Ernesto “Che” Guevara was a man who became a myth. A myth in the sense of the eclectic French philosopher Georges Sorel concept, an inspiring framework for understand the common political life of a given nation. But El Che became far more than a national myth, he became a myth of internationalism, of international solidarity in the fight for freedom, of Latin American solidarity in the pursuit of the unity of what advocates of Latin American unity like the Argentine writer Manuel Ugarte called la Patria Grande, the great homeland of a united Latin America.
His enemies, of course, view him in a much darker light, the embodiment of evil in the form of international Communism, an exporter of revolution in the most literal sense.
Pacho O’Donnell’s Che: El argentino que quiso cambiar el mundo (2003) focuses fairly strictly on the life of Ernesto Guevara de Serna (1928- 1967), which he sections into five periods: his early life prior to going to Cuba; the guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra that brought Fidel Castro’s government to power; his time as an official in Cuba where he became world-famous as an advocate of anti-imperialist resistance against the United States; his period as a guerrilla leader in the Congo in support of Laurent Kabila’s resistance movement; and, the final leg of his life’s journey as a guerrilla leader in Bolivia, where he met his end, executed after being captured.
O’Donnell’s style is a readable combination of careful original research and good historical story-telling. His biography is interspersed with brief texts from interviews with various people involved in Che’s life that O’Donnell interviewed.
The main story of Ernesto Guevara’s life are well known, though O’Donnell’s research and filtering of secondary sources provides important clarifications. Including on key points of discussion such as Régis Debray’s role in Guevara’s capture in Bolivia.
Che the Argentine
O’Donnell deals briefly with Che’s private life in a mostly cursory fashion during and after his Sierra Maestra period. The most attention to it comes in his life as an Argentine young man, medical student, doctor, traveler and adventurer. A central theme in O’Donnell’s biography is Che’s Argentine identity and how it shaped his vision of a pan-Latin American revolutionary movement.
Ernesto Guevara in 1951 at age 22 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Esa insólita apatía de La Habana está en relación inversa con el entusiasmo que post mórtem demostrará el gobierno cubano en la explotación politica de un Che al que eleva a la categoría de mito, al que los biógrafos oficiales denominan «Guerrillero Heroico», con mayúsculas, con un propósito en apariencia exaltatorio pero que oculta la dimensión de pensador y teórico de Guevara, que es donde se registran sus conflictos con el partido y con el gobierno de la isla. Una consecuencia colateral de esa «apropiación» del Che es que su memoria queda cubanizada, lo que también reflejan la mayoría de sus biografos, que dedican a la etapa cubana las mayores y mejores investigaciones y las páginas más numerosas. No debería olvidarse que la de Cuba fue una de las tres campañas guerrilleras del Che, sin duda la mas exitosa y también la más estimulante en su producción teórica, pero que su actividad como combatiente y como funcionario en la isla ocupan poco más de ocho años de los treinta y nueve que vivió.One can certainly argue that the Cubanization of Guevara’s image is valid in terms of his actual public role. His role as a guerrilla fighter in Cuba, as a senior Cuban official, and as a spokesman for the Cuban Revolution are primarily what made him world famous.
Fidel tuvo la suficiente astucia para hacerse de los restos del Che, recuperados en 1997, aprovechando que la Argentina, quizá como rémora de sus gobiernos dictatoriales anticomunistas y del predominio en lo económico y social de los sectores conservadores y liberales, no tuvo reflejos para reclamarlos para sí a pesar de que el Che nació y murió argentino, renunciando a la nacionalidad cubana en su carta de despedida. Por su parte también a Bolivia le asisten derechos «de propiedad» por cuanto fue en su suelo donde murió luchando por su libertad económica y politica, y por la justicia social para sus humildes.
[The incredible apathy of Havana is in inverse relation with the enthusiasm that the Cuban government demonstrated post mortem in the political exploitation of a Che who was elevated into the category of myth, who was denominated as “Heroic Guerrilla” in caps, with an apparent exalting intent but which obscured the dimension of Guevara as a thinker and theorist, which is where his conflicts with the Party and with the government of the island. A collateral consequence of the “appropriation” of Che is that his memory remains Cubanized, a view also reflected by the majority of his biographers, who dedicate the Cuban stage the best and most numerous investigations and the most numerous pages. It should not be forgotten that the Cuban campaign was one of one of the three guerrilla campaigns of Che’s, undoubtedly the most successful and also the most stimulating for his theoretical production. But that his activity as a combatant and as a functionary in the island occupied little more than eight years of the 39 he lived.
Fidel was sufficiently astute to claim Che’s remains, recuperated in 1997, taking advantage of the fact that Argentina, perhaps [because Che’s image was seen] as an obstacle to its dictatorial, anti-Communist governments and to the economic and social predominance of the conservative and liberal sectors, didn’t have the reflexes to reclaim them. Even though Che was born and died Argentine, renouncing his Cuban nationality in his farewell letter. For its part, Bolivia also assisted him with “property” rights since it was in their soil where he died fighting for their economic and political freedom, and for social justice for its poor.]
|Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, 1961 (Photo by Alberto Kordo; source: Wikimedia Commons)|
But for his own biography, his Argentine identity was obviously central. His nickname of “Che” comes from a common introjection used in Argentina. And his famous call for “two, three, many Vietnams” to break the imperialist power of the United States was fundamentally based on his view that Argentina and the Latin American Patria Grande had to free themselves from that power.
His Argentine identity and perspective was just as central to his personal life as was his lifelong struggle with asthma, something else that scarcely belongs to his Heroic Guerrilla image. But it was a central fact in his own life and career, and presumably played a significant part in his own personality, including his sympathy for the weak and suffering. His asthma played an important role in the events leading to his death. As O’Donnell recounts, the Bolivian army had asthma medication removed from all the hospitals in the area where his guerrilla band was operating, even though it caused great hardship for the Bolivians in those areas that needed the medication. Their determination to deprive Guevara of access to it overrode any public health consideration.
O’Donnell scarcely ignores Guevara’s experiences in Cuba, central as they were to his life. It was an intense several years. Guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra, eventually winning against dictator Fulgencio Batista’s much larger forces. He became a major leader in Castro’s government. One of his grimmer assignments was to pass final judgment on former Batista officials who had been found guilty in revolutionary courts of serious crimes. He signed off on dozens of executions in that role. O’Connell notes that Fidel may well have seen some advantage in having a non-Cuban playing that role in case there was a major backlash against the executions.
Guevara became a leading spokesman for the Cuban Revolution on the world stage. O’Donnell explains that in moments of relatively lesser tensions with the United States, Fidel Castro had Che keep a lower profile. When he wanted to turn up the heat against the US, he would send Che out to make anti-American speeches. He also played a major role in international relations with friendly countries.
He also called on Guevara to spearhead the defense against the Bay of Pigs invasion. He had shown his talents as a military leader in the Sierra Maestra. He was also a major player on the Cuban side of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
He also served in several high government posts: Minister of Industries, Finance Minister and President of the National Bank. O’Donnell discusses one of Guevara’s more famous notions, the idea that Cuban workers should be motivated by non-material incentives, i.e., revolutionary and patriotic fervor, rather than material incentives, i.e., better pay. This did not appear to be cynical on his part. He had a definite ascetic streak himself. But it proved to be unrealistic and the Cuban government soon moved away from that practice.
Part 1: Che the Argentine
Part 2: Che Guevera and Peronism
Part 3: Arbenz and Guevara’s politicization
Part 4: Two, three, many Vietnams