Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Perverse History of Ché Guevara

It suddenly came to my attention scant weeks ago, on 9 October to be precise, that it was the 45th anniversary of the death of Ché Guevara.  Normally I am one who is unusually attentive to momentous anniversaries which are not necessarily widely known (besides my love of history, it is a habit of my younger years when my friends and I would seek a convenient excuse for a celebration), but I typically was well aware of this one.  The topic of Ché Guevara is one of many to which I have rendered some importance, for several reasons, and is tweaked each time I see some benighted fool (age immaterial) who seeks a fashionably political statement among his or her comrades by wearing one of those Ché t-shirts.  ("What's this?  Was your Pol Pot t-shirt dirty today?": I used to say, but that would just confuse them.) 

The image of Ché Guevara has grown to mythic proportions since his oh-so-timely death, and I felt that I owed it to myself if no other to put down my thoughts and accumulated evidence to provide some fuel for discussion, and perhaps lend a guided discovery for some beyond the knee-jerk hero worship of this deeply flawed character.
 

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born in Argentina to an upper middle class family with Leftist and Communist sympathies, with his father hosting Spanish Civil War veterans from the Stalin-supported Republicans, for example.  His mother Celia, highly educated and staunchly opposed to Juan Peron (a 'Left Fascist', as are they all, but a fascist nonetheless), was particularly close to her eldest son and influenced him through her home-schooling, both due to her perceived guilt about his severe childhood bouts with asthma.  His father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, was proud of the family's bloodline that connected to Irish rebels.  Despite occasional bouts of early financial difficulties, they lived a rather moneyed but bohemian lifestyle.  Though later divorced, they continued to live together.

Despite the political bent of his parents, he showed little early inclination for political persuasions, though his education was enhanced by his reading through the family library during his frequent recuperations.  His early personality indicated his radical nature, charismatic but lacking empathy (particularly with girls), intelligent yet confrontational (particularly with teachers and authority figures), with a self-deprecating humor that was a thin veneer over the maxim that humility can be the worst form of conceit.

His personal hygiene was markedly poor, earning him the nickname El Chancho (pig) from his peers, which he would take as a matter of pride.  He never seemed to outgrow the habit: adoring visitors of later years would describe him as having a heavy aroma of cigars and what they diplomatically termed 'stale sweat'.  Some of his boyhood friends told of how he would kill stray dogs and torture animals.

He claims that his political development saw fruition through his journeys with a friend, Alberto Granado, through South and Central America, later chronicled in his book The Motorcycle Diaries (more aptly named the 'hitch-hiking diaries', as the motorcycle collapsed soon after crossing the frontier into Chile).  During his trips, he said that his visits to leprosy colonies, fruit plantations and copper mines instilled in him a hatred of 'Yankee imperialism', though his anti-American attitude was established well before.  His later declarations that he was part of the vanguard for the poor and minorities were masked by a thin veil of racism and contempt found in his writings: despite his later talk of solidarity with the masses, he considered them as needing the guidance and domination of an elite (which would naturally, of course, include himself) – hardly a unique idea among the Left.

He had gained access to medical school in Argentina, from which his journeys were long self-declared sabbaticals, with an interest in medicine driven by his own difficulties with asthma as well as the impact of his mother’s cancer and the recent death of his grandmother, two women with whom he was particularly close.  (In contrast, his other relations with women were abominable, including his two wives whom he cuckolded and abandoned.)  It is popularly accepted that he was a physician, but there is no documentation to indicate that he ever graduated or attained his medical certification.  Inquiries on the topic are ignored or rebuffed.

His radicalization (and his first wife) guided him to the political turmoil of Guatemala of the time, and it is here that he gained the nickname of El Ché, due to his frequent use of the Argentine idiomatic interjection, much like 'Dude'.  He tried to become a firebrand during the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz, but only succeeded in drawing attention to himself, and the Argentine Embassy was able to usher him out of Guatemala by granting him safe conduct to Mexico.  As he wrote to his mother, "It was all a lot of fun, what with the bombs, speeches, and other distractions to break the monotony I was living in."  It is in Guatemala though, that he shifted from being a radical to a revolutionary.  Like a rebel without cause, he was a revolutionary in search of a revolution. 

Through Mexican radicals and Cuban exiles, he met the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raúl, and joined their movement against the flagrantly corrupt regime of the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.  Fidel was impressed by his fervor: "A man like Ché did not require elaborate arguments."  The group of Cubans in Mexico was the renascent survivors of the earlier abortive attempt at an uprising against Batista – the attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953 – and was thus called the 26th July Movement.  Ché excelled in the training conducted in Mexico (led by a Spanish Republican veteran named Colonel Alberto Bayo, who had trained Nicaraguan and Dominican rebels and by then was a follower of the tactics of Mao Zedong), and boarded the derelict yacht Granma as their medic for their bungled invasion of Cuba in 1956.  They barely survived the daylight landing and the almost immediate assault on them by Cuban troops: of the original 82, only 12 survived and regrouped in the Sierra Maestra mountains.  Ché relates his epiphany under heavy fire from the batistianos and tells of seeing a chance to escape, but he is confronted by the choice of picking up either his bag of medical supplies or a box of ammunition – he couldn't carry both.  He chose the ammunition, and this, he says, sealed his destiny as an active revolutionary instead of just a supporter.  Biographies typically fail to mention, though, how Fidel berated Ché for leaving his rifle behind.
 
Ché Guevara and Fidel Castro

Castro's surviving forces slowly consolidated and began a series of steadily increasing hit-and-run attacks against the government over the next several years.  The guerrillas gained the advantage over Batista's troops over time, while Ché gained the increased attention of Fidel, along with promotions.  Fidel recognised that Ché's charisma was immensely useful, and deflected criticism of him, covering up his tactical deficiencies and extolling his bravado as he moved him up the ranks to Comandante. 

The rebels were aided by the fact that there were other anti-Batista movements and personalities as well – a fact often overlooked, and which did not necessarily include the Communists – such as the anti-Communist 13th March Movement (the Directorio Revolucionario or Revolutionary Directorate) or William Morgan's Segundo Frente Nacional de Escambray (the Second National Front of Escambray).  The Cuban Communist Party at the time (known then as the Partido Socialista Popular) had a controlling interest in the labor unions and was an active part of the Batista ruling coalition.  Many of the opponents of Batista did so as fervent anti-Communists – a well-organised and adept group – and were to later leave the revolution in droves once it became apparent that the Communists from the 26th July Movement were taking it over.  There is some argument as to whether Fidel himself was a Marxist at the time – he ardently denied it at first, then proclaimed it later in 1961 – but there was little doubt that Ché was one, as well as Raúl Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and others within the movement, though they successfully camouflaged it from those outside Cuba as long as they needed.  A subtext of the revolution for years was the struggle between the factions of Communists – pro-Soviet, pro-Chinese or independent Cubans – and Communists such as Juan Marinello Vidaurreta and Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, who held positions in the Batista government, were later, respectively, a member of the Politburo and the Vice President under Castro. 

Even before the revolution, there were already many Cuban refugees in the US because of their fear of Communism as well as the excesses of the Batista regime – Desi Arnaz among them, and the families of Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, among others, first came to America at the time.  The notion that the revolution of Castro and Guevara was a fight of the Communists against the forces supporting "Yankee imperialism" grossly glosses over this inconvenient truth.

Castro received some support as well from the new Kennedy administration with the American press in tow, particularly the New York Times, because of liberal guilt over the significant US economic ties to Batista's Cuba, particularly from the point of view that we were supporting the anti-Communists against the leftist Batista regime.  Since the institutionalized Communists were on the side of Batista, that made it easier for Kennedy to cast his support to Castro, as Fidel publically denied that there were any Communists or Marxists within his movement.  (I found myself in New York City a decade later and viewed a common poster of the time in a subway station: "I got my job through the New York Times!"  A wag had added a Marks-a-lot rejoinder: "So did Castro.")

Admirers of Fidel and Ché laud them for their military prowess against the army of Batista, but fail to take into account, or ignore, the fact of the army’s ineptitude and Old World class-conscious corruption, including its contemptuous attitude about the guerrillas, its inflated sense of ability – more adapted to being a national police force than an effective field army – and the early idea that emphasizing the guerrilla movement would yield greater expenditures for the army, which would provide a more lucrative source of embezzlement.

