[Published in The Nation, May 19, 1997]
Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.
By Jon Lee Anderson.
Grove Press. 814 pp. $35.
With Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, Jon Lee Anderson seeks to capture the man who has become a twentieth-century myth. It's a daunting task. Thirty years after his death, Che Guevara has multiple incarnations--on the wall next to Jesus in homes of Salvadoran peasants; tattooed on the arm of Swedish Olympic boxer Kwamena Turkson; on countless T-shirts and as the name of a British beer; as the Christ figure in a mural of Chicano heroes called The Last Supper in Stanford University's Latino Dorm; on a banner borne by rock group Rage Against the Machine; as the choral observer in Evita; in an espionage thriller soon to be produced by Mick Jagger; in a film series to be shown in Brazil in August; on the French CD Che Vive--1967-1997; portrayed by Cheech Marin with cigar and beret in George magazine; and of course in Cuba everywhere, from souvenirs to the giant portrait overlooking the Plaza de la Revolución. Does Anderson succeed? Well, yes and no.
Anderson, a journalist who has reported on several recent wars, based his previous book, Guerrillas (1992), on his experience living with Afghanistan's mujahedeen, El Salvador's FMLN, Myanmar's Karen, the Western Sahara's Polisario, and Gaza Palestinians waging the intifada. His quest for the meaning of the guerrilla experience sooner or later had to lead to Che Guevara, the Guerrilla Heroica himself.
A skillful interviewer, Anderson elicited information from dozens of participants in Guevara's life. While researching and writing this book, he lived in Cuba, where he talked with some of the people closest to Guevara (though not Fidel or Raúl Castro). He had access to Cuba's oral histories and of course to published materials by Guevara and others, including relatives, friends, and enemies. Guevara's widow, Aleida March, gave Anderson access to previously unpublished materials and her own recollections and memorabilia such as poems Guevara wrote for her and for Fidel Castro. From Cuba, Anderson traveled to several countries, interviewing relatives and friends in Argentina, former KGB agents in Moscow and comrades in Bolivia as well as Bolivian officials involved in Guevara's capture and death. In Miami, he met with Cuban-American CIA agent Félix Rodríguez, who was present at Guevara's murder.
The biography follows Guevara from his birth in Argentina in 1928 until he was hunted down by CIA operatives and Bolivian Rangers, captured, and executed in 1967. Combining contradictory sources and an immense amount of detail, Anderson projects a multifaceted view of Guevara as a person, seething with ambiguities and complexities. This is an achievement that makes Che Guevara essential for anyone seriously interested in Guevara or the Cuban revolution. With his own experience living with guerrillas, Anderson is especially effective at merging material from Guevara's diaries with other people's oral and written accounts to re-create the battlegrounds of guerrilla warfare.
But Anderson never quite communicates an understanding of why Guevara remains such a powerful presence. Relying too much on secondary sources for his knowledge of Cuban history, he fails to grasp the nature of the revolution for which Guevara, Fidel Castro and so many others were willing to die. As a major historical figure, Guevara must be understood in his historical context. He perceived his life's purpose as part of a struggle against imperialism, in which the fight to break U.S. control over Cuba could be crucial. Anderson sees Cuba-U.S. relations as a "tit-for-tat war."
According to Anderson, the "final straw" that led President Eisenhower to sever relations with Cuba on January 3, 1961, was a military mobilization on the streets of Havana on January 1 followed by a demand that Washington cut its Havana embassy staff. But the break in relations was not based on such flimsy reasons. Washington had decided to overthrow the Cuban government and could hardly launch an invasion while maintaining supposedly peaceful relations. Havana's show of weaponry was to let everybody know Cubans were ready for an attack they knew was coming even as Washington denied any such intention. Although Anderson records the Eisenhower Administration's plans for invasion, he doesn't make key connections. Cuba's repeated requests for U.N. help in preventing the assault are not mentioned. The "final straw" for Havana might have come on November 1, 1960, when the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., James Wadsworth, called Cuba's charges of a planned attack "monstrous distortions and downright falsehoods." Five months later, the Kennedy Administration launched the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Or perhaps the "final straw" for Cuba came when the first hitmen arrived from Miami as part of the August 1960 CIA-Mafia plots to assassinate Cuban leaders. Curiously, Anderson devotes little space to the ceaseless covert operations against Cuba. He alludes only briefly to collusion with the Mafia. He refers only once to the CIA's Edward Lansdale, director of the covert Operation Mongoose, which was aimed at overthrowing the Cuban government by October 1962. Although Anderson notes that Mongoose provided for direct U.S. military intervention, he fails to see how this operation, initiated in November 1961 by President Kennedy, and threatening a second invasion, influenced Cuba's buildup of nuclear defenses--the buildup that led to the missile crisis of October 1962.
Nor does Anderson comprehend, as both Havana and Washington did, how Edward Lansdale embodied the ties between events in Vietnam and impending events in Cuba. After all, this was the man who had led the cloak-and-dagger campaign to establish the U.S. puppet government in Saigon in 1954-55. In 1961 Lansdale had just returned from a new operation in Vietnam, where Operation Hades, a massive U.S. chemical warfare program, had just been secretly launched. Anderson hardly deals with Vietnam at all. Yet during those crucial years of Guevara's life from 1961 to 1967 the U.S. war in Vietnam loomed over the world, profoundly influencing hundreds of millions of people, none more than Guevara.
Anderson seems not to share Guevara's view of U.S. imperialism, and downplays the U.S. role in global events. Speaking at a 1961 rally to mobilize Cubans for the imminent U.S. invasion, Guevara cited the recent murder of Patrice Lumumba as "an example of what the empire is capable of." In the many pages devoted to events in the Congo (later Zaire), Anderson contests this claim (without mentioning it). Though he reports a plan by Dr. Sidney Gottlieb of the CIA's "medical division" to poison Lumumba, he states that "before the CIA could get close to Lumumba, however, his own Congolese rivals did." But the CIA and the U.S. Embassy had already connived with these Congolese rivals--Moise Tshombe and Joseph Mobutu--to murder Lumumba. Mobutu, who turned Lumumba over to Tshombe to kill, was actually on the CIA payroll. Four years later, when Guevara left Cuba to fight against Tshombe and Mobutu on the side of Lumumba's followers, the CIA had already dispatched a band of Cuban exiles, trained for the Bay of Pigs, to fly bombing raids for Tshombe. This CIA operation, ignored by Anderson, suggests that Washington shared Guevara's view of the dimensions of the struggle.
In the Epilogue, Anderson retells a story that he first broke on November 21, 1995, in The New York Times: A retired Bolivian officer told him where Guevara is supposedly buried. Despite a lot of digging, the body has not yet been found. In Viva Che! (1968), Marianne Alexandre reported that when Roberto Guevara arrived in Bolivia shortly after Che's death, he was told his brother had been cremated and his ashes scattered. After receiving the news of Anderson's story, Guevara's daughter Aleida, a doctor in Cuba, said that her father "lives in a mountain of people" and "is still giving his own killers a headache."
e-mail to Jane Franklin: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jane Franklin is the author of Cuba and the United States: A Chronological History.