The Life and Death of Che Guevara
By Jorge G. Castaneda
Chapter One: Childhood, Youth, and Asthma in Argentina
Argentina before the Great Depression was not a bad country to be born and raised in-especially if, like the first son of Ernesto Guevara Lynch and Celia de la Serna y Llosa, one belonged to a blue-blooded aristocracy. Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born on June 14, 1928, in Rosario-the third largest city in a country of 12.5 million inhabitants. On his father's side, the Guevara Lynch family had lived in Argentina for twelve generations: more than enough to fulfill the requirements of nobility in a land of immigrants, most washed up only recently on the shores of "God's country South." On his mother's side, there was also a long and distinguished lineage, as well as extensive property, which in Argentina meant money.
From his father Ernesto inherited Irish and Spanish blood. His great-grandfather, Patrick Lynch, had fled from England to Spain, and eventually to Argentina, assuming the governorship of Rio de la Plata in the second half of the eighteenth century. He even had Mexican-American parentage: Che's paternal grandmother, Ana Lynch, was born in California in 1868. Roberto Guevara, Che's paternal grandfather, was also originally from the United States, though only by chance: his parents had joined in the California Gold Rush of 1848, returning to the land of their birth a few years later.
Not only by birth were the Guevaras of old Argentine stock. The Guevara Lynch branch of the family was so closely identified with the history of the local aristocracy that Gaspar Lynch was one of the nineteenth-century founders of the Argentine Rural Society-a genuine board of directors for the country's landowning oligarchy. If Enrique Lynch was one of that oligarchy's mainstays toward the end of the nineteenth century, Ana Lynch, the only grandmother Che ever knew, was a liberal and iconoclast. She became a significant figure in his youth; his decision to study medicine rather than engineering was partly due to her illness and death.
On his mother's side, Guevara's landed roots went back to General Jose de la Serna e Hinojosa, the last Spanish viceroy of Peru, whose troops were defeated by Sucre in the historic battle of Ayacucho in 1820, when South America's independence was finally secured. A daughter of Juan Martin de la Serna y Edelmira Llosa, Celia was not yet twenty-one when she married the young former architecture student in 1927. Her parents had died years earlier: Don Juan shortly after her birth, according to one of his granddaughters, by throwing himself overboard at sea on discovering he had syphilis; and Edelmira soon afterward. Celia was raised by her older sister, Carmen de la Serna, who in 1928 married the Communist poet Cayetano Cordova Itorburu. They were both card-carrying members of the Argentine Communist Party; the couple's affiliation lasted fourteen years.
Celia's family "had lots of money," as her husband would admit unblushingly. Her father had inherited "a great fortune . . . and several ranches. A cultivated man, very intelligent, he was active in the ranks of the Radical Party," participating in the "revolution of 1890." Though the family fortune was divided among seven children, it was initially large enough for all of them. The Guevara de la Serna family would live from Celia's rents and inheritance, much more than from the failed business ventures repeatedly launched by the head of the household. If Celia received, on her mother's side, a classical Catholic education at the School of the Sacred Heart, the freethinking, radical, leftist beliefs of her sister would make her into a singular figure: a socialist, anticlerical feminist. She held endless meetings in her own home during the many struggles led by Argentine women during the twenties and thirties, maintaining, both before and after her marriage, an identity of her own until her death in 1965.
This exceptional woman was the most important affective and intellectual figure in the life of her eldest son, at least until he met Fidel Castro in Mexico in 1955. Nobody-not his father, his wives, or children-would play as crucial a role for Che as did Celia, his mother. A woman who lived for twenty years under the threat and stigma of cancer; a militant who spent weeks in jail shortly before her death for being the mother of her son; a mother who raised five children virtually on her own-she had a profound influence on Che Guevara. Only Castro would have a similar impact on him, later, during a brief interlude in both their lives. Few things illustrate the glory and tragedy of Guevara's saga as aptly as his aching lament when in the Congo, that perpetual heart of darkness, he learned of his mother's death:
Personally, however, [Machado Ventura] brought me the saddest news of the war: in a telephone conversation with Buenos Aires he was told my mother was very ill, in a tone which made me suppose it was but a preparatory announcement. . . . I had to spend a month in this sad uncertainty, awaiting the results of something I could guess at but still hoping there was a mistake, until I received confirmation of my mother's death. She had wanted to see me shortly before my departure, perhaps feeling ill, but this was not possible as my trip was already far advanced. She did not receive the letter of farewell I left for my parents in Havana; it was to be delivered only in October, after my departure had been made public.Unable to say good-bye, Che was also denied the chance to grieve in the full measure of his sorrow. The African revolution, merciless tropical diseases, and unending tribal conflicts prevented it. Celia died in Buenos Aires, expelled from the hospital of her choice and torn from her deathbed for having given birth to Che thirty-seven years earlier. He mourned her in the hills of Africa, driven from the successive countries he had adopted as his own. He himself would perish barely two years later: two deaths too closely related.
The Argentina that saw the birth of Ernesto (soon to be nicknamed Tete) was still in 1928 a dynamic country in full swing, blessed by an economic and even political prosperity which would soon fade. During the twenties it resembled the British domains populated by "white settlers," rather than the rest of Latin America. On the eve of World War I, its principal sociodemographic indicators made it more like Australia, Canada, or New Zealand than Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, or Mexico. The country had already received three times more direct foreign investment than Mexico or Brazil. The amount of railroad track per thousand inhabitants was three to ten times higher than that of its hemispheric neighbors. In 1913, the southern nation's per capita income was the thirteenth-largest in the world and slightly higher than that of France. The European conflagration and headlong growth of the twenties would not alter this ranking. Argentina's weak points-its meager industrialization, excessive foreign debt, highly vulnerable export sector-would soon quash the modernizing pretensions of its local elites. But at the time of his birth, Che Guevara's country still exuded a buoyant and legitimate self-confidence. It aspired to become part of the First World avant la lettre, and was unconcerned by the ominous economic and social signs already looming on the horizon.
