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.

The Motorcycle Diaries are the record of his 1952 trip round South America with Alberto Granado, who seems curiously invisible most of the time despite having been his sole permanent companion for over six months. At this time the author was still just Ernesto de la Serna: ‘Maybe one day, when I’m tired of wandering, I’ll come back to Argentina and settle in the Andean lakes, if not indefinitely at least in transit to another conception of the world’ was his first response to the alpine lakes of southern Argentina. And he is certainly not the embodiment of Indian aspirations for justice and self-realisation: ‘After several hours we were forced into conversation with the only other white people on board, the only people we could talk to since the wary Indians offered no more than monosyllabic replies to questions from outsiders. In fact, these kids from Lima were normal enough, they just wanted to make clear the difference between them and the Indians.’ At the time of the Motorcycle Diaries the future Che’s nickname was ‘Fuser’ – short for ‘Furibundo de la Serna’, because of his furious rugby tackles.

The Motorcycle Diaries are a truly Post-Modern text, explicitly ‘dis-authorised’ in the second paragraph (which seems to have been penned about a year after his return). ‘The person who is reorganising and polishing them is no longer me, at least I’m not the one I was.’ The diarist is retrospectively canonised by his father in a prologue that attempts to sanitise an incautious text: ‘His journeys were a form of social research, going out to see for himself, but trying at the same time to relieve suffering if he could.’ Compare this to the son’s own account: ‘We discovered that our vocation, our true vocation, was to roam the highways and waterways of the world for ever. Always curious, investigating everything we set eyes on, sniffing into nooks and crannies; but always detached, not putting down roots anywhere, not staying long enough to discover what lay beneath things: the surface was enough.’ ‘You don’t have to work – the women do everything – you can just eat and sleep and keep them happy ... Who cares if we stay there a year, who cares about studying, work, family etc?’ ‘How far our actions were, as one policeman put it, “heroic”, we’re not sure, but we began to suspect, and with good cause I think, that the definitive adjective was somewhere in the region of “stupid”.’ If these sub-Kerouac jottings were all we had to go on what would be a fair verdict on their 25-year-old author? Medical Student? Bum? Latin American patriot? Bourgeois slummer? Intuitive socialist? Parasite? All the big existential choices were yet to be made.

What, then, of the political awakening stirred by this life on the road? The experience of living without money, in ostentatious disregard of all the usual constraints, is an experience that clearly captivated Che. First down-and-out in Cuzco and Caracas, later self-sufficient in the Sierra Maestra, and finally out of supplies in the Andean foothills, he relished a primitive Communism that could be loosely explained by quotations from Marx, so long as one did not reflect too closely on who actually supplied the resources being consumed or why. In 1952 he met a Communist couple who shared their meagre food and shelter in the Chilean desert, and this clearly troubled his conscience a little. The man’s ‘Come comrades, come and eat with us. I’m a vagrant too,’ is taken by the diarist to mean: ‘he basically despised our aimless travelling as parasitical.’ But Che was careful to preserve his social distance, adding that ‘whether or not “Communist vermin” are dangerous for a society’s health what had burgeoned [in this man] was a protest against persistent hunger transformed into a love for this strange doctrine whose real meaning he could never grasp.’ Further up the road a Peruvian school-teacher, sacked for his radical politics, fared no better in the Argentine doctor’s esteem: ‘The fate of these unhappy people is to vegetate in some obscure bureaucratic job and die hoping that, thanks to the miraculous power of the drop of Spanish blood in their veins, one or other of their children will somehow achieve the goal to which they aspire to the end of their days.’ During his three months in Peru Che repeatedly laments the inscrutability and fatalism of the Indians, showing no awareness of the social revolution that was erupting in adjoining Bolivia at that very moment, and in which a very different temperament was on display. His view of the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia is more favourable: ‘Valdivia’s achievement symbolises man’s undeniable desire to find a place where he can exercise absolute control.’

