The Ribs of Rosinante

Richard Gott writes about the nine (or so) lives of Che Guevara

  • Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson
    Bantam, 814 pp, £25.00, April 1997, ISBN 0 593 03403 1
  • Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara by Jorge Castañeda, translated by Marina Castañeda
    Bloomsbury, 480 pp, £20.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 7475 3334 2

I met Che Guevara in November 1963 at a reception in the gardens of the Soviet Embassy in Havana, one of those diplomatic occasions held every year to celebrate the anniversary of the October Revolution. He strode in after midnight, accompanied by a coterie of friends, bodyguards and hangers-on, wearing his trademark black beret, his shirt open to the waist. He was unbelievably beautiful. People stopped whatever they were doing and stared at the Revolution made flesh. ‘He had an incalculable enchantment that came completely naturally,’ Julia Costenla, an Argentine journalist told Jon Lee Anderson when he was researching his biography of Guevara. ‘If he entered a room, everything began revolving around him.’

That night he found a seat in a corner of the embassy gardens and everyone gathered round. I haven’t much memory of what was discussed. I was a youthful neophyte with little knowledge and less Spanish, attracted moth-like to Cuba – like hundreds of other rebels, adventurers, mountebanks and discontents from Europe and North and South America – by the flame of Revolution.

It took twenty-four hours to fly to Cuba from Europe in those days, the Iberia Viscount touching down on all the islands in the mid-Atlantic on the way. I had two volumes of the collected works of Thomas Balogh in my luggage, required reading for progressive Latin American economists, as well as a small Stilton cheese in a china jar. This had been purchased at Fortnum and Mason, on the recommendation of my Chilean friend Claudio Véliz, the Latin American specialist at Chatham House. He thought it would be a suitable present for Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, the éminence grise of the Cuban Communist Party. Latin American Communists of that generation appreciated the finer things in life. Later I discovered that Pablo Neruda liked to receive homage in the shape of crates of whisky and tins of caviar.

The officials at Havana airport prodded the Stilton with knitting needles lest it should turn out to be a bomb. ‘Operation Mongoose’, the United States’ fifty-million-dollar campaign to destabilise Cuba in the wake of the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion, had only recently, we now know, been abandoned. One secret CIA report of the time, since released, reveals how an agent passed a pen-syringe to a Cuban contact in Paris, intended for use in assassinating Castro, on the very day in November 1963 that President Kennedy was shot. The Cubans were understandably careful with unannounced visitors bearing gifts. At the end of my trip, I was able to present Carlos Rafael with the rather sweaty Stilton, before we went on to discuss Cuba’s ‘second’ agrarian reform – the vibrant topic of the hour – over which he and Guevara had been in marked disagreement.

I never met Che Guevara again, though four years later I had an almost accidental rendezvous with his barely cold cadaver. At five o’clock in the afternoon of Monday, 9 October 1967, a las cinco de la tarde, Guevara’s body, on a stretcher strapped to the landing rails of a helicopter, arrived in the Bolivian hill town of Vallegrande. He had been shot some four hours earlier, on the orders – we were to discover much later – of the High Command of the Bolivian Army.

I had spent the previous Saturday, with two other journalists, visiting the headquarters of the American military training mission at La Esperanza sugar mill, some forty miles outside the eastern oil town of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. (Granada Television had enlisted me to act as Brian Moser’s consultant on a World in Action documentary.) At La Esperanza, we found the commander, Major Ralph ‘Pappy’ Shelton, a Korean veteran, in an expansive mood. With a handful of senior American officers he was celebrating the end of the six-month crash course they had organised for the Bolivian Army. A team of 16 Spanish-speaking ‘trainers’ had introduced a battalion of six hundred men to the new techniques of counter-revolutionary warfare, and sent them out into the field the previous week.

The following evening, in a café in the central square of Santa Cruz, one of these American officers told us that they had heard on their short-wave radio that Guevara had been captured. ‘He has been wounded,’ we were told, ‘and may not last the night.’

We drove for many hours in the darkness to Vallegrande, the forward base of the Bolivian Army in their campaign against the guerrillas, and arrived at nine o’clock on Monday morning. A jittery military commander refused us permission to travel on to La Higuera, the village thirty miles away where Guevara was being held. Without military permits, it was impossible to move that year in Bolivia.

