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Mission Impossible

CHE GUEVARA: A Revolutionary Life.\o7 By Jon Lee Anderson\f7 .\o7 Grove Press: 814 pp., $35\f7

May 04, 1997|TAD SZULC | Tad Szulc is the author, among other books, of "Fidel: A Critical Portrait" and "Pope John Paul II--The Biography." His new book, "Chopin in Paris," will be published later this year

In 1961, shortly after the failure of the American-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by a brigade of exiles, President Kennedy read Ernesto "Che" Guevara's manual on guerrilla warfare (he had it translated from Spanish on a crash basis). His next step was to order the United States Army to establish a counterinsurgency school at Ft. Bragg, N.C. At the same time, Guevara's portrait began to appear on the walls of homes of many parish priests in appallingly impoverished villages across Latin America, next to the image of Jesus Christ. And for at least a generation or more, Guevara, wearing his famous black beret with the comandante star of the Rebel Army, symbolized the romance of revolution to millions of young people everywhere, even more than the guerrilla's supreme leader, Fidel Castro.

Thirty years after his death, Guevara remains a mystical, revolutionary legend, probably better remembered than most of the dramatic figures of the second half of the 20th century. In Cuba, 1997 is observed as "The Year of the 30th Anniversary of the Death in Combat of the Heroic Guerrilla and His Comrades." On Oct. 9, 1967, Guevara was executed in the mud-walled schoolhouse in the village of La Higuera in mountainous south-central Bolivia, the day after his capture in a canyon by Bolivian army rangers. His death marked the end of a tragically ill-conceived 11-month guerrilla operation led by Guevara, who, rather improbably, had convinced himself that the Cuban revolution could be repeated in Bolivia to serve as the spearhead for the implantation of "socialism" in his native Argentina next door and the rest of Latin America. But there are huge ironies in this year's commemorations.

That Guevara, then 39 and still a "pure revolutionary," really believed that socialist revolutions were both possible and inevitable across the Third World is absolutely credible to me. I make this statement on the basis of long conversations I had with him in Havana during the opening years of the Cuban revolution and in New York in December 1964, shortly before he vanished forever from public view. Guevara was the most totally honest political leader of any persuasion I had met in half a century of journalism (his views are another matter) and, in the end, this obsessive honesty cost him his life.

I agree with Jon Lee Anderson, the author of "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life," an excellent (if too long) new biography, that "Che's unshakable faith in his beliefs was made even more powerful by his unusual combination of romantic passion and coldly analytical mind" and that "this paradoxical blend . . . seems also to have been the source of his inherent weaknesses--hubris and naivete." Anderson, who himself is admirably honest in his staggeringly researched book (it includes studies of Guevara's diaries), emphasizes that this Argentine "revolutionary doctor" was " 'Che the Implacable,' Cuba's revolutionary avenging angel and ultimate political commissar, demanding the impossible of those around him but above reproach himself, because he lived up to his own severe dictates . . . respected and admired, despised and feared." It was all part of Guevara's uncompromising honesty.

Indeed, Guevara was Torquemada, Robespierre and Trotsky, all wrapped in his fragile, asthma-ravaged body, as he personally executed "traitors" and "spies," even members of the guerrilla forces he helped Castro direct in the Sierra Maestra between 1956 and 1958, believing that, in Anderson's words, "desertion, insubordination and defeatism were capital offenses" and that the rebels had to practice "swift revolutionary justice." During his tenure as commandant of La Cabana prison in Havana immediately after the revolution's victory, 55 executions of suspected "war criminals" were carried out in about a hundred days, and Anderson writes that "Che, as Supreme Prosecutor, took to his task with a singular determination." Finally, like Trotsky, Guevara advocated permanent revolution everywhere, increasingly shifting his ideological allegiances from the Moscow brand of communism to the radical stance of China's Mao Tse-tung.

This shift appears to have caused deepening differences between Guevara and Castro as early as 1964--the fifth year of the Cuban revolution--over a whole spectrum of themes that mirrored the conflict between Moscow and Beijing. To Guevara, as Anderson points out, the Soviets' policies of "peaceful coexistence" toward the West were "anathema" and "appeasement of the imperialist system," and he could not forgive Moscow and its subservient Latin American Communist parties for objecting to the guerrilla wars throughout the hemisphere that he (encouraged by the Chinese) was propounding. The Soviets, of course, were keeping Cuba literally alive, economically and militarily.

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