The introduction in 1912 of secret, universal suffrage (for male Argentine citizens) led to the electoral victory, four years later, of the Radical Civic Union and its legendary champion, Hipolito Yrigoyen. He was re-elected for a second time a few months after Che's birth in 1928, following the uninspired interregnum of Marcelo T. de Alvear. Socially minded, democratizing, Yrigoyenism continued to challenge and constrain the old oligarchical, ranching Argentina of the Rural Society. But it did not fulfill the huge expectations it had aroused in the country's emerging middle sectors and the new working class of Buenos Aires, an eclectic and unstable mixture of immigrants and second-generation Argentines from the interior. Pressure from the right, the disillusionment of the middle classes, and the effects of the Depression put an end to this democratic interval: in 1930 the military took power-the first coup in this century to overthrow a democratically elected Latin American government. In place of the almost blind, ancient Yrigoyen, the armed forces imposed the first in a long series of military rulers and fraudulent elections.
Ernesto was born in Rosario by accident. After their marriage in Buenos Aires a year earlier, his parents had left for Puerto Caraguatay in the Upper Parana, in the territory of Misiones. There, Ernesto's father planned to cultivate some 200 hectares sown with mate, or Argentine tea leaves, the "green gold" so abundant in that part of the country. When Celia was seven months pregnant they traveled to Rosario, the closest town, both for her to give birth and to study the possibility of buying a mate mill. The farming project and mate plantation soon collapsed, as would happen with all of Guevara Lynch's business ventures. But the other project prospered: Ernesto was born in Rosario, one month premature.
Soon after Che's birth, the family left the Misiones area, Guevara Lynch becoming a partner in a struggling shipbuilding firm in San Isidro, near Buenos Aires. This is where Ernesto's first asthma attack took place, on May 2, 1930, just weeks before his second birthday. According to Guevara Lynch, his wife (an excellent swimmer) often took the child to the Nautical Club at San Isidro, on the banks of the River Plate. The father leaves little doubt as to his wife's responsibility:
On a cold morning in the month of May, with a strong wind, my wife went swimming in the river with our son Ernesto. I arrived at the club to look for them and take them to lunch, and found the little boy shivering in his wet bathing suit. Celia was inexperienced and did not realize that the change in weather at that time of year could be dangerous.In fact, the infant suffered his first pulmonary crisis-from pneumonia-forty days after birth, from which "he almost died," according to his aunt Ercilia Guevara Lynch. This early illness casts some doubt on the father's explanation; an earlier history of lung ailment preceded the cold. In any case, through June 1933 Ernestito's asthma attacks were an almost daily occurrence. They caused terrible anxiety for both parents, but especially Celia, who besides tending to the child was overburdened by guilt. To that, instilled by her husband over the river incident, she piled on hereditary factors, which at the time were only suspected, though they are now known to be the single most significant cause of asthma. Celia herself had suffered from this respiratory ailment as a child; the probabilities of one of her offspring contracting the disease were nearly one in three, and everything indicates that that is what occurred with Che. The early episodes of pneumonia and colds were only triggers for a high-risk candidate; they did not provoke Che's asthma.
The three years between the first appearance of the illness and its stabilization seem to have left a profound mark on parents and child alike; accounts by relatives, friends, and the parents themselves are deeply moving.s It was doubtless during this time that Celia built with her son a relationship infused with obsessiveness, guilt, and adoration. This bond soon translated into a home-based education, which would instill in Che Guevara a lifelong love of books and an insatiable intellectual curiosity.
The family wandered throughout Argentina for five years, seeking a site that would help, or at least not aggravate, the boy's condition. They finally found it in Alta Gracia, a summer resort town 40 kilometers from the city of Cordoba, at the foot of the Sierra Chica and almost 600 meters above sea level. A neat, clean, well-laid-out town of white middle-class Argentines, it catered to vacationers and the infirm, not unlike the mountain or hot-springs health spas of Western and Central Europe. The thin, dry air, which attracted tourists and tuberculosis patients, attenuated Tete's asthma attacks-though it did not eliminate or even space them to any significant degree. The illness gradually became more manageable, thanks to the better climate, medical care, the child's personality, and his mother's exceptional devotion.
Ernesto Guevara was raised, then, on this magic mountain at the foot of the Cordoba Sierra. His father built houses in the small town, while his mother devoted herself to raising and educating Ernesto, his two sisters, Celia and Ana Maria, and a brother, Roberto, born in those years; another brother, Juan Martin, would arrive in 1943. The Guevara home was an oasis of security in a country that was fast leaving its golden years behind. Like the rest of the world, Argentina was entering the hardships of the Depression and its unexpected political consequences. The Crash of 1929 not only ruined the mate hopes of Che's father, it also shattered in a few short years the myth of a peaceful and prosperous Argentina. The 1930 coup ushered in a long period of political instability. A collapse in prices and in international demand for the country's major exports brought about an unending economic slowdown, interrupted only by a brief boom in raw materials during the immediate postwar period. But the crisis also led to social mobilization, ideological polarization, and cultural changes affecting even Alta Gracia and the sheltered, enlightened elites of Cordoba.
Because its main exports— beef and wheat— were less vulnerable to European demand, Argentina was initially less affected by falling international prices than were other Latin American nations. Still, Argentina's export revenues fell by almost 50 percent between 1929 and 1932, a plunge ultimately as devastating and laden with consequence as it was for other countries in the region. It had a twofold effect on Argentine society. First, there was a steep rise in agricultural unemployment, as myriad foreclosures hit the pampas. Second, import restrictions due to a lack of hard currency and foreign credit promoted the development of domestic manufactures, in both consumer and some capital sectors. This in turn caused an accelerated growth in the Argentine working class. By 1947, 1.4 million immigrants from rural areas had relocated to Buenos Aires, and half a million workers found jobs in industry, doubling the ranks of labor in barely a decade. These migrants would become the famous cabecitas negras (literally, "dark heads"). A new working class was emerging, darker-skinned and less immigrant-based, and located more in domestic industry than in processing goods for export. The gap between the middle-class, educated, and traditional sectors on the one hand, and the new industrial class on the other, would be reflected ten years later in the distance between a Socialist, intellectual, and petit-bourgeois left and a populist, irreverent Peronism.