Granado’s account of this trip, as filtered through Jean Cormier, renders a substantially different and more coherent portrait. Indeed, the biography provides much essential information without which The Motorcycle Diaries are confusing and, in places, unintelligible. In Cormier’s version it was the experience of visiting the huge Braden Copper mine at Chuquicarnata, in the Chilean desert, and seeing the vast wealth being extracted there by overbearing North Americans, that did most to politicise the (already radical) Che. A month spent stranded in Miami reinforced this anti-US attitude and his subsequent marriage to a militant Peruvian exile and their witnessing of the CIA’s 1954 counter-revolution in Guatemala unified the twin themes of Indo-American liberation and armed confrontation with Yanqui imperialism.

This first part of Cormier’s biography, leading up to the point where Guevara ‘entered history’ as the sole non-Cuban to accompany Fidel Castro in the Granma landing, is much the most original and instructive. After 1956 the book stays too close to the official revolutionary line to tackle the really difficult questions. Moreover, although well-informed on personal matters, it is sprinkled with disconcerting inaccuracies. However, it succeeds in drawing attention to two aspects of Che’s life that can be glimpsed in the Diaries but hardly fit with the legend. One is the central importance of his lifelong struggle against asthma. The other is a linked hypothesis (attributed to President Nasser and explicitly denied by Guevara’s daughter) of a suicidal streak to his recklessness.

My mother, also an asthmatic, has told me how, as a teenager, when she felt an attack coming on, she would climb onto her bike and pedal and wheeze until she fell off. Nothing was worse than to surrender to the complaint. The only antidote was a show of willpower, an assertion that despite congested lungs you would never admit defeat. When I first saw the wretched spectacle of Che’s corpse in the Bolivian newspapers I felt convinced that it was asthma as much as American imperialism that he had been battling against in the Yuro canyon.

As for the supposed suicidal streak, consider these words, from the closing paragraph of The Motorcycle Diaries:

I, the eclectic dissector of doctrines and psychoanalyst of dogmas, howling like a man possessed, will assail the barricades and trenches, will stain my weapon with blood, and, consumed with rage, will slaughter any enemy I lay hands on. And then, as if an immense weariness were consuming my recent exhilaration, I see myself being sacrificed to the authentic revolution, the great leveller of individual will.

Whatever their shortcomings, these new books will help to ensure that Che speaks to a new generation. I was caught off-balance by the first sign of this literary regeneration as I was leaving Havana at the end of October 1989, a few weeks before the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. My generous hosts presented me with the ‘recent bestseller’ in Cuba, El Pensamiento econόmico de Ernesto Che Guevara, which they hoped would help pave the way for the forthcoming ‘special period’ of hardship and self-sacrifice that was already anticipated, as Soviet subsidies, like the Soviet state, began to wither away. ‘I didn’t know he’d written anything new lately,’ I blurted out, with my usual inability to curb inappropriate thoughts, before grasping the solemnity of the presentation. My response was a gross misjudgment, a failure to understand that in the world of myths and heroes the same text can be infused with an endless succession of overlaid associations and reappropriated meanings. Precisely because Che died so young and in combat, and because his literary remains are so unrevised and fragmentary, he can avoid all the failure and discredit that a 67-year-old Ernesto Guevara de la Serna would have had to tackle in his memoirs.

Perhaps there is now enough hard evidence to permit at least a few provisional, and personal, answers to the big questions posed by Che’s life and left still unresolved by these new books. Without Che, the Cuban Revolution would have been a much more parochial affair. Although his economic policies were unsound, and he proved a poor administrator, he lent the Revolution a sense of purity and gave it a global mission beyond anything the Castro brothers could have projected on their own. His personal influence is most apparent in Cuba’s African policy. More generally, he reinforced the egalitarianism and the emphasis on healthcare, and he glamorised the image of revolutionary leadership, conceived in terms of intransigence and self-abnegation. Currently, he provides a legitimation of the Cuban revolutionary tradition without need to refer to the Soviet model. But,out of loyalty to Fidel, Che also helped to falsify the history of the guerrilla struggle and to extrapolate it beyond all reason. (He, more than anyone, knew first-hand that the Andes were not the Sierra Maestra of South America.) All his three campaigns (in Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia) were semi-suicidal. In no case were the chances of success anything like evens; and he knew it.

