On Che Guevara
An Interview with Jon Lee Anderson
Jon Lee Anderson, author of the 1997 biography, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. Anderson has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1998, reporting from such countries as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, Venezuela, Somalia, Liberia, and Zimbabwe. He has also profiled a number of political leaders, such as Fidel Castro, Hamid Karzai, Iyad Allawi, Augusto Pinochet, King Juan Carlos, and Hugo Chavez. His other books include Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World (1992) and The Fall of Baghdad (2004), a chronicle of the Iraq war.Anderson has received several awards, including, most recently, the 2009 Robert Spiers Benjamin Award from the Overseas Press Club for his piece, Gangland, about Rio de Janeiro’s underworld. State of Nature editors Cihan Aksan and Jon Bailes met with Anderson at Warwick University to discuss the life and legacy of the "Guerrillero Heroico".
Jon Lee Anderson
State of Nature: We could start with why you decided to write a biography of Che Guevara when you did.
Jon Lee Anderson: After reporting in Central America I had become fascinated with the idea of exploring and somehow chronicling the world of the revolutionary, of the insurgent world so to speak, which at the time took up a fairly hefty part of the globe. It wasn't on the maps of the world, but I knew from Central America that there were in some cases generations-old insurgencies which were new human tribes in the making, and by dint of the fact that they had been there for so long, were creating their own social structures. They were clandestine societies. They were parts of nations that had been dispossessed, for better or worse, whatever the reasons, and this was a feature of the world in the latter stages of the Cold War, which had lasted a long time. So you had unreconciled conflicts, unresolved political and social situations right across the world.
At the time I set out to do this book, Guerrillas, in 1988, the Soviet Union was still in existence, and there were at least forty full fledged insurgencies in the world. You could travel around the world from one clandestine stop to another. You could almost circumnavigate the world through outlaw territories, so to speak, and so I set out to do that. I set out more or less to find out what the differences and similarities were between those people fighting in such insurgencies from different regions and different ideologies. That was really what I set out to do with Guerrillas. So I went from El Salvador, to Western Sahara and to Gaza, to Burma, to Afghanistan. I did this in the run-up to, and in the aftermath of, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the communist world. While I was doing this the world was changing dramatically. The Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan while I was there, Tiananmen Square happened while I was in Burma, and Ceausescu fell just after I returned home from there, and so on. Everything began to happen. I was with the Salvadoran guerrillas when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 - I listened to it on Radio Havana up in the mountains. I noted all these big events that formally make up the history of that period, but I was with people whose lives were day-in and day-out the same as they had been for years, and for them it was still all about the need to survive and carry forward a struggle that had been in many cases forgotten by the world. And soon some of them would dry up as a result of what was happening, as their Cold War sponsors cut off their funding. They were obliged or were encouraged to sue for peace.
So I wrote this book, Guerrillas. And one of the things that I found was a commonality amongst all the groups I was with - which as you can see were far ranging, from Marxist-Leninists to ethnic animists to Muslim fundamentalists - was that they each created a spiritual world to perpetuate their struggles. Even secular groups had created a spiritual pantheon through which to sacralise their struggle, which was an interesting phenomenon. So much so that I've wondered ever since if the two - war and religion - aren't inseparable, if the religious impulse itself in humans comes from the shedding of blood. I was also fascinated by the groups' various creation myths - for they all had them - and I often felt as if I was amongst new tribes in formation. In these myths, which were founded on real events, 'Day One' was usually the day in which they fled as a people to the mountains, or to the desert, after a great bloodletting by their enemy, which was still out there, and they had had to create their own society on their own, and develop codes which moderated their own behaviour as well. The codes were often very similar, and in the end, by and large, were much the same codes we all really adhere to around the world - you shouldn't steal, you shouldn't kill, those things - the codes that modify the excesses of human behaviour. In order to live, all people, irrespective of their ideology, tend to erect the same barriers to aberrant behaviour, and to reward behaviour that helps to nurture and perpetuate the tribe. All create martyrs and hold up the ideal of martyrdom as the ultimate virtue and as the necessary sacrifice for the struggle. Another thing I learned was that the original impulse for all struggles could end over time and the ideology could very often be lost, but if there weren't the political means to provide a way back into the mainstream for the people in the bush, they would stay there forever, and they would do anything to survive.
The importance of role models to look up to, to emulate, was one that I found again and again and came to the conclusion that it was one of the maxims of the insurgent life. And so it was that after about the fifth or sixth time I heard talk of Che Guevara in the most unusual places in different parts of the world, I began to think about Che Guevara. This was, remember, the end of the Eighties, a generation after he'd ceased to be a poster boy in the West. I myself had been just 10 when he died, so I wasn't part of that generation - the one that had put posters of Che, as in the cliché, on their dorm-room walls. I remember when he died - that was when I first became aware of Che Guevara, because his photograph was published in newspapers. So I was aware of him, but really it was my older sister's generation, or even older than that, who had revered him or thought he was cool or whatever. And all those years later, I realised that I really didn't know that much about him other than a vague awareness, a vague knowledge of his role in history. And the more I looked into it, the more I realised that very little was actually known about him other than the speeches he had given, the famous moments in which he had appeared in the limelight during the brief time that he was a public figure. Because of the fact that this had taken place mostly in revolutionary Cuba and much of what he was involved in was clandestine, and because we were still in the latter days of the Cold War, most of his life, or his truth, was still unknown. Most of it had remained in the domain of military intelligence; it had not filtered out yet as the stuff of history. It had never been possible to ask about many of these things because it was still an ongoing history. Much of what Che had unleashed or been involved in, the insurgencies that he'd helped sponsor or inspire, had been countered bloodily and had been ongoing for years, so you had a kind of still-haemorrhaging history and it remained lethal terrain, which is what I had entered and inhabited to try and document the life of the guerrillas.
