Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Thoughts on Ernesto "Che" Guevara (after reading Jon Lee Anderson's Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life)

Arguably the world's most famous photo

I indulged in the pleasure of reading Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life while on a recent trip to Cuba.  Without delving into a full-blown review of the book, I will say that it is well-written, comprehensive and refreshingly free of either the hagiography or sanctimonious condemnation that tends to dominate commentary on Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s life.  I did, however, want to highlight some parts of Che’s life and times that I found notable.

The Politics of the Cuban Revolution

The Cuban Revolution did not start as a Communist project, but ended as one.  

To topple the Batista regime, Fidel Castro and company needed to craft a wide nationalist coalition.  Castro formed the July 26th Movement, which drew members with a wide range of political views.  Castro also courted support from the Soviet-linked Popular Socialist Party (PSP), a Communist party in Cuba, but needed to be discreet about it to avoid angering both the anti-Communist July 26th Members and international anti-Communist powers, notably the United States.  Members of the PSP were split over how radical Castro was and if they should support him, which they eventually did.  Throughout Castro’s guerrilla campaign in the sierra (mountains), there were constant personal, political and tactical disagreements between his group and the July 26th members in the llano (lowlands), who were waging concurrent campaigns to weaken Batista.

Even after the July 26th Movement seized power in early 1959, Castro was careful to tread the line between alienating his valuable Communist allies and inciting the United States and his various anti-Communist supporters with mentions of socialism.  As time progressed, however, Castro’s rhetoric (and actions) grew more radical, declaring the Revolution “socialist” in 1961 and forming the Cuban Communist Party in 1965.

Che’s Political Transformation

Che seems to have had little interest in politics early in life.  After an episode in which Che refuses to march in support of students jailed for protesting a repressive Argentine coup, Anderson comments “Displaying a complete apathy about political activism was to become a consistent pattern during Ernesto’s growing-up years.” (31)  On his later famous travels throughout Latin America, the poverty and suffering he encountered prompted him to think critically about class and politics.  Spending time with a Peruvian leperologist named Dr. Hugo Pesce impressed upon Che what it meant to dedicate oneself to the common good.

The changes in Guatemala that were occurring under President Arbenz and the subsequent CIA-backed overthrow of Arbenz were the events that politically radicalized Che.  In a letter to his aunt, he declares, “I have sworn before a picture of the old and mourned comrade Stalin that I won’t rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated.  In Guatemala I will perfect myself and achieve what I need to be an authentic revolutionary.” (126)

A short time later, in letters to his mother, he explicitly articulates his Communist convictions.  “[T]he communists maintained their faith and comradeship intact, and were the only group which continued to work [in Guatemala]... I believe they are worthy of respect and that sooner or later I will join the Party... [Becoming a communist] is reached by two roads: positively, by being directly convinced, or negatively, after a deception with everything.  I reached it by the second route only to immediately become convinced that one has to follow the first.  The way in which the gringos... treat America had been provoking a growing indignation in me, but at the same time I studied the theory behind the reasons for their actions and I found it scientific.  Afterward came Guatemala.” (165)  Che went so far as to sign one letter to his aunt “Stalin II.” (167)

Che’s Views on Race

Anderson quotes one decidedly non-progressive passage on race from Che’s diary which he wrote while in Caracas:

"The blacks, those magnificent examples of the African race who have maintained their racial purity thanks to their lack of an affinity with bathing, have seen their territory invaded by a new kind of slave: the Portuguese. And the two ancient races have now begun a hard life together, fraught with bickering and squabbles. Discrimination and poverty unite them in the daily fight for survival but their different ways of approaching life separate them completely: The black is indolent and a dreamer; spending his meager wage on frivolity or drink; the European has a tradition of work and saving, which has pursued him as far as this corner of America and drives him to advance himself, even independently of his own individual aspirations." (92)

This passage is surprising since Che worked quite closely with many blacks during the Cuban Revolution (Cuba has a sizable black minority population) and also sought to wage a similar war of liberation in the majority-black Congo.  It seems that this statement was written at a relatively young age, and is an aberration from the generally egalitarian views that he espoused, especially later in life.  A good discussion of this quote and the context is here.

