While down in Chile, I read a biography of Che Guevara by Jon Lee Anderson, the New Yorker magazine writer. I recommend this book highly not only because it is so well-researched and written but also because Che was so far ahead of his time, which is possibly why he remains a hero for so many millions of people today.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara was born in 1928 to a socially prominent Argentine family. He was good-looking, averse to bathing, and suffered badly from asthma. Anderson recounts dozens if not hundreds of sexual liaisons in the first 200 pages. Che and his dreams of social justice were irresistible to rich girls: “One night, she and a friend, Blanca Mendez, the daughter of Guatemala’s director of petroleum reserves, tossed a coin to see which of them would ‘get’ Ernesto.” (pg 131) Sadly for the U.S., Che was rejected by his one great love, a 15-year-old old rich Argentine girl who might have forced him to go straight.
Although Che graduated from medical school he never completed a medical internship and almost never had anything that looked like standard employment. Until he become an official in Castro’s dictatorship of Cuba, Che lived off women with jobs: “A nurse named Julia Mejia had arranged a house at Lake Amatitlan where Ernesto could go and spend the weekends” (pg 138); “In March, … Hilda paid off part of his pension bill” (pg 139); “With some jewelry Hilda gave him for the purpose, he paid off part of his pension bill” (pg 141); “Ernesto now needed Hilda again for the occasional loan” and, as he had written in his diary, to satisfy his ‘urgent need for a woman who will fuck’.” (pg 166).
Che was afflicted by wanderlust from an early age though generally his travels involved some suffering for others. From his cousin Mario he stole three new silk shirts and sold them for travel expenses. Che was a difficult house guest: “Staying for a night in the barn of an Austrian family, Ernesto awoke to hear scratching… he aimed the Smith & Wesson … and fired a single shot. The noises stopped, and he went back to sleep. But in the morning he and Alberto awoke to discover that Ernesto had bagged not a puma, but their hosts’ beloved Alsatian dog, Bobby.” [This was the first lethal gunshot fired by Che Guevara.] Some of his travel diaries and experiences show how little South America has changed: “The bloodshed [in Colombia] was called simply ‘La Violencia,’ the euphemism for what had become a national plague, and in 1952 there was no still no end in sight” (pg 91).
Che did a bit of glider flying with his uncle and the book includes a photo of him, the “oddball uncle”, and a sailplane with a tail number of “LV-DAY”. Che appreciated fine optics: “he tried out a new toy he had bought himself with half of his remaining funds–a 35mm Zeiss camera” (pg 162). At his death, “several Rolex watches [were] found in Che’s possession” (pg 741). Che kept programmer hours: “Stories abounded in Havana of foreign dignitaries who, after being granted interviews with Che at three o’clock, showed up at his offices at that hour of the afternoon, only to be informed by Manresa that their appointment was for 3:00 am.” (pg 446)
Africa defied Che’s efforts. “Che was stunned by the number of cases of venereal disease among the rebels… ‘Almost nobody had the least idea of what a firearm was,’ Che recalled. ‘They shot themselves by playing with them, or by carelessness.’ The rebels also drank a local corn- and yucca-based brew called pombe, and the spectacle of reeling men having fights or disobeying orders was distressingly commonplace.” (pg 642). “In a ludicrous sideshow, the boat captain had also brought over forty new Congolese rebel ‘graduates,’ fresh from a training course in the Soviet Union. LIke their Bulgarian- and Chinese-trained predecessors, they immediately requested two weeks of vacation, while also complaining that they had nowhere to put their luggage.” (pg 666)
Richard Nixon, Vice President at the time, comes off as perhaps the only intelligent American in the book. His own CIA was supporting Castro because they thought that he was anti-Communist. Nixon met with Castro, however, and reported to Eisenhower that Castro was in fact a Communist (pg 416).