But I had found Che serving as the inspiration for young kids who were with the guerrillas in the mountains of El Salvador. I remember a girl in the backwoods of rebel-held Chalatenango, whose parents, who were also underground elsewhere, sent her letters containing quotes of Che's, so as to encourage her and inspire her. She regarded him as a kind of godlike role model. It struck me that there was this 16 year old girl, in 1990, who spoke about Che Guevara much as a girl in Minnesota might talk about Prince or some pop celebrity of the time. I was struck by that, and by the realization that although it had been years since he'd been on any poster; and that Che was essentially 'gone' from the First World, he remained a potent, totemic symbol in the battlegrounds of the Third World. I found it was the same in the Polisario. It was interesting to see that the Sahrawis had created a Che-like figure out of their own early martyr-figure, a guy called Luali Moustafa, whose photos, and whose story of battle and struggle and death too seemed a conscious echo of Che's symbolism. Che was somehow a Christ-like figure. He died for us.
SoN: For our sins.
JLA: For our sins. So there's this idea of the redemptory figure who provides the ultimate sacrifice to emulate, which is a very inspiring narrative, for young people particularly. How do you get young people to give up their lives if not to elevate that experience and justify it with something more than just a miserable death in the street or on the ground? Conventional armies do it too. It's not exactly War-Making 101, but there are certain commonalities. I found that Burmese students - who had just fled Rangoon from the 1989 military crackdown and who had come to the jungle fiefdom of the ethnic Karen guerrillas - were reading Che Guevara's 1961 manual on revolutionary warfare in order to try to learn how to be guerrillas. There were Afghan mujahedeen who were aware of Che and who admired him even though their ideologies were completely different. That didn't matter to them. And that was what was interesting about Che: he had endured in the very environment that he was most identified with - the guerrilla battlefield - and he had transcended ideology to endure in that environment as the archetypal revolutionary man, as the archetypal warrior to emulate and to follow.
And then after I came out of the Guerrillas experience I started looking, and I realised there were no good biographies - nothing had been written that was lasting. There was a great deal to be learned. I got started with a few interviews. The easiest ones to obtain were with the people who had fought against Che. For instance, one of the first interviews I had, which was when I was still at the exploratory stages of the biography, was with the Bolivian ambassador in England. He was a guy named Gary Prado Salmon, who as a young army officer thirty years before, had been responsible for Che's capture at La Higuera before he was put to death, and I found that thirty years on, he was an admirer of Che's. Part of his expressed admiration was intentional and opportunistic, but part of it was genuine, and I soon found that there were others like him. I realised this when I read a few memoirs that were just beginning to come out, including that of Felix Rodriguez, the Cuban-American agent, and the man who had presided over Che's execution after his capture. He also confessed to admiring Che. So Che began to emerge as a most extraordinary character: Here was a man who, in death, seemed to transcend the ideology that had made him famous, and had become a figure of admiration to friend and foe alike. That was intriguing.
Then of course I was attracted to his life story. What wasn't clear from everything I could see was what had made him do it - what had turned this well-born son of Argentina into this visionary, and at times implacable, revolutionary. He had given up so much again and again and finally had given his life. Where had he found those resources? What was it that had made him like that? That was what I wanted to find out, because what's crucial to my mind in trying to comprehend someone like Che is understanding what makes you cross that invisible line in the sand. That's the key, transformative moment, which is why I was always fascinated by guerrillas. I was never interested in warfare per se, or military history. I'm not interested in conventional armies. You either go to the army because you're a forced conscript or because you're in the kind of culture or society where that's what you do at a certain age. There's nothing otherworldly about it, you just do it or you're forced to do it. But so many of the people I found in the bush, wherever they were and whatever their ideology, were there because they'd believed they should be, because of an idea they had in their heads. And this kind of idea is of course the thing that has changed history and spurred great political change for better or worse, over and over, since time immemorial. That was the interesting thing to me, and that was what I tried to pursue and resolve in the book.
SoN: Yes, and the idea to choose the path that Che did obviously doesn't come out of a vacuum, and there are certain events that become turning points for some people. In your book you explore how the CIA backed overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 was the turning point for Che. He himself claims he became a revolutionary due to the events in Guatemala. How did his witnessing of what happened in Guatemala influence his actions when he later became Commandante Che Guevara in Cuba?
JLA: Yes, Guatemala was absolutely the turning point, although he might have remained just another angry left-wing Argentine dilettante living in Mexico - and in fact for a while that's what he was - someone who was not yet entirely committed to a single cause. However, that part of him continued to evolve and was being nurtured by a very curious mind - someone with a very strong moral impulse, someone hungry for knowledge and open to debate, and who had been on a quest for knowledge for some time, since he was a teenager, a search for the right philosophy through which to examine the world and to live within it. There had been a process of elimination along the way, and if his earlier readings had included everything from Sanskrit scholars to Benito Mussolini, just a grab bag of whatever was available to him, he'd become more and more acquainted with Marx. And then in Guatemala several things happened, one of which was he found himself with Marxists really for the first time. He'd just come off the road having travelled all the way from Argentina off and on again with a series of mostly Argentine travel companions who were Peronists. They were a little more right-wing, a little more nationalistic, than he was. Some had aspects of Marxism in their discourse, some were ne'er do wells, some were friends of his, but they had this ongoing debate when they met up and travelled together through South America and then through Central America and reached Guatemala. And there'd clearly been a process of elimination, he was becoming less and less patient with certain discourses that hadn't begun to change anything, and seemed to him to be accommodationist and had not altered the political landscape in Latin America, which was crying out for change. So he arrived in Guatemala with a very idealistic frame of mind and eager to throw himself in as a volunteer into this social experiment, which, with its agrarian reform and its chance for redemption for the country's indigenous majority, offered a greater promise of change than anything else that had happened in Latin America in Che's lifetime.