Ché's psychopathic tendencies quickly surfaced early on when faced with the accusation that a peasant named Eutimio Guerra had betrayed their position.  Fidel Castro ordered him executed as an example and assigned the task to Universo Sanchez, one of his bodyguards.  Sanchez and another soldier marched Guerra out away from the encampment and Ché, then just the rebels' medic, followed along.  They stopped in a clearing and, after a momentous pause while the two troops gained the composure to execute him, Ché stepped up and promptly shot Guerra in the side of the head, despite the fact that Ché was not part of the execution detail.  Ché later wrote that he exulted in the fact that he felt nothing untoward about his role in killing Guerra and taking his possessions.  As he later wrote to his father, "At that moment, I discovered that I really liked killing."

He later executed a peasant named Aristidio, who had mentioned that once the rebels moved along, he would return to his life as a farmer, leaving the movement.  Ché did take a moment to wonder in his diary whether he "was really guilty enough to deserve death", but added that the guerrillas "should not tolerate even the suspicion of treason."  He also executed a boy named Echevarría, a younger brother to some of his men, for attaching himself to a group that helped itself to some provisions during the absence of the rebels.  Echevarría was encouraged to pen a confession and express his support of the movement, but he was shot anyway – "He needed to pay the price." 

Ché cultivated his lust for absolute devotion and paranoid destruction through a steady series of impromptu executions of his own men or local populace, sometimes by his own hand through a bullet to the back of the head, on the flimsiest of excuses.  For captured Cuban soldiers, repeatedly, he needed even less.  One of his prisoners was a seventeen-year-old army recruit who pleaded that he was the only child of a widowed mother, that he had just arrived at his unit and had never seen action until he was captured.  He begged Ché not to shoot him.  Ché replied, "Why not?"  Then he put a pistol to his head and killed him. 

Otherwise, he entertained himself by staging mock executions or placing an empty pistol to the head of a prisoner and pulling the trigger, presumably pour encourager les autres.  Carlos Franqui, editor of the party mouthpiece Revolución and close acquaintance of Ché in the Sierra Maestras (who later defected and became a bitter critic of the Castro regime) spoke of how Guevara was a Stalinist early on, and how he quoted Stalin that "gratitude is a vice of dogs".  He would execute even those who had provided assistance to the rebels, such as two peasants who had guided a lost patrol back to their base camp, accusing them of being bandits.  Franqui wrote about how rebels would describe him as "él que se le arranca la cabeza de cualquiera" (roughly, "he who would rip anyone's head off.")

There are a number of characteristics here identified that clearly indicate Ché as a sociopath.  I often run across such personalities in my current vocation, though few as developed as Guevara's.  One can be bright and even a genius in any number of areas, including narcissistic manipulation, and in this respect he falls within the category of Charles Manson without the drug-addled mind, or Ted Bundy without the singular murderous focus on women, but most especially Benito Mussolini without the discipline.  I have read and listened to his rants and speeches (my academic background is in political theory and I drew on it at times in my military career), and he is one of those who commands an audience through charisma but ultimately, once you analyze his florid paragraphs, he really has little to say.

In the strategy of communist guerrilla warfare, there is a phase wherein there is a shift from guerrilla tactics of 'fish swimming in the sea of the people' to an outright operational assault against the government and its forces, and this shift started after the Battle of Las Mercedes in August 1958, a pyrrhic victory for Batista’s army that showed up his weaknesses.  Guevara played an important part in the battle, either through good fortune or a wise seizure of the situation.  Castro took the initiative shortly thereafter to send three columns (with Ché in command of one) to advance on the military installation at Santa Clara.  The shock attack there was carried out against the under-trained though more numerous defenders, but the tide was really turned by the fortuitous arrival of a train of supplies and reinforcements for the garrison, and the train was in turn de-railed, attacked and captured by the insurgents.  The garrison surrendered in disarray on New Year's Eve, and the tide turned completely in favor of the rebels.

Batista knew that the party was over and immediately fled the country with a planeload of cronies and loot in the early morning hours of 1 January 1959.  Castro and his movement rushed to Havana, an historic example of 'running to the head of the parade', to grab power and start the process of consolidating their hold on the government.

Consolidation of power took place over a period of months for Castro and his compays (even the Bolsheviks had to pass through such a phase), and he appointed Ché to a post that was befitting to him and his experience in the field – commander of the fortress of La Cabaña, where he would oversee the execution of hundreds of enemies of the state.  He was also head of the tribunals and chaired the committee (the Comisión Depuradora – the Purging Commission) that determined the course of prosecution as well as the sentence, typically before the trial began.  The word of the prosecutor was considered irrefutable and there was an almost complete abandonment of due process.  "At the smallest of doubt, we must execute," was the summation of his jurisprudence, as well as "If any person has a good word for the previous government that is good enough for me to have him shot."  Carlos Franqui quotes Ché from a speech delivered to officials at the State Security Headquarters on 18 May 1962: "It is logical that in times of excessive tension we cannot proceed weakly.  We have imprisoned many people without knowing for sure if they were guilty.  In the Sierra Maestra, we executed many people by firing squad without knowing if they were guilty.  At times, the Revolution cannot stop to conduct much investigation; it has the obligation to triumph."  This fit well with his espousal of "hatred as an element of struggle; relentless hatred for the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to, transforming him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold killing machine," as he lectured in his Message to the Tricontinental several years later, his sentiment unchanged.

Ché also set up the first forced labor camp at Guanahacabibes, the first within the new gulag system of the Unidades Militares para Ayuda a la Producción (UMAP, or the Military Units to Assist Production) to 're-educate' the variety of dissidents, counter-revolutionaries, 'moral degenerates' and other 'negative elements' that were rounded up, including homosexuals, devout Catholics, Protestant missionaries, artists (those who did not adhere to the school of Socialist Realism), and others who would not be eligible for the military because they had committed "crimes against revolutionary morals".  Those who were even remotely avant garde in taste or disposition were targets.  The motto emblazoned on the camps was El Trabajo hará hombres de ustedes (Work will make men of you), the Cuban version of Arbeit macht frei.  Ché expressed his opinion about these "escoria" (scum): "We only send to Guanahacabibes those doubtful cases where we are not sure people should go to jail.  I believe that people who should go to jail should go to jail anyway."  He had a similar attitude about deviant music and included roqueros on his list of undesirables, which adds a particular note of blithering nonsense to the Glitterati like Carlos Santana, Madonna, and Rage Against the Machine, and various Obama campaign headquarters, among the many who sport his image in a ludicrous homage.
 
A statue of Ché in New York's Central Park

Apologists quibble that essentially the victims of the firing squads and concentration camps deserved their fate – it was a revolution, after all, with all the talk about omelets and breaking eggs – but these obscene excuses, specious at best, ignoring the innocent victims, cannot cover up the relish that Guevara had for the assignment.  Columnist Humberto Fontova, a recent chronicler of Ché, quotes Roberto Martin-Perez, a victim of the Communist penal system in Cuba for almost thirty years and a survivor of Guevara's time at La Cabaña: "When you saw the beaming look on Ché's face as the victims were tied to the stake and blasted apart by his firing squads, you saw that there was something seriously, seriously wrong with Ché Guevara." 

He made an effort to observe as many executions as he could, often participating, and when his duties distracted from his preference of at least delivering the coup de grace, he had a portion of the wall of his second-story office in the ancient fort torn out so that he could still view the executions.  During this period, a Rumanian/Brazilian journalist and poet named Ştefan Baciu visited Ché in La Cabaña, and Ché quickly ushered him to his new observation window so that he could see an execution first hand.  Baciu was shocked at the sight but most particularly by Guevara’s cavalier and amused attitude about the affair, and penned a poem that he appended to his later recording of the event:

Yo no canto al Ché,
como tampoco he cantado a Stalin. 
Con el Ché hablé bastante en Mexico,
y en la Habana me invitó,
mordiendo el puro entre los labios,
como se invita a alguien a tomar un trago en la cantina,
a acompañarlo para ver cómo se fusila en el paredón de La Cabaña.

Yo no canto al Ché,
Como tampoco he cantado a Stalin;
que lo canten Neruda, Guillén y Cortázar;
ellos cantan al Ché (los cantores de Stalin),
yo canto a los jóvenes de Checoslovaquia.

I do not sing of Ché,
any more than I have sung of Stalin.
I spoke at some length with Ché in Mexico,
and in Havana he invited me,
chewing on his cigar between his lips,
as one would invite someone to have a drink in a bar,
to accompany him to see how a firing squad performs at La Cabaña.

I do not sing of Ché,
any more than I have sung of Stalin;
let Neruda, Guillén and Cortázar sing of him;
they sing of Ché (the singers of Stalin),
I sing of the youth of Czechoslovakia.

