentary on the downfall of the guerrilla band. Pombo, who had also been with Guevara in the Congo, later became a senior general and spent several years with the Cuban forces in Angola.
Dariel Alarcón, or Benigno, another senior Cuban officer, who ‘defected’ in 1995, now lives in exile in Paris. He had written an earlier account of the Bolivian campaign and its aftermath (Les Survivants du Che, 1995), which tells a similar story to Pombo’s, but since moving to Paris, he has written a new book (Vie et mort de la révolution cubaine) which is more revealing and outspoken. In interviews with Castañeda, though still loyal to the memory of Guevara, he has expanded further on his disillusionment with Cuba, and casts doubt on the level of support that Guevara received from Havana during the Bolivia campaign.
The third survivor is, of course, Régis Debray. Debray visited Guevara’s camp, and on his way back was captured, tried and sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment. His new volume of memoirs, Loués soient nos seigneurs, is not so much an autobiography as a philosophical disquisition that tries to make sense of the various ideological twists and turns in his career. He outlines his service to four masters – Castro, Guevara, Allende and Mitterrand – and explains why, over the years, he has come to reject them all.
I first set eyes on Debray in August 1967, at an informal press conference held in the front room of a single-storey jailhouse in Camiri, the tiny oil town in the airless heat of eastern Bolivia from which Guevara and his band had set off for the jungle nine months earlier. The guerrillas were still active that August, and the Bolivian military were understandably nervous. Sitting beside Debray, to my slight surprise, was Ralph Schoenman, Bertrand Russell’s unruly American secretary. Schoenman had been a familiar if controversial figure on the British left during the Vietnam War. Always a glutton for publicity, he eased himself with a microphone into the empty seat beside the prisoner.
In descending on Bolivia, Schoenman was by no means alone. The international Left had arrived in force in Camiri that month, to the bewilderment of the Bolivian security forces. In my hotel in La Paz, I had run into Tariq Ali, who had been briefly detained in Camiri a week earlier. He had obtained a press credential from a jobbing printer in La Paz, which claimed that he worked for Town magazine (as indeed he did), and Tariq, with a flourish, had forged the signature of its publisher, Michael Heseltine.
Changing planes at the airport of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, I met Robin Blackburn and Perry Anderson, editors of New Left Review, masquerading as correspondents for the Observer. The French publisher François Maspéro was there; so, too, was the flamboyant Feltrinelli. He was staying in La Paz with a wonderful young woman dressed in leather from top to toe who was not his wife. He was carrying substantial funds for Guevara’s guerrillas but was detained in La Paz, and deported before he even reached Camiri.
Schoenman, too, had brought thousands of dollars with him, and had hired a small plane to fly with Tariq Ali to Camiri. The Cubans, at Sartre’s request, had poured money into the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, an organisation that Schoenman had set up and now controlled. The Foundation had recently staged a war crimes tribunal in Stockholm, indicting the United States for its conduct in Vietnam. Something similar was planned for Bolivia, to publicise the case of Debray. I recall Schoenman discussing politics with Guillermo Lora, the leader of Bolivia’s largest Trotskyist party. Lora noted wistfully that his group did not really have enough money to stage a revolution. ‘Tell me,’ said Schoenman, his eyes glinting, ‘just how much would it cost?’
Debray had been captured leaving the guerrilla zone in April and had now been in prison for four months. He was about to stand trial, and – since General de Gaulle had written to the Bolivian President General René Barrientos asking for clemency – the event had become the subject of international press attention. The New York Times, the London Times, Le Monde, the Guardian, and a number of Brazilian papers were represented in Camiri that day. Also present was the redoubtable Ron Nessen, a correspondent for NBC, who told us of his reporting trips with CIA sabotage missions into Cuba. Later he became Gerald Ford’s press chief. Only Michael Field, the Rio correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, was absent. He had scooped everyone by interviewing Debray a month earlier, but had lost heart when his paper failed to print his report.
Under aggressive questioning by Nessen, Debray fiercely denied any connection with Guevara’s guerrillas other than a purely journalistic one. ‘I did what every journalist ought to do,’ he said, ‘what you should all do now. That’s to say, go into the mountains and speak to the guerrillas directly. I think that’s the job of all journalists, and if you’re on the left, monsieur, it’s your duty.’ For a young man of 27, facing a possible death penalty, it was a star turn.
