Embracing Che: The Man Behind the Myth

Photograph Source: Wagner T. Cassimiro “Aranha” – CC BY 2.0

In 1968, Fidel Castro wrote an impassioned introduction to Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diary in which he noted that in the US “in the most combative demonstrations for civil rights and against the aggression in Vietnam, his image is brandished as a symbol of struggle.” Yes, that was true. Fidel went on to explain, “This is because Che embodies, in its purest and most selfless form, the international spirit that marks the world of today and that will characterize even more the world of tomorrow.”

I remember 1968 as a year of nearly unparalleled international solidarity, when Che’s legacy inspired a generation or two that aimed to dismantle American imperialism, make a revolution and usher in genuine socialism world wide. There hasn’t been a year like 1968 since 1968, not even 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down and when protesters in the “pro-democracy movement” were slaughtered by government troops at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Twenty-two years earlier, on 9 October 1967, Che was murdered by Bolivian soldiers with the connivance of the CIA.

Reading the Bolivian Diary, which has just been republished in a new edition by Seven Stories, along with Fidel’s 1968 introduction, strongly suggests that by the end of September 1967 Che knew his days were numbered.  “The most important task is to escape [the encirclement] and seek more favorable areas,” he wrote in his summary of the month. “The [Bolivian] army is demonstrating more effectiveness in action and the peasant masses are not helping us with anything and are becoming informers.” Not good news.

Much the same pattern had emerged in 1965 in the Congo where Che had tried and failed to enlist the support of peasants, and failed to train a guerrilla army made up of Cubans and Congolese that was supposed to topple a neo-colonialist government run by corrupt officials. His own white skin, Che observed in The Congo Diary, along with his inability to speak Swahili and his lack of familiarity with the terrain, had doomed his plans.

Reading Che’s diaries from both the Congo and Bolivia, along with the new English language edition of Che’s letters from 1947 to 1967—which was originally published in Spanish in Havana, Cuba in 2019—show that while Che recognized the errors of his ways and described them accurately, he was unable to escape them, much as he was unable to escape the Bolivian soldiers who trapped him and the small band of guerrillas (just 17) in El Yuro ravine, which served as a kind of death trap. The guerrillas numbered about 60 at the start.

A foreword to The Bolivian Diary by Camilo Guevara, Che’s oldest son, points to the dualities of his father’s legacy. Camilo observed that his father’s image “on a flag at a football match in Europe is not the same as his image on the T-shirt of a miner marching for rights in Latin America. Unfortunately there are some who try to separate the image and the history.” Indeed, today, Che’s image is so ubiquitous that it has lost much of the political clout that it had in 1967 and 1968, when, as Fidel noted, “the Black movement  and progressive students made Che’s figure their own.”

These days, tourists in Bolivia can follow the route of the guerrilla army.

With the publication by Seven Stories Press of four of Che’s books this year, fans and critics have the opportunity for the first time ever to discover and grapple with the real Che, the Argentinian-born revolutionary whom the French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre called “the most complete human being of our age,” and ”the most perfect man” who “lived his words, spoke his own actions and his story.”

Sartre wrote those words soon after Che’s death. Now, sixty-five years later, we can perhaps begin to see Che as an imperfect human being who created a dozen or so different selves to carve out his many identities as son, husband (twice), father many times over, doctor, soldier, head of the Cuban bank and an international diplomat who spoke for his adopted nation at the UN, and when representatives of Third World countries gathered in 1966 at the Tricontinental Conference of Solidarity of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

While The Bolivia Diary is a kind of long goodbye and an obituary written by the dying man himself, the volume of letters, I Embrace You With All My Revolutionary Fervor, is an autobiography in which the participant in and observer of his own life, describes his evolution from bohemian vagabond to communist revolutionary who saw clearly by March 1965, shortly before he went to the Congo, the structural flaws in the Cuban government, the Cuban state and the Cuban economy, but chose not to stick around and try to amend them.

Instead, he went to Bolivia to take up his identity as a guerrilla warrior, which had served him well in Cuba, where the guerrillas toppled the Batista dictatorship, and put themselves in power. The same identity as a guerrilla warrior had disappointed him in the Congo, but as an inveterate optimist, he had refused to be depressed for long and insisted on drawing positive lessons from the fiasco.

In his letters Che signed as Ernesto Guevara Serna, Your son, Ernesto, Chancho, Che, el Che, Stalin II, Commander of the Fourth Revolutionary Column (in the Sierra Maestra mountains), Dr. Ernesto (Che) Guevara, Papa, Ramon, and Tatu. The last two were noms de guerre. He also left many letters unsigned, as though the identity of the author himself was unimportant.

In a letter to his Aunt Beatriz in December 1953, he explained for the first time in unambiguous language that he wanted to annihilate the “capitalist octopuses.” In July 1954, also from Guatemala, he described “that magical sensation of invulnerability,” though in Mexico the following year he wrote, “Perhaps a bullet…will put an end to my existence.” He added, “This is not a brag…it’s just that lots of bullets are flying around in these parts.” Che had an uncanny ability to be in places where bullets flew around.

To his mother, he confided in September 1956 that “the air of freedom is, in reality, the air of clandestinity, but nevertheless adds an intriguing cinematic touch of mystery.” To Dario Hart, he explained at the end of 1957, “if there is one thing I don’t want to be it’s a martyr,” and “I have no aspiration to hold any future political post.” Also, at the end of December 1957, he told two comrades, “I don’t believe in exporting revolutions.”

In August 1960, after Fidel and the guerrillas had seized power, he looked back and noted that “the war [against Batista] revolutionized us” and that “There is no more profound experience for a revolutionary than the act of war.” In 1961 he explained that “a revolution overturns and disrupts everything.” In the last long letter he wrote to Fidel before he left Cuba for the Congo, he pointed to “the organizational chaos” in the Cuban government, and insisted that “Communism is a phenomenon of consciousness.”  He called the Cuban state “the biggest mess of all” and added “we have to make a systematic effort to tackle it.” Still, he did not include himself as one of the tacklers.

Increasingly, in the last years of his life, he signed his letters, “Homeland or Death!” For Che there was no middle ground. To his own children—Hildita, Aleidita, Camilo, Celia and Ernesto—he wrote a kind of last testament that might also apply to all his political offspring and descendants: “Grow up as good revolutionaries. Study hard” and “master technology.” He added, “Remember that the Revolution is what’s important and each one of us, alone, is worth nothing.” Thanks Che for reminding us.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.