Other stories of Ché at La Cabaña abound.  A mother tearfully pleaded for the life of her son, Ariel Lago; Ché picked up the phone to command that the execution be carried out immediately, so as to ‘end her misery’.  This sadistic game was repeated several times.  A witness (Pierre San Martin) testified about a young boy, perhaps 12 to 14 years of age, who was defiant about the impending execution of his father.  He continued to stand up to Ché, whose response was to laugh softly as he walked behind him, congratulating him on his courage.  Then Ché shot the boy in the nape of the neck before giving the order to kill his father as well.  One list meticulously compiled certifies 174 victims, other estimates from various sources, including the US Embassy, vary between 200 and 700.  Ché himself claimed some 600 by June 1959 in one account, but that may have included executions in other areas.  That figure matches with Cuba Archive, which lists some 981 executions by the end of the year.  (This includes some executions performed outside La Cabaña, but the archivists warn that the total is far from exhaustive and likely always will be.)  Indeed, another source has Ché claiming over 1500 in total, and at the end he confessed to “a couple thousand” while dismissing them as counter-revolutionaries and CIA agents.

Within several months, Ché was paradoxically appointed the Minister of Finance and President of the National Bank, a move that baffled all those who had known him.  Friends from Argentina testify that he was a ludicrous choice for the post: he had no training and his frivolous disposition would result in a disaster, as it did.  Coupled with him being in charge of agrarian reform and then named Minister of Industry, the Cuban economy rapidly cork-screwed into the ground.  Cuba used to have one of the best economies in the hemisphere: the UNESCO report of 1957 said that Cuban industrial workers had the eighth highest wages in the world; an average daily wage was higher than in Belgium, Denmark, France and West Germany; stevedores earned more than counterparts in New Orleans and San Francisco; and so on.  Now Cuba ranks at the bottom with the likes of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  (In 1970 and even as late as 2002, efforts were made to revive the sugar industry with disastrous results.) 

I stumbled upon the explanation of how he ended up with such a strange responsibility many years ago, while still a college student.  I had the immense good fortune, out of the blue, to meet and speak with Manuel Urrutia Lleó, the former President of Cuba during the six months after Castro took over.  President Urrutia had been an old-style liberal, a Christian, and an active opponent of Batista, popular within Cuba.  After his return from exile he was a naturally popular choice to become the head of state during Castro's consolidation, and he appointed a wide-ranging cabinet.  But he quickly realised that he was rapidly becoming a figurehead, and was distressed at how the Communists were steadily gaining more positions of power.  He resigned in July 1959 and defected to the US by way of Venezuela. 

President Urrutia spoke at some length about his experiences and his disillusionments with Castro and his movement, but I remember in particular his devastating denouncement of Ché.  He considered him narcissistic, bombastic, overly convinced of his charm and intelligence, flamboyant, and thoroughly enamored of his power as the chief judge, prosecutor, and executioner of the Castro regime.  Ché was "in love with the sound of his voice", as demanding that people take him seriously as he was dismissive of others.  His personality matched that of Fidel, and he was "more like a brother of Fidel than Raúl was".  Like Fidel, he could pontificate at length but ultimately say nothing of real consequence, offering a pedantic mish-mash that was absurd in his conclusions.  He was at once the 'Emperor with No Clothes' and the 'Queen of Hearts'. 

I was delighted to hear this devastating critique from the source, in those days when Ché was such a darling of the revolutionary 1960s and 70s.  But one story in particular sticks in my mind – during a meeting of ministers toward what would turn out to be the end of Urrutia's tenure, Fidel was delivering a long-winded disquisition to the room about the confused state of the Cuban economy and the slow pace of 'reform'.  One can imagine the scene: a smoke-filled combination of West Wing and Sons of Anarchy.  Ché was on the other side of the room, arrogantly paying little attention since he wasn't the central focus.  Finally, Fidel asked if anyone was a trained economist and willing to take on such an important task.  This suddenly gained Ché's attention – he raised his hand and declared that he was the man for the task.  After a frozen moment of silence in the room, Fidel proclaimed his joy that Ché would assume such a momentous responsibility.
 
Ché, Urrutia, and Camilo Cienfuegos 

At the end of the meeting, Ché made his way to the front of the room as the others were exiting and approached Fidel and Urrutia.  Between the three of them, Ché asked Fidel to repeat his previous question.  Fidel said that he was looking for an 'economist' (economista).  Ché replied that he thought Fidel had said 'communist' (comunista).  After a few beats to recover, Ché nevertheless insisted that he could pull it off, and Fidel let him – with devastating results. 

What Ché lacked in economic training, and that was a lot, he more than made up for in Communist zeal, and the Cuban example is the best short-term case for the failure of Communism as an economic theory.  Ché's deputy at the Cuban National Bank was Ernesto Betancourt, who said, "Ché was ignorant of the most elementary economic principles."  Among other measures, he greatly increased the supply of money in circulation on the island (what we would today call 'quantitative easing') by a factor of 62%, and sought to keep inflation down by price controls, greatly increasing taxes on the middle- and upper-class, and cutting off the export of money.  He severely curtailed the accumulation of capital until the Party essentially ended up acquiring all bank accounts and private property. 

Soviet advisors eventually had to step in to shore up the economy, and the Soviet Union took on the onerous task of making Cuba an economic vassal state.  As the Soviets pumped machinery and equipment into Cuba, the workers could quickly tell that it was shoddy compared to the American products they were used to working with.  But even the Soviets could not supply economic aid quickly enough to keep the Cuban economy, wrenched from an agrarian to what was supposed to be a new industrial one, from collapsing. 

Urrutia went on to relate how Guevara had appended his simple signature of Ché to the Cuban banknotes at the time.  His admirers cite this as a sign of his insouciance; Urrutia claims that it was an indication that he just didn't give a damn.
 
Ernesto Guevara's official signature, lower left

If his means were ruthless and his ideas hopelessly and devastatingly naïve, he was nonetheless a purist in his revolutionary character.  There appears to be no evidence that he ever exploited his position to accrue a personal economic advantage – his reward was the power, prestige and recognition that accrued to him, along with the worship of the masses.  He threw himself into his work, proud that he was setting an example of the New Socialist Man, accepting no remunerations above his set salary of $125, though admittedly paying scant attention to his new family by his second wife.  One story tells of his wife wanting to use the car he had been assigned – for official business – in order to take one of their children to the doctor.  He replied that she could take the bus like any other citizen.  Ché can be seen as a perfect example of what the Left cherishes: someone who attacks a problem with enthusiastic fervor without regard to thinking through to a plausible solution; it is more important to be seen to do something, however disruptive, rather than accomplish a sensible goal, and certainly not a goal that does not fall within the movement's dictates. 

The US had become alarmed fairly soon into Fidel’s reign with the excesses of the revolution, and the obvious presence and increasing influence of Communists in the ranks.  The CIA began planning for training up a collection of Cuban exiles into what became Assault Brigade 2506 for an invasion of Cuba, to foment what it predicted would be a popular uprising against Castro.  The plan, begun in the closing days of the Eisenhower administration, was picked up by John F Kennedy and developed into the abortive Bay of Pigs debacle on 17 April 1961, marking one of the worst disasters of the CIA in its history.  The element of surprise was blown by the invasion convoy sailing within sight of an advanced Cuban weather station on an island, Soviet intelligence picked up the plans at least a week in advance, and news of the impending invasion was published in the New York Times.  The landing itself failed on a variety of accounts, particularly by the incompetent naval side of the landing force, but primarily through Kennedy's abandonment of the brigade on the beach, refusing further air and naval support and directing the remaining landing ships to withdraw.  The Brigadistas ashore (some 1500) fought bravely and effectively against overwhelming odds (up to 60,000 mostly green militia frantically thrown at them, not counting the ones who initially went over to their side) until their ammunition was exhausted. 

Ché later thanked a US official in Uruguay (Doris Kearns Goodwin's husband) for this disaster because he said that it solidified the nationalism of the Cuban citizens under Castro.  Ché did not participate in repelling the invasion because the Cuban High Command had been duped into responding to an amphibious deception on the west coast.  By the time he arrived at the actual landing site at Playa Girón, the operation was over.  He was limited to joyously proclaiming to the prisoners how he was going to hang them, slowly, rather than have them shot (though the vast majority were later repatriated to the US in exchange for $53 million in food and medicine, raised privately).  Ché was, however, wounded during the operation, when he had an accidental discharge while brandishing his pistol, the bullet grazing his left cheek. 

Years later, I found myself invited into a large group of Cuban exiles, including veterans of Brigade 2506, at a restaurant and bar in Florida on 17 April.  They were commemorating the landing with the appropriate Cuba Libres – they insisted that the recipe had to have Bacardi and Coca Cola – and were far more insistent in how they despised Kennedy and the "idiots" in the CIA and State Department.  The Brigade veterans' motto – Jamás abadonaremos nuestra patria (We will never abandon our homeland) – takes on a double-edged meaning. 