Che’s Attitude towards Women

Che enjoyed a healthy sexual appetite and seemed to rarely pass up the opportunity.  Especially in his youth, he was a “extroverted and relentless seducer of girls.” (55)  He writes in less than flattering terms about many of his actual and desired partners.  While traveling in La Paz, he notes, “Something undulating and with a maw has crossed my path, we’ll see...” (103)  In Guatemala, he records “a little adventure with a dirty female teacher.” (126)  On a boat ride Che seduced a woman he calls “more whorish than a hen with sixteen years on her back.” (119)  He says of a newcomer to his sierra encampment, “[She is a] great admirer of the movement who seems to me to want to fuck more than anything else.” (238)  Che seemed to often have, in his words, an “urgent need for a woman who will fuck” (166)

Che had two marriages; the first was to Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian revolutionary.  Throughout the book Che’s attitude towards Hilda seems to oscillate between indifference, neglect and contempt (that is, when she was not bankrolling his activities or going to bed with him).  Che eventually abandoned her and their child to go fight in the Cuban Revolution.  Strangely, Hilda’s recollections of Che seem positively rosy.  At one point, Anderson dryly remarks, “As usual, Ernesto and Hilda’s accounts about their on-off relationship don’t dovetail.” (164)  Che’s second marriage to Cuban revolutionary Aleida March, by contrast, was much more happy and entirely faithful.

Che had healthy relationships with female family members and also seemingly respectful relationships with many female revolutionaries (who were, of course, a minority among the Cuban revolutionaries).

In one passage comparing Fidel Castro and Che, Anderson observes, “Both were imbued with Latin machismo: believers in the innate weakness of women, contemptuous of homosexuals, and admirers of brave men of action.” (178)

Che at War

Che spent time in Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia as a guerilla fighter.  Of course, guerilla war is still war and war is not pretty.  Che “frequently had to resort to coercion” (722) at times to extract what he wanted from the populace surrounding his fighters.  Hostage taking, hijacking, making deals with local strongmen, executing traitors, purging spies, maintaining discipline among sometimes unruly soldiers -- often the line between righteous action and destructive atrocity was quite fuzzy.  Guevara, however, was utterly convinced of the validity of his cause: “Ernesto Guevara was now at war, trying to create a revolution, the result of a conscious leap of faith.  He had crossed a boundary that was invisible to outsiders and had entered a domain where lives could be taken for an ideal and where the end did justify the means.” (233)

Che wrote about his successful military campaign in Cuba, urging others to use Cuba as a model for their own revolutionary guerilla movements.  His sees the primary lessons from the Cuba campaign as: “1. Popular forces can win a war against the army.  2. It is not necessary to await for the conditions to be right to begin the revolution; the insurrectional foco (guerilla group) can create them.  3. In underdeveloped Latin America, the armed struggle should be fought mostly in the countryside.” (470)

Che as “Supreme Prosecutor”

Perhaps what Che is most controversial for is his role as the “supreme prosecutor” of revolutionary tribunals that tried former Batista regime members after the July 26th Movement took power.  “Several hundred people” (387) were put to death under these tribunals.  Anderson describes the trials as “[mostly] above board, if summary affairs, with defense lawyers, witnesses, prosecutors, and an attending public... In truth, there was little overt public opposition to the wave of revolutionary justice at the time.” (387-388)  For Che, this purging of the remnants of the Batista regime was an absolute necessity: “[Che] never tired of telling his Cuban comrades that in Guatemala Arbenz had fallen because he had not purged his armed forces of disloyal elements, a mistake that permitted the CIA to penetrate and overthrow his regime.  Cuba could not afford to repeat it.” (389)

Che’s Asthma

Che had a lifelong asthma condition that, ironically, disqualified him from Argentine compulsory military service (45).  It is further ironic that Che chose subtropical Cuba as the main site of his military adventures, where his asthma condition would be particularly crippling (242).  At times Che’s asthma so debilitated him that he was not able to even reach for his medicine (113).  Che’s frequent struggle with asthma, including on his military campaigns, is a recurring theme throughout Anderson’s book.

Anderson’s Conclusion on Che

“Che’s unshakable faith in his beliefs was made even more powerful by his unusual combination of romantic passion and coldly analytical thought.  This paradoxical blend was probably the secret to the near-mystical stature he acquired, but seems also to have been the source of his inherent weaknesses -- hubris and naivete.  Gifted at perceiving and calculating strategy on a grand scale, yet at a remove, he seemed incapable of seeing the small, human elements that made up the larger picture...  [T]he men he believed in consistently failed him, and he consistently failed to understand how to alter the fundamental nature of others and get them to become “selfless Communists.”  But along with his mistakes, what is most remembered about Che is his personal example, embodying faith, willpower and sacrifice... Forever youthful, brave, implacable, and defiant, perpetually staring out with those eyes full of purpose and indignation, Che has defied death.  As even his closest friends and comrades wilt with age or succumb to the comforts of a life where “la revolución” no longer has a place, Che remains unalterable.  He is immortal because others want him to be, as the solitary example of the New Man who once lived and dared others to follow.” (752-754)

Further Reading

A much more opinionated piece on Che, written from an Anarchist perspective, also using Anderson's book as a reference.

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