But other concerns were more important for Ernesto during those years. The habits of his personal and family life were becoming more clearly defined. The first was his parents' continual roving, now limited to the perimeter of Alta Gracia. According to Che's younger brother, after living six months in the Grutas Hotel in Alta Gracia, they drifted from Villa Chichita in 1933 to Villa Nydia, then to the Fuentes chalet in 1937, the Forte chalet, the Ripamonte and Doce chalets between that year and 1940, and, in 1940-41, back to Villa Nydia. Each time the lease ran out— a frequent occurrence— the family had to move. It would be far-fetched to attribute the roaming spirit of Che Guevara to this endless wandering by his family. But the constant comings and goings of his childhood years could not help but become a sort of second nature. From city to city until the age of five, and house to house until he turned fifteen: the Guevaras' norm was movement. It also served to spice an otherwise monotonous existence, and to rekindle the illusion of starting anew and overcoming the family tensions— affective and financial— which were hardly lacking in the growing household of Ernesto and Celia.
It was during this period that the relationship between Celia and Tete became central to both their lives. It extended far beyond the intensity and closeness of Ernestito's link with his father, or that of the other children with their mother. Che's illness largely explains this: there is nothing like a mother's anguish and guilt to create in her a boundless devotion to her child. The symbiosis between Celia and her son, which would nourish their correspondence, their emotional bond, and their very lives for more than thirty years, began during that placid time in C?rdoba when Ernesto learned, on his mother's lap, to read and write, to see her and, above all, be seen by her. Celia's gaze distinguished and "constituted" him to such an extent that those who knew Ernesto in his youth were astonished by the physical contrast between him and his siblings. It was notorious long before the eldest son became famous, inevitably casting a shadow over the other members of the family. Why was there such a difference? One may assume that it derived largely from Ernesto's relationship with his mother; the other children probably received a simpler kind of maternal affection.
Another distinctive sign became apparent in this prelude to adolescence: a certain definition, and confirmation, of the head of the household's role in the family. Guevara Lynch was simultaneously a bon vivant, a marvelous friend to his children, a mediocre provider, and a distant father. He did devote hours to his son, swimming, playing golf, and talking with him. But he remained aloof and remote the rest of the time, often indifferent to the needs of his child and family. While the mother served as teacher, household organizer, and nurse, Guevara Lynch was sporadically building houses in partnership with his brother and lingering at the Sierras Hotel, a haven of rest and relaxation for the wealthy society of Alta Gracia.
His illness continued to afflict Ernestito, preventing him from having a "normal" primary education. Celia took up the slack:
I taught my son his first letters, but Ernesto was unable to go to school because of his asthma. He only attended the second and third grades on a regular basis; the fifth and sixth grades, he attended as much as possible. His siblings copied the schoolwork and he studied at home.Ernesto's father played a central role, however, in transmitting to the asthmatic child a voracious love of sports and exercise, and the conviction that through willpower alone he could overcome the limitations and hardships imposed by his illness. Both Ernesto's father and mother were athletic; they loved nature and the countryside, and instilled that inclination in their son. Since any enjoyment of exercise or the outdoors implied enormous effort for him, Ernesto developed uncommon willpower from his earliest years. It was Che's parents who discovered the only possible remedy for what became a chronic affliction. They quickly concluded that the only reasonable solution for their son's bronchial asthma was to continue medicating him and to strengthen him through tonics and swimming, climbing hills, and horseback riding.
Ernesto's fierce determination to overcome his physical shortcomings was thus a major factor in the development of his personality from early years. Another was his easy contact with a broad range of people. The children's circle was varied and gregarious; they were in constant touch with friends from different social classes, including caddies from the Alta Gracia golf club, serving boys from hotels, the children of construction workers from the sites run by Ernesto's father, and poor families from the emerg- ing slums near the family's rented villas. Some of Che's little friends were middle-class, others of low income; some were white like him and his siblings, others, dark-skinned morochos like Rosendo Zacarias, who sold candy in the streets of Alta Gracia. Half a century later, Zacarias still remembers (perhaps aided by the mythical idea that "Che was a perfect child, without any defect") how they all played together without distinctions or hierarchy, and how easily Ernesto related to people from different social and cultural milieux.
The asthmatic boy also spent long hours in bed, developing an intense love of books and literature. He devoured the children's classics of the time: the adventure novels of Dumas pere, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Jules Verne, and Emilio Salgari. But he also explored Cervantes and Anatole France, Pablo Neruda and Horacio Quiroga, and the Spanish poets Machado and Garcia Lorca. Both his parents transmitted to him their passion for reading during this period of home education: Ernesto Guevara Lynch his penchant for adventure novels, and Celia for poetry and the French language.
At school, Ernesto was a good student but nothing more, one of his teachers recalls; as intelligent as his younger sisters, but not as hard-working. Perhaps the greatest impact of the two schools he attended in Alta Gracia had to do with the fact of receiving a public education during the waning years of an oligarchical Argentina.
According to his teacher Elba Rossi Oviedo Zelaya, Ernesto had two different family links to education: one through Celia, ever present and attentive to her son's instruction, and the other, much more lax, through his father. In the words of Che's teacher,
I only knew the mother. She was really very democratic, a lady who didn't mind picking up any child and taking him home, and helping the school; she had a lovely temperament. . . . She came every day and to all the parents meetings, with all her kids in the little car and then other kids joining in. The father was a very distinguished man who spent a lot of time at the Sierras Hotel because he came from a distinguished family. I might have seen him once by chance; he didn't speak with the teachers. I only knew he went a lot to the Sierras because at that time the Sierras was the best hotel in Alta Gracia. With her I talked many times, about school and other things. I never met him at the school, though I might have seen him on some occasion; someone might have said, that's Sr. Guevara.