Castro soon announced that Cuba was solidly planted in the Soviet sphere (or allowed it to be more open, depending on your viewpoint), and the Soviets saw an immense opportunity to capitalize on the situation by introducing nuclear-armed missiles onto the island, and it was Ché who traveled to Moscow to finalize the agreement.  Both Fidel and Ché were enthusiastic about taking on the United States in this ultimate game of 'Chicken', and both sought assurances from Nikita Khrushchev about following through with the plan if it was discovered by the Americans before the installation of the missile sites was completed.  The result, of course, was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.  (I distinctly remember being home alone at the moment when a Civil Defense official going door to door went through a checklist with me about preparations for a nuclear strike.  This was in Corpus Christi – a major port and home to a large Naval Air Station, well within the range of the missiles – and it made the news about the crisis very personal indeed to a young teenager.  Comparatively few people alive today understand the feeling of being the potential, and not just theoretical, victim of a nuclear attack.)
 

History recounts how the Soviets ended up reneging on their Cuban agreement and withdrew the missiles, and the adoring US press proclaimed it as a victory for Kennedy.  It was some time before it was allowed that the Americans also withdrew missiles from Turkey and Italy, and promised to never again try to dislodge the Castro regime – quite an advantageous outcome for Khrushchev.  The news enraged the Cubans though, and Ché was practically apoplectic about the betrayal by the Soviets: Franqui, for example, told of how he flew into a rage and kicked the wall.  Shortly thereafter he told Sam Russell, a correspondent for London’s Daily Worker, "If the rockets had remained, we would have used them all and directed them against the very heart of the United States, including New York, in our defense against aggression."  Russell later portrayed Guevara as "crackers" in the way he went on about using the missiles.  Guevara later wrote that such a war against "imperialist aggression" would be worth "millions of atomic war victims", that Cuba was "ready to sacrifice itself to nuclear arms, that its ashes might serve as a basis for new societies."

The relationship between Fidel and Ché, initially so close, steadily began to fray and show the distinctions between the two, with Fidel being the realist in his application of the revolution and Ché still striving to be the idealist.  It was quickly becoming apparent that Cuba wasn’t big enough for the two of them.  While I believe that the personal relationship between the two continued to be strong, Castro was well aware of the friction that Ché could cause, and in this he was likely influenced by those around him who had never shared Castro’s enthusiasm about him, those who were weary of Ché’s grandstanding, and who still regarded him as a foreigner. 

Castro began sending Ché as a minister plenipotentiary on tours of a number of countries starting in 1959, but he was a failure at practically every turn.  He failed to secure trade agreements of any real value with any of the countries he would visit, and he argued with Nassar of Egypt and Tito of Yugoslavia.  He suffered from an excess of enthusiasm by criticizing the Soviets and their Marxist model of fomenting 'national liberation', which expected third-world countries and their economies to evolve through stages until they were ripe for revolution.  He solidified his criticism in a number of remarks, particularly in a speech in Algiers as late as 1965 (much to the dismay and anger of Fidel and his cohort), which condemned the Communist bloc for not freely supplying all the goods and services to revolutionary movements.  He extolled the Communist Chinese during the height of the Sino-Soviet split.  Ché was a free-wheeling critic of the Soviets who were trying to prop up the Cuban regime, and who later were responsible for practically the entire Cuban economy. 

Ché’s political liability to Castro was increasing at the same rate as his popularity, which received an enormous boost from the iconic image of him taken at a memorial service for the victims of the explosion of the arms-carrying French ship La Coubre in Havana harbor.  (Considering the USS Maine, Havana is a tough spot to moor.)  The photo was taken by Alberto Korda who was, appropriately enough, a fashion photographer.


The Cuban regime began to create and support revolutions in various countries of Latin America with the active participation of Ché in the planning and training for all cases, but they were all disasters.  Some 84 'insurgents' (almost entirely Cuban) dispatched to Panamá were landed on a shore that had no real egress from the beach area.  They were quickly arrested by the Panamanian National Guard, picked up by a barge borrowed from the US Navy in the Canal Zone, and returned to Cuba after a brief incarceration and embarrassing publicity.  A group of Nicaraguan insurgents were also rounded up and the leader testified to the support of Castro and Guevara.  A carnival invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1959 resulted in some 200 dead, including the Cuban leaders, with a similar result in Haiti.  The Cubans tried an armed insurrection in the Dominican Republic again in 1964, capitalizing on a coup d'état, but were crushed by an intervention by the US with the Organization of American States.  Cuba had a choice of several disparate factions in Peru and chose the one least likely to succeed – the Ejército de Liberación Nacional or ELN, which had no particular political affiliation and no goal other than to revolt; its determination to go it alone was a key to its destruction (and a harbinger of things to come).  Operations in Venezuela (a landing on the coast) and Guatemala (which included air support) likewise failed. 

Ché’s particular interest was in his home country of Argentina, with a new guerrilla movement set up by his friend and radical journalist Jorge Ricardo Masetti.  He created the Ejército Guerillero del Pueblo (EGP – the Guerrilla Army of the People) and set up training camps across the border in Bolivia and then in Salta Province of far northwest Argentina.  Masetti wrote the group's Code of Conduct which included the death penalty for such crimes as treason, exploitation, rape, and homosexuality, and he was as casual in the execution of those who couldn't quite keep up, like a young bank accountant recent to the group, as was Ché.  Guevara was to join the rebel insurgency as its commander, but their armed base camp was soon attacked and overrun by the Argentine army and destroyed, killing a Cuban liaison.  Masetti fled into the jungle and vanished without a trace. 
 
Ché and Masetti

It was becoming increasingly evident that Ché's well of charisma was rapidly running dry.  He had almost single-handedly destroyed the Cuban economy, alienated any ally or potential ally (even the Chinese, realists to a fault, recognised his only value was as a wedge with the Soviets), continually embarrassed Fidel with Khrushchev (the only source of power capable of propping up the Castro regime, US embargo or not), and was now overseeing one catastrophe after another in the attempts to export the Cuban model of revolution into Latin America.  His old friend Alberto Granados of the Motorcycle Diaries, who had by then moved to Cuba, spoke to him shortly after the news of Argentina.  Ché said, "Here you see me behind a desk, screwed, while my people die during the missions to which I have sent them."

His only redemptive quality came from his days as a revolutionary in the Sierra Maestras.  A failure at all else, he would return to the only cause which had given him satisfaction – active revolutionary operations in the field – and prove his foco theories about creating a revolution, which in essence held that rather than wait in Marxist fashion for conditions to ripen for a revolution, one could instead create the situation for revolution by actively destabilizing a country.  "The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe.  You have to make it fall."

His ultimate target had always been his native Argentina, but he would bide his time, hone his skills, and build a momentum to carry him to that goal. 

The scene in Latin America first had to cool down, and the area most ripe for exploitation was by then the chaotic situation that was persisting in the immense Republic of the Congo.  The Congo was previously a Belgian colony that was swept up in the international movement for decolonization.  Belgium had not prepared the area nor its people – a collection of various and warring tribes kept together by the most fragile colonial bond – for independence in any way before being overtaken by the Congolese and international demands.  Belgium had formulated a series of plans for orderly transition over time but abandoned them when the native Congolese factions demanded immediate independence.  With an eye to the disastrous experience of the French in Indochina and Algeria and the Dutch in Indonesia, the Belgians acquiesced and handed over power in June 1960. 

The new Congolese government collapsed almost instantaneously, and a succession of mutinies, riots, assassinations, secessions, foreign interventions, outright warfare, and brutal and savage massacres followed, with the internecine fighting continuing to one degree or another up to the present day, an excellent example of the axiom that peacetime is only a period that allows the belligerents to rearm.  The huge nation, now named the Democratic Republic of the Congo, still undergoes rebellions and civil strife, though not as insanely ferocious as in the beginning (at least not at the moment), but from those early days, involving names such as Kasavubu, Lumumba, Tshombe, Mobutu, Gizenga, and Hammarskjöld, it has cast itself as a modern, African, even more savage version of the Thirty Years War. 

By the beginning of 1965, the situation in the Congo saw the still-active Simba Rebellion primarily in the eastern provinces of Kivu and Orientale, fighting against the national government centered in Kinshasa (formerly Léopoldville) and its new combined army – the Armée Nationale Congolaise – of still barely trained native troops and an officer corps still composed primarily of Europeans, particularly Belgians, and other foreign mercenaries from countries such as South Africa and Rhodesia. 

