Furibundo de la Serna

Laurence Whitehead

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna found what his life was for in July 1955, in Mexico City. It was there, at the age of 27, that he met Raúl Castro, who introduced him to his older brother, Fidel. The Argentine doctor joined a motley band of Cuban expeditionaries in the near-suicidal landing (or sinking) of the Granma in a mangrove swamp at the eastern end of the island. The survivors took to the hills and, with the support of the peasants of the Sierra Maestra (as chronicled in Guevara’s Passages from the Revolutionary War and elaborated in his subsequent foco theory of guerrilla warfare), they toppled the pro-American dictator Batista.

‘El Che’, as Guevara became known in Mexico because of his Argentine usage (from c’e, an Italian interjection common in Argentina), was one of the two or three most trusted of Castro’s entourage, and played a perhaps decisive role in encouraging the most radical tendencies within the Revolution, clashing with defenders of the Soviet model (which he considered ‘bureaucratic’) and advocating instead the inculcation of a ‘revolutionary morality’. As Minister of Industry he pressed for the abolition of money, and as a roving ambassador popularised the idea of armed ‘third world’ revolutions elsewhere in Latin America and in Africa. When he disappeared from public view in March 1965, Castro’s enemies were quick to allege that the Stalin of the Caribbean must have liquidated a dangerous rival. Castro countered by reading a letter in which Che absolved the Revolution and its leader from all responsibility for his subsequent actions and promised to carry the example of Cuba to other countries. Most famously, he urged revolutionaries everywhere to create‘two, three, many Vietnams’ in order to counter US escalation of the war in South-East Asia.

In October 1967 the Bolivian Army encircled a small band of mostly Cuban guerrilleros in an isolated and inhospitable zone on the eastern flanks of the Andes. When the wounded leader of the band was captured and identified as Che, the President of Bolivia, General Rene Barrientos, apparently first consulted with the American Ambassador Douglas Henderson, then ordered Che to be summarily shot. (Jean Cormier’s new biography follows the Cuban line that this was a decision made in Washington.) Che’s diary of the Bolivian campaign was subsequently extracted from his captors, and published in 1968 to a great fanfare in Havana. Unlike the grisly photographs of a glazed-eyed barbudo on a mortuary slab, which were emblazoned across the front pages of Bolivian newspapers, Cuban revolutionary art still remembers Che as the eternally youthful, resolute and visionary model of the new socialist man, with a single star on his beret and his eyes fixed on a radiant horizon.

Twenty-eight years after his death, and six after the implosion of ‘really existing’ socialism in nearly all the countries where Bolshevism was attempted, Che Guevara is writing and publishing as never before. Three different diaries, and many more photographs, have recently appeared. The 1967 Bolivian diary is basically a reissue; but the Motorcycle Diaries are new, as are the extracts from Che’s journal covering the military operation he led in the Congo in 1965. These three documents also inform large sections of Jean Cormier’s first full-length life, which supplements the published sources by quoting from Che’s letters to his family, and by including a considerable amount of fresh interview material, notably from Alberto Granado, the Argentine biochemist who accompanied Che on his 1952 journeys and subsequently made a successful career in Cuba. Others of those who accompanied Che on his later, even more perilous exploits have also begun to publish their memoirs.

Some of this literature has the flavour of a boy’s adventure story – Rider Haggard in red, perhaps: a combination of Utopian idealism, revolutionary conflict and extreme personal valour. But it remains difficult to get a clear historical perspective on this archetypal figure. How important was his role in defining the Cuban Revolution? What would he have amounted to without Castro’s leadership? What did he amount to once he left Cuba? Were any of his own schemes possible, or was he always incorrigibly unrealistic, in search of a heroic death? If by some chance he had prevailed, what kind of a revolution would he have made? What, if anything, does his life say to a post-Communist generation? One reason these questions remain intractable is that, although Che and international Communism have died, Fidel and the Cuban Revolution are still with us. Until we can evaluate their final legacy, the figure of Che will remain enigmatic.

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