The fact that Ernesto attended public school was typical, yet highly significant. Although Argentine society was still relatively homogeneous, its growing diversity was already coming into conflict with the standardizing pressures of public, lay, compulsory education. When his asthma kept Ernesto at home, his mother actually received notices from the truant officer, inquiring as to the reasons for his absence; the compulsory character of primary education was not just a matter of principle but a strictly enforced reality. The two schools Che attended in Alta Gracia received pupils from the destitute homes on the city outskirts, poor infants from el campo, or else urban morochos— either way, children from modest families, for whom this was the first generation going to school. The enormous difference between Argentina and the rest of Latin America in those years (with the exception of Uruguay and possibly Chile), lay precisely in the existence of public education. Established before universal suffrage, it was, together with military conscription, the equalizing institution par excellence. The immense gap between the adult Che and many of his companions from Cuba and the rest of Latin America, in his relations with different classes, races, ethnic groups, and educational levels, stemmed from this early experience of equality. Che's experience was not at all typical in a continent whose elites rarely encounter people different from themselves.
However, to strive for equality is not the same as achieving it. The brutal emergence in the thirties of new working classes— including second-generation immigrants and laborers from the old agricultural sector of gauchos and cattle ranches-did not spare any level of Argentine society. Ernesto's schools were attended by poor children of Italian, Spanish, and rural origins; thanks to his teachers and the exceptional cultural heritage he received from Celia, Che was blessed with unique and obvious opportunities for confronting the contours of equality. But these schools also bestowed upon him, paradoxically, the distinction of being a precocious primus inter pares. The culture and (relative) prosperity of his parents, as well as the self-confidence generated by a stable if not peaceful home, provided Ernesto with the privilege of standing out from a very young age. He was a ringleader at school and among his friends. The early vocation for leadership that many of Che's admirers have traced back to his childhood may indeed have stemmed from innate talents-but it also involved his privileged social position.
Last but not least, these languid years in Alta Gracia also saw Ernesto's incipient politicization. The Spanish Civil War had a major impact on him, as it did on millions of young people and adults throughout the world. His interest in the triumphs and tragedies of Madrid, Teruel, and Guernica did not center on the conflict's ideological, international, or even political aspects. Rather, as befitted a boy between the ages of eight and eleven, he was inspired by its military and heroic aspects. In 1937, he hung a map of Spain on the wall of his room, using it to follow the movements of the Republican and Francoist forces. He also built a miniature battlefield in the garden, complete with trenches and mountains.
In 1937, Ernesto's uncle, the poet Cayetano Cordova Iturburu, left for Spain. A journalist and committed member of Argentina's Communist Party, Cordova was hired as a foreign correspondent. Aunt Carmen and the two children went to live at the Guevara home in Alta Gracia during his absence. So all the dispatches, notes, and articles that Cordova Iturburu sent from the front passed through the villa in Alta Gracia. The arrival of news from overseas was a major event. The poet-turned-reporter occasionally sent Spanish books and magazines. This continual stream of detailed information flowed straight into the imagination of the boy, where it would remain.
Another important factor in Che's growing politicization was the subsequent arrival in Cordoba and then Alta Gracia of several refugee families fleeing from Spain. The one closest to the Guevaras was that of the physician Juan Gonzalez Aguilar, who had previously dispatched his wife and children to Buenos Aires and then Alta Gracia. Paco, Juan, and Pepe, the three sons of the Gonzalez Aguilar family, enrolled at the same school in C?rdoba that Che began attending while still living in Alta Gracia. For a year, they often traveled together the thirty-five kilometers to school. As the Republican front collapsed, Gonzalez Aguilar fled to Argentina, joining his family in Alta Gracia.
The friendship between the two families would last for decades. The stories told by the Gonzalez Aguilars and other refugees like General Jurado and the composer Manuel de Falla would help inspire in Ernesto a deep sympathy toward the Republican cause. The Spanish Civil War-perhaps the last civil conflict until the Cuban Revolution to be broadly, almost unanimously, perceived as a battle between good and evil-was the decisive political event in Che's childhood and adolescence. Nothing else in those years would mark him as profoundly as the Loyalist struggle and defeat: not the French Popular Front or Mexico's oil expropriation, not Roosevelt's New Deal or the Argentine coup of 1943, nor even the rise of Peron on October 17, 1945, would have such an impact on the young Guevara.
Ernesto's parents also transmitted their own political views to him. After the Republican defeat in Spain, the father of the eleven-year-old boy founded a local section of Accion Argentina and enrolled him in its youth section. A typical antifascist organization, Accion Argentina did a bit of everything during those years. It organized meetings, collected funds for the Allies, opposed Nazi penetration in Argentina, uncovered cases of infiltration by former crew members of the German battleship Graf Spee (sunk in Montevideo Bay in 1940), and disseminated information about Allied advances during the war. As Guevara Lynch recalls, "every time an event was organized by Accion Argentina or we had a serious investigation to do, Ernesto went with me."
The Spanish war coincided with the emergence in Argentina of a nationalistic, Catholic, and virtually fascist right. The nation's intellectuals— especially those with radical, socialist, or communist sympathies and aristocratic, Italian, or Spanish roots-rallied against it, denouncing all forms of xenophobia and conservatism. They were particularly opposed to the views expressed by writers like Leopoldo Lugones, or publications like Crisol (Crucible), La Bandera Argentina (The Argentine Flag), and La Voz Nacionalista (The Nationalist Voice), as well as to their political expression among mid-level army officers. Argentine nationalism during the thirties embraced anti-Semitism, racism and eugenics, fascism, and Nazism. It quite naturally sided with Franco when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. Xenophobia was especially dear to it, given the emergence of a new working class from the interior made up of "blacks" or "redskins." That this nationalism also had its "social" and "anti-imperialist" aspects, its "developmentalist" components, did not prevent the traditional Argentine left from regarding it with dread— and justifiably so.
The final outcome of these trends confounded all expectations. The advent of Peron in 1945 would leave the nationalists unsatisfied, and the left disoriented and bereft of popular support. The growth of that conservative, Catholic nationalism provides an at least partial, and tentative, answer to the riddle of Argentina's left and Che's attitude toward the chief political event of his youth: Peron's rise to power. As we shall see, Ernesto followed in his parents' footsteps. To the extent that he cared at all, his youthful anti-Peronism was as visceral as his family's, as wholehearted as that of his fellow university students, and as unrealistic as that of the left in general. Che would complete the circle only twenty years later, when he became friends with Peron's representatives in Havana, especially John William Cooke. He even served as Peron's contact with Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella, requesting his help to arrange a meeting between Peron and Gamal Abdel Nasser.