What he said that day, which I faithfully reported to Guardian readers, turns out to have been a complete fib. In his memoirs, Debray reveals that he had received military training at guerrilla camps in Cuba, brought messages to Guevara from Castro and was planning to take Guevara’s responses back to Havana. He had even checked out and reported for the Cubans on the suitability of certain regions of Bolivia for guerrilla warfare.
The fascination of his memoir, however, is not so much what it reveals about particular aspects of the past as what it says of the political gyrations of a postwar intellectual in France. At his press conference, Debray had quoted a line from Corneille: ‘si c’était à refaire, je le ferais encore.’ Today, Debray looks almost with horror at such youthful enthusiasm. In Loués soient nos seigneurs Castro is a monster, Guevara a death-seeking missile. Allende is hardly worth the time of day, and Mitterrand a bitter memory. Debray’s only lasting political enthusiasm, as a left-wing nationalist, is for de Gaulle, whose intercessions probably saved his life.
He reflects, with considerable insight and wit, on the fascination that the Third World revolutions of the Sixties held for the privileged youth of Europe, after the collapse of the Soviet myth which had beguiled an earlier generation. This renewal of the old revolutionary imperative combined memories of Lawrence of Arabia with the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance. From Havana to Managua, via Algiers, Dares-Salaam, Santiago and Hanoi, what seemed like an entire generation in Europe lost itself in the excitement of small revolutionary upheavals.
Indeed, the scale may even have had its own attraction. At least the damage was not so extensive. When André Malraux was asked in 1967 whether Debray was not doing the same things he had done in the Thirties, the old French minister replied with disdain: ‘The places I felt called to held the future of the world. I went to Asia; if not I would have gone to Russia. The future of the world is not Bolivia!’ Who can doubt that the Bolivian failure and the Cuban success caused considerably less grief than Stalinist collectivisation or the Great Leap Forward?
There is now a huge amount of new material from which interested readers can reconstruct the Guevara of their choice. Jon Lee Anderson’s biography might reasonably be subtitled ‘The Widow’s Version’. In the course of his research, Anderson went to live for nearly three years in Havana and established a close relationship with Aleida March, Guevara’s second (and Cuban) wife. Aleida had joined Guevara during the revolutionary war in 1958 and he described her to his family as a guajira or country girl. In the Nineties, Aleida clearly came to trust Anderson, unlike earlier researchers. She helped to introduce him to many of Che’s entourage – ‘the friends of Che’ – whom he might not otherwise have met. She also furnished him with a good deal of unpublished documentation, including the original text of Guevara’s diaries from the Cuban revolutionary war of 1956-8, his version of events in the Congo in 1965, and the diaries of his second (1953) Latin American journey. Anderson has used the new material with brio.
Anderson’s close rival, the marginally slimmer biography by Castañeda, who has also combed the archives and sought out the survivors, is not popular with the authorities in Cuba. It might be subtitled ‘The Dissident’s Version’. Castañeda is the author of La Utopía Desarmada (1995), a brilliant history of the Latin American Left in the Eighties. If the revolutionary experiences of that time ended in disaster, which they did, why – Castañeda asks – did this happen and who was to blame? His bleak conclusion, written after the collapse of Communism in 1989, was that the Cuban revolution had led to an unthinking enthusiasm for the armed struggle that blinded the Latin American Left to the possibility of other, less confrontational, strategies.
Castañeda considers Guevara’s career in the same unsentimental light. He is in no doubt that Guevara’s influence and example led many thousands of young Latin Americans to an early and useless death in the Sixties and Seventies, and he wants to know why. Where Anderson’s main sources are Cubans loyal to Che and Castro, Castañeda relies largely on old fidelistas turned dissidents. In particular, he leans on the evidence of Carlos Franqui and Dariel Alarcón and uncovers the tensions of the early revolutionary period, which the Cuban regime has been at pains to forget in the years since Guevara’s death. Franqui’s exile in the late Sixties followed a long battle with the Cuban Communists; Alarcón left much later, in the wake of the trial and execution of General Ochoa, allegedly for drug-smuggling, in 1989. Castañeda has tapped their memories and worked through their books to good effect. Their misgivings about the Cuban inspired project of the Latin American Left over the last forty yean reflect his own and add to the critical tone of his biography. But, like Anderson, he has done an immense amount of legwork.
