Cuba's digital destination

The Unknown Che (2009)

The Unknown Che (2009)

By Mauricio Vicent

?My one and only: I am taking the opportunity of a friend?s trip to write these few lines to you. Of course I could send it by mail, but I feel that the ?paraofficial? route is more intimate. I could tell you that I miss you so much that it keeps me awake at night, but I know that??
Written on December 2, 1966 at the guerrilla camp in ?ancahuas?, Bolivia, this was the last letter Aleida March would receive from her husband Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, better known as Che. Four months later, fighting began against the Bolivian Army, and on October 8, 1967, having already become a revolutionary legend, Guevara was captured at Quebrada del Yuro. The next day, Che was killed under a burst of machine-gun fire by the Bolivian soldier Mario Ter?n, at the public school of the village of La Higuera.

Ter?n was carrying out orders issued by the Government of Bolivia who was, in turn, following CIA orders. The only precise instruction he received from his superiors for the murder was not to shoot Guevara in the face.

The order made sense. Che?s involvement together with Fidel Castro in the insurgent struggle in the Sierra Maestra and the role he played afterwards as commander and minister in the Cuban Revolution, as well as his vocation for liberating the Third World by force of arms had shaped an impeccable biography of the rebel hero. In 1965, when he resigned his positions to march off to fight in the Congo and afterwards in Bolivia, Guevara had moved into the category of dangerous example. This is why that day at La Higuera, the CIA wanted to see him dead but with his faced untouched so that they could exhibit it as a trophy and put an end to the legend.

The strategy proved unsuccessful. Today, in the 21st century, Che continues to be a powerful revolutionary icon. Millions of people have visited the mausoleum that contains his remains in the Cuban city of Santa Clara, while the famous picture taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda in 1960, in which he is wearing a beret and has a faraway look in his eyes, can be seen in left-wing battlefields, T-shirts and branded products.

For his enemies, the most outstanding thing in his life are his failures. Even so, 40 years after his death, there is a picture of Guevara in Bolivian President Evo Morales?s office.

In the same house in Havana that was his home for years—today part of the Che Guevara Studies Centre—Aleida March keeps numerous papers, letters and unpublished texts, which offer an intimate view of the man behind the stone legend.

Here, for instance, you may find the letter he wrote on August 14, 1965 from the Congo jungle and which is being published today for the first time. With a sense of humour and half in code, Che writes [to Aleida] that in the absence of fighting, he spends most of the time writing and studying. ?I can speak the language [Swahili] pretty well; I?m doing OK in Math and I?ll be a professor of The Capital by reading it over and over (each time with more zest, like Don Quixote).?

Along with rifle and bullets, Guevara carried with him a list of books in an old phone notebook. During the failed guerrilla experience in the Congo, from April to November of 1965, he wrote down the names of Karl Marx, Lenin and Mao Tse Tung, but he also wrote Jos? Mart?, P?o Baroja, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, M?xico insurgente by John Reed and the controversial play La noche de los asesinos by Cuban playwright Jos? Triana, which had just been published a few months before and which would later become cursed during the ?grey period? in Cuban culture. In 1966, during the preparation of what would be his last battle, along with the Marxist classics, Che had chosen Shakespeare, Papini, Lezama Lima and Goytisolo as reading material.

?He read constantly and about every topic. He was passionate about reading,? recalls Aleida, his partner in the guerrilla in Las Villas and mother of four of his five children—Aleida, Celia, Camilo and Ernesto.

Many of the letters he wrote to her from the Congo and later from Tanzania, Prague and Bolivia have never been published. Just recently, other texts and notes on economy and philosophy, which he wrote in that same period, have begun to be made known. These pages reveal the Che who anticipated the failure of Soviet socialism 25 years before the collapse of the USSR; the Che who corresponded with poets such as Le?n Felipe and who wrote poetry himself; the man of action and at the same time a theorist who worked on two texts, one on economy and the other on philosophy, which were very critical of the manuals that turned Marxism-Leninism into ?a Bible.? Very early, while he was Minister of Industry, Che was able to point out the ?bad things? of the Revolution with words such as these: ?What I dislike the most is our lack of courage to face certain realities, sometimes economic and sometimes political…At times,? he admitted during a meeting with US students, ?some comrades have adopted the policy of the ostrich of burying their heads in the sand. Regarding our economic problems, we have laid the blame on droughts, on imperialism??