On the eve of the Guevaras' departure for Cordoba in 1943, the patterns of Che's family life were set. The house was always open. There was an endless procession of children, visitors, friends, and travelers, all within a great disorder governed only by two rules: hospitality for guests and freedom for the children. Bicycles and tricycles circulated indoors, meals were served at all times, and there were scores of guests. Money was always short. The couple's financial problems, the father's chronic absenteeism, and the mother's indifference to household matters doubtless helped perpetuate the chaos. The children's enormous freedom had as its counterpart a certain lack of structure. When the Guevaras' marriage began to show strains, the disorder became even more apparent.
In 1942, a year before moving to the city, Ernesto's parents enrolled him at the Colegio Nacional Dean Funes of Cordoba, an excellent public secondary school belonging to the Ministry of Education. It was not precisely intended for poor students, but was less exclusive than the Colegio Montserrat; the latter was the institution usually attended by Cordoban members of the regional elite-to which Ernesto belonged as a matter of course-while those from the emerging middle classes tended to enroll at Dean Funes. The parents' choice was a fortunate one. Ernesto spent five years among young people of different social and professional origins.
One should not, however, exaggerate their diversity. In the forties, Cordoba was still a fairly homogeneous, white, bureaucratic center within a prosperous agricultural province. The social differences that did exist were increasingly concealed by geographical segregation. Things were changing, however. The population skyrocketed, surging from 250,000 inhabitants in 1930 to 386,000 in 1947. Lower-income residents, recently arrived from the countryside and working in the services sector, began settling in the city's outskirts. In some areas, slums appeared directly alongside "fashionable" neighborhoods. With the arrival of the automobile industry in the late forties, industrialization was just around the corner.
A new phase had begun for Ernesto, in school and in his eternal struggle against asthma. He began to compete in team sports, especially rugby. Both rough and cerebral, it was the favorite sport of Anglophile Argentina. Many of the matches took place at Cordoba's Lawn Tennis Club, where Ernesto also swam and played tennis or golf. There and then the secondary-school student became friends with two brothers, Tomas and Alberto Granado, the former his own age, the latter six years older. Tomas was the closest friend of his adolescent years; Alberto, of his youth, travels, and first forays into the world. They attended the same high school, suffered through their first loves side by side, and witnessed together the political ferment that shook Argentina beginning on October 17, 1945, when Peron, borne by a tidal wave of both cabecitas negras and Catholic, conservative, and authoritarian elites, erupted into the life of his country.
Rugby had two implications for the young asthma patient, already marked by the disease's classically deformed chest. First of all, it entailed an exceptional challenge. It was already known then (and even more so now) that strenuous exercise is the single most frequent trigger for asthma attacks. Overcoming the crises and controlling them through willpower, an inhaler, and even epinephrine injections, soon became a routine that Guevara would endure until the end of his life.
Secondly, rugby assigns players different roles and functions, some more strenuous than others. The position of half-scrum held for Ernesto the great advantage of being more static and strategic, less mobile and tactical. It benefited him in two ways, offering him an opportunity to develop his skills as a leader and strategist, and allowing him to play without running from one end of the field to the other throughout a match, thus preventing him from tiring too early. But he was not entirely spared; the attacks came on during the game sometimes, driving him off the field and to the bleachers, where he would inject himself with adrenaline right through his clothes, perhaps in some cases to call attention to himself. The challenge was enormous, but manageable under certain conditions-a combination which would persist throughout Guevara's life, as did the asthma. For Ernesto's ailment was not totally typical: unlike many cases of childhood asthma, it did not disappear with age.
Psychoanalytic views on the origins of asthma are in general no longer viewed favorably by physicians; the widely accepted etiology is hereditary. Interpretations based upon a patient's anxiety, his incapacity to externalize it and to cope with the ambivalence triggering that anxiety, are perhaps better suited to explain the disorder's lasting nature in cases like Che's than its origin. They are particularly suggestive given his obvious difficulty in facing and accepting conflicting emotions or desires-whether in his family, at school, in love, or, years later, in politics. In this view, asthma was Ernesto's response to a primary, recurring anxiety which caused him to suffocate. This anxiety was in turn exacerbated by his frequent exposure to ambivalence, intolerable to him precisely because of the anxiety it generated. The only possible cure was to avoid ambivalence— through distance, travel, and death.
There are several known triggers for asthmatic episodes: viral infections, exercise, dust or other allergies, and climate changes. Attacks can also be brought on by emotional catalysts: a sense of imminent or expected danger, or highly conflictive situations with no apparent way out, and for which any alternative entails an exorbitant cost. The known connection between the dilation of contracted bronchia and a surge of adrenaline implies that situations devoid of ambivalence-such as combat, for instance-produce an endogenous discharge of adrenaline and thus can deter asthmatic attacks. Conversely, other situations-for example, those requiring long deliberations and tortuous decisions-can actually provoke them, precisely owing to the absence of endogenous discharges of adrenaline. If this interpretation is correct, it may explain Che's subsequent incapacity to accept the simultaneous presence of opposites: his parents' problems and equivocal estrangement, the intrinsic contradictions of Peronism, the ambiguities of his relationship with Chichina Ferreyra, and later, the need to reconcile the pragmatic imperatives of the Cuban Revolution's survival with his own formidable social and humanistic values.
What with his asthma and problems at home, Ernesto was, as his report cards indicate, only an average student, with occasional high marks in the humanities. Thus, in 1945, in his fourth year of middle school, he received excellent grades in literature and philosophy; barely passing marks in mathematics, history, and chemistry; and truly disastrous ones in music and physics. His complete tone-deafness became legendary: he simply could not distinguish among rhythms or melodies, never learning to dance or play any musical instrument. As Alberto Granado would recount years later,
We had agreed that I would give him a kick every time there was a dance he could do; the only dance he had learned was the tango, which is the only thing you can dance if you don't have any ear. The day of his birthday he made a fantastic speech, which proved to me that the boy was not crazy, that there was something to him. He was dancing with an Indian girl, a nurse from the leper colony in the Amazon region. Suddenly the band played "Delicado," a baion that was very much in fashion, a favorite of the girlfriend he had left in Cordoba. When I gave him a little kick to remind him, he started dancing the tango. He was the only one doing it. I couldn't stop laughing; when he realized what was happening he got terribly angry.