So he found himself in an environment where there were all kinds of people. As the CIA-backed paramilitary invasion force that was in cahoots with the Guatemalan military grew in strength, and as President Arbenz, the rather wishy-washy figure at the centre of Guatemala's "revolution" buckled, Che found himself identifying with the most committed and clear-minded people he saw, who were the members of Guatemala's Communist Youth movement. They begged the government for weapons to help defend it, and fight the invaders. In the end, Arbenz didn't hand out the weapons and it was all a disaster - it was a rout. The revolution crumbled, and the invasion force came to power. So young Guevara came away from Guatemala with some very strong convictions that we would see emerge later when he became Commandante Che. One was that the United States was without a doubt the enemy of social reform and radical change in Latin America, and that the only way to counter it was through armed warfare - that any kind of political accommodation with the U.S. meant ultimately the co-option of the local party. Also, he realised that a strong leader who would stand fast was needed in order to bring revolutionary change, and that the standing army needed to be purged and a new, loyal one formed in its wake. So in other words, Che came away with some very radical notions, and yet when he met up with Fidel afterwards in Mexico and went through the training with the Cuban expeditionaries and went off on the Granma, in a sense it was a boatful of men not unlike, in microcosm, those who had been in the Guatemalan capital before. There were a few lefties, a lot of social democrat kind of people in the middle, and it was only after they got to the Sierra Maestra and a few managed to survive that the process of adopting a single political ideology began to take place, in the vortex of war. It was a process in which Che, as one of the survivors, played a crucial role.
SoN: How many survived?
JLA: It was actually seventeen. They always spoke about the Apostolic twelve for historical purposes, but in fact it was seventeen. And Che found himself trying to survive in a new environment, that of warfare, and he thrilled to that environment. It turned out to be his environment. This is the thing about war, you don't know until you're in it if you're suited to it or not, no one does - he was. He was uniquely cold-blooded in war, and I say that carefully. He was unafraid, and that's unusual, that doesn't happen that often. Most men, I say men because it's mostly men in war, feel a certain amount of fear, even if they are brave in and of themselves. Che was unafraid, however, to an almost foolhardy degree. This became apparent to everyone around him.
SoN: People tried to rein him in to protect him.
JLA: Yeah, and it was also a source of strength for him and for them. If you have someone who's unafraid, it makes you less afraid too, just as if you have someone who's fearful in the ranks, you need to get them away from the others because fear is contagious. You can't fight a war if you're too afraid. So this is key in war, and Che was extraordinarily gifted in that regard. Che also went through a very radical and astringent phase. This was the Che of the Sierra Maestra and up to the end of 1959; the most severe, radical Che - Che the supreme prosecutor, Che the executioner, Che the advocate of revolutionary justice, of the purging of the army of Fidel. His motto was you must be brave, willing to sacrifice yourself and others for the cause; you must be uncompromising in this; you must be strong. All of this was a Pavlovian response to what he had seen in Guatemala. As a result though, Che was a key figure in helping to forge and to strengthen what I would call the crucible of the Cuban revolution; he really was key to making it happen. He made it radical where it needed to be radical. He bound together a force that was otherwise a kind of a grab-bag of teenaged runaways, adventurers, Christian Democrats, and a few commies. He helped define the rebel army as a radically-committed, disciplined force, and, in his own behaviour and amongst a handful of his protégés, he helped create an example of the new revolutionary man that he felt was necessary to make the revolution go forward and to replicate itself.
SoN: Arbenz had failed to arm the people, and he'd failed to purge the army, as you say, but he was also isolated within Latin America. Was this also one of the reasons why Che wanted a more continental revolution, to protect Cuba from a similar fate?
JLA: Exactly. In the end when he went to Bolivia, his ultimate goal was his own homeland, the neighbouring country of Argentina. Imagine if he had managed to liberate Argentina: the scale of the country's natural resources, its vast agricultural wealth, its vast coastline, its ports and its industrial base were almost unparalleled in Latin America at the time, and would have provided Cuba with a continental partner that would vouchsafe its economic survival in a way that otherwise could never be achieved. He also wanted to lessen Cuba's dependency on the Soviet Union, realising pretty quickly after Cuba's revolutionary triumph that the Soviet Union had not lived up to its ostensible aims in creating an egalitarian socialist society, or anything remotely like it, at home.
SoN: But he was initially the architect of the Soviet-Cuban relationship.