Paco Ignacio Taibo II is the master of almost everything that has been written about Guevara in Latin America. He is also Mexico’s most distinguished crime novelist, and his biography of Guevara leaves few clues uninvestigated. Taibo and Castañeda have been beavering away, in Havana and elsewhere, for the past decade or more. With admirable and improbable Mexican solidarity, they apparently agreed to exchange the transcripts of their interviews, with the brave assertion that ‘no one owns documents, only their interpretation.’ Taibo’s interpretation turns out to be much closer than Castañeda’s to that of the traditional Guevarist Left.
Neither of the two Mexican biographers has quite the same degree of intimate detail that Anderson obtained. On the other hand, they are freer to write about Guevara’s personal life. Castañeda, for example, uncovers the existence of at least one illegitimate child. He is critical of Cuban censorship of some of the earlier family accounts, which might otherwise have revealed the frailties of the individual behind the icon, something the puritanical regime in Havana has always found it difficult to accept.
The two Mexicans have missed some of the key witnesses secured by Anderson. Yet they did find a handful of Guevara’s close collaborators, who were not available to Anderson – notably Emilio Aragonés, one of Fidel’s closest advisers in early negotiations with the Soviet Union, who made a guest appearance during Guevara’s Congo expedition. Castañeda found him in Havana, ‘a pensioner living in semi-disgrace’.
Paco Taibo has a better feel for the internationalist, Third World, dimension of Guevara’s activities. His most significant contribution was the pioneering work he did on Guevara’s Congo episode, first published in a collaboration with Froilán Escobar and Felix Guerra, El Año que Estuvimos en Ninguna Parte (1994). I relied largely on this for my own account of the Congo expedition, ‘Che’s Missing Year’ in New Left Review last year. Others, including Castañeda and Anderson, rely on it no less.
Pierre Kalfon, too, has a good sense of the internationalist dimension to Guevara’s career. For many years a French cultural attaché in Latin America, Kalfon was caught up in the Guevarist enthusiasms of the Sixties. He has now written a rather measured account, a useful counter to an earlier, more partisan, French biography by Jean Cormier (Che Gueuara, 1995). Kalfon does not have the wealth of new material unearthed by the other biographers, but he has made good use of little known French sources, such as the memoirs of Dominique Ponchardier, the French Ambassador in La Paz (La Mort du Condor, 1976). He is the only biographer who has had the wit to print Guevara’s death photographs side by side with the Rembrandt and the Mantegna – a juxtaposition that does much to explain the lasting, quasi-religious, appeal of Che Guevara. Like Castañeda, he relies on the memories of disillusioned participants now in Paris, such as Alarcón and Debray. But he also uses his biography to attack what the more critical soixante-huitards used to perceive as Fidel Castro’s derailment of his own revolution.
Saverio Tutino, like Pierre Kalfon, is an old European hand in Latin America. Correspondent of the Italian Communist Party newspaper, L’Unità, he lived in Havana in the Sixties and in 1995 published an illuminating personal memoir, L’Occhio del Barracuda. In the post-Cold-War era he was subjected (as I and others have been) to right-wing calumnies that he was ‘an agent’ of the KGB. During the October missile crisis of 1962, Tutino tried to obtain an interview with Che. Certainly not, came the firm reply. ‘Because you’re a Communist, because you’re an Italian, and worst of all because you’re a journalist.’
The last of the new biographies, by Henry Ryan, has the merit of being both original and brief. It consists largely of a trawl through the American archives, in the wake of the Freedom of Information Act, to discover what the various US government agencies really knew, and thought, and did about Guevara. Essentially, it is a book about the errors of those agencies, and their small triumphs. Brian Moser and I have walk-on parts in Ryan’s tale. Moser inadvertently destroyed the reputation of Douglas Henderson, the American Ambassador in La Paz in 1967, by filming him playing croquet while Bolivia burned. My own report about CIA involvement in the Bolivian war evidently fuelled a debate which led the CIA to claim too much credit for its role in Guevara’s downfall. Ironically, Ryan concludes that the CIA’s understanding of what was going on in Bolivia in 1967 was wide of the mark. Anyone reading the reports that arrived on Lyndon Johnson’s desk in 1967 would have been told of the extraordinary impact that Guevara’s guerrillas were making – at a time when they were facing disaster.
