Read Redeemers Online

Authors: Enrique Krauze

Redeemers (43 page)


Che from the first favored total state ownership of the land. In Franqui's words, “He wanted to unleash the class struggle, the conflict with the United States and creole capitalism . . . [and] end the distribution of the land in favor of statist nationalization.” In the end, it was this project that overwhelmingly prevailed. For Che, says Franqui, “They were all enemies, large landowners, overseers, managers, inspectors, technicians, cows, bulls, canefields, rice paddies, haciendas, houses, machinery. A cyclone lashing left and right.” And remaining after the cyclone was the State.

From then on the country lived in the context of confrontation with the United States, opposition within the island, and a growing resort to exile, amounting (at the beginning of 1961) to sixty thousand people.



In January 1961, John F. Kennedy succeeded Dwight D. Eisenhower and came into office with a flock of young, bright (and aggressive) new faces. On his desk was a plan for the invasion of Cuba, which he approved. On April 17, a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles came ashore at Playa Girón on the Bay of Pigs. The militia was ready for them and, led by Fidel himself, demolished the invading force in three days. The result was a powerful reinforcement for the Cuban government and its prestige, within the island and throughout the world.

The menace of an imminent war had diminished. The problems of the economy remained. Che Guevara launched himself against them. But productivity continued to fall dramatically and Che's moral exhortations could not halt the decline. Some later figures (of 1963) are significant for the countryside. Absenteeism was increasing and workers on the cooperative farms were spending an average of four and a half to five hours on the job (of the eight for which they were being paid). By then the private sector of agriculture was twice as productive, while Che, then minister of industry, was reorganizing Cuban industrial enterprises according to their respective products, without taking into account the need for efficiency.

Che's performance at one meeting of ministers was both impressive theater and a sad commentary on the problems of mass production without adequate training and technology, and, most thoroughly, on his total opposition to a market economy. Guevara is described as


clearly angry and he begins to drag things out and put them on the table: dolls so misshapen they look like little old ladies, a tri-cycle that's a piece of crap, a shoe losing its heel because it's held together by only two nails instead of the eight or ten it needed, a defective zipper (and there are 20,000 more) for the fly of a pair of pants that keeps opening and that the people humorously call “Camilo” (because of Comandante Camilo Cienfuegos's reputation as a Don Juan), a bed whose feet are falling off, a shampoo that doesn't clean hair, some face powders that have no color, ammonia that you have to strain so as to make it usable. The conclusion is tragic: production in the factories is getting steadily worse . . .


But the underlying cause was the decision that Che had adopted as an absolute dogma, the abolition of private initiative and investment, the total disappearance of commerce, down to the most minimal level.

Guevara himself continued to maintain a high level of personal austerity, rejecting any special privileges for himself or his family. What really mattered to him was the transfiguration of the individual through moral incentives. A powerful egalitarian spirit infuses the official descriptions of “the Sundays of solidarity in voluntary labor,” with Che himself taking enthusiastic part—cutting cane, building schools, loading sacks of rice, exhausted but happy, working “to the sound of revolutionary songs.” But voluntary labor was no remedy for economic failure nor was it a realistic incentive for human labor. Fidel Castro himself was critical of it. According to Hugh Thomas, in the summer of 1965, the year that Che disappeared from the Cuban political scene, Castro said to some sugarcane workers: “we cannot choose idealistic methods that conceive all men to be guided by duty because in actual life that is not so . . . it would be absurd to expect that the great masses of men who earn their living cutting cane will make a maximum effort just by being told that it is their duty, whether they earn more or less. That would be idealistic.”