A cardboard idol
Materials such as the above, included in the book Che desde la Memoria, and others that are collected in the controversial Apuntes cr?ticos de la Econom?a Pol?tica [Critical Notes to Political Economy], have been recently published by the Che Guevara Studies Centre without omitting Che?s harshest opinions on supposedly real socialism. For the more orthodox, this incisive and iconoclastic Che is still hard to swallow.

?Unfortunately, after his death, Che was turned into a cardboard idol, empty of critical nuances and the complexity of his thought,? says a former Cuban leader who collaborated with him at the triumph of the Revolution.

Most of the notes on economy—and philosophical, which have still not been edited—were written or organized by Che from 1965 to 1966, during the months he spent in Tanzania and Prague after leaving the Congo. The notes include observations and criticisms to the Manual of Political Economy of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in its Spanish edition of 1963. The entire text, written in Stalin?s time, is given a thorough revision by Guevara, who makes comments such as this one: ?There are many assertions in this book that resemble the formula of the Holy Trinity—you don?t understand it but faith works it out for you.?

In some instances, he is even irreverent, like when he discusses the section on the ?construction of the socialist economy in European countries with a popular democracy.? ?The coup de gr?ce,? he says. ?This looks like if it?s written for children or idiots. And what about the Soviet Army? Did they just sit on their butts?? In one of the texts that will be included in the Notes on Philosophy, one can see a Che that is against preconceptions and dogmas when he discusses a passage from Friedrich Engels?s Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. ?Scientists,? states Guevara, ?have made valuable contributions in the fields of philosophy and economy, but their idealistic background have led them down the wrong roads. Dogmatism has to be eradicated and new problems have to be tackled with a spirit that is open to certain scientific agnosticism.?

Of course, these writings by Che are not the work of a revisionist; quite the contrary. Guevara does not renounce his vision of the new man nor his radical position against anything that smacks of ?concessions? to capitalism or market economy. Che was a believer in Marxism, and his fight for divesting Marxism-Leninism of doctrinaire ties, and challenging what N?stor Kohan calls ?bureaucratic tendencies that sought to freeze the revolution, reduce it to one single country and imprison it in ministerial halls,? was aimed at ensuring the success of socialism, not at questioning its validity.

?The intransigent dogmatism of Stalin?s time has been succeeded by an inconsistent pragmatism. And what is really tragic is that it refers not only to a specific field of science; it takes place in every aspect of life in the socialist countries, creating enormously damaging disturbances, whose final results are incalculable,? Guevara wrote justifying the need for his notes.

According to Aleida March, ?the significance of these documents, published or otherwise, lies in the fact that they allow his dreams, his aspirations, his erudition, and, above all, his creative work in the construction of a new Cuba to be better understood.? ?His theoretical struggle,? she says, ?is not only against the Stalinist interpretation of history; it is in the first place a fight against the dogmas that enclosed Marxism and that sought to eliminate substantial parts, such as Marxist humanism.?

Correspondence with Le?n Felipe
On August 21, 1964, a few months before leaving for the guerrilla in the Congo, Guevara wrote to the Spanish poet Le?n Felipe: ?Maestro, several years ago, when the Revolution came into power, I received a signed copy of your most recent book at the time. I never had the chance to thank you, but I never forgot [the gesture]. Perhaps it may interest you in knowing that one of the two or three books that I keep on my beside table is El Ciervo [published that year]; few times do I have the chance of reading it because in Cuba sleeping, or not occupying one?s time with something, or resting is simply a crime against leadership?? On March 27, 1965, a few days before Che secretly entered the Congo, the poet, who was nearing his 81st birthday, wrote to him from Mexico: ?My dear friend Che Guevara: I am writing to you when I am very old and clumsy, but I owe you an embrace and I do not want to leave without doing so?I am sending you the manuscript of the last poem I wrote a few days ago as a memento. Health and joy to you.?

Le?n Felipe died in 1968, a year after Che was murdered.
Together with private and official government correspondence, Aleida keeps a great many letters and notes that Guevara wrote to her and their children, such as a postcard sent to Camilo (who is today a lawyer) from Dar-es-Salaam, the capital of Tanzania: ?Camilito, I talked today with my friend ?Pepe the Alligator? and told him that you didn?t like school too much and that you have been misbehaving a little. We took the picture when he was telling me that you could come to his school and that he would teach you good things.? (Written on the back of a postcard with the picture of a menacing crocodile with his mouth wide open.)

For forty years Aleida had zealously guarded these papers, until she wrote Evocaci?n, a book of intimate remembrances that reveal the unknown side of the revolutionary legend. Evocaci?n will be published next year in Spain and includes letters, thoughts, postcards, poems and other texts written by Guevara, together with the testimony of the woman who stayed by his side for eight years and is perhaps the person who knows best the psychology of the man who put his revolutionary ideals before his own life.