All morning we twiddled our thumbs. Then, at lunchtime, Colonel Joaquín Zen-teno Anaya, the commander of the Bolivian Army’s Eighth Division, held an informal press conference. He had told me ten days earlier that Che Guevara’s guerrillas were encircled and that they had no hope of escape. Now he informed us that Guevara had been captured and was dead. Many of the Army’s High Command, including General Alfredo Ovando Cándia, the Bolivian Vice President, flew in from La Paz in an ancient DC6 that afternoon.

By early evening, the entire population of Vallegrande was assembled at the side of the grass airfield. When the helicopter arrived, the body it was bearing was whisked off in a small Chevrolet van to the cottage hospital, where it was laid out across the wash stands of an open laundry hut. All this was done under the supervision of a Cuban-American CIA man, known to us as Eduardo González, one of two agents operating in the guerrilla zone. ‘Where do you come from?’ I asked him. ‘From nowhere,’ he replied. He and I were the only people present who had seen Guevara alive, and who could testify that this was indeed him.

The CIA’s involvement was reported by the Reuters correspondent, Christopher Roper, in the story he filed that day, but the crucial paragraph was tactfully removed from the version printed by the New York Time. My own story in the Guardian, which would normally have been reprinted by the Washington Post, was ignored. Not until I had written a detailed account for the Nation did the mainstream American press finally admit, a year later, that US intelligence agents had been present in Bolivia on the last day of Guevara’s life.

For half an hour or so we stared at the open eyes of the cadaver, which two doctors were attempting to preserve with embalming fluid. Crowds of villagers pushed into the laundry yard to get a glimpse of yet another dead guerrilla. Brian Moser took a number of photographs as the light was waning, later to be used to great effect in his Granada documentary. Then we made the eight-hour journey back to Santa Cruz, to try to find a way of communicating with the outside world.

The following day, the Bolivian Government flew in journalists from La Paz to view the body, and the famous photographs were taken – later compared by John Berger to Mantegna’s Dead Christ and Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson. That evening, when the journalists had gone, the two local doctors performed an autopsy, which showed beyond doubt that Guevara had been shot long after capture, though this only emerged later.

To enable identification in La Paz, General Ovando ordered that Guevara’s head should be cut off. The Bolivian officers on the spot, and indeed the CIA agent, refused to do this. Instead, a death mask was cast. The result was botched. The doctors forgot the powder, and the hot wax removed all the skin, and the eyebrows. By the time Guevara’s astonishingly lifelike photograph, taken hours earlier, had circled the globe, to appear in newspapers everywhere the following morning, his face had been destroyed. The doctors were instructed to cut off his hands, again for identification purposes, and these were made available to fingerprint experts from the Argentine police four days later. Then, very early on Wednesday morning, the cadaver was buried under the Vallegrande airfield.

Jorge Castañeda, one of the new biographers of Guevara, has succeeded in tracking down ‘González’ and interviewed him over several days in November 1995 at his home in Miami, where he works selling sports clothes. His real name was Gustavo Villoldo. He was a Cuban exile, recruited by the CIA to train mercenaries in Guatemala before the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and had subsequently fought in the Congo in 1965, with a group of Cuban exiles working for Moise Tshombe. In fact, his career had closely paralleled Guevara’s. At the end of July 1967, he had arrived in La Paz to head the CIA’s ‘Country Team’ and link up with the Bolivian military at the front.

‘I buried Che Guevara,’ Villoldo told Castañeda.

He was not cremated, I would not have allowed it, and I was also opposed to any mutilation of the body. I took the body, together with that of two other guerrillas, in a lorry. I was accompanied by a Bolivian driver, and a lieutenant who may have been called Barrientos. We arrived at the airfield, and there we buried them. I would recognise the spot immediately. If they continue looking, they will find him. They will be able to recognise him by the clinical removal of his hands.

Among the bodies dug up in Vallegrande, in early July this year, was a skeleton with no hands – the remains of an anti-imperialist buried by the CIA.

It was the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli who first brought the famous Alberto Korda photograph – Che in a beret, gazing into the distance – back to Europe in 1967, and it was the Italian Communist Party, feeling its way towards Eurocommunism, that first put the enchanting icon onto its banners. Posters of Guevara were soon pinned to the walls of student bedsits around the world. The implicit message in 1968 was that radical action could and should be taken against the monolithic structures of East and West. Since Guevara was conveniently dead – and, furthermore, martyred – his bewitching image could be used without fear of contradiction to unify a strange assortment of bedfellows in an internationalist, anti-imperialist crusade.

