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814 pages, Paperback
First published May 1, 1997
The great historical tragedy surrounding the legacy of Che Guevara is that man who was nothing but completely and utterly sincere has become a symbol of insincerity. I'm not sure if this was always the case, but at least when I see people of my generation wearing a Che shirt or displaying a Che poster, I no longer see the famous Korda photograph of Guevara, I see the words "I am a giant poser" tattooed in bold relief on that persons face. There may be people who are sincere in their admiration, but usually a Che shirt symbolizes that the wearer listens to Rage Against the Machine in their car stereos on the way to the mall to spend their parents money at the most convenient Hot Topic. As others have noted, the person who would be most revolted by this misappropriation of identity would be Che himself.
The cult of Che continues to make some sense, even after the end of the Cold War. Guevara was brilliant, curious, compassioniate, and utterly committed to his principal beliefs. Among the communist leaders of the 20th century, Guevara emerges as the one most faithfully committed to his principles. It's hard to imagine Che compromising Marxist principles for the sake of economic expediency, like Lenin, or for the accumulation of personal power, like Stalin. Che was willing to die for his beliefs, indeed he arguably actively sought his own eventual martyrdom.
Additionally, Che's legacy, like Kurt Cobain's or Jim Morrison's, greatly benefited from the relative brevity of his life. Che died soon enough that his entire life in still basked in the warm glow of revolution. Perhaps one of the reasons he appears so steadfast is that he didn't live long enough to compromise his legacy. There's the added benefit that Che was a pretty handsome guy, so we remember him as a dashing guerilla type. There is no footage of Che as a doddering 80 year old man still wearing army fatigues, rambling incoherencies.
In many ways, Che was an archetype for the baby boomer generation. Born into a middle class Argentinian family, Che spent his early years searching for a sense of meaning. He eventually found it in a sympathy with the poor and exploited peasants of Latin America. This further exacerbated an already present sense of anti-Americanism, that lasted throughout his lifetime. Contrary to U.S. Cold Warrior theory, it was antipathy to Americans that eventually led him to Marxism. To be fair, such feelings weren't exactly unjustified. Wherever there was a South or Central American corrupt dictator exploiting his people there was usually the government of the United States standing behind them. Communism was initially just the bugaboo used to justify intervention. The real reason the United States intervened in South America during the Eisenhower years was to protect the interests of United Fruit, Coca-Cola and other American companies. Guevara's sympathies for the downtrodden of Latin America eventually drove him to armed resistance. In Guatemala, he fought against the U.S. backed coup against a democratically elected president. The failure of this struggle taught Guevara many lessons, and was probably the last push that led to him becoming a full-fledged Communist.
After the coup in Guatemala, Che continued to Mexico City, which was at the time the exile capital of Americas. Here he connected with a group of Cuban exiles through whom he eventually met a young lawyer who had recently been let out of prison for a failed attack on a barracks, Fidel Castro. Here Guevara finally found the purpose that would consume the rest of his life. The rest, as they say, is history.
Che's life is a story of a young man's search for fulfillment, eventual satisfaction, and an attempt to, for lack of better words, "chase that feeling." The success of Castro's revolution is truly a remarkable story. A group of several dozen rebels led by Castro landed in Cuba in December, 1956. WIthin weeks their numbers had been reduced to less than twenty. Yet just a little two years after their disastrous landing, Batista's dictatorship had collapsed and the rebels were marching into Havana. I'm not sure what sure of this ultimate success can be apportioned to the leadership of Castro, Guevara, and others, but obviously a tremendous deal of luck was involved.
After seeing several of his sponsored guerilla groups destroyed, as a result of what he perceived as a failure to follow his instructions, Che decided to reenter the field himself. Ironically, these expeditions on a smaller scale resembled the situation the United States was concurrently experiencing in Vietnam. Che went into the Congo convinced that his leadership and Cuban support could inspire the disparate rebel groups there. Instead, the rebellion had been smashed within months and the path was set the stage for the 30 year Mobutu dictatorship.
Che's final venture in Bolivia was a complete and utter fiasco. The farce didn't even deserve the term revolution, it was more of a Cuban intervention in a sovereign country. Castro and Guevara decided that Bolivia was the appropriate launching spot for what they hoped would be a continent-wide uprising and they strong armed elements in Bolivia to provide the reluctant and feeble native backing. The struggle was essentially Cuban led, and mostly Cuban fought with an element of Bolivian support. Not surprisingly, it was a disaster from the start, and Che didn't follow his own rule book. Events culminated in Guevara's eventual surrender and execution.
Like I mentioned, Che had all of the strengths and weaknesses of an intellectual who lives in sole service of an idea. He was a moral man without hypocrisy, who could be charismatic, funny, and brilliant. But he served his idea to a faul. As much as he railed against the untoward influence of the U.S. over Latin America, his beliefs put Cuba into a much more subservient position toward the U.S.S.R. Even before his death, he left his children fatherless to serve the revolution. He was also uncompromising to a fault. He was willing to look favorably upon nuclear armageddon as long as it served his cause. In the romantic accounts of Guevara's life and death, it is not mentioned that he died in an attempt to spark World War III. His aspirations were that his uprising in Bolivia would lead to a continent wide uprising that would create a second Vietnam in the Americas. He hoped this would inspire China and the Soviet Union to set aside their sectarian differences to unite in a general struggle against the United States. He foresaw a more socialistic humanity emerging from the ashes of a nuclear conflict. He was willing to see the death of millions as long as it served his ideological beliefs. No matter his good qualities, this lessens the sense of tragedy surrounding his execution, for me at least.
Whatever the case may be, the life and death of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara is an epic tale, and Jon Lee Anderson does an admirable job in relating it. The investigative journalistic work that Anderson did oozes out of the work. Anderson spent years on this project, and lived for years in Cuba. In addition to reading almost everything written about or by Che, Anderson has interviewed scores of Guevara's contemporaries, in Cuba and Argentina, including childhood friends, Cuban officials, and fellow guerillas. What emerges is a balanced biography that is rare for such a polarizing subject. My review perhaps does not exhibit this quality, but this is more of a result of the conclusions I drew from the book and not a reflection on any inherent biases Anderson might have. Anderson does not seek to beatify or demonize, he seeks to report. Doing so, he actually was able to break news. It was his research in the course of writing this book that led to the discovery of Guevara's long lost remains near a airstrip in Bolivia in 1997. Anderson chips off the tarnish of mythology to prevent an evenhanded and reliable account of life of one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century.