Che's English was also appalling: he achieved an average of 3 out of 10 in his fourth year. In contrast, his French, learned at home with Celia, eventually became cultivated and fluent to some extent. And his general level of culture and education was higher than that of his peers, according to his classmates. He bought and read the books of all the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and held intensive discussions with his history and literature professors. As his friends recall, he was much more knowledgeable than they in many subjects they didn't even approach. His barely adequate performance in school was perhaps due to his many extracurricular activities: sports, chess (always a favorite pastime, in which he acquired a certain mastery), his first job with the provincial highway department (initially in Cordoba and then, after he completed high school, at Villa Maria, halfway between Cordoba and Rosario). All in all, as his father said, "he was a wizard in his use of time."
An anecdote from this period reveals Ernesto's stubborn and generous efforts to bridge the gap separating him from the poorer sectors of Cordoba society, and to oppose blatant cases of oppression and injustice. The Guevaras' street, Calle Chile, bordered on one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. There, as in all Latin America, marginalized and dispossessed immigrants from the countryside lived in houses made of cardboard and zinc. This was also the territory of a Dantesque personage known as the Man of the Dogs: a legless cripple who hauled himself along on a little cart pulled by a brace of dogs, upon which he vented all his rage at his hapless fate. Every morning as he dragged himself out of the hole in the ground that was his home, he would whip the dogs as they struggled to pull him onto the pavement. The dogs' whimpers always preceded his appearance-a major event in the neighborhood. One day, the local children started taunting the Man of the Dogs and throwing stones at him. Ernesto and his friends witnessed this spectacle and tried to stop it, Ernesto pleading with the children. But instead of thanking him the Man of the Dogs mocked him, his icy stare filled with an ageless, irreparable class hatred. In the words of Dolores Moyano Martin, a friend of young Ernesto's and Chichina's cousin, who tells the story, the tramp illustrated an important distinction: his enemies were not the poor children throwing stones at him but the rich children trying to defend him-a lesson that Ernesto would learn only in part.
His parents were drawing further and further apart, and the disorder and money problems already present in Alta Gracia became more acute in Cordoba. These years witnessed the romance-- more or less public in the small world of a mid-sized provincial town-- between Ernesto Guevara Lynch and Raquel Hevia, a Cuban of exceptional beauty widely known in the city as a seductive, cheerful woman. This was neither the first nor the last of the elder Ernesto's affairs; as Carmen Cordova, Che's cousin, recalls, "Everyone knew he was a ladies' man; Celia knew." Raquel's mother, an actress of some talent, had moved to Cordoba with her daughter for health reasons. The daughter's liaison with Ernesto senior began during the war. Despite the widely publicized nature of the affair ("it was a scandal in Cordoba"), Ernesto senior once brought Raquel home for a visit, which can hardly have pleased Che and his mother. The entire relationship marked Che so strongly that when his girlfriend "Chichina" Ferreyra happened to recall the woman's name a few years later, he snapped, "Never mention that name in my presence."
The Guevaras' marital difficulties were becoming more serious and now affected five children, three of them nearly adult. As described by Betty Feig?n, a contemporary of Guevara's and the wife of Gustavo Roca, a lawyer from C?rdoba who became a friend of Che's later in life,
Family life was complicated. I remember when Juan Martin, the smallest of Ernesto's brothers, was born and I went to see him. I remember the house where they lived, [in] such disorder. It gave an impression of poverty, neglect. Celia was a very intelligent woman, very attractive as a person, one could speak with her very easily, but one did not feel that things were going well. And then there were those things the kids talked about, that Ernesto was separated. There were many periods of great marital disagreement, with financial problems as well. They even lived poorly: all right from a sociocultural point of view, but with very serious economic limitations.Dolores Moyano Martin has her own theory about the Guevaras' home life during this time. In her loneliness, the adored and adoring mother may well have yielded to the temptation of casting her eldest son in a father's role, as she tried to raise the younger children in an atmosphere of chaos, financial hardship, and marital tension. The couple's estrangement and first separation-temporary, ambiguous, incomplete-did not actually occur until 1947 in Buenos Aires, though some place it earlier, in Cordoba. The entire situation left a mark on Carmen Cordova, Che's young cousin: "It was as if Ernesto [senior] just left, because he decided to leave, but then he would return. It was not a full break for the couple, or as if the marriage had ended." In any case, the process that led to these tensions-and worse ones-was already well underway. In 1943 the couple's final child, Juan Martin, was born in Cordoba. His relationship with Ernesto would be a crucial part of Che's adolescence and youth and, of course, of the life of the younger Guevara:
I was a sort of brother-son; Ernesto was both my father and my brother. He would take me out for walks, carry me on his shoulders, play with me, and I saw him as my father.In regard to other domestic responsibilities-and obviously not just household chores-Celia was perhaps beginning to place unconscious but compelling demands on her oldest and favorite son. According to a cousin of Che's, he would always hand to his mother part of the wages he obtained from the many odd jobs he held during those years; "I had the impression he sort of replaced his father." These demands were probably never verbalized or made explicit: the communication between mother and son had plenty of room for insinuation and double entendres. Perhaps in response, Che gradually drew away: not in his love for his family but in his physical presence. This might help explain the beginning of his travels and his perpetual movement. It also partly clarifies his initial inclination to study engineering in Cordoba, though his parents and siblings had already left for Buenos Aires. The moment of his final leavetaking from them had not yet arrived, however. For several reasons, Ernesto changed his mind. He followed his family to the capital to study, but soon took off, overtaken by his aversion for immobility. As it turned out, he never really put down roots in Buenos Aires.