The Soviets, who were hardly the pure and generous Bolsheviks of Che's imagination, were thoroughly aware of Cuba's problems, and they began to recoil from the incessant stream of requests and demands. And so did Che from the Russians. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 deepened his disappointment with the Soviet Union. The Russians had pressed the missiles on the Cubans and then taken them away without consultation. It was clear that the real confrontation was between the Soviet Union and the United States, that the Cuban government had no say and no control over the use of the missiles. But the Cubans were outraged by the Russian capitulation (which was later shown to have been not quite a capitulation, since the Americans secretly agreed to withdraw their own missiles from Turkey); and the Cuban rhetoric was hostile toward the Soviets, and verbally reckless. Che certainly considered the Russians guilty of a kind of historical ingratitude. As reported by Castañeda, Che would later say to a British communist newspaper (in an interview not fully published at the time) that “if they attack we shall fight to the end. If the rockets had remained, we would have used them all and directed them against the heart of the United States, including New York, in our fight against aggression.” He was obviously aware of what the consequences would have been but they did not frighten him: “[It would be] the chilling example of a people prepared to be immolated atomically so that its ashes might serve for the foundation of a new society.” Clearly he was not disturbed by the image of a devastated New York, nor did he propose consulting the Cuban people about their own possible obliteration.

And Castañeda also gives Anastas Mikoyan's response to Che's expressed willingness to fight the Americans to the end: “We see your readiness to die beautifully, but we believe that it isn't worth dying beautifully.”

In those frenetic years, Che's youthful inclination toward poetry would reappear, connected with the themes of redemption and martyrdom. He wrote about his feelings to one of his favorite poets, the Spanish Republican León Felipe, who had escaped from Spain in 1938:


Maestro: Some years ago, when the Revolution took power, I received your most recent book, with your signed dedication. I have never thanked you . . . but perhaps it may interest you to know that among the two or three books I keep at my bedside is
El ciervo
[The Deer]; I can rarely read it because in Cuba it is still quite simply a sin (a flaw in leadership) to sleep, to let time go by without filling it with something, or to relax . . .


Che loved León Felipe's poetry and one of his favorites, from his bedside book
El ciervo
, was the poem “To Christ”:



I love you

not because you came from a star

but because you showed me

that man has blood





to open your doors closed to the light.

Yes . . . You taught us that man is God.

A poor God crucified like You.

And that one who is on your left

on Golgotha

the bad thief

He too is a God!



The four walls of an office could not hold Che Guevara. However much time he had to spend shuffling papers, he still had the soul of the would-be romantic poet and the fierce dedication of the guerrilla fighter whose “only cure for asthma was gunpowder.” Economic and political failures had not undermined Che's essential faith, but they had certainly increased his sense of impotence and unease. He would turn his attention to “dreaming of horizons”; he would travel the world, to great effect, as an ambassador of the Revolution. He supported Cuban aid to various Latin American revolutionary groups, and he participated in planning and inspiring an abortive attempt to establish a guerrilla movement in his own Argentina, led by an old friend he had personally chosen, Jorge Ricardo Masetti, a well-known journalist (founder of
Prensa Latina
) but emotionally unstable and not at all suited for his role. The small group was soon wiped out and Masetti, following Che's orders and inspiration, went to his death.

The guerrilla venture in Argentina was doomed to failure, both in its strategic planning and in its very conception. Argentina was predominantly a middle-class country, prosperous and with a democratic system in place. The Argentines in general were not disposed to support Che's war. But there was a broader failure of conception. Che always believed that the Cuban Revolution had triumphed through the guerrilla actions in the Sierra Maestra, his own great adventure, and not through the union of many forces against a steadily more repressive dictator like Batista. The conviction led him to repeat the same error, over and over, risking the lives of others and his own. Franqui remembers a conversation between him and Che at an official celebration. He describes Che as “sober, ironic, somewhat withdrawn, in an old worn uniform, with his pipe, his Baudelarian air.” He remembers saying to Che, “Your problem, Che, is that you lived through a single experience, the Sierra,” and Che answering, “Yes, but if it wasn't for the guerrillas you would have ended up dead . . . Franqui, and don't you forget it . . . You overestimate the role of the city. You underestimate the importance of the guerrilla struggle, the source and motor of the Revolution.”