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born in 1928 in the Argentine town of Rosario. He spent his early years in the northern, former Jesuit province of Misiones, across the Chaco desert from where he died. The Guevara family lived some way upriver from the mission town of Yapeyú, the birthplace of Juan San Martín, the 19th-century liberator of Argentina, Chile and Peru. San Martín, who died in exile in France after unspecified differences with his fellow liberator Simón Bolívar, could in many ways be considered a forerunner of Guevara.

By the standards of the time, Guevara had a fairly conventional upper-middle-class upbringing. His childhood, like his short adult life, was dominated by his asthma. His parents were obliged to move, largely for his sake, from the semi-tropical lowlands of Misiones to Alta Gracia, on the lower slopes of the Andes above Córdoba. Guevara seems throughout his life to have had an extraordinary will to disregard and overcome his quite major disability, even when he found himself fighting guerrilla wars in Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia, where the conditions for asthmatics could hardly have been worse.

His interest in politics came late. In the mid-Forties, when he was studying medicine, Argentina was in thrall to Peronism. By 1948 Fidel Castro, for example, was already a Cuban student leader, caught up by chance in the bogotazo in Colombia – days of serious rioting that followed the assassination of the Liberal leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. But Guevara was more interested in medicine than in Peronist, or indeed continental, politics. As a young man, he apparently advised the maids in his parents’ house to vote for Perón on the grounds that his policies favoured their ‘social class’ – a formulation which suggests that Perón had little to offer the comfortably-off Guevara family. (Very much an Argentine man of his time, he had his first sexual experiences with the same maids he was urging to vote for Perón.) During the Cuban guerrilla war, he called his new recruits descamisados, ‘shirtless ones’ – the Peronist term for rural migrants living in shanty towns. After the revolution, he tried to have Perón, then exiled in Spain, invited to Cuba. A meeting between Castro and Perón would have been a formidable event.

By the early Fifties, the Peronist regime was coming to its natural end. It was a time of political stasis. Guevara spent a few months at sea as a medical orderly on an oil-tanker, visiting a number of Latin American ports. Then he embarked on two epic journeys across the continent, one of them – in 1952 – by motorcycle. He needed to escape from the claustrophobia of home, and, above all, to write.

All the new biographies emphasise Guevara’s facility with the pen. He rarely failed to record the events of his life day by day, as they happened. Much of his early note-taking suggests the neutral observation of a journalist, and on his second journey he made a little money by writing magazine articles about his travels. During the travels of 1952, an international network of medics enabled him to meet, among others, Hugo Pesce, a leprologist and Italian-educated disciple of Juan Carlos Mariátegui, the Peruvian Marxist of the Twenties. Few Argentinians of the Fifties had access to the ideas of Mariaátegui, and Guevara was later to acknowledge that Pesce had ‘provoked a great change in my attitude towards life and society’. On this journey, he acquired not only the beginnings of a theoretical framework for his ideas, but also first-hand experience of the grim conditions in which the majority of Latin Americans lived.

He returned to Argentina to finish his medical studies, and set off again in July 1953, at the age of 25, on a train to Bolivia. In the same month, on 26 July, Fidel Castro and a group of armed rebels attacked the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba. It was a disaster, and 69 of the attackers were subsequently executed – a foretaste of the catastrophe that befell Guevara and his comrades 14 years later in the Bolivian forests.

Bolivia had embarked on a unique revolutionary experiment of its own the previous year. A groundswell of discontent, dating back to the Chaco War with Paraguay in the Thirties, had culminated in 1952 with the appearance of armed peasants on the streets of La Paz. The National Revolutionary Movement seized power, abolished the Armed Forces and nationalised the tin mines. Plans were drawn up for extensive land reform. Guevara spent a month in Bolivia that summer, visiting the tin mines and taking a passing interest in land reform. The Bolivian revolution, he felt, was insufficiently radical. Travelling on to Peru and Ecuador, he fell in with a group of leftists who had been exiled from Perón’s Argentina. They spoke of a more serious revolutionary process unfolding in Guatemala. Guevara was keen to know more. He arrived in Guatemala City on Christmas Eve 1953.

The decade of revolution in Guatemala had an extraordinary influence on subsequent events in Latin America. Embarked on by Juan José Arévalo in 1944, and radicalised by Jacobo Arbenz in 1951, the Guatemalan experiment permitted Communist participation in government, which, in the early years of the Cold War, aroused bitter opposition from the US. At the time of Guevara’s visit, Guatemala City was already a Mecca for exiled revolutionaries from the rest of the continent – a phenomenon which was to be repeated in Havana in the Sixties, in Santiago de Chile in the Seventies, and in Managua in the Eighties, as new generations were baptised in these endlessly renewable revolutionary waters.

