“Beautiful Revolutionary”: Che Guevara Remembered

Photo: Red Thoreau.

Fifty years ago—on October 8, 1967—the Argentine guerilla leader who played a key role in the Cuban Revolution was captured by the Bolivian military, with help from the CIA. He was executed the next day. In the following, Pablo Neruda, Maureen O’Hara, Jerry Rubin, I.F. Stone and others write about their encounters with the revolutionary icon who most know only from his image on tee-shirts. Susan Sontag and Jesse Ventura tell why he was their idol.

(Compiled by Dana Cook)

‘Ideological differences’
Herbert Matthews, journalist (New York Times)

I was in the Cabanas Fortress of Havana to greet Guevara when he entered the capital in triumph at the beginning of January 1959, and I came to know him fairly well until the time he disappeared on the quixotic quest that was to fail but, as with the hero of Cervantes’ story to whom Che likened himself, was to immortalize him. Our meetings were always long arguments in the small hours of the night when he would defend Marxism and the measures that the Castro government was taking—while I disagreed. In two of his books which he autographed for me, he expressed friendship despite our “ideological differences.”

from A World in Revolution: A Newspaperman’s Memoir, by Herbert L. Matthews (Scribner’s , 1971).

Freedom fighter
Maureen O’Hara, actor and singer

…we arrived in Havana on April 15, 1959 [to make the film Our Man in Havana, based on the Graham Greene novel].

…I stayed close to the Capri Hotel, our home base. You would meet everyone important in the revolution there sooner or later because it was a popular place to go for dinner or coffee or to smoke a cigar. I enjoyed interesting conversations with Che Guevara there…I would see him in the restaurant and he’d come to my table to say hello and eventually would sit down and join me. Che would talk about Ireland and all the guerilla warfare that had taken place there. He knew every battle in Ireland and all of its history…

…I believe he was far less a mercenary than he was a freedom fighter. I think he was a product of his grandmother and her teachings. I look back on how young [31] and idealistic Che was when I made that picture. It’s hard to believe that he had already helped to topple a dictator and liberate a nation. Today he is a symbol for freedom fighters wherever they are in the world and I think he is a good one. When word came of his capture and execution, I was deeply saddened…

from ‘Tis Herself: An Autobiography, by Maureen O’Hara with John Nicoletti (Simon and Schuster, 2005)

Hero and cherished model
Susan Sontag, writer and activist

Ever since my three-month visit to Cuba in the summer of 1960, the Cuban Revolution has been dear to me, and Che, along with Fidel, have been heroes and cherished models. Che seemed especially compelling. One knew of the intensity of his passion for justice, of his heroic participation in the guerilla struggle in the Sierra Maestra (in which the usual adversity of struggle was compounded by bouts of crippling asthma), and the qualities of his mind and the developing maturity of his political thinking, as disclosed in his writings and the speeches he delivered between 1959 and 1965. But it was only with his extraordinary letter of April, 1965, to Fidel, renouncing his position in the Cuban government and his Cuban citizenship to participate in revolutionary struggles elsewhere—as we now know, to lead the guerilla movement in Bolivia—that one began to grasp the full definition that Che had given to the vocation of the revolutionist. ‘The duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution.’ Agreed.

The shock of Che’s death has been tremendous. Apart from a grim sense of the political importance of his loss, I feel a personal grief that will last a long time. Che survives now only in the ‘use’ that will be made of his life and his death. What will that use be? I don’t disdain the impact of Che as a romantic image, especially among newly radicalized youth in the United States and Western Europe; if the glamour of Che’s person, the heroism of his life, the pathos of his death, are useful to young people in strengthening their disaffiliation from the life-style of American imperialism and in advancing the development of a revolutionary consciousness, so much the better.

from Vive Che! The Strange Life and Death of Che Guevara, by Andrew Sinclair (Sutton Publishing, 2006)

Charles Lynch, journalist (Southam News, Ottawa)

Che Guevara, representing Cuba at the founding conference of President Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, jumps to his feet and rushes from the room during a speech by U.S. Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon. And I, presuming a walkout, join the press corps flocking at Guevara’s heels. He clomps down the corridor in his heavy military boots, turns in the door to the men’s room, rips open his fly, turns to us with a look of immense pleasure and, shaking his free fist, shouts “Liberdad!” (Punta del este, Uruguay, 1961)

from You Can’t Print THAT! Memoirs of a Political Voyeur, by Charles Lynch (Hurtig, 1983)