The Simbas (Swahili for 'lion') are rebels from a culture that can be particularly cruel and primitive, guilty of the vilest of atrocities.  (For example, when the body of assassinated Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was finally recovered, it was noted that his body was among those that were not eaten.)  They are animist and adherents of shamans who claimed that the Simbas could be made immune to bullets through a magic potion of dawa.  The various collections of rebels were led by Marxists and Maoists such as Gaston Soumialot and Laurent Kabila, and supported by various Communist regimes including the Soviets (initially invited by Lumumba), China, and countries of the Warsaw Pact, by way of the socialist government in neighboring Tanzania.
 
Ché saw an opportunity there for a Cuban intervention.  This provided a chance for him to secretly resign his ministry positions with a modicum of an excuse and disappear, and Fidel could remove the stone from his shoe.  It was a win-win solution for them both: Ché could continue to develop his image as a romantic revolutionary and Fidel could be seen as supporting the internationalist 'wars of liberation' on the sly, but with a degree of deniability if the situation turned sour.  Ché penned his letter of resignation in April, extolling his international revolutionary fervor and separating himself entirely from his positions and even Cuba itself, with the understanding that it would be revealed only in the event of his death.

Ché then disappeared from world view, disguised himself as a businessman and infiltrated into the eastern Congo by April 1965, assuming the codename of "Tatu", Swahili for 'three', since he was the third one of the Cuban contingent to arrive.  (The Cuban fieldcraft included a very focused use of codenames.)  He arrived among a steady increase, by twos and threes, of a cadre of some thirty or so of his hand-picked men, later supported by some 130 Afro-Cubans in the mistaken and frankly racist idea that simple skin color would provide a racial link and bond with the Simbas.  Such was not the case – the Cubans were appalled by the actions of the Simbas and the culture of the natives, and the Africans felt the Cubans were arrogant and aloof.  In his summation of the campaign, after lamenting that there was no real way to create a revolutionary movement among these peasants, he lists a string of complaints about the natives who were supposed to be soldiers and concludes, "All these traits make the soldier of the Congolese revolution the poorest example of a fighter that I have ever come across up to now."  This was coupled with his observation of the "incompetence of the higher command and the obstruction by the local chiefs."  This example of hope over common sense, later dashed, is repeated many times in studying Guevara’s history, and showed that Ché was prone to throw himself into situations where he really had no clue about the situation on the ground.  As one example, he thought that the terrain in which they would be fighting would be level, but he found himself in the Fizi-Baraka mountains instead.  A witness testifies to the effect that Ché was completely unaware of their existence before his arrival. 

Ché’s remembrances of the campaign were later published as a book, derived from his notes (as he was an inveterate diary-keeper), and begins with the line "This is a history of a failure."  Moreover, it is the "history of a decomposition. . . . the decomposition of our own fighting morale."  His organized attempts to school the Simbas in revolutionary ideals and motivation were simply useless, and they would laugh at his frustrations.  They were ferocious against helpless civilians but indolent except in their enthusiasm to avoid training in the simplest military fundamentals, and were especially wary of hard work or anything that approached taking a risk against an enemy.  They would frequently throw away their weapons and run at the slightest hint that an enemy would counter-attack their ambushes. 

Ché dealt foremost with the troops under the 'command' of Laurent Kabila, but he rarely saw the man since he was mostly indisposed in far-away Dar-es-Salaam like the other "Freedom Fighters" who "lived comfortably in hotels and had made a veritable profession out of their situation, sometimes lucrative and nearly always agreeable."  At one point, Kabila was cajoled into visiting the front, but when he finally arrived, Ché found Kabila distracted by two prostitutes who trailed along, and his drunken conversation meandered about political objectives and assurances but was of little import.  Ché’s assessment was "Nothing tells me that Kabila is the man of the moment."  He wrote that Kabila had some potential, and in fact Ché felt that he was probably the only man who could become a "leader of the masses", but Kabila was clearly neither ready nor capable of assuming that role.  Ché had "serious doubts" that Kabila could eventually "overcome his shortcomings".  (Appropriately, Kabila eventually became the President of DR Congo in 1997 and served until assassinated in 2001.  He was succeeded by his son Joseph.) 
 
Laurent Kabila, 1964
 
Ché had a well-developed sense of micro-managing that shows through well in his writing, though he frequently complains of how his directives are disregarded, even by the Cubans.  Ever the pedant, he was even prone to an early political correctness, writing of his "inability to get the Cubans to use the term 'Congolese'.  Instead, they referred to 'the Congos' . . ."  But like most people with this bureaucratic fixation, he focuses on the wrong priorities.  His naïve comments show ignorance of the disposition of his troops or how he is surprised by bad news, and he complains about problems with his equipment, particularly how inadequate the radios are to the environment.  He is overtaken by events time and time again; he delegates tasks and missions but abdicates responsibility for the outcome; his supervision is limited to criticism of the result.  He fails to anticipate and has no alternative plans.  This betrays such a general disregard for tactical awareness and communications that one should wonder where this idea that he was a military genius comes from, if not his sycophants.  He confuses his role with that of a political officer, and he is barely adequate at that, assuming that a political officer actually fulfills a beneficial purpose.  His developed sense of authorship illuminates his innocent confession of his incompetence as a field commander. 

In a letter to Fidel, Ché expressed that Castro should not be so free with his assistance and support to the rebels, since it was uncoordinated and subject to embezzlement, and the equipment was wasted and suffered from little to no maintenance.  This was a very rapid and complete reversal of Guevara’s earlier public demands, as recent as his speech in Algiers only a few months before, that the Communist bloc should be completely open in material support to liberation movements – a hard lesson to learn indeed.
 
Ché (left) in camp somewhere in the Congo

The only really significant attack that he was able to mount was the Front de Force operation against the garrison and hydroelectric plant at Bendera, in which he "was forced to stay behind" as he received "no reply from Kabila" about accompanying the attack force.  He nevertheless dispatched forty Cubans and 160 Congolese and Rwandans (another discovered problem, as Ché did not know that the Rwandans did not speak Swahili) against the fort that contained some 300 army troops and 100 mercenaries.  Ché himself called the result a "fiasco", and even on a good day, those are horrible odds.  The Rwandans fled, the Congolese refused to fight, and the Cubans suffered four dead, one of whom had a diary that was recovered by the ANC and provided proof of the open suspicion that Cubans were involved and that Ché was likely leading them.  Now that the force was pinned to a specific area, the enemy began moving in.

A small yet telling example of the ineffectiveness of Guevara's Cubans to forge an effective front is told from the other side.  Within the new ANC and its primarily European officer corps was one of the more famous officers – an Irish/South African named Mike Hoare, by then a lieutenant colonel and commander of 5 Commando.  (Hoare only a few years before was an important officer of the army of the break-away Republic of Katanga during its existence under the leadership of Moïse Tshombe, who was by then, paradoxically enough, the Prime Minister of the Congo.)  Hoare’s nickname was "Mad" Mike Hoare, which he received by way of the East German advisors 'rumored' to be among the Simbas.  (The press railed about 'white mercenaries' in the area but did not assign the term to the advisors from the Communist bloc.)  Hoare’s 5 Commando was assisting in rolling up the Simbas in the Fizi-Baraka mountains when his column was taken under fire.  A reporter with the column dove under cover and turned to see Hoare standing in the middle of the road, clearly under fire, calmly directing his troops in a counter-attack against the ambush.  The reporter called out to Hoare that he would be shot where he stood.  Hoare, who had noted the rounds tending to pass well over his head, called back "Are you joking?  Those are the Cubans.  Maybe they’re aiming at me, but they’ll hit you." 
 
"Mad" Mike Hoare, 1964
 
As much as Ché tried to put a good face on his efforts, the campaign was clearly deteriorating at a rapid pace.  To the extent that the native groups would fight, they would fight with each other.  Ché was continuously occupied with dealing with the variety of rebel leaders (those he could find), the continuously astonishing ineptitude of the native troops and their superstitions (despite his earlier disgust, he eventually hired a witch doctor for the Congolese), as well as the increasingly pessimistic mood of his Cuban troops, with even some of the veterans telling him that they were dispirited and wanted to return home.  At one point, having dealt with the reality of his tenuous situation, he addressed a new contingent of Cubans within a meeting of many of his Cuban troops, and laid out for them that the situation was serious and that any who wished to return to Cuba should do so then, for later it would be impossible.  The new troops all woodenly elected to remain but, embarrassingly, some of his veterans spoke up and wanted to leave.  The Cubans were on the verge of a passive mutiny: "Gone were the romantic days when I threatened to send the undisciplined ones back to Cuba; if I had done that now, I would have been lucky to keep half the troops." 