In Guatemala, Guevara met his future wife, Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian schooled in the populist politics of Haya de la Torre and the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana. She, too, was moving leftwards, and introduced Guevara to the works of Mao Zedong. Through Hilda, he met and became friends with an American Marxist, Harold White, and in due course, with survivors of Castro’s Moncada rebellion. The Guatemalan revolution was nearing its end. In July 1954, an invading army, backed by the CIA, overthrew the elected government of Arbenz and replaced it with a military dictatorship, a traumatic event from which Guatemala has never recovered. It initiated a period of civil war – and ethnic conflict – of almost unparalleled violence, which continues after nearly half a century.

For future revolutions in Latin America to be successful, Che concluded from the events in Guatemala, they would have to do three things: destroy the armed forces of the ancien régime; curb the power of the Catholic Church and the press; and keep the United States at bay by any means. These became the watchwords of the Cuban revolution, in which Guevara’s anti-Americanism was to be far more significant than his interest in Marxism, or in the Soviet Union, or in China. After the Bay of Pigs, he became an ardent supporter of Soviet nuclear missile deployment in Cuba, as a means of keeping the Americans at arm’s length, and he never forgave Khrushchev for giving in to Kennedy.

The Americans, too, drew conclusions from their Guatemalan experience. The CIA began a war on left-wingers in Latin America that reached a climax in the Seventies, when it was enough to be a young student to run the risk of being ‘disappeared’. Alarmed at the possibility that the several hundred Latin American leftist refugees who had sought asylum in the foreign embassies of Guatemala City might be let loose on the continent like a plague bacillus, the CIA director, Allen Dulles, campaigned for them to be brought to trial in Guatemala, but cooler counsels prevailed and they were issued with safe-conduct passes to other countries in Latin America. Guevara travelled on to Mexico City.

‘Dulles’s instincts,’ as Anderson writes, ‘would soon prove correct.’ The embassy prisoners in Guatemala in 1954 did indeed disperse through Latin America and ‘a host of future revolutionaries’ escaped Dulles’s grasp. ‘In Mexico and elsewhere, they would regroup, and, from the ashes of the Arbenz débâcle, eventually re-emerge – often with Guevara’s help – as the Marxist guerrillas who would haunt American policymakers for the next forty years.’

Once established in Mexico City, Guevara followed up his Cuban contacts, and the following year, in July 1955, he was introduced to Fidel Castro, who was organising a guerrilla invasion of Cuba, with a view to overthrowing the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Guevara was soon asked to join the party of insurgents. Another foreigner had been invited to help: General Alberto Bayo, a Spanish career officer who had fought against the Moroccans and against Franco during the Thirties. Exiled to Mexico at the end of the Spanish Civil War, he had begun a new life, training youthful Caribbean revolutionaries. When Fidel (whose own father came to Cuba during an earlier Spanish emigration) was casting around for a military man to train his own rebel band in Mexico, the choice of Bayo reaffirmed the historical connection between the Cuban revolution and the Spanish Civil War.

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Other recent books consulted in the writing of this article:

The Fall of Che Guevara: A Tale of Soldiers, Spies and Diplomats by Henry Ryan (Oxford, 240 pp., £23, due March 1998, 0 19 511879 0).
Pombo, a Man of Che’s ‘Guerrilla’: With Che Guevara in Bolivia 1966-8 by Harry Viilegas (Pathfinder, 365 pp., £39 and £14.45, 2 August, o 87348 834 2).
Vie et mort de la révolution cubaine by Dariel Alarcón Ramírez (Fayard, 298 pp., 130 frs,9 April 1996, 2 213 59638 7).
Che Guevara by Jean Cormier, with Hilda Guevara and Alberto Granard (Editions du Rocher, 444 pp., 132 frs, 8 August 1995, 2 268 01967 5).
Guevara, also Known as Che by Ingacio Taibo II (St Martins, 670 pp., $35,13 November, 0312 15539 5).
Che, Ernesto Guevara: Une légende du siécle by Pierre Kalfon (Seuil, 628 pp., 148 frs, 13 May, 202 013694 5).
Loués soient nos seigneurs: Une éducation politique by Régis Debray(Gallimard, 592 pp., 140 frs,16 April, 2 07 074558 9).
L’Occhio del Barracuda: Autobiografia di un comunista by Saverio Tutino (Feltrinelli, 284 pp., 35,000L, January 1995, 8 807 07029 4).