Cigars for the enemy
Richard Goodwin, JFK advisor and speechwriter

Across the room [at the Alliance for Progress conference] I watched Che Guevara as he sat crouched over the table, listening intently through his headset. His expression did not change, and when [U.S. Treasury Secretary Douglas] Dillon finished [his address], he sat back in his chair with folded arms and silently watched the applauding delegates “We will see,” he told a reporter after the session. “Messages are words. The facts are stubborn.”

Although there was no direct contact between the Cuban and American delegations, Guevara had noticed that I was continually smoking cigars throughout the lengthy meetings. “I see Goodwin likes cigars,” he remarked to a young member of the Argentine delegation. “I bet he wouldn’t dare smoke Cuban cigars.”

When the Argentine repeated this to me, I told him that I would love to smoke Cuban cigars but that Americans couldn’t get them…The next day, a large polished-mahogany box, hand inlaid with the Cuban seal amid swirling patterns in the national colors, flying a tiny Cuban flag from a brass key, and crammed with the finest Havanas arrived at my room. With it was a typewritten, signed note from Guevara, reading, in Spanish, “Since I have no greeting card, I have to write. Since to write to an enemy is difficult, I limit myself to extending my hand.”

…as I looked at him across a distance of a few feet [at a conference table], his features seemed soft and slightly diffuse, almost feminine. At the start, he appeared to be nervous—more nervous than I was—looking from person to person, shifting in his seat, and talking slowly and uncertainly, as if every word had to be carefully considered not only for its content but for its effect on the audience. As we talked, he relaxed. But gradually his manner grew more intense, and for the next three hours his eyes rarely left mine. He spoke with an air of detachment. What he said was free of polemics, insults, and obvious propaganda, and he was willing to interrupt the flow of discussion for an occasional humorous exchange… (Punta del Este, Uruguay, 1961)

from Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties, by Richard N. Goodwin (HarperCollins, 1988)

Revolutionary in office
Pablo Neruda, poet

My first meeting with Che Guevara…I went to see him at his office in the Department of Finance or Economy, I don’t remember which…

…Che was wearing boots and regimentals, with pistols at his waist. His clothes struck a discordant note in the banking atmosphere of the office. Che was dark, slow-speaking, with an unmistakable Argentine accent. He was the kind of man you talk with unhurriedly on the pampas between one maté and the next. His sentences were short and rounded off with a smile, as if leaving the discussion up in the air. (Havana, early 1960s)

from Memoirs, by Pablo Neruda (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977)

Aggressive charm
Henry Brandon, journalist (London Sunday Times)

It was not until October 1962 that I visited Cuba for the first time…It began with an unusual interview with Che Guevara…Che received me in his drab khaki-green uniform with the front buttons open exposing his hairy chest almost to the navel. He exuded an aggressive charm that might have made even Charles Boyer [glamorous ladykiller French actor of romantic dramas] envious. The conversation began with his questioning me about his former girl friend; he had not known that she now lived in Washington. What did she look like, to whom was she married, how many children did she have? After about twenty minutes of this he broke off to say that, after all, I had not come just to tell him about her, and he invited me to ask him questions.

Was he concerned, I asked, that one of these days the United States might move decisively against Cuba. “Direct aggression against Cuba,” he replied flatly, “would mean nuclear war. “The Americans speak about such aggression as if they did not know or did not want to accept that fact.”

from Special Relationships: A Foreign Correspondent’s Memoirs from Roosevelt to Reagan, by Henry Brandon (Atheneum, 1988)

Serious revolutionary
Suze Rotolo, artist and girlfriend of Bob Dylan

…a group of students accepted an invitation from the Cuban Federation of University Students to visit post-Batista Cuba. They wanted to see for themselves what life was like four years after the revolution, and to challenger the [U.S. State Department] travel ban…

…I would get to see how the Cuban revolution, and its romance with Communism, was dealing with artists and writers…