By the end of October, Ché received more blows, personal ones.  He learned that his mother, long-suffering from cancer, was fading away: "I had to spend a month in this sad uncertainty, awaiting the results of something I could guess at but still hoping there was a mistake, until I received confirmation of my mother's death.  She had wanted to see me shortly before my departure, perhaps feeling ill, but this was not possible . . . . She did not receive the letter of farewell I left for my parents in Havana; it was to be delivered only in October, after my departure had been made public."  Despite his goal of being the "New Socialist Man", one who happily builds the future within the new family of his socialist brothers, forgetting his "old individual affections" (to paraphrase a Christmas letter he wrote to his parents), he was certainly strongly affected by the death of his mother, as he felt his strongest ties to her more than any other person in his life. 

The news that his "departure had been made public" came as another blow.  Fidel Castro, later citing continuing questions about Ché’s disappearance (and likely due to unmentioned rumours that Fidel had had him eliminated), read aloud Ché’s secret, contingent letter of resignation to a Communist Party Congress in Havana, an assembly where his absence would be painfully obvious.  "I formally resign my positions in the leadership of the party, my post as minister, my rank of Commander, and my Cuban citizenship.  Nothing legal binds me to Cuba. . . . Other nations of the world summon my modest efforts of assistance.  I can do that which is denied you due to your responsibility as the head of Cuba, and the time has come for us to part. . . . I carry to new battlefronts the faith that you taught me, the revolutionary spirit of my people, the feeling of fulfilling the most sacred of duties: to fight against imperialism wherever it may be. . . . I state once more that I free Cuba from all responsibility . . . . If my final hour finds me under other skies, my last thought will be of this people and especially of you. . ."  Ché was cast adrift by this action.  More significantly, he was maneuvered to cast himself adrift by his own words.  He had declared himself to be literally a man without a country.  He was stung by the news.

He was bedeviled also by widespread cases of malaria and dysentery raging through the ranks of the Cubans, and Ché himself was badly stricken, in addition to increasingly severe attacks of asthma.  He wrote in his journal that he had tried to keep track of the number of his attacks of diarrhea for that day, but lost count after thirty.  Later accounts from others speculate that he was indeed seriously ill and was further debilitated in his ability to make cogent decisions. 

On the international front, an important source of material support and routing dried up with the death of Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria.  And by October, the Organisation of African Unity had reached an accord with the Congolese and Tanzanians: in order to have the Congolese withdraw the politically toxic 'white mercenaries' from the ANC, the states that supported the rebels would have to withdraw their support as well, including their 'foreign advisers' including the Cubans.  As the war could be defined as an international plaything between the superpowers, particularly in the competition between the Soviets and the Chinese, Ché suspected – rightly, I believe – that the Soviets were lurking in the shadows of the decision to withdraw support from the rebels.  However, Colonel Hoare was able to convince the ANC commander (and also future President) Joseph Mobutu, that the contracts with his foreign troops be honored until their expiration. 

The worst development on the ground was that Hoare’s ANC troops were now quickly closing in and, even though Ché was generally aware of their approach, the front was caught unprepared and collapsed.  His base camp was overrun because he failed to establish observation posts, and he lost valuable stocks of equipment and munitions.  He later lamented that he had fled too quickly, and had he established sentries and determined the position and approach of the enemy troops, he perhaps would have been able to ambush them (. . . 'perhaps').  "Personally, my morale was terribly depressed; I felt responsible for that disaster through weakness and lack of foresight."  (An interesting turn of phrase – he "felt" responsible.  No, he actually was responsible.)  Not only had the Congolese fled in panic, but many of his Cuban troops 'anticipated his orders' and had already withdrawn from positions along the route of retreat.  At one point, he found himself among his most loyal followers: "Me hizo la reflexión que éramos trece in numero.  Uno más de Fidel tenía en cierto momento, pero no estaba lo mismo líder." ("I reflected that we were thirteen in number.  One more than Fidel had at a certain moment [referring to the disaster after the Granma landing], but I was not the same leader.") 

Yet despite the bleak outlook, Ché was strangely able, along with the rest of the Cuban troops, to successfully exfiltrate the Congo in a dawn amphibious withdrawal across Lake Tanganyika into Tanzania and safety.  The combined Congolese forces possessed the capability of attacking the Cubans at this their most vulnerable time, but oddly did not receive orders to that effect and higher command did not respond to requests.  There is no definitive reason for the failure to capitalize on this golden opportunity, but I strongly suspect that Congolese politics, seeking to play both sides, was the main culprit.  At any rate, all the Cubans eventually returned to Cuba. 

But not Ché, at least not yet.  He was in a wretched state of health and was to remain for a month in Tanzania, and then for several months thereafter in the care of the Cuban embassy in Prague, in recuperation.  Cuban officials and physicians helped him in the recovery of his physical and mental health; he was visited by his wife.  And he began to plot his next move. 

Another telling note during this time deals with his lack of operational security.  A safe house had been obtained for him during his stay, in the village of Ládví on the outskirts of Prague, in an area that had been used to shelter a number of Latin American revolutionaries in the early 1960s.  But he would leave to eat in restaurants within the local area or walk in the park, his only disguise being a shave and a haircut.  Among the succession of companions (or handlers) who would stay with him to keep him occupied – and try to dissuade him from other plans – was an Afro-Cuban named Ulises Estrada, the Cuban who had been the director of the Africa desk under Manuel Piñeiro Losada, the director of the Dirección General de Inteligencia (DGI or the General Intelligence Directorate), the Cuban KGB as it were.  (Besides his party loyalty and ability, the main reason for choosing Estrada for the position seemed to be his skin color; he had never been to Africa and had no ties, academic or otherwise, to the continent and its culture.)  Estrada noted Ché's disenchantment with the place: "Everything is dull here, grey and lifeless.  This is not socialism – it is the failure of socialism."  But Estrada went on to say that, as a black man in central Europe, he drew too much attention to them when they were in public – the waitresses always wanted to touch his hair – and that Ché began to feel that someone else should accompany him on his outings.  During this time of Ché's disappearance, publicly proclaimed by Cuba, the talk of the political circuit (and whose location was the main target of any intelligence service worth the name), it is intriguing that it took some time for it to dawn on Ché that appearing publicly in an area known for housing Latin revolutionaries, of which he was the prime example, speaks volumes about his lack of situational awareness or professionalism. 

But what to do with Ché, and what were his plans?  There are indications that he tried to open communications with Fidel, but was kept at arms' length.  Other reports indicate that Ché had to be talked into returning to Cuba.  Fidel knew well the goal of Guevara in leading a revolution in his native Argentina (the two had apparently agreed years ago that Ché would eventually led the effort there), and Ché wanted to bypass Cuba altogether, still angry about Fidel's revelation of his letter, and strike out directly to Argentina.  The answer likely includes all scenarios.  But during this time in Prague, his next steps were being formulated for him in Havana. 

At this time there was still strong revolutionary excitement throughout Latin America despite the setbacks that had been suffered, caused in no small part by the competing factions within the Communist movement itself, each country having its versions of Stalinist, Trotskyite, Maoist or other forms, further riven by vanguardists, syndicalists, anarchists, syndico-anarchists and the like.  But Cuba was trying to forge a Cuban movement for these incipient wars of liberation, separate from the express control of Moscow or Beijing, much to the ire of the superpowers.  Possibilities still existed in several countries, and Fidel at least wanted to portray to Ché that he was considering the Argentine option, but he was also well aware of the particulars of Ché's failure in the Congo and knew that the Argentine army was a far more formidable opponent than the ANC.  Another attempt now would likely have Ché meet the same fate as Masetti.

Ché had relented about his determination that he could never return to Cuba, and had been smuggled back under great secrecy, reconciled that he could best return to the cause of spreading revolution throughout Latin America with the help of the Cubans.  The US was by now clearly increasing its attention and support of Viet Nam – it was easy to foresee the direction that this would lead – and Ché said in 1966 that he wanted to create "two, three, many Viet Nams".  All the actors now assembled in Cuba whittled the possibilities down.  Fidel convinced Ché that Argentina had to wait.  There was some serious consideration of Peru, but the target for the next Cuban adventure, which included a solution to what to do with Ché, was modified into a more conservative, intermediate target of Bolivia. 

There are a number of contentions about how that answer came to be, not just from historians but from the actors themselves, whether through first- or second-hand accounts.  Some will continue to search for a precise answer as to how that decision was made but I believe that to be a fool's errand.  It is not a matter of trying to decipher which account is correct – they all are to one extent or another.  The varying stories reflect the haphazard manner that the Cuban regime used to arrive at the decision, and it is my opinion that Bolivia just happened to surface at the right moment in the decision-making process. 