JLA: He was, but you have to remember that these were twenty nine, thirty, thirty one year old guys. When Sputnik went up into space, they were in the Sierra Maestra. This was still a period in which you could be a young Latin American communist and believe that Stalin was "Uncle Joe" and all things good and that the Soviet Union really was, as its propaganda claimed, outstripping the US in technological advances and just about everything else. People were quite isolated from one another's realities in those years, before the age of passenger jet travel and television. By and large people lived in their own hemispheres, they didn't travel very much, and there was very little interaction, so it wasn't until Che himself went to the Soviet bloc and saw things there for himself, and dealt with the Soviet advisors and technicians who began to arrive in Cuba, that he began to see a different reality, and to become critical. When the Soviets came to Cuba by all accounts it was like they had been let loose in the land of plenty. They had never seen such state-of -the-art American factories, architecture, automobiles, the first television station in Latin America outside of the US, everything, that was already there in Cuba when they came. There was even some early computerisation - assembly line computerisation, that kind of thing. Cuba was the American portal, the showcase to the rest of the region, and the Soviets had never seen anything like it. They dismantled factories and took them back to the Soviet Union. They arrived in ill-fitting woollen suits with onions in their pockets, and the Cubans were askance. They couldn't believe that these were their new allies. And they never liked them or respected them. And Che didn't either, but everyone went along with the relationship because they needed them. I'm being anecdotal, but it wasn't until then Che actually realised that Cuba needed to be self-sufficient and for that it needed to industrialise. In that sense he was very much still a mid 20th century man, he was still of the manufacturing mindset.
SoN: The domination of nature.
JLA: Yeah, exactly. They were very much part of that man conquers nature perception. What we might call the early glimmerings of environmental awareness began to emerge right around the time Che disappeared from the scene.
SoN: For example, if you look at Herbert Marcuse's writing, especially in the late 60s onwards, it's about using the technology but without dominating nature, so I guess that's when it really came about.
JLA: That's right. Keep in mind that other than the few trips he made, such as state visits to the first world, Che didn't have a long period of time in the West. He did visit the West as a minister, but until he was thirty he was exclusively in Latin America. And then for a very brief period of time he went on these state visits, but he was mostly in the Eastern world and saw very little of the West. So in a sense his impression of it was periscopic, you could say. He was still filled with what he knew of the social and physical environment of Latin America, where well into the 70s, and the 80s - and even now in many ways - Latin America was a rough environment in which man's forward development depended on a battle with nature. He never saw the tamed world, I guess you could say.
SoN: I have a quote here from Time magazine, which is from August 1960. According to this Fidel Castro is heart, soul, voice and bearded visage of Cuba, Raul is the fist that holds the revolution's dagger, and Che is the brain. Is this a fair analysis of the time?
JLA: Heart, soul and bearded visage?
SoN: That's Fidel. Raul is the fist that holds the revolution's dagger, and Che is the brain of Cuba.
JLA: It's a bit Madison Avenue, know what I mean? When you parse the first one, the description of Fidel, it's a superficial description. What does that actually mean? Raul was the hard man in a sense, kind of the intemperate younger brother. If there was a war crime committed by the revolutionaries it was probably Raul's mass execution in Santiago. I would disagree with people who say that Che was a monster because of the revolutions and tribunals. I have really not seen any evidence and I'm not aware of the children of the people who were executed clamouring for justice for their late beloved. There were a lot of torturers and death squads under Batista. Those, by and large, were the people who were killed. But did the revolutionaries conduct the tribunals in an intemperate way? Yes, they shouldn't have done it so quickly and with nineteen year old prosecutors in what we now think of as kangaroo trials in public. It wasn't wise.
SoN: But didn't they try to make it as fair is possible, to not have people judge who had been tortured and so on? They tried to keep the emotional element away from the tribunals. And I think in one interview you say there was absolutely no proof that innocent people were executed.
JLA: No, but whenever you execute people you run the risk of making a life and death mistake, which is why it makes anybody queasy. But I think put into context it was not that bloody. Again the problem really is that everybody talks about the revolution as if there was no before, as if there hadn't been counter terror in the capital and across the country by Batista, as if the original evil began with the act of the revolution. So there's a denial of the past and it's not balanced. But I disagree with that quote. Who was the brain? Fidel was the brain. Che was a very key advisor, but he was not the brain. Fidel was always the brain.
SoN: I suppose it comes from the notion that Che pushed Fidel into the socialist alliance, and pushed Fidel into declaring Cuba a socialist state. This is a notion that people still have, and that Fidel was by and large a bourgeois liberal. I suspect the Che-was-the-brain theory comes from that.
JLA: Fidel has always been a master of self definition, and he will take to his grave his real truths - such as at what point he began to believe. I don't think anyone knows at what point Fidel began to believe any particular thing. It will always be the great mystery of Fidel. With Che we know, it's there, he wrote it; we have documentary proof of his self doubt, of his moments of epiphany, the moments of his convictions. But somehow Fidel's philosophical inner journey is under eternal scrutiny, because he's not managed to convince us of the moment at which he transformed. There was a period of deceit. Remember we could still see the television images of him in Washington answering questions to American journalists. They ask, 'Are you a communist Mr. Castro?' and he says, 'No, I'm a secular humanist,' when in fact we know now that he'd already sent Che off to cut a deal with the KGB and was certainly planning a covert alliance with the Soviet Union. Did that mean that because Che was a communist, because Raul was, because a few others were, that Fidel was always planning to sell out Frank Pais and the centre-right allies who'd helped him get where he was? I don't know. I don't think anybody really knows, and I don't know that Fidel really knows. I think Fidel is such a force of nature and his impulse to exercise power, to create change, and I think his ego, are so vast, and he's so astute a political animal, that it's somehow all intertwined. I do appreciate, and I wrote, that Che was key in helping form decisions and turn Fidel and the revolution this way and that, but Fidel is a very strong and powerful personality.