We met Fidel’s brother, Raul, and Che Guevara. It was exhilarating to sit in a room with the leaders of the Cuban revolution and ask them questions. Che more than lived up to his image. Though he smiled easily and his eyes twinkled, there was no doubt that he was a serious revolutionary. Smoking a good cigar, he leaned back in his chair and explained everything we wanted to know about the hopes, dreams, and concrete plans of the Cuban revolution. (1963)

from A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, by Suze Rotolo (Broadway Books, 2008)

Cutting cane
Knowlton Nash, broadcast journalist (CBC)

…we heard Guevara was working in the sugar-cane fields…

…we arranged to meet Guevara…As we jeeped through the dusty fields the next morning, Guevara’s guards were everywhere, evidence of the continuing tensions and fear of assassination. An outer perimeter of armed guards encircled the field in which he was working. There were guards in a middle circle and then more guards in a close circle. All were armed with burp guns, machine guns, rifles, pistols, and machetes. Guevara himself was wearing what he told me was a “machine gun pistol,” which fired twenty shots at a trigger squeeze. “Very good, very accurate, very fast,” he said. He also carried five twenty-shot refills.

Guevara was not only the number-two man in Cuba, he was a worldwide idol for the young and rebellious…

Having heard so much about Guevara—his bravery, his fierce determination, his radical beliefs, his ferocity in argument, and his dominating, ruthless style of leadership—I was totally unprepared for the man. Not surprisingly, he was wearing faded army fatigues and a big white straw hat, but I was surprised to discover that he was my own age—thirty-five—and that he was charming and gentle of manner. He had soft brown eyes and a shy smile on his bearded face, and as we talked he revealed a delightfully self-deprecatory sense of humour. He looked to me like a twinkly-eyed Clark Cable with a cigar in his mouth. In fact, Guevara was always puffing something. He smoked eighteen cigars and three packs of cigarettes a day.

He took off his straw hat, wiped perspiration from his brow, and asked where we would do it [the interview]. We wanted to film him cutting cane in order to create some atmosphere…

He clearly knew a good bit about Canadian problems and had followed Diefenbaker’s battles with Kennedy over nuclear warheads. He told me he thought Diefenbaker a “good man” and supported his position against Washington. He said, too, he wanted to see more trade with Cuba, adding, “But the Americans might try to stop you.”

from History on the Run: The Trenchcoat Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent, by Knowlton Nash (McClelland and Stewart, 1984)

Revolution made flesh
Richard Gott, journalist (Guardian)

I met Che Guevara in November 1963 at a reception in the garden 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 has 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 Costenia, 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.

from “The Ribs of Rosinante,” by Richard Gott, London Review of Books, August 21, 1997.

Yearning for “the belly of the beast”
Jerry Rubin, Yippie founder

I heard that a radical organizer was in town (New York) looking for eighty volunteers to go on an illegal, free trip to Cuba…

…We interviewed Che Guevara, the Minister of Labor, who was already secretly planning to leave Cuba to spread the revolution elsewhere. He blew my mind when he told us if he had a choice, he would return to North America with us. “The most exciting struggle in the world is going on in North America. You live,” Che said, “in the belly of the beast.” Inspired by Che, I returned to the United States. At the border the U.S. government revoked my passport. (Havana, 1964)

from Growing (Up) at Thirty-seven, by Jerry Rubin (M. Evans, 1976)

History in a handshake
Al Purdy, poet

The foreign visitors from Canada sat in a concrete grandstand at one side of a monster city park. Visitors from other countries were placed nearby, including ladies from North Vietnam in diaphanous summer dresses, and no doubt others from the Soviet Union. The sun pressed against your head like a dull knife. We sat there, and sat there, for hours, while people filed into the meeting place, or marched, or rode in army vehicles.

In a row of seats below us, a man was moving like a small brown cloud among the foreign visitors. He stepped up to where the Canadians were seated. A short and stockily built man, wearing olive drab army fatigues and a black beret. He had a short beard and smoked a cigar. “Who is it?” I whispered to Pierre Trudeau.

“Che Guevara.”