None of the biographers found their research stint in Cuba easy. The record of Cuba’s internationalist wars of the Sixties and beyond is covered by something very close to a 50-year rule. The nature and extent of the country’s relationship with the Soviet Union is also forbidden territory. For Cubans Guevara himself is, like Fidel, beyond reproach. Nothing is allowed to interfere with his image as a paragon of revolutionary virtue. ‘May our children be like Che!’ said Castro in his emotional speech in the Plaza de la Revolución after Guevara’s death in October 1967. It has been the regime’s unalterable view ever since. They must of course be ‘like Che the great revolutionary’, not Che the philanderer, Che the executioner, Che the dogmatic ideologue, Che the unskilled economist, or Che the incompetent político. Guevara appears in some of these guises in some of these books, but such revelations – while they make the character more human and more interesting – are not encouraged in Cuba.
A comprehensive seven-volume edition of Guevara’s innumerable writings exists in Havana, edited by his close comrade Orlando Borrego, one of Anderson’s most useful sources. Lest Guevara’s more subversive thoughts be let loose on an unsuspecting Cuban population, however, the edition has been left rotting on the shelves of a locked warehouse for the past thirty years. Moscow, by contrast, is full of garrulous people with Cuban memories, anxious to talk – with no one looking over their shoulder. Both Anderson and Castañeda have tapped some excellent Russian sources. The fiery Western debate in the Sixties as to whether Cuba was pushed (by the Americans) or pulled (by the Russians) into the Soviet camp, will be revived by this new material. And, although much preliminary work has been done by American historians since 1989 on the missile crisis, both Anderson and Castañeda have found new information here as well.
Anderson has talked to Sergo Mikoyan, the son of the Deputy Prime Minister. The personal endorsement of Castro by Mikoyan senior, early in 1960, set the tone for the close relationship established in the Khrushchev years, and Sergo, too, played his part. Influenced by his own close friendship with Guevara, which began at the same time, Sergo was a frequent visitor to Havana and subsequently ran what amounted to a dissident Guevarist magazine on Latin American affairs, published in Moscow for many years.
The enthusiasm of Mikoyan senior was such that he was referred to in Moscow as ‘the Cuban member’ of the Soviet Central Committee. Both he and Khrushchev were as intrigued and beguiled by the Cuban barbudos as were any of the ingénus arriving by the planeload from Western Europe. The initial interest in Cuba of that older Soviet generation appears to have been genuine, sparked off by memories of the revolutionary enthusiasms of their youth. Only later did notions of strategic advantage creep into the Soviet side of the relationship.
Anderson and Castañeda both interviewed Alexandr Alexiev, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, among other campaigns. Alexiev, a KGB Latin American specialist, first arrived in Havana in October 1959, and was later to become the Soviet Ambassador. Born in 1913, he had worked in the Fifties in the Soviet Embassy in Buenos Aires. Soon after arriving in Havana, he held long meetings, first with Guevara, and then with Che’s associate Nuñez Jiménez and Fidel.
Nuñez Jiménez suggested that a Soviet trade exhibition, then being promoted in Mexico by Mikoyan senior, should be held in Cuba. ‘And Mikoyan has to come and open it,’ Fidel told Alexiev. Mikoyan duly arrived in Havana with the trade exhibition in February 1960. This was the origin of the close Soviet-Cuban relationship that was to last for almost exactly thirty years. The first Soviet contacts had been made through Guevara. Alexiev, whose posting in Cuba coincided with the dramatic years 1962-7, was subsequently exiled to the Soviet Embassy in Antananarivo. Madagascar must have been perceived as a tropical Siberia.
Nikolai Leonov, a schoolfriend of Sergo Mikoyan, has also spoken to Anderson and Castañeda. Formerly a junior official in the Soviet Embassy in Mexico in 1955, he became a friend of Raúl. While he was always known to have been the first Russian to have made contact with the Cuban revolutionaries, before the Granma landing in 1956, this is the first time that Leonov has been seriously tapped for information (though he has written his own, as yet untranslated, memoirs, Lijoleti, or ‘Difficult Years’, 1995). He retired from his job as supervisor of the KGB’s interests in Latin America in 1992.