Fidel was no Arbenz. He has always kept his own counsel and sometimes kept Che guessing. I think Fidel played the odds until the last minute and I think that's what Che alludes to in his letter of farewell, where he refers to a moment of doubt - I think that that was real. If you really read Che's letter I don't think you come away from that with a sense that Che is saying that he was wrong to have doubted, what he says is that he subsequently learned that that doubt was not founded. Until that moment they were in an evolving relationship - Che was not convinced that Fidel couldn't go this way or that. And I do think that Fidel was more politically and philosophically opportunistic than Che was in the early days, and that in his case his adoption of Marxism is somehow indistinct from his sense of himself as saviour of Cuba and as a major player on the world scene. His, I believe, is a more hybrid sense of Marxism, which has a lot to do with himself, whereas it was very different with Che. I think with Che there was a remove, because he never saw himself as the front man, as number one.
SoN: He didn't have ambitions to become so either.
JLA: No. They were very different in that sense, so that's why I say it's necessary to shade those sorts of definitions with grey a little bit.
SoN: How did Fidel politically deal with Che's disillusionment with the Soviets? For instance the fact that Che's idea of a continental, rural guerrilla movement didn't really work well with the Soviets' peaceful coexistence theory.
JLA: In the same way he's always dealt with everything - the cat lets the mice play in the corner of the room until he grows bored or can no longer let them play, and then he asserts himself. What I mean is that it was a bit like Che's argument with the orthodox communists, led by Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, over the direction of the Cuban economy. Fidel let everybody fight it out, but in the end he was always going to be the one who made the decision. And the decision he made, which was an abandonment of Che's proposals, was because Cuba was isolated physically. He needed a deal that would subsidize the revolution and the Soviets weren't interested in industrialising Cuba, so he signed a sugar deal whereby he essentially sold his soul to the Soviets, effectively undermining Che. It was the prerogative of a statesman, as opposed to that of an ideological purist and that was the difference between them.
He's never really admitted this, but to my knowledge Fidel despised the Russians as much as any other Cuban did. The Cubans and the Russians are really chalk and cheese, but they absolutely needed that relationship and that alliance at that time. Socially there are not two types of people less suited to one another. It was interesting that within a year or two of the breakup of the Soviet Union there were virtually no Russians left on the Island. There was almost no memory, either; nobody even talked about them. They had been there for thirty-five years and then they were just gone. The only things left of the Russians were their rusting Ladas and a few buildings. The Cubans absorbed nothing of their culture - no food, no music, nothing. As for their ideas, they too went away with them; the Russians didn't even believe in them themselves, and in Cuba they hadn't practised what they preached. They were black marketeers. I mean look at them now; these weren't socialist people. They were bureaucrats in an outpost of the Soviet empire and they sloganeered, by and large, because they had to or because it served their purposes. I'm being mean here. There were exceptions, but by and large that's the legacy.
Fidel was subversive. He connived and colluded with Che, and through his secret services, and his National Liberation Department, against the will of the Soviets at times. Che's secret revolutionary initiatives in South America, and to a certain extent in Africa, were done to create fait accomplis that the Russians could not interfere with, or prevent from occurring beforehand. Nothing was entirely clean. There were Russians who opposed and Russians who liked this enterprise, but they were afraid of what Che seemed to represent at a time in which, post-Cuban missile crisis, they were very concerned lest they have another confrontation. I don't think the Americans realised the degree to which Khrushchev was really pulling a fast one. The Russians had a mere handful of, whereas the US had several thousand or something like that. There was this huge disparity. They had very little and Khrushchev knew it, so he was pulling a fast one, in a way. It's my understanding that they were desperate not to get back into that situation again.
At the same time as China represented a competitive threat to the Soviets, Che became disenchanted and was espousing continental revolution. Fidel played everybody off against everybody else. He let Che do his thing while sort of winking at the Soviets and telling them that he would sort it out. But the reality was that if Che could plant a flag in the sand for Fidel somewhere else and the Soviets weren't involved, Fidel wasn't going to pass up the opportunity. He could tell the Russians to go back to borscht belt land. That's what was going on, but at the same time the Soviets were sending advisors to Fidel and saying, 'This guy is bad news, he's insulted us in public, he's working with the Chinese'- it was uncomfortable. And there was a kind of mutual understanding that Che was unhappy with what had happened with the Soviets and also felt that he needed to be physically present in the battles he had helped engender, in which so many of his friends were dying. It was also convenient for Fidel. Fidel will never admit this, but there was a kind of mutual understanding that it was time for him to go.
SoN: For Che to go?
JLA: Yes. But it wasn't a Stalin-Trotsky situation.
SoN: And go where? You explore in your book about who chose Bolivia. You say it's Fidel and yet Fidel is saying it was Che. You quote from Pombo's [Harry Villegas Tamayo, Che's bodyguard and protégé, who fought alongside him in the Congo and Bolivia] diary, the fact that it appears to be Fidel. In any case, Bolivia was chosen. But I'd like to know more about the role of the pro-Moscow Bolivian Communist Party, and its leader Mario Monje in particular, and what role they played in the eventual downfall of Che.
JLA: They were key. Monje pulled the rug out from under Che's feet, once he was there. I met with him several times in Moscow.
SoN: He was silenced in Moscow for a long time, wasn't he?
JLA: Thirty years. He'd never spoken. I had three or four long meetings with him over two visits to Moscow, right after the end of the Soviet Union. He tried to appeal to me as someone who felt wronged by history, that what had always happened was that the Cubans had tried to take over the revolutionary left, that he and the Bolivians particularly resented that terribly, that they had a strategy that they were going for that would work for them, that it was wrong of the Cubans to try to impose their cowboy ways on everybody else, and it was typical of the white racist European Latinos with the Indian population. There's a lot of that kind of resentment on the part of Monje. But the Cubans were, culturally speaking, racists, and they did treat them like little Indians, and that is another subtext to Che's debacle in Bolivia. There is no love lost. The Cubans despise the Bolivians and look down on them, and this is something that isn't talked about openly either, but you go and you scratch the surface and they're very arrogant and cowboyish. Certainly those were the attitudes at that time.
