The Life and Death of Che Guevara
By Jorge G. Castaneda
Translated from the Spanish by Marina Castaneda
Knopf. 456 pp. $30
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GUEVARA, ALSO KNOWN AS CHE
Poster Boy of The RevolutionBy Saul Landau
Sunday, October 19, 1997; Page X01
The Washington Post
Jean Paul Sartre called the revolutionary Che Guevara "not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age." Gabriel Garcia Marquez said it would "take me a thousand years and a million pages to write Che's biography."
Two biographers now take up Garcia Marquez's challenge. Paco Ignacio Taibo II, a distinguished historian as well as a celebrated writer of detective stories, sees his subject as "our secular saint . . . a joker, stubborn, morally stubborn, unforgettable." For political scientist Jorge G. Castaneda, Che "came to embody the aspirations and beliefs of '68ers in Berkeley and Prague, Mexico City and Paris." The 1968ers did not achieve their ideals, but Che provided more than a generation's elan.
Interest in Guevara has never lagged. If Cuba should found a revolutionary church, he would surely become its first saint. A rural Mexican community has renamed itself Che Guevara. Political idolatry accompanies the commercialization of the dead guerrilla's image on T-shirts, Swatches and beer labels. Films and books about him abound, and he materializes as a deus ex machina in the musical "Evita."
The new books, each by a great Mexican intellectual, reinforce Jon Lee Anderson's well-researched biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, published earlier this year. Together, they constitute a literary feast about revolution in the 1960s. Unfortunately, none of Che's biographers has gained access to key sources: Ramiro Valdez, former interior minister and Che's closest Cuban friend; Fidel and his brother Raul Castro, minister of defense. They knew Che intimately from 1955 on, as guerrilla comrade, cabinet minister and, finally, through radio communiques to the Bolivian mountains, as case officers to an operative in the field. The definitive work awaits their disclosures.
With effortless insights and occasional overwriting, Taibo traces Che's short life, parts of it already covered by Anderson. Alternately engrossing and repetitious, his account combines excerpts from Che's diaries with memories of comrades and enemies.
Castaneda taints his otherwise brilliant research by accepting uncritically statements by Carlos Franqui, once editor of the revolution's official newspaper. A bitter Franqui left Cuba in the late 1960s and published Diary of the Cuban Revolution (drawn from official Cuban documents) -- without informing readers that he had excised matter from them -- omissions that made Castro look bad.
Together, the books reveal a man Castaneda describes as possessing the "indomitable will" to perform "extraordinary feats . . . and recurrent, and ultimately fatal, mistakes." Che's martyrdom began on Oct. 8, 1967, the day Bolivian rangers ambushed a group of emissaries sent by Fidel Castro to spread Cuba's revolutionary model. The ambush took place not far from the site where Sucre, Simon Bolivar's lieutenant, met his fate trying to foment a 19th-century Latin-American revolution.
Disarmed, wounded and suffering the effects of prolonged asthma attacks, the stoic apostle of modern revolution surrendered. Photographers snapped his picture before and after Bolivian army officials (and possibly CIA officials as well) decided that keeping him alive would be dangerous. The death photo, as Taibo observes, bears an eerie resemblance to Rembrandt's "Anatomy Class"; a Bolivian officer points to Che's corpse below him, as if to teach medical lessons to the onlookers. Castaneda adds: "It is as if the dead Guevara looks upon his killers and forgives them; and upon the world, proclaiming that he who dies for an idea is beyond suffering."
Born in Argentina in 1928 to an upper-middle-class bohemian family, Che, the proud atheist, first spread his almost religious magic during the 1956-58 guerrilla war in Cuba. Taibo relates an anecdote from Che's teenage lieutenant, Joel Iglesias, who had been wounded in battle. He quotes from Iglesias's diary: "Che ran out to me, defying the bullets, threw me over his shoulder, and got me out of there. The Guards didn't dare fire at him, as they heard somebody call him Che. Later . . . they told me he made a great impression on them when they saw him run out with his pistol stuck in his belt, ignoring the danger, they didn't dare shoot."
Both authors cover Che's early asthma, which in part determined his adult character by posing a challenge to his physical activity; his parents' bohemian household; then medical school, romances, and wanderings on motorcycle throughout Latin America, where he acquired empathy for the poor and became anti-Yankee. (See Che's own Motorcycle Diaries.)
Then, in 1954, Taibo narrates, this "adventurer-observer" period ended, when Che witnessed the CIA-backed coup that overthrew President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. In 1955, the frustrated anti-imperialist drifted north to Mexico and met a young Cuban lawyer named Fidel Castro, who recruited him for a military expedition to invade Cuba. Fidel explained that a small guerrilla force in Cuba's eastern mountains could defeat a 50,000 man, U.S.-equipped army. Taibo quotes Che's diary: "To have met Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary, an intelligent, young and very self-assured guy, is a political event . . . Fidel is the best thing to come out of Cuba since Marti [the 19th-century poet who led the Cuban struggle for independence]. He is going to make the revolution happen."
Through Che's eyes, and drawing on others' diaries and interviews, Taibo paints a vivid picture of Che's subsequent two-year love affair with guerrilla life, bonding with comrades in death-or-victory pacts. Che discovered his warrior identity in battle, trekking through jungles, his asthma made worse by the moist tropical air.
