Rebel Wife

  Enlarge Photo    
Sunday, October 12, 2008


The Making of a Revolutionary

By Hilda Gadea

Palgrave Macmillan. 241 pp. $21.95

This month marks 41 years since Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentina-born revolutionary, was executed in a rural schoolhouse by the Bolivian army. Guevara's stature as a guerrilla icon has persisted over these four decades, but it is in large part due to his martyrdom: He died before he had to answer for the consequences of the radical political and economic ideas he advocated. He can be remembered instead for being courageous, charming, uncompromising and oh so handsome.

Hilda Gadea, his first wife, knew Guevara at a time when his idealism seemed pure. A political exile from Peru, she met him in Guatemala in 1953. They discussed politics and went on picnics with friends in the countryside. Gradually, she fell in love with him. They married in 1955, and she bore his daughter the next year, while always supporting his revolutionary adventures. He left her for another woman after going to Cuba with Fidel Castro in 1956, but Gadea remained loyal. Her 1972 memoir of their relationship, now republished as My Life with Che with a new foreword by her brother, reveals no bitterness toward him or doubts about the wisdom of his radicalism.

Guevara, a trained physician, later wrote that a true revolutionary must be willing to turn himself into "a cold killing machine," but the man Gadea met was a gentle intellectual. "I remember that we read Einstein in English, and I helped him translate Pavlov from the French," she writes. A multilingual and highly educated woman, Gadea shared Guevara's commitment to socialist ideas, though she was more practical. She held down a job and paid the bills and managed his personal affairs. When she surprised him with a brown sweater one Christmas, Guevara had to admit he had no gift for her in return. His excuse -- "I had no time to pick one out" -- would resonate with many a neglected wife.

But Gadea was inspired by Guevara's evident altruism. In her memoir, she describes his obsession with an elderly washerwoman whom he was treating. He saw her as "representative of the most forgotten and exploited class." Gadea later found a poem that he had dedicated to the old woman, containing "a promise to fight for a better world, for a better life for all the poor and exploited." For a while, he considering going to work as a doctor in Africa. But then, Gadea notes, Guevara met Castro in Mexico, and "all these plans and prospects changed forever."

From that point on, Guevara embraced armed revolutionary struggle with an earnestness that impressed his young wife (if not his infant daughter):

"Taking Hildita in his arms one day, he looked at her tenderly and said: 'My dear daughter, my little Mao, you don't know what a difficult world you're going to have to live in. When you grow up, this whole continent, and maybe the whole world, will be fighting against the great enemy, Yankee imperialism. You too will have to fight. . . .' He spoke very seriously. I was overwhelmed by his words and went to him and embraced him."

Moral certainty can be a lethal thing. In Guevara's case, it justified killing and dictatorship. Upon his arrival in the Cuban mountains with Castro, he wrote Gadea that he was "alive and bloodthirsty." He was convinced that Cuba needed to follow the path of the Soviet Union, and he would not tolerate any opposing viewpoints. Gadea recalls that the two disagreed over his belief that Bolivia and other Latin nations could depend exclusively on the Soviet Union. Gadea, trained as an economist, said it would not be feasible. "History would prove him right," she writes.

Well, not exactly. Castro's Cuba paid dearly for its reorientation to the Soviet bloc, for its dependence on moral incentives over real wages and for its rejection of private enterprise. But Gadea did not live to see the flaws of Guevara's thinking. She died of cancer in 1974. Hilda's brother Ricardo writes in the introduction to this volume that he wanted to restore his sister "to her deserved place in history as an honest, steadfast woman . . . who fought her entire life for the revolutionary cause she had embraced when she was still very young."

Albert Camus famously observed that "every revolutionary ends by becoming either an oppressor or a heretic." Ernesto Guevara died at the age of 39. His supporters around the world can read Gadea's reverential memoir of her life with him without considering how he would have been seen had he lived a while longer.

-- Tom Gjelten, a correspondent for National Public Radio, is the author of "Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company