SoN: Che's widow, Aleida, referred to Monje as the 'ugly Indian'.
JLA: Yes, it's like the plantation owner's daughter talking about the darkies in the fields. They have a lot of those attitudes still prevailing in Cuba. They've learned how to talk the talk of revolutionary equality and all the rest of it over the years, but there are a lot of people who don't believe any of it, who have just gotten along with life saying what they feel they have to say, retaining many old beliefs and prejudices. It's called consignismo, in Cuba, or 'sloganism,' and for many it's a way of being.
SoN: Would that have been Che's view of it as well, as an Argentinean?
JLA: No it wasn't, no. Che was more of a romantic. He saw the Indians in a kind of patrician way. He wasn't consciously racist, but he did have a bit of that sense of noblesse oblige, you know, the 'I'm a wellborn, and I can help thee, the dusky races'. There was a little bit of that. If you look at the Argentina he grew up in there was a sense of that and there was a slight sense of guilt. Some of his first sexual experiences were with the maids, who were Bolivian, and that was very typical of the time, but later I think he was mortified by that. He was aware of the kind of parasitic relationship that his class had with those people, the original inhabitants. If you look at his writings about the Indians of the continent there is a little of the idea of the noble savage, the Rousseauian construct. There was a little bit of that when he went to Africa too. He was a man of his time. It was in the 60s, a lot of people were that way. The wool has been falling away from people's eyes with each decade that passes. We're different from the way we were a decade before. Our sense of what's politically correct now is so different to what it was in the 70s. What women's liberation was in the 70s is very different to what women would now say is the appropriate way for a feminist to behave.
SoN: And there was the cultural shock he experienced in Congo, saying, 'The negro is so indolent,' He had this sense that there was no discipline there, and they were just drinking and chasing women.
JLA: There was no knowledge of the tribal underlay that was the reality of Africa. They just projected revolutionary concepts on the continent. To a certain degree it was the same in Latin America.
SoN: But he was there. He fought with them and he was willing to die for them, so that is I think the core of the matter.
JLA: Absolutely. You have to remember one of his early role models was Albert Schweitzer. And what did Schweitzer do? He lived amongst the savages of Gabon, healing them. I'm being a little bit off the cuff here, and some of what I'm saying is a little loose. I don't want to be too reductionist with Che, but on the other hand I think it's unwise to be overly in awe, because after all these are flesh and blood people and they evolve over time, and Che was still evolving when he died. The Che who died in 1967 in Bolivia was a very different man, much less doctrinaire and extremist than the Che of ten years earlier in the Sierra. He wasn't executing people, for one thing, and what does that tell you? It tells you he's now early middle age, he's changing, he had doubts, maybe not in the core philosophy that he was fighting for, on the contrary, but in the methodology, and he was also a disappointed man in some ways. But he still believed that there was a little crack in time that he could project himself through, and he was right about that. What makes Che so fascinating to me is that he was unusually a man for his time. There was something that happened in the post-war world and especially for a brief period of time in the 60s which Che is now indistinguishable in our minds from- and that's right and as it should be because Che saw that at that very moment the world was in an optimum state to be revolutionised. It didn't work out, but it was possible. He was right, and he went for it.
People now sit in judgement: 'Oh, but they tried to clone the Cuban revolution; it was a mistake.' I disagree. I say, well, but why shouldn't they have? Cuba was the precedent. Who was to know that it couldn't be done again? It could be done again - why not? If they had done it there, why couldn't it be replicated? What happened of course was that the US had been a sleeping giant, but it quickly woke up and reacted and had so much power to react that it then thwarted them at almost every turn. But they were also changing. These are organic experiences, it's not written in stone. So to sit in judgement of these historical phenomena and indict Cuba's revolution as a failed social experiment, to blast the left for having the temerity to take up arms when it could have been done another way, that's revisionism of the crassest type. Does the original evil lie with the insurgent, because he decides to fight injustice, not with the people who are in power and then massacre everyone in response? Sure you can later say, 'They really shouldn't have done that, because that brought down the heat on the civilians in this area.' In fact I remember being very critical about part of Guatemala's revolutionary left for having consciously created a situation in the highlands, twenty years into their insurgency, which they knew would bring down the heat of the army, and it cost the lives of tens of thousands of indigenous peasants. They thought it would help revolutionise the peasantry, but I think that was cold-blooded and crass and they shouldn't have done that because they didn't then pick up the pieces. They didn't have the means to defend them on the one hand, and they didn't then have the wherewithal to arm a peasant army and march on the capital. They stayed up in the hills and let the civilians be massacred for years and years. And eventually they sued for peace. What kind of a revolution is that? I felt they abdicated their moral imperative there to a certain degree.
Part of it's just the pathology of war - it happens - sometimes you lose it, sometimes you don't. It mutates. You can't always control it. And that was happening to Che, but he was the cutting edge. He was inspired by a strong sense of indignation about what he saw around him. I think there were mistakes made in the end in Bolivia, but he wasn't wrong in the idea that it could be the locus for a continental revolution, and he wasn't wrong in assuming that Argentina could fall, or that Bolivia could fall. Evo Morales is in power now - how fragile must that other state that was there have been? Look at Argentina - it's chicken-scratch politics today, all these years later. Look at the fools who are in office. Look at Menem - a crass thief ran that country for the better part of the 1990s in full view of the world. And look at the couple that are there now - it's like an opera buffa. Where's the legitimacy in the Argentinean state? Where was it then? The fact is, Che's timing was wrong, in fact at that moment there was this notional Kennedyite sponsored centrist democratisation taking place. The timing was just a little off then, but Che could have created the conditions, if he had had the right people.