Taibo and Castaneda present Che as a multiple personality: a coldblooded scientist, romantic poet and guerrilla who, Taibo says, abhorred bathing and "whose clothes were . . . sartorial disasters." Che the romantic revealed intimate yearnings to his mother; Che the scientist rigorously entered cold facts in his diary. Castaneda describes Che as he entered triumphantly into Havana in 1959 "as he had fought the war: tired, dirty, uncombed, practically in rags."
The tough disciplinarian who impassively dispatched traitors also refused to let enemy wounded go untreated. Che the organizer built hospitals and one-room schools, while advising Fidel from the left on strategic decisions. This strikingly attractive man rode a mule (Don Quixote?), analyzed chess problems, wrote poetry. Taibo quotes "one of his worst" poems, a paean to Fidel: "blazing prophet of the dawn."
In the early 1960s, first as president of Cuba's national bank and then as the country's minister of industry, Che turned to finance and then to polemics on the nature of a just economy under socialism. He began to work on the theme of building the new man, consuming Marxist theory and writing provocative essays on pay equity, moral and material stimuli, the role of the collective work force versus top-down management. He volunteered on Sundays to work 12-hour factory shifts, stayed later than anyone else in his office. His persona exemplified "the new man."
Then Che -- always his own man, and also Castro's chief missionary of revolution -- left Cuba for a disastrous mission in the Congo, followed by his fatal journey to liberate Bolivia. The two biographers offer different explanations of what brought about Che's demise.
Taibo's more tragic narrative blames it on a combination of adverse circumstances and poor military judgment on Che's part. Castaneda's more complex argument begins with the hubris that led Che and Castro to imagine "propitious" revolutionary conditions in Bolivia. Castaneda interviewed Soviet officials, who told him that Moscow sought to temper relations with Washington and threatened Fidel with an aid cutoff unless he stopped the Bolivian mission, which could have led to more conflict. Evidence shows, however, that the Soviets have not easily intimidated Fidel.
Castaneda also contends that by 1965 Che had become a burden to Fidel inside Cuba because of his lack of political tact and refusal to compromise. With Che's eager consent, Castro sent him abroad. Castaneda charges that Castro then failed to rescue Che's group; in his book, Jon Lee Anderson argues that Castro concluded that his covert operation had gone sour, and that a rescue operation in the Bolivian mountains would have meant throwing more good men into a lost cause.
Over the years, Castro has given different views of Che's death. In July 1968, he had just completed his introduction to Che's Bolivian diary. When I was filming him for the feature-length "Fidel," Castro raged against Bolivian Communist Party leaders and their Soviet directors for having betrayed Che. I believed him, though Castaneda correctly charges that Castro behaved arrogantly with and alienated leaders of the Bolivian Communist Party, who were to assume responsibility for resupplying Che's guerrillas.
Six years later, in the summer of 1974, we filmed again with Fidel. This time he declared: "Che was reckless. I had warned him that he was too valuable to lose. But Che had no fear of death and would expose himself heedlessly to danger." In 1987, Fidel tried to resurrect Che's image, a symbol of socialist virtue to counter the pernicious bureaucracy that had developed in Cuba. "Rectification," explained Castro, meant "emulate Che: be honest, humble, the first to volunteer, to extend a hand to a needy comrade."
Whatever brought it about, Che's death dealt a devastating blow to Castro's guerrilla hypothesis for third-world revolution: that a highly mobile band of revolutionaries could defeat superior and better equipped -- but demoralized -- armies, as they did in Cuba. What hubris to think they could repeat their success elsewhere!
As he planned to leave them in 1965, Che wrote to his children: "Grow up to be good revolutionaries. Study hard to be able to dominate the techniques that permit the domination of nature. Remember that the Revolution is what is important and that each one of us, on our own, is worthless."
What's more important, being a father or fulfilling your role as an actor on history's stage, to forge a path for justice, equality, fraternity and the "domination of nature"? (Was this a euphemism for conquering asthma?) Che's love for the unknown masses, whose freedom required their liberation from imperialism, outweighed his ties to his family.
Che defined freedom as necessity. Freedom meant embracing asthma, transcending pain, pushing himself beyond endurance. He minimized his needs in order to keep himself free. Dr. Ernesto Che Guevara Serna, an arrogant bolshevik with the qualities of a Catholic saint, has become the last myth of 20th-century revolution.
"Be like Che," the Cuban slogan implores. Absurd! Who else could possess such will, intellect, determination? Che made history in Cuba, successfully. He failed in the Congo, where Laurent Kabila, who now rules there and whose guerrillas began to train and fight with Che in 1965, apparently collaborated in recent massacres. He failed too in La Higuera, Bolivia, where he lost his life trying to bring about the fall of imperialism and the onset of a just socialism. "There is still no electricity in La Higuera," writes Castaneda.
These excellent biographies will remind readers of the man who called on activists to "grab the revolutionary rifle" and change the course of history. Was that arrogance, idealism or both? Was that only 30 years ago?
Saul Landau holds the Hugh O. La Bounty Chair in Interdisciplinary Applied Knowledge at California State Polytechnic Institute, Pomona. He is also a fellow at the Washington, D.C. Institute for Policy Studies. His most recent film is "The Sixth Sun: Mayan Uprising in Chiapas."
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