Leonov had befriended Guevara, as well as the Castro brothers, in Mexico and had given him various books to read on the Soviet Union’s wartime experiences. (The tale of the siege of Stalingrad must have been strange preparation for guerrilla war in Cuba.) Recruited info the KGB, he was to travel to Havana in the entourage of Mikoyan, presenting Guevara with a pistol ‘in the name of the Soviet people’. Anderson believes that Leonov, who returned to work for the KGB in Mexico, was subsequently involved in channelling Soviet support to the Cuban-backed guerrilla movements in Guatemala in the Sixties.
Castañeda has one interesting Russian source untapped by Anderson. Oleg Darushenkov had arrived in Havana in 1962 in the official role of Soviet cultural attaché. He soon became Guevara’s Russian interpreter. Castañeda interviewed him and found many of the reports of his conversations with Guevara in the Russian files. Daroushenkov worked for the Central Committee and reported to Andropov, then in charge of Soviet relations with ‘socialist’ countries. He was later to become Soviet Ambassador to Mexico and, later still, to work for the Mexican television company, Televisa. Castañeda describes Darushenkov as Guevara’s closest Russian friend. Anderson dismisses him as yet another KGB operative. Several of Anderson’s Cuban sources told him that they thought Darushenkov was a provocateur, whose real mission was to spy on Che and to keep an eye on his allegedly pro-Chinese tendencies. He certainly took a lot of notes.
Anderson’s greatest triumph has been to track down Ciro Roberto Bustos, the Argentine revolutionary whose association with Che goes back to the early Sixties and who has been living for many years in Trappist exile in Sweden. (He refused to answer Castañeda’s telephone calls.) The extraordinary tale Bustos has to tell enables Anderson to fill out the details of Masetti’s guerrilla campaign in northern Argentina and to show how closely Guevara was involved in its organisation and planning. Bustos, in my own recollection, had a rather enigmatic minor part during the Bolivian guerrilla campaign. He had apparently travelled up to the camp from Argentina, interviewed Guevara, and then left with Debray (and a third mystery figure, an Anglo-Chilean called George Andrew Roth, to whom the trail has gone cold), whereupon both he and Debray were detained. When I was in Camiri, both were in jail. Bustos was reluctant to talk to journalists, and many people believed that he had co-operated with army intelligence. Debray subsequently denounced him for accompanying an army unit to one of the guerrillas’ abandoned camps.
In prison in Camiri, Bustos was encouraged to write a lengthy statement about what he had gleaned during a month’s stay at Guevara’s guerrilla encampment in Ñancahuazú. This document was subsequently made available by the CIA to Daniel James, who wrote the Agency’s authorised version of Guevara’s life (Che Guevara, 1970). In prison, Bustos, an artist by training, made drawings from memory of the various guerrillas he had met. (The only person to suffer briefly as a result of this indiscretion was Tariq Ali, who was detained in Camiri on the grounds that he resembled Bustos’s drawing of the Cuban guerrilla Pombo. There was a striking likeness.) The view at the time was that Bustos was connected to some irrelevant Argentine groupuscule which might at a later stage have taken part in guerrilla operations on the Bolivian-Argentine border. If he said too much, he did so in order to protect his wife and two daughters in Argentina – which had by then returned to military dictatorship under General Juan Carlos Onganía – as well as the supporters of his embryonic Argentine political network.
We now know, from what Bustos told Anderson – breaking his silence for the first time in thirty years – just how important the Argentine dimension was to the Bolivian campaign. Guevara had been deeply involved in Masetti’s Salta operation of 1964, and even though the Cubans had diverted him to Bolivia, he still had hopes of returning to fight in his homeland. He had long relied on Bustos as the man with the Argentine contacts (as well as with Raúl Sendíc’s embryonic Tuparamos movement in Uruguay) who might have allowed this to happen. Anderson found Bustos to be an honest witness, and suggests that he was unfairly ‘vilified by Debray and the Latin American Left for the drawings and maps he composed while in prison’, when others – including Debray – might also justifiably be held responsible for betraying Guevara’s presence in Bolivia. Anderson also points out that Bustos was able to keep secret his own identity as Guevara’s Argentine liaison, with the result that ‘the people in his underground Argentine network remained safe from arrest’
People often ask whether Havana might not have intervened to save Guevara from his fate. Any externally-guided rescue attempt was unimaginable, however. The political state of the country, effectively under martial law, and the difficult nature of the terrain, meant that any effort would have been doomed. Guevara’s well-known reluctance to abandon the struggle in the Congo in 1965 would have left no one in Cuba in any doubt that he was keen to see it through in Bolivia. In the Congo, however, fresh military units arrived from Havana, via Dar-es-Salaam, almost every month. Senior Cuban political figures dropped in from time to time to see how Che was progressing. In Bolivia, Guevara was left to get on with things as he saw fit. The sole surviving member of Manuel Piñeiro’s network in La Paz, Renán Montero, had returned to Havana at the beginning of the year. Circumstance had forced ‘Tania’ to join the guerrilla band. Cuba had not a single agent in place to check on what was going on. Montero was not replaced. Castañeda interviewed Montero, who was later involved in the Nicaraguan revolution, but obtained no satisfactory explanation as to why he left Bolivia. Anderson asked Piñeiro the same question, and also received an inadequate reply.