His encounter with Maria del Carmen ("Chichina") Ferreyra also dates from his time in high school, though the relationship would not really blossom until later, when Guevara was already studying medicine at the University of Buenos Aires. But Che's friends during that period were already converging with Chichina's: many of her cousins from the Roca and Moyano families were also close to the Guevaras, Granados, and other acquaintances. Convergence but not assimilation: Che was beginning to stand out from his friends. He dressed differently (in a careless, almost slovenly way), had contrasting tastes, and was by now far more cultivated. There also began to appear in some hidden niche of his psyche a glimmer of politicization, though still on a purely emotional level. It consisted in a certain sympathy and generosity toward those less fortunate than himself, and a willingness to fight by whatever means-but without knowing very well why or to what end. One of the most repeated anecdotes in Che's biography, which appears in almost every account, is that told by Alberto Granado concerning his own detention in Cordoba in 1943 for having attended a student antimilitary demonstration. When Ernesto went to visit him at the police station, Granado suggested that he and other friends organize demonstrations with the secondary-school students. Che answered: "Demonstrate in order to have the shit beaten out of us? No way. I won't march if I'm not carrying a piece [a gun]." More than a portent of Che's revolutionary vocation, or even of any violent proclivities in him at age sixteen, the incident suggests an indeterminate combativeness and a certain idea of power relations: don't fight if you can't win. He would, repeatedly.
This incipient political awareness was marked by the influence of his parents, the intellectual atmosphere of Cordoba at the time, and Che's scant familiarity with politics. No one recalls any special interest in politics on his part, or his holding any clear stance--though he already showed some signs of anti-Americanism, not untypical of "learned" Cordoba intellectuals at the time. Che also had definite anti-Peronist feelings, but they derived more from the antiauthoritarian cycle of the war in Spain, the struggle against Nazism in Europe, and opposition to the rise of Peron by the traditional middle-class and intellectual left. Yet Ernesto seems to have been largely indifferent to the most important sociopolitical event of his lifetime thus far: the demonstrations of October 17, 1945, when the working class of Buenos Aires took to the streets to rescue Peron from his island prison, carrying him (physically and metaphorically) to the presidency of Argentina.
Ernesto completed his high school studies toward the end of 1946. He spent the summer working with the roads department of the province of Cordoba. Many factors induced him to study engineering in Cordoba, among them the fact that his family had already left for Buenos Aires, settling down in the house of Guevara Lynch's mother on Arenales Street. But in 1947 she fell ill, and Ernesto moved to the capital to help care for her. When Ana Lynch died, Ernesto made a far-reaching decision. He enrolled at the Faculty of Medicine of Buenos Aires, and went to stay with his parents on Araoz Street, which, however, was no longer quite the family home. As Roberto Guevara euphemistically expresses it, "Ernesto often went to a studio my old man had on Paraguay Street, number 2034, apartment A on the first floor." Or, as one of their cousins-closer to Roberto than to Che by age and vocation-recalls: "Toward the end of Ernesto's years in Buenos Aires, their parents were practically separated; Ernesto's father rarely slept at home. While the rest of the family lived in Araoz Street, he had his architect's office in Paraguay Street, where he stayed most of the time." Ernesto lived in the house on Araoz Street until he left Argentina in 1953. Che thus arrived in Buenos Aires barely a year after Per?n's enthronement; he would depart from his native country forever a year after Evita Peron died on February 26, 1952, as Peronism entered its prolonged twilight.
An excerpt from Chapter Four
In a country where corruption and institutional collapse had been endemic since independence, where personal loyalties counted far more than party affiliation, an acute hunger for honest, bold, and radical leadership prevailed. In an unformed nation, where U.S. intervention was an inescapable and congenital fact of life, there was enormous potential for a personality who could capture the people's need to heal their wounded self-respect. Only some theoretical details, and a bit of luck, were missing. Fidel Castro's meeting with Che Guevara would supply the former with both; it would provide the latter with the deep conviction that "it is worth dying on a foreign beach for such a noble ideal." Neither Fidel's nor Che's biographers are precise as to the exact date of their first meeting, usually placed in July, August, or September 1955. What is certain is that Raúl Castro met Che thanks to Ñico López, the Cuban exile friend from his Guatemalan days. Raúl was already an experienced militant in the international Communist movement, espousing Communist "ideas" (in the words of Hilda Gadea), and attending the Vienna Youth Festival of 1951. During his return to Cuba by boat, he encountered a figure central to this story: Nikolai Leonov, then a young Soviet diplomat on his way to Mexico to study Spanish. Leonov would later work as a translator to the Soviet leadership and would be one of the first links between Moscow and the Cuban Revolution, before retiring as a KGB general in the eighties.
In his funeral oration for Che on October 18, 1967, Fidel Castro placed their first meeting in July or August 1955. It seems somewhat unlikely that they would have met so soon after the Cuban's arrival, though in a speech in Chile in 1971 Castro mentions that he met Che "a few days after his arrival in Mexico." Hilda Gadea states in her memoirs that Che recounted meeting Fidel "in early July," but the Cuban armed forces' semiofficial account asserts that the friendship began in September. Neither Che's biographies nor the more recent ones of Fidel Castro give any additional information, though several of them point out that Che and Fidel were together at the small group of exiles commemoration of July 26.
The exact date is important only if the consecrated description of an instantaneous mutual fascination is seen as exaggerated. Why wouldn't the two young men have met or even exchanged a few words before the subsequently famous all-night conversation at the home of María Antonia that led to a decade of unflagging loyalty and respect? In any case, their alliance would add conceptual structure to Castro's brilliant political intuition, and give meaning to Che's life. Che recalled that evening shortly afterward: "I met him during one of those cold Mexican nights, and remember that our first discussion was about world politics. After a few hours--by dawn--I had already embarked on the future expedition. Actually, after the experience I had had walking through all Latin America and the finishing touch in Guatemala, it wasn't hard to talk me into joining any revolution against a tyrant, but Fidel impressed me as an extraordinary man. He faced and resolved the most impossible things. . . . I shared in his optimism. There was a lot to do, to fight for, to plan. We had to stop crying and start fighting."