In one chapter, Aleida tells how ?under the direct influence of Che,? who ?permanently exercised his ability pf persuasion,? little by little she started to ?turn red.? ?He would try to teach and convince me, step by step, of my mistake concerning communism, and I never felt any imposition.?

After the triumph of the Revolution and due to Che?s severe asthma attacks, the couple moved temporarily to a house in Tarar?, a beach town in the outskirts of Havana. The house soon became a revolutionary ?conspiracy? centre, when the Cuban government still included supporters of moderate leanings. ?Fidel entrusted us with the task of preparing, in secret, a group of revolutionary laws, the principal one of which was the agrarian reform law,? recalls Alfredo Guevara, who was very close to Fidel Castro since university days and has since been involved in the communist party.

Besides Alfredo, the team was composed of Che, Ra?l Castro and his wife Vilma Esp?n, the geologist Antonio N??ez Jim?nez, and of course, Fidel, as well as occasional invited non-members. ?Sometimes, only a few would meet, sometimes it would be everybody, and sometimes it would only be Che and Fidel,? says Aleida about those work sessions, which lasted until the early hours of the morning.

According to Alfredo, everybody was learning as they went along, but the person who was most knowledgeable about Marxist theory was Che. ?And he was the one who would go farthest in his proposals.? The first agrarian reform law, which was enacted on May 17, 1959, meant the confirmation of the radical character that the Revolution would assume, marking the beginning of direct confrontation with the United States.

One of the most important questions about the Revolution is what role did Che really play in its course, what weight did his radical positions carry in the early days, which would define the future—in short, how much influence did Che have on Fidel Castro.

According to Alfredo Guevara, Che took part in every important decision. ?Fidel found too many mirrors in his life; Che was not a mirror. He was cultured and used his own judgement. Che talked to him as an equal; he was his equal, perhaps the only one among us,? he claims. ?Che knew that Fidel was the chief and Fidel listened to and respected Che—it was a perfect complicity.?

One day, Fidel came and said that as of that moment, we would meet once a week at the National Bank, that a country could not be governed without knowing how a bank worked,? Alfredo Guevara recalls. On November 26, 1959, Che was appointed President of the National Bank of Cuba. Before this, he had been the military commander at the Caba?a Fortress and head of the Department of Industrialization of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform; from 1961 until his departure from Cuba, he was Minister of Industry.

The legend?Hero or villain?
?I respected him as a military; afterwards I didn?t. As a leader, he was a disaster.? The former commander of the Revolution, Eloy Guti?rrez Menoyo, who spent 22 years in prison for rising up in arms against Fidel Castro, summarizes the arguments put forward by Che?s detractors—his role in the executions in the early months of the Revolution; ?his extremism, which made him a fierce defender of centralism and absolute nationalization, which dismantled the economy, and Cuba is still paying the consequences;? his theory of a new man and against material incentives, ?what the people are asking for today;? and, of course, ?his adventurism.?

Hero or villain? Forty years later, the discussion is still going on. According to Alfredo Guevara, Che always acted according to his beliefs and ?was always ready to put ideas into action. Intelligent action, that is,? he points out. ?The man beyond the icon was a serious and antidogmatic intellectual, and that aspect is little known or there is no interest in knowing about it.?

On August 14, 1965, Che wrote to Aleida from the Congo: ??There are times when I can almost see the children growing and reading [Victor] Hugo?I am moved. These are my days, but not study days [military activity], I am not getting on as I should. Besides, the return home is slower this way.? A few months later in Tanzania, while he waited for the preparation of a new guerrilla operation—he still hadn?t decided which—Che continued to work on his notes on philosophy. On December 4, he wrote a letter to the Cuban leader Armando hart: ?During this long vacation, I have started poking my nose into philosophy, something that I have had a mind to do for a long time. I have stumbled on the first difficulty: nothing has been published in Cuba, except the dull Soviet books, which have the inconvenience of not allowing you to think—the party already did it for you and you have to digest it.?

Che tells him that he has prepared a course of study for himself, which could be enhanced and serve as a basis for the study of philosophy in Cuba. He jokes about the Revolution: ?We?ve already done a lot, but someday we?ll also have to think.? Two years later, a burst of machine-gun fire put an end to his life at the little school in La Higuera. This is the story that everyone knows. After this, the legend began. October 2010

This slideshow requires JavaScript.