The great mistake was in choosing Jorge Ricardo Masetti - his advance man in his early attempt to start a guerrilla foco in Argentina. And again, how much can you fairly sit in judgement of all of this? Well, how did the conquistador Pedro de Ursua know, when he invited Aguirre along on that expedition down the Amazon in 1560 that he was a psychopath? And we're left with the history of Aguirre, the wrath of God, who destroyed everyone, eventually declared war on Spain itself, sacked Trinidad and had to be run to ground and slain, because he was a rabid dog and he was a psycho. Well, Masetti didn't get that far but he was a nutcase. You don't know how you're going to behave in power until you possess it. Masetti didn't know. He revered Che and thought that he wanted to be like him. Once he got into the rainforest he went nuts and the first man he killed he killed for masturbating. And then funnily enough everyone he killed turned out to be Jewish, and, lo and behold, it turned out that his early origins in the movement came from the far right of the Peronist youth movement, which was something close to the fascism of the early and mid twentieth century, with all of its anti-Semitic notions. This has always been there in Argentina and coexisted with Montoneros, the far left face of Peronism - a phenomenon which has confounded that country to this day. What was Masetti in the end? Nobody knows. This is one of the things I discovered. For me, if I had journalistic or historical discoveries in the book, I think one of the most important was the significance of the Masetti episode. Nobody had talked about it for years; nobody had wanted to 'go' there, it was an embarrassing episode for Cuba and for the revolutionary left in Latin America. To this day they don't like to talk about it, but it was the important thing to know, because it was one of the reasons why Che left the island. In terms of owning up to history, Cubans had painted themselves into a corner by pretending that they had never committed any errors. They couldn't say, 'Look we screwed up on the Masetti thing and that's why we really had to send Che to Congo. It wasn't really the right time, and it was kind of the house that Jack built, and so was Bolivia, and we all screwed up.' They can't say that, but that's what happened, period. They just can't admit their mistakes. Basically the Cubans have a term for it - 'chapuceria' - it means, basically, a bodge-job - the Cubans know it very well and Cubans are great at doing 'chapucerias' and then bragging about them as great victories.
You have to remember the time in which this happened. Everybody was still discovering the world and they were very young people. And the Bolivian Communist party was absolutely key in Che's downfall in Bolivia. They pulled the rug out from under him. The reason why it's always been a little bit speculative and still not quite clear in people's minds in part is because afterwards, Fidel, seemingly in an attempt to repair the damaged relations and feelings between the Cubans and the Soviets, made up with the Bolivian Communist Party. In other words, it was patched up for political reasons, and it was just left, ignored and untended. The dead and wounded were left where they were, too; there were no more recriminations. It was dirty laundry that was not going to be washed in public. So Monje was allowed to stay quiet in Moscow for about thirty years, everybody just stayed where they were, nobody talked. The idea was that it was an unfortunate tragedy and nobody's going to talk about who did what. But in fact these things did happen - Monje did undermine Che.
He had his own argument as to why he had done so, although he put it to me that it was more about a different approach to history, and that he had been boxed in. He didn't want to say that he had betrayed Che. It wasn't a betrayal because there wasn't an agreement with him. And yet he couldn't quite say that either because to say that you didn't agree with Che meant that you had helped kill this great man. The only reason I was talking to him was because of Che Guevara, who was much greater than him, and he knew that. Nobody wants to be the one who says, 'I didn't help Che.' But the fact is that Fidel turned down several requests by Che's friends to send a rescue team to Bolivia. At a certain point in time they knew that he was in extremis there and would probably die unless they made some attempt to save him.
SoN: You say in the book the Fidel did all he could at the time that was politically possible.
JLA: No, what I'm saying is that there were rescue attempts proposed by some of Che's comrades in Cuba. Fidel and Manuel 'Barba Roja' Pineiro [the then Deputy Minster of the Interior], studied them and turned them down.
JLA: They felt that it was too dangerous, and they felt that the rescue teams would be apprehended and 'burned' immediately. After examining all the available evidence I would have to say that I think that was probably the right decision. After all, if you take away all the clutter of revolutionary rhetoric, what Fidel had done was to back Che in a covert operation to undermine another state in a fraternity of nations. Forget the left-right dynamic, the Cold War; Fidel Castro had sent an international expedition backed by the Cuban state to subvert and militarily overthrow the Bolivian state. To throw other men in there to find and extract Che, could have thrown oil on the fire. Turning the rescue down at that point was the prerogative of a statesman to do triage. It had been a covert operation that had gone bad. Pineiro appealed to me to believe that, and we once argued about this all night, but I have to say I think I believed him. I saw no reason why Fidel, because he had agreed with the Soviets to get rid of Che that now he had him in extremis, would just look the other way. It's too convenient to assign that much conspiratorial prowess to Fidel. I don't think it happened like that. I think they had a mixed relationship, but it was a relationship of comrades. It had its up and down moments, but I don't think that Fidel consciously betrayed Che. I think he had to make a painful decision. I think he hoped Che would get out alive.
SoN: Some of them did, didn't they?
JLA: Some of them did get out. So, just like the whole enterprise from the very beginning there was always only a slender chance that any of them would succeed. This was even true of the Cuban Revolution, but although it sometimes worked, mostly it didn't.