In a message resigning his bureaucratic responsibilities, Che would write to Fidel: “Other lands call for the contribution of my modest forces,” and in secret (at first in disguise) but with Castro's knowledge and support, he set out, in April 1965, to spread the Revolution himself by force of arms. Guevara's final ports of call were really the stages of his martyrdom: the Congo and Bolivia. Both adventures were so poorly conceived and so disastrously executed that one begins to wonder whether Che was not unconsciously seeking a kind of immolation as the supreme act of revolutionary creativity. His clandestine arrival in the Congo in 1965—leading a group of Afro-Caribbean Cubans—was designed to support the political heirs of the murdered Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba; but he found himself confronted with Congolese allies, the undisciplined troops of Laurent Kabila, who were unable and unwilling to fight at anything near the level required to defeat the European mercenaries on the other side. Che and the Cubans who survived just barely escaped with their lives. And when the remnant of the Cuban forces were about to mount a launch that would take them to safety across a lake, Che was consumed with guilt because he only had room in the boat for a small number of Congolese troops and also of course because the forces under his command had been forced to flee. He actually considered staying. Just himself. Perhaps he could find some way to fight on, making contact with a friendly force that was hundreds of miles away through the jungle, which he would have had to cross almost on his own. It would have been suicide and he did not choose that option.

In Bolivia two years later, Guevara would launch his guerrilla movement at the wrong location with inadequate information and, though his men won a few early victories, they never really had a chance to establish or to expand their movement. The choice of Bolivia could not have been more unfortunate. The country was going through a period of agrarian reform and, more critically, the two groups that might have aided him, the miners and the Communist Party, had clearly indicated that they would not join a guerrilla war. Only a few Bolivians ever fought beside or even aided Che. Some analysts of the Cuban Revolution feel that the heroic and useless sacrifice of Che in Bolivia was a great relief for Castro. Che would not be around to impose his moral consciousness on Castro's pragmatic decisions, nor to rival his charisma. And Che's image would remain, available for manipulation.

Simon Reid-Henry argues differently in his meticulous study
Fidel and Che: A Revolutionary Friendship
: “Temperament and not ideology lay behind these gradually sharpening differences. ‘Fidel would agree in principle with anything' [a quote from Carlos Franqui's
Family Portrait with Fidel
] but Che did nothing except out of principle.” Reid-Henry details Castro's commitment to the Bolivian venture from the very start, with Bolivia chosen as the possible site for a revolutionary beachhead in Latin America because of its geographical centrality and the drawback, in other potentially approachable Latin American countries, of intense left-wing factionalism. But disunity on the left in Bolivia (and the lack of support for an armed struggle on the part of the Soviet-centered Communist Party as well as the local campesinos) would deal the final blow to Che's Bolivian enterprise. According to Reid-Henry, Fidel kept in touch with the events as much as he could. He remained hopeful of success almost to the end but could provide no help to Che as the Bolivian army (with American tactical help) closed in and hunted him down.

Che had always faced the prospect of death bravely. In Bolivia, “moving on” to the next horizon without checking the lay of the land, Raging Serna charged into a fatal corner. The description of his final hours in a remote village, where the Bolivian high command ordered his death, leaves no doubt that he was not a deliberate suicide. The execution was initially opposed by the CIA, who apparently wanted him for further questioning, but it was also not countermanded by the Americans. And a CIA agent, Félix Rodríguez, was there on the spot, spoke with Guevara, and was photographed with the haggard captive. In Rodríguez's autobiography,
Shadow Warrior
, he states that it was he who received the radioed order for Guevara's execution and passed it on to the Bolivian commanding officer. He also claims that he and Guevara embraced as fellow warriors while other accounts state that Guevara thought of him as a “worm” (
, the Fidelista term for antirevolutionary Cubans) and basically exchanged insults with Rodríguez.

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