Bolivia was chosen for several reasons, not the least of which was its geographical location in the central, land-locked interior of South America, bordering on five countries to which a successful Bolivian revolution could be expanded, including Chile, Peru and the still-beckoning Argentina.  Those in Cuba planning the next move, and this eventually included Ché, saw the added advantage of the poverty of the peasants compared to other countries in the region, and a military that was moribund after years of atrophy under the Leftist regime.  But it was the initiative of Bolivian Communists which helped drive the decision. 

The Partido Comunista de Bolivia (PCB, the Bolivian Communist Party) was as divided as those within the other countries.  Mario Monje Molina was its General Secretary, yet there was a Maoist off-shoot that had separated from the party, led by Óscar Zamora Medinaceli.  Monje and a small delegation had been invited to Havana for a major conference in early 1966, but he discovered that Zamora was invited as well, and with a larger delegation.  Monje believed that he was being out-maneuvered by the Cubans or the other Bolivians, or both.  After all, he had assisted Cuba with the delicate matter of smuggling elements of the Peruvian ELN from Cuba back into Peru without the knowledge of the Peruvian Communist Central Committee, so he was fully invested in Cuban machinations and knew about their exploitation of party divisions, and he had helped to set up the abortive Masetti operation.  Yet Zamora was an acquaintance of Ché and Monje knew that Ché leaned more to a Maoist orientation over that of the Soviets.  (I earlier mentioned Colonel Alberto Bayo and his Maoist influence on the training of the 26th July Movement during their time in Mexico.  Bayo went on to participate in the revolution, eventually rose to the rank of General and continued to be a distinct influence on the thinking of Ché.) 
 
The ever-dapper Alberto Bayo, in uniform
 
Monje had deduced that Ché had been in Africa and had now returned, and that a move was afoot to re-examine Latin America.  Bolivia must be the next possible step, for why else, in Monje's mind, would the Cubans be interested in Zamora?  If the Cubans were to set up a foco movement in Bolivia, he had to be the one who controlled it – either that, or he lost power completely.  Monje was able to politically co-opt the Bolivian option by convincing the Cubans, accelerating their choice behind closed doors as it were, that Bolivia was the best prospect for a revolution and moreover that he and not Zamora was the better choice for cooperation and success.  He encouraged and agreed with the Cuban estimates of how ripe the country could be in an effort to stay in control of operations within his own country, whether he actually believed his assurances or not. 

It is clear that Ché and the Cubans did not adequately analyze the current conditions of the country and the region.  It was true, for example, that Bolivia had suffered from an embarrassing military history, having lost the War of the Pacific and its coastline in 1883, and more recently the devastating Chaco War in the early 1930s against Paraguay (fought near the same region in which they were to later find themselves).  The Bolivian military of 1967 was not adequately trained, particularly for counter-insurgency, and had lacked an adequate focus or mission, but the military maintained contact with the people through a variety of civic action projects which gained the support of the campesinos, in contrast to the internal security police mission like the batistianos of Cuba.  The army suffered from the fact that the Leftists had gone so far as to abolish it for several years before it began to be reconstituted as something along the lines of the US Works Progress Administration.  The military thus remained a popular force in Bolivia (other than the occasional suppression of miners' demonstrations), but the Cubans could not conceive of the distinction between their experience and what was true in Bolivia.  Ché failed to anticipate the reaction of the military to the threat that he imposed once his presence became known, and its determination to redeem its honor in the field. 

Having lost the Chaco War, the Bolivian political culture took a hard accounting of itself and entered into a period of a slow but steady reform movement, which culminated in a popular revolution in 1952.  (Ché's visit in 1953 set in his mind his perception of Bolivia's revolutionary atmosphere.)  Progress had foundered somewhat by the early 1960s, (e.g., industries and properties that had been nationalized were being turned over to political cronies or were effectively taken over by the unions) and it was the idea that the revolution was fading, emphasized by Monje and others, that helped draw in the Cubans.  The President was René Barrientos Ortuño, the former Chief of the Bolivian Air Force and Vice President, and it is true that he had seized power in 1964 in the rather typical fashion of a coup.  But he had taken power with the intent of returning to the reformist ideals and took on the powerful mine workers union which held the economy hostage.  Barrientos was immensely popular and charismatic, and he went on to be formally elected President in 1966.  With the election, the general attitude in Bolivia was that it was seeing a true beginning of a democratic government, and he also began an effort to reconstitute and revitalize a proper military.  The Cubans, and Ché as the main actor in the enthusiasm to establish a foco there, failed to take this into account. 

Little information of precise detail exists of Ché's secret sojourn in Cuba, but he soon set about training a group of his hand-picked men and some few Bolivians for this next operation, with all information at the time filtered through Piñeiro and the DGI.  As to Bolivia itself, Cuban and allied Bolivian agents there set about to select and create the initial base.  Areas north of La Paz and near Cochabamba were seriously considered, and the training in Cuba was conducted in an area that resembled the Alto Beni region in the northeast that Ché preferred.  But at the last moment, the target area shifted to the southeast, presumably because the population density there was smaller.  The idea was to facilitate training the indigenous Bolivians in a secluded area and integrating them into the foco.  There is some evidence that the choice was a fait accompli foisted by his advance team in Bolivia, but Ché accepted the choice without any real understanding of the area other than a distant remembrance during his travels through the country as a young man.  He was disappointed in the selection and his agents – there doesn't seem to be any direct source that establishes the responsibility for the change – but he acquiesced nonetheless. 

Ché also struggled about whom he could depend on for support – Monje, Zamora, or even the Cuban apparatus that had proved so ineffective in helping him in the Congo.  Ché's isolation phase for planning, so important for security and focus, was primarily directed at the fact that he didn't trust his own Cuban intelligence service, but he instead tried to develop a structure completely his own based on his military veterans.  These were men he had fought alongside in the Sierra Maestras and the Congo, some of whom had risen to high rank and secure positions in Havana.  But they too felt that they were tied to a desk, and jumped at the chance to return to their true nature – field soldiers in the revolutionary vanguard.  Ché could depend on these close allies as opposed to political or intelligence operatives – all the more reason for his disappointment in the choice of the new area by members of his team.

One of Ché's contacts in Bolivia (who became one of the more celebrated ones in the subsequent history of the campaign) included an Argentine/German woman named Haydée Tamara Bunke Bider, whose code name was "Tania" (the source for the nom de guerre for Patty Hearst during her celebrated kidnapping).  Ché had met her several years before when she was a translator for him on his first trip to East Germany, and she moved to Cuba in 1961 to participate in the new Cuban society.  Their paths crossed on occasion, and she was one of his visitors during his stay in Czechoslovakia.  She remained quite smitten with him, and some evidence ('informed rumors' would perhaps be a better description) indicates that the two were occasional lovers, but we do know from her recovered letters that she was particularly fond of Estrada.  She had attracted the attention of the Cuban authorities who were impressed by her enthusiasm for the revolution and her efficiency, and she received intelligence training under the direction of Estrada and Dariel Alarcón Ramírez ("Benigno"), a comrade of Guevara and one of the veterans of the Sierra Maestra and the Congo.  As the Bolivian network took shape, Tania by then had been living in La Paz for a year, building up a collection of contacts, securing the proper documents from the government, and awaiting instructions.  There are also stories from seemingly credible sources that she was also trained by and was in contact with the Soviet KGB or the East German Stasi – a double agent within the Communist bloc – but some doubts arose after searching through the purportedly open files of those agencies after the collapse of the Soviet empire.  (I believe the jury is still out on the extent of her contact with the Communist European intelligence services.  The files of the former Warsaw Pact agencies have produced some interesting information, but they are subject to political manipulation (the Alger Hiss case, for example).  While Soviet and East German files – the ones referenced, at least – may be silent, the Czech StB security service knew of her and assisted her.)

Iconic photo of "Tania"
 
By early November 1966, the infiltration of the Cuban band into Bolivia had started, with Ché again travelling in disguise as he had before in the Congo, this time taking the codename "Ramón".  Among those Cubans who joined him were Benigno, Juan Vitalio Acuña Nuñez ("Joaquín"), Rolando Quindela Blez ("Braulio"), Harry Villegas Tamayo ("Pombo"), Carlos Coello ("Tuma"), Jesús Suárez Gayol ("Rubio"), José María Martínez Tamayo ("Ricardo"), his brother René Martínez Tamayo ("Arturo"), Orlando Pantoja Tamayo ("Antonio" - no relation), and Leonardo Tamayo Núñez ("Urbano"), close and trusted associates for years and veterans of such movements as the Congo, Viet Nam, Peru, Guatemala, Argentina, and "elsewhere".