SoN: I wanted to focus a little bit on Che's Algiers speech in 1965, which is a sort of swansong for him. You quote it at length in your book, and I want to repeat it here: 'We cannot remain indifferent in the face of what occurs in any part of the world. A victory for any country against imperialism is our victory, just as any country's defeat is defeat for us all.' And this is what I think is the key sentence: 'If there were no other basis for unity, the common enemy should constitute one.' Based on this, if Che were alive today what kind of alliances would he form, say, in the Middle East?
JLA: People have often asked me, 'What would Che be doing if he was alive?' I think if he was alive he would be on the island, he would be kind of the old sage, he would pick and choose the people he would talk to, but he would be something of the philosopher of the revolution. He would be loyal - he would occasionally make remarks that everybody would understand were criticisms of what he thought had been Fidel's or Raul's errant behaviour or their decisions, but for the most part he would remain loyal in the end because of the geopolitical significance of the Cuban Revolution and because of the fact that it still stood up to Washington. He would I think be privately askance at - as I think probably Fidel is - people like Ahmadinejad, and even Chavez in some ways, but they would be publicly supportive of them, for those very reasons. I think that if Che was still alive and still on the island he would still see the world, perhaps in slightly less Manichean terms than he did then, but as an imperfect political geometry, although one in which Cuba still played an important role, and periodically would need to align itself with states that also stood up to Washington, in order to bring it down. There might also be relationships struck by Fidel for pragmatic reasons which Che would simply remain quiet about.
But you specifically asked me about the Middle East.
SoN: I was thinking more about Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine...
JLA: I was in Cuba in 2006 at a meeting with Fidel and a lot of people on the left, and there, Hebe de Bonafini, the head of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo had shouted on stage, 'Long live the Iraqi insurgents!' I thought to myself, 'Yeah, I understand the spirit of that, but that's ridiculous.' If she went to Tahrir Square in Baghdad and spent an afternoon shouting that, sooner or later the Jihadis would come along and decapitate her. It wouldn't have mattered that she was showing support for them. The philosophical gulf between, say, al-Qaeda and the most far left of Latin America is still so great that to describe any sort of philosophical affinity is far-fetched, to say the least. And I think infantile. I don't think Che would have gone along with it for a second.
I think there's a secular level in the Middle East that Che would have been keen to foster stronger and deeper ties with. And that cuts right across the region, beginning of course in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria and right through what we call the greater Middle East. I don't think that Che would have been in favour of a pragmatic alliance with today's Islamist Jihadis. Maybe Bonafini rhetorically can say that, shouting from some pulpit in Havana, but I think it's just one more example of sloganeering.
SoN: He was easily able to have relations with Nasser in Egypt and Ben Bella in Algeria. They had more common ground than just a common enemy. Do you think what he said was not right then? Maybe in a way unity requires more than the common enemy, is that what you're saying?
JLA: Yeah, I think that Che was someone who was also capable of change. I don't see Che's statements at any particular time as eternal dictums, or a kind of fiat that are thereafter etched in stone because he said them. He was dead when he was 39 - I think he was still evolving, he was still changing. I think he might have changed further. I think he might have shaded that statement a little bit later on.
SoN: He may have evolved, yes, but the fact that he had always acted in accordance with his words would make me feel inclined to take his words more seriously than someone else's - he lived by his words and died by them.
JLA: I agree, but you're asking about today's Middle East. If we take that as an ironclad statement and transpose it to today's Middle East, does that mean he necessarily would have to side with the Islamist Jihadis? Or could he have, if he were alive, argued to align Cuba and the revolutionary left with those forces who are more or less marginal now, but also potentially viable in the field as a competitive force, possibly even an antagonistic force, and not just to the West, but to the Islamist Jihadis too? That's what I'm saying. I don't think he would have just knee-jerked, like saying, 'Long live al-Qaeda in Iraq.'
SoN: And do you think that's perhaps a lesson for some on the left today?
JLA: Yeah, I find it unconscionable. I think that is really the hugest mistake they could possibly make. A Maoist and a neoconservative could actually come to some kind of common understanding, probably a dangerous one, but they could actually have a debate. They might disagree but they could hammer out something with clear historical understanding of one another's points of view. Whereas I don't think the same could ever happen...
SoN: Between Islamists and...
JLA: Well, there's Islamists and there's Islamists, but when we're talking about the kind of Islamists who are willing to commit mass carnage repeatedly, for the sake of creating a religious autocracy, I don't think Che would have been in agreement, to say the least.
SoN: His notion of political violence is different.
JLA: It's almost a kind of old-fashioned violence. He was opposed to terrorism. Terrorism is the use of violence amongst the civilian population for a political end. He passed up many opportunities for that. Also all struggles go through phases. There would be a moment in a guerrilla struggle where, if I were involved, I might argue in favour of the use of selective terror because the situation determined it, required it. It's a dangerous thing to do, but there are those moments. If you look at the history of guerrilla movements there are moments in which they employed terror, but that doesn't make them terrorist forces. However, with the Islamist groups like al-Qaeda, they are not guerrilla forces, and they are not revolutionary groups, they are terrorist movements. They exist for the purpose of sowing terror. That's how they define themselves and they don't fight another way - they fight through terror, exclusively. That's a whole different discussion, but I think Che would have tried to find alternative allies to those who are for the most part in the field today. But there are still plenty of people who he could have found to partner with.
SoN: Thank you.
Cihan Aksan & Jon Bailes are the editors of State of Nature (www.stateofnature.org), an online journal of radical ideas.