In his travel journal, written on the spur of the moment, Guevara noted: "It is a political event to have met Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary, a young man who is intelligent, very sure of himself and remarkably bold; I think there was a mutual liking." This comment, more spontaneous and immediate than the previous one, confirms the impact Castro had on the Argentine, and the admiration he awakened in him. It also reveals that Che detected Castro's outstanding traits, both good and bad, from the outset.
For his part, Fidel Castro kept a precise memory of the evening when they became friends and colleagues: "In one night he became a member of the future Granma expedition." Castro also noted (in a confession all the more interesting because he made it ten years later) that Che's "revolutionary development was more advanced than mine, ideologically speaking. From a theoretical point of view he had a better background, he was more advanced as a revolutionary." One of Fidel's girlfriends, who was also a friend of Che and his wife, corroborated Castro's retrospective opinion: Fidel's passion for Cuba and Guevara's revolutionary ideas ignited each other like wildfire, in an intense flare of light. One was impulsive, the other thoughtful; one emotional and optimistic, the other cold and skeptical. One was attached only to Cuba; the other, linked to a framework of social and economic concepts. Without Ernesto Guevara, Fidel Castro might never have become a Communist. Without Fidel Castro, Ernesto Guevara might never have been more than a Marxist theoretician, an idealistic intellectual.
In fact, Che was not quite a well-rounded theoretician. Despite his reading of Marx and Lenin in Mexico, he had only an unstructured, autodidactic background in Marxist theory, and a mere smattering of history, philosophy, and economics. His political experience in Guatemala and his approach to events resembled that of a passionate and perceptive spectator--but a distant one, nonetheless. The explanation presented by Castro's biographers (or those who knew the two men at that time) is indeed tempting: it posits a friendship based upon matching talents and personalities. But the intellectual or theoretical eminence attributed to Che by Fidel and others must be qualified. In 1955, Che was a sporadic reader of Marxist texts, a man interested in world events within a broad humanistic culture. He came from a family of readers, had had excellent schooling and an adequate university education, and was immensely curious about everything. But, until then, he himself confessed a year later, "Before, I more or less devoted myself to medicine and spent my free time studying Saint Karl [Marx] in an informal manner. This new phase in my life requires a change in priorities: now Saint Karl comes first, he is the axis."
Ernesto Guevara was not yet a man of letters, or of endless theoretical speculation. That much is suggested by an exchange attributed to the two men by one of Che's biographers, concerning the 26th of July Movement's program. "Fidel: So hey, aren't you interested in all of this? Guevara: Yes, yes, I'm interested. . . . But I really don't know. First I would create a good army and after winning the war, we'd have to see. . . ." More than a theorist or thinker, Che at this time was seeking an exit from a dependent existence in Mexico and the unpleasant prospect of a premature return to Argentina. He projected conceptual serenity, a humanistic culture, and a historical and international framework capable of embracing a political program. Castro, in contrast, was eminently a man of action. He may have been dazzled by Che's sophistication and cosmopolitan approach, one that Castro would always admire but never quite achieve; but he did not then, or later, fall under Che's spell. The trust and respect Fidel developed for him, for these reasons as well as the Argentine's natural charm, were but a starting point. A couple of years later, the líder máximowould pay a great deal of attention to Che, due to his bravery and dedication to the cause--but not to any political and theoretical expertise.
Che's reaction to the overthrow of Perón in September 1955--already touched on in Chapter 3--reflected the by now well-known stance of the newly recruited revolutionary. His comments to his family in Buenos Aires were acidly ironical, but not particularly lucid or penetrating. His emphasis on Washington's supposed interference was logical and understandable but, by all accounts, totally off the mark. Guevara had just arrived from Guatemala, and his anti-U.S. views were typical of that highly polarized period in the Cold War. But they had little basis in the reality of Argentina. His defense of the Communist Party and the importance he gave it--for instance, in an account to his mother of a lecture-debate he attended in November 1955--were characteristic of the time, but hardly relevant to his country's political situation. In the final analysis, Ernesto Guevara was a brilliant and well-intentioned "fellow traveler" in the international Communist movement, as were millions of other young people throughout the world during those heady, disingenuous years of the Stockholm Appeal, the Peace Movement of Louis Aragon and Joliot-Curie, of Pablo Neruda and Jorge Amado, Palmiro Togliatti and Maurice Thorez, Mao and Ho Chi Minh, and the Vietminh victory at Dien Bien Phu. The Soviet Communist Party's Twentieth Congress and its denunciation of Stalinism had not yet taken place; nor had the 1956 invasion of Hungary. It was perfectly normal for a highly politicized and sensitive young man to believe in the infinite evils of imperialism and the countless virtues of the Socialist fatherland, and to see Communist activists as the harbingers of world revolution. None of this, however, made Che a Marxist theoretician. It would take him another five years to attain this self-taught distinction.
Ernesto Guevara's life changed after his meeting with Fidel Castro. He married in August, as already noted. In November, while Castro was away on a visit to the United States, he celebrated his honeymoon with Hilda Gadea in southeastern Mexico (at Castro's insistence, according to her). There he finally came around to exploring Palenque, Uxmal, and Chichen-Itzá, whose Mayan ruins cannot but have dazzled him, though he wrote nothing about them in his letters home. The only remark to his mother, in slightly derogatory terms, referred to his "little trip to the Mayan region." At the end of his voyage he wrote a fair-to-middling poem entitled "Palenque" which, aside from its obligatory anti-American swipe ("the insolent offense of the gringo tourist's stupid 'oh!' is a slap in your face"), its invocation of the regretted Incas ("long dead"), and a sagacious observation about the eternal youth of King Pakal's city, deserves no further mention. Was this curious omission a sign of his ongoing Mexican depression, or of his concentration on the struggle ahead? Either way, the skillful, affectionate descriptions he devoted to the rest of Latin America are missing in the case of Mexico--a country that has enthralled far less sophisticated travelers than Che, and that should have fascinated him much more than the other stops in his Latin American wanderings. Either these pages were never written, or else they lie buried in the Cuban archives.
Use of this excerpt from "Companero" by Jorge G. Castaneda may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: © 1997 by Jorge G. Castaneda. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
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