Construction had already started on the base camp called Casa de Calamina (for those with Google Earth) that was established in the seasonal river valley of the Ñancahuazú, about fifty miles north of Camiri and near the small village of Lagunillas (which became the interface for their supply system), in a particularly inhospitable area that formed the transition from the dry plateau to the west and the jungle area of the Chaco border region with Paraguay to the east.  It essentially combines the worst aspects of both.  It is a densely forested area, with rocky hills forming series of north-south valleys that are choked with twisted trees and dense undergrowth.  Streambeds and some riverways, including the Ñancahuazú, are empty through the dry season; there is little wildlife and edible native vegetation to sustain such an enterprise, and the mosquitoes are legion.

Another indication of a lack of proper advanced planning was that the area was not as devoid of people as they had thought.  This included a neighboring farm near the entrance to the property.  The comings and goings of the steadily assembling unit could be easily seen, as they were stocking supplies and building the encampment and outlying storage structures, with caves for hiding equipment and a small field hospital.  The foreman of the farm began to be bothered by the activity conducted by the "foreigners", which by January 1967 consisted of fifteen Cubans and only nine urban Bolivians, including the brothers Roberto and Guido Peredo Leigue ("Coco" and "Inti", who began construction of the camp and its dispersed caches, and would prove important to the band) and a Japanese/Bolivian named Freddy Maymura, who had all trained in Cuba.  They would be joined shortly by three Peruvians foisted upon Ché (he felt that their arrival was premature as they were overly anxious to begin a foco in Peru).  They were associated with the Bolivian Rodolfo Saldaña ("Gabriel"), a member of Che's band who had assisted the Cubans in Peru and Argentina, and were delivered by Tania.  The Peruvians included Juan Pablo Chang Navarro, a myopic 'separated-at-birth' clone of Mao Zedong and one of the original leaders of the ELN.  (Chang would later seem to be one of the inspirations for the Maoist Abimael Guzmán, a professor of philosophy and founder of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a particularly vicious terrorist group in Peru).

Urbano, Miguel, Marcos, Ché, Chang (el Chino), Pacho, Coco
 
Further, the target population of the area were not landless campesinos who were ripe for revolution, but rather indigenous settlers who had benefitted from land reform already underway, or they were finding jobs in the new oil fields around Camiri.  While Bolivia had an underclass that still suffered in comparison to other Latin American countries, the mood there was one of steady progress.  Rather than disenfranchised peasants fighting the status quo, instead they were small landowners and workers who had in mind that they were becoming part of it.  The peasants in Cuba had had nothing really to lose, but the settlers in the area around Ñancahuazú did.

One of Ché's frustrations in the Congo was a lack of language skills and the inability to communicate directly with the natives.  Ché had to speak to his interpreter, Freddy Ilanga, in French, whereupon Ilanga would translate into Swahili or Rwandan, a particularly constricted and clumsy method of communication.  (Ché spoke passably fluent French, taught him by his mother.)  While Spanish is widespread throughout Latin America, by and large correcting this shortcoming, it is not universal.  With a plan for connecting with the poor native population of Bolivia, Ché instituted a crash course in Quechua, the most widely spoken language of the indios, spoken primarily in the Altiplano to the west in the Andes.  Nationally, an understanding of Quechua (the language of the Incas and also the name of its people) was considered necessary to provide a level of trust with the natives, and also showed an indication of solidarity with important native-dominated labor unions, such as the miners in this mineral-rich country.  (The mother of President Barrientos was a Quechua and he spoke the language fluently, which contributed immensely to his popularity among the indio constituency.)  This was to provide benefits as the foco expanded, but Ché failed to realize that the natives in the area of the Ñancahuazú didn't speak Quechua, but instead spoke the completely different language of Guaraní, the native language of the tribes of nearby Paraguay.

Ché was too clever by half in preparing to bond with a native culture, only to find that he was immersed in another one entirely, one that was already distrustful of the outsiders of their own country, much less so many from other countries.  While they are certainly familiar with Spanish, the language as spoken in Latin America can vary distinctly from one country to the other, with different idioms and accents (and this certainly applies to Cuban Spanish).  The Guaraní are an insulated culture and the appearance of the brash and superior Cubans would be about as welcome as a New Yorker in New Braunfels.  This was another self-imposed handicap brought on by a combination of lethal ignorance; a severe inability to plan, communicate and coordinate the correct priorities; and boundless, unrealistic optimism.

Ché also repeated a mistake that he acknowledged that he had made in the Congo.  His dramatically secret travels to Tanzania to create the Cuban fighting force for the Congo meant that he materialized unannounced in the midst of the Simba forces.  As he wrote: "Decidí, pues, presentar un hecho consumado y actuar de acuerdo a como reaccionaran ante mi presencia.  No se me ocultaba el hecho de que una negativa me colocaba en una posición difícil, pues ya no podría regresar, pero también calculaba que para ellos sería difícil negarse.  Estaba realizando un chantaje de cuerpo presente." ("I decided, then, to present a fait accompli and act according to their reaction.  There was no doubt that this placed me in a difficult position, because I couldn’t return at that point, but I calculated that it would be difficult for them to deny me.  I was intimidating them ('creating a blackmail') by my sudden physical presence.")  But Ché's reckless independence and insistence that the foco be practically an entity unto itself led him to infiltrate his team into Bolivia without the knowledge of Monje or the other Bolivian players.  By the time that Monje was told that Ché was in country, the base camp was already constructed and the initial guerrilleros were in place there, which surely heightened Monje's already elevated suspicions as well as irking his sense of propriety.

Ché's narcissistic optimism was also seen in his idea that he would exploit the differences between the Bolivian Communist factions by drawing them together for the good of the revolution – under his direction, naturally.  Through them, he would gain access to support from both Moscow and Beijing.  This would expand the capabilities of his own small band of urban supporters emplaced in La Paz, Santa Cruz and Sucre.  He had already side-stepped Zamora of the Maoist faction and instead recruited Moisés Guevara (no relation) from yet another Maoist splinter group, and one with ties to the mine workers union.  In fact, Moisés was already part of his band at the camp and had convinced some of his fellow mine workers to join him.  All Ché had to do was to convince the pro-Soviet Monje to throw in with him in like manner.  Ché's force of personality, in his mind, would be sufficient to reconcile the two factions.
 
Monje and Guevara at Ñancahuazú
 
Monje was brought to the camp at the end of December 1966 and Ché was prepared to make his pitch.  After a tour of the camp and a discussion of the training plan and next steps, Monje instead presented the key question of command.  Monje told Ché that the insurrection must be under Bolivian control, which meant that Monje was to take charge under the aegis of the Bolivian Communist Party.  After all, it was his country and the Cubans were outsiders.  He had picked up on the tension that was already being felt among the Bolivians, that the Cubans were being paternalistic in their leadership roles.  Ché refused, telling Monje that his (theoretically reasonable) point was unrealistic, and that his foco didn't need the support of a party – it was the party for the purpose of the revolution.  As the foco expanded, the Bolivians would be given more responsibility commensurate with their proven abilities, but Ché was going to be the military commander and he was adamant.  His journal records that on this point "no podía aceptarlo de ninguna manera.  El jefe militar sería yo y yo no aceptaba ambigüedades en esto.  Aquí la discusión se estancó y giró en el circulo vicioso." ("I would not accept it in any way.  The military commander would be me and I would accept no ambiguities in this.  Here the discussion stalled and spiraled down in a vicious circle.")  Monje addressed the Bolivians there at the camp to seek their support, but they all agreed to remain loyal to Ché.  Monje departed, declaring the question unresolved.  He appealed to Fidel, but whatever steps Fidel took to correct the impasse were ineffective.  Monje soon quietly withdrew his support, adhering more to Moscow than to Havana, and left the insurgents to twist slowly in the wind.  This was one of the more important events that was to seal the fate of this forlorn hope of revolution.

If Ché eventually expected the Maoist faction represented by Moisés to come through with increased aid, that didn't happen either, at least not to the extent that it was materially helpful.  Moisés was able to add some few recruits to the band but his connections to the Chinese were too tenuous and fragile, certainly for the time frame of the expedition.  Ché was soon reduced to basically depending on his own Cuban network.
 
The Bolivian contribution of recruits to the guerrillas came to a quick halt.  What Ché eventually ended up with were some unemployed mine workers brought in by Moisés, some friends of Coco, and a few of the inevitable starry-eyed college students.  None of them were considered party stalwarts; rather they were "marginal types" who were drifting away from the party bases anyway.  