There is something about meeting a legend. As if history resided in his handshake, as if, as if…Che Guevara! Fidel Castro’s first lieutenant and comrade; the Argentine doctor who’d devoted his life to proletarian revolution, crouching with Castro in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, hunted daily by the Cuban dictator’s soldiers. A small man, brown-eyed and unassuming, in his mid-thirties, not bad-looking either. Shaking my hand at that moment, I could even smell the good cigar. And he was gone, down the line of visitors, a sudden giant among the tiny Vietnamese ladies. (Havana, 1964)

from Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, by Al Purdy (Harbour Publishing, 1993)

I.F. Stone, journalist

He was the first man I ever met who I thought not just handsome but beautiful. With his curly reddish beard, he looked like a cross between a fawn and a Sunday-school print of Jesus…He spoke with that utter sobriety which sometimes masks immense apocalyptic visions. (Washington, D.C., 1964)

quoted in “Goodbye to All That,” by Christopher Hitchens, New York Review of Books, July 17, 1997

Room for opposition?
Nat Hentoff, columnist (Village Voice)

…at the Cuban Mission to the United Nations, I was asking Che Guevara when opposition parties might be allowed in Cuba. He smiled, as one might at a question from a retarded child. He didn’t answer. He just smiled.

We did have a few polite disagreements on other matters, such as the counterrevolutionary notion that there ought to be an opposition press, even in a country next door to a hostile colossus. Finally, I said that had I been a Cuban, I would surely have supported Fidel when he was in the mountains but within the first year of his victory I’d have been jailed. Guevara laughed before his interpreter had begun to translate my prediction. Handing me a cigar, Guevara confirmed the likelihood of my fate but added that in Cuba there was plenty of room for argument among those who wanted the revolution to survive. There had to be such argument, he said, for ideas to be tested. (New York, mid-1960s)

from Boston Boy: A Memoir, by Nat Hentoff (Knopf, 1986)

Revolutionary realism
Michael Harrington, socialist and writer

Che Guevara…There was an improbable dinner for him in New York one night in the mid-sixties when he was attending a United Nations session. It was organized by Laura Berquist, then an editor at Look, who had become a friend of Che’s when she reported from Cuba. It was held at the mansion of an old friend of Laura’s, Bobo Rockefeller, but it was not an exercise in radical chic since the thirty or so guests were all radical activists, not rich dilettantes, and the bomb squad searched the premises during cocktails. The inevitable American Left-wing differences were aired in Guevara’s presence: I.F. Stone gave a pro-Fidel toast after dinner; I followed with a toast on behalf of those of us who were not for Fidel but fought against the Bay of Pigs and sought a Cuban-American reconciliation. At one point a black militant enthusiastically asked Guevara if he didn’t agree that guerilla tactics would work in the United States. Che’s face first expressed disbelief and it seemed that he was on the verge of laughter. But he caught himself and explained soberly why he did not think there was a Sierra Maestra in America. Guevara’s realism on this count, alas, was not shared by the Leftists in this country who first romanticized him and then turned him into a martyred revolutionary saint.

from The Long Distance Runner: An Autobiography, by Michael Harrington (Henry Holt, 1983)

Mirror in my house
Jesse Ventura, wrestler, politician and TV host

…You don’t see Fidel’s picture on the side of the most massive building in downtown Havana. You see Che Guevara’s.

Che is a very interesting individual to read about. I respect him because, as much as I oppose communism, Che believed in it with the same fervor that I have for capitalism. I respect the fact that he would die for his convictions. How did a man as bright as Che develop the hatred for the United States and all that we stood for? I’ve eliminated jealousy as a reason. He was a medical doctor, a healer. It clearly had to be that he saw the results of what we did to other countries, in the name of freedom and capitalism. Which, in many ways, was not pretty if you were on the wrong end of it.

So, a mirror of Che Guevara has a profound place in my house. I’m not the least bit ashamed to say that. When I go to wash my hands, I look at Che.

from Don’t Start the Revolution Without Me, by Jesse Ventura with Dick Russell (Skyhorse Publishing, 2008)

Dana Cook’s collections of literary, show biz and political encounters have appeared in a wide range of newspapers, magazines and journals. “Encounters with Dick Gregory: From Malcolm X to Howard Zinn” was published in CounterPunch Aug. 22. Contact: cooks.encounters(at)gmail.com.