Fidel Castro earns his status as modern hero in this book. On page 295, Castro, out in the sierra with a small army, responds to a call for compromise with U.S. and bourgeois interests: “These are our conditions… If they are rejected, then we will continue the struggle on our own… To die with dignity does not require company.”. One of the first things that Castro’s regime did was introduce affirmative action to the university: “Che told the gathered faculty and students [at University of Las Villas] that the days when education was a privilege of the white middle class had ended. ‘The University,’ he said, ‘must paint itself black, mulatto, worker, and peasant.’ If it didn’t, he warned, the people would break down its doors ‘and paint the University the colors they like.'” (pg 449) Castro ended up being somewhat at odds with Che. At the beginning of the struggle Castro doesn’t care what form of government Cuba ends up with as long as he and his brother are in charge. After Castro has secured power he realizes that retaining lifetime ownership of Cuba will require Soviet support. This leads to a rift between Castro and Che. Che wants to foment violent revolution in other Latin American countries. The Soviets want to avoid military confrontation with the U.S. and Castro is willing to do anything the Soviets say as long as he can keep his job.
American military adventures abroad and foreigners’ response to them have changed little. “In 1951, both [Fidel Castro] and his brother Raul (echoing Ernesto Guevara’s own stance in distant Argentina) had vocally opposed the Prio government’s intention of sending Cuban troops to find in the ‘American war’ in Korea.” In the summer of 1956 Che picks up his infant daughter and says “My dear little 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. I may not be here anymore, but the struggle will inflame the continent.” (pg 202)
When Che left Cuba for Africa he left behind a “Message to the Tricontinental” that demonstrates his faith in any kind of violence against the U.S., an anticipation of Osama bin-Laden:
In it he appealed to revolutionaries everywhere to create “two, three, many Vietnams” as part of an international war against imperialism. Che … demanded a “long and cruel” global confrontation to bring about the “destruction” of imperialism in order to bring about a “Socialist revolution” as the new world order.”
And in a litany of the qualities that would be required for this battle, he cited: “Hatred as an element of the struggle; a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us above and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to… a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.”
It would be a “total war,” to be carried out against the Yankees first in their imperial outposts and eventually in their own territory. The war had to be waged in “his home,” his “centers of entertainment”; he should be made to feel like a “cornered beast,” until his “moral fiber begins to decline,” … He urged men everywhere to take up their brothers’ just causes, as part of a global war against the U.S.
“Our every action is a battle cry against imperialism, and a battle hymn for the peoples’ unity against the great enemy of mankind: the United States of America. Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this, our battle car, may have reached some receptive ears and another hand may be extended to wield our weapon and other men may be ready to intone the funeral dirge with the staccato singing of the machine guns.” (pg 719)
The “fight first, decide on what to do once power has been attained” strategy had worked well in Cuba and Fidel Castro’s continued ownership of that country is testament to Che’s success. But it didn’t work in Bolivia where Che spent his last couple of years trying to convince bewildered peasants to take up arms against the U.S. Che was taken prison by the Bolivian army in October 1967 and the U.S. government tried to drag him back to Panama for interrogation. But the Bolivians were angry and President Barrientos ordered Guevara executed in the field where he was being held.
Reading this book in Chile inspired some reflection. No Latin American country has rejected Che Guevara’s philosophy more definitively than Chile. While their neighbors put energy into bemoaning and trying to escape American commercial domination, the Chileans quietly go to university, accept American investments, build farms, mines, and factories, and load goods onto ships for export. Chile, along with Costa Rica, probably best represents the opposite of Castro’s Cuba. Have any of our readers been to both Chile and Cuba? How do they compare? The Chileans are certainly richer but I wonder if the Cubans are happier (their music is certainly happier).
Another reflection that occurred to me is how much less hope there is in today’s world. Quite a few Latin Americans in the 1950s felt that if they could only overthrow their governments they would enter some sort of paradise of freedom and prosperity. Women would yield their bodies if a man only hinted at dreams of a brave new world with a different government. It seems as though these hopes have been dashed by the failure of the Soviet Union and the Starbuckification of China. Now it seems that there is only one form of government from which to choose. It will be more or less corrupt. It will be more or less efficient. It will be more or less tolerant of opposition. But basically the path to prosperity involves investment and hard boring work rather than a moment of glorious political change. How depressing is that?