The Congolese venture of 1965 was almost certainly preordained to fail. Perhaps there was a serious political project to be undertaken there, but the timing was hopelessly wrong. The leftist-led rebellion in Katanga (now Shaba province) had effectively been defeated at least a month before Che and the Cubans arrived to support it. When Che told Nasser of his plans the Egyptian leader is said to have remarked that the time had passed when white men could play Tarzan in the African jungle, though in fact a British mercenary, Colonel Mike Hoare, was at that very moment spearheading the pro-Western offensive. (Bob Denard’s recent antics in the Comoros Islands, and the activities in Sierra Leone of the South African company Executive Outcomes show that even now the white gun-men think they can still rule Africans.) Cormier devotes a stirring chapter to the failed Cubanled counterattack at Fort Bendera in June 1965, but his account is completely unreliable, just as Paco Ignacio Taibo’s compilation of passages from Che’s diary, mixed with other testimony, is confused and inadequate.

Che was in fact highly doubtful about the wisdom of the operation, but the Congolese leadership saw little to lose in making one last throw. The 5 a.m. assault was timed to coincide with a national holiday, and many of the defending soldiers were apparently drunk; but the fortifications were strong and the Belgian, French and Irish mercenaries put up an effective resistance. It was hardly possible to sustain a prolonged attack, particularly since the Cubans (according to Cormier) found themselves reduced to communicating with their African partners through laboriously translated instructions written in Swahili (which then had to be retranslated for the benefit of the Rwandan contingent). Eventually, the Organisation of African Unity endorsed the status quo, and Che and the Cubans were obliged to withdraw.

The lessons of the Congo were remembered ten years later, however, when Cuban troops landed in newly independent Angola, just in time to counter a South African-organised and US-backed offensive against the leftist government, which had been recognised by the OAU. Indeed, Che’s Congo operation can now be seen as a direct precursor of Cuba’s eventual success in fighting the South African Defence Force to a stalemate at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in1988, a success which did much to liberate Namibia, and so helped to precipitate the end of apartheid. As early as August 1965, Che was in correspondence with the jailed Nelson Mandela, via Winnie Mandela, and Mandela’s warm feelings towards Cuba, and indeed current support for Havana in the face of the intensified US blockade, can be seen as long-term dividends from an African policy initiated by Che.

By contrast, the Bolivian venture, though foolhardy, was not preordained to fail. Of course, had Che managed to create ‘two or three’ Vietnams along the rim of the Andes it is doubtful whether anyone would now judge him to have been an unsullied idealist and benefactor of the downtrodden. If, on the other hand, he had somehow succeeded in tilting the military balance in the Congo against the West’s protégés it is hard to believe that the ensuing thirty years of Zairean history could have turned out much worse than they did.

After Che’s death a troubled North American academic wrote a different kind of diary of a motorcycle trip. Whereas the Argentine showed extreme carelessness in the maintenance of his machine, Robert Persig meditated deeply on the importance of caring for the equipment we use. Che might have sympathised with some of Persig’s insights, but he would also have found them uncomfortable: ‘If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.’ Or:

When you try to climb a mountain to prove how big you are you almost never make it. And even if you do it’s a hollow victory. In order to sustain the victory you have to prove yourself again and again in some other way, and again and again and again, driven forever to fill a fake image, haunted by the fear that the image is not true and someone will find out.

In summary, Persig asked, if you can’t even take the trouble to maintain your motorcycle, what chance do you have of building a better world that might last?