Anderson reports the disquiet that some people in Cuba still feel about the way things were handled. ‘Pineiro’s people,’ he writes, ‘seem to have overplayed their hand in assuring Fidel that the conditions were right for Che to come to Bolivia ... Few suggest that there was any betrayal, but rather shoddy work and guapería (arrogance).’ Castañeda argues that the Cuban authorities should have realised by March 1967 that ‘Che had given birth to a still-born guerrilla movement.’ They knew that the Bolivian Communist Party had refused to participate, that the initial contacts with the Bolivian Army had been made prematurely, that the urban network was not up and running, and that the US was aware of what was going on. In which case, Castañeda continues, they had only two courses open to them: to reinforce the guerrilla band with the men they had at their disposal (more than sixty Bolivians were sitting in Cuba trained and waiting); or to stage some kind of rescue mission. In fact, the Cubans did nothing.
Castañeda believes that Mario Monje (who denies it) and possibly Raúl Castro (who has not spoken on the matter) notified the Russians that Guevara was in Bolivia. The Russians then sat very firmly on Fidel to prevent him from sending any further assistance, which would only have embarrassed Moscow. Alexei Kosygin’s diversion to Havana in late July 1967, after a meeting with Johnson in Glassboro, was, according to this argument, an indication of Russian pressure on Fidel. Dariel Alarcón told Castañeda that there was indeed a small group within the Cuban security service which prepared for a rescue mission in August 1967. It included Juan Carreterro and half a dozen veterans of the Sierra Maestra. I have often wondered whether Ralph Schoenman was involved: he flew to Havana from Bolivia in September 1967, and then returned at the end of the month for the final days of Debray’s trial. He was full of madcap schemes for rescuing Guevara.
By then, Guevara’s position in Bolivia was irremediable; the odds were against him, as they had been in the past. In March 1965, shortly before he set out for the Congo, he wrote to his parents: ‘Once again I feel under my heels the ribs of Rosinante. I return to the trail with my shield on my arm.’ Many would call him an adventurer, he continued, ‘and indeed I am.’ But he saw himself as one of a rare breed ‘who put their lives on the line to demonstrate their truths’. That, perhaps, accounts for the enduring appeal of a man who participated in one successful revolution and threw it all up to start again from scratch.
The Fall of Che Guevara: A Tale of Soldiers, Spies and Diplomats by Henry Ryan (Oxford, 240 pp., £23, due March 1998, 0 19 511879 0).
Pombo, a Man of Che’s ‘Guerrilla’: With Che Guevara in Bolivia 1966-8 by Harry Viilegas (Pathfinder, 365 pp., £39 and £14.45, 2 August, o 87348 834 2).
Vie et mort de la révolution cubaine by Dariel Alarcón Ramírez (Fayard, 298 pp., 130 frs,9 April 1996, 2 213 59638 7).
Che Guevara by Jean Cormier, with Hilda Guevara and Alberto Granard (Editions du Rocher, 444 pp., 132 frs, 8 August 1995, 2 268 01967 5).
Guevara, also Known as Che by Ingacio Taibo II (St Martins, 670 pp., $35,13 November, 0312 15539 5).
Che, Ernesto Guevara: Une légende du siécle by Pierre Kalfon (Seuil, 628 pp., 148 frs, 13 May, 202 013694 5).
Loués soient nos seigneurs: Une éducation politique by Régis Debray(Gallimard, 592 pp., 140 frs,16 April, 2 07 074558 9).
L’Occhio del Barracuda: Autobiografia di un comunista by Saverio Tutino (Feltrinelli, 284 pp., 35,000L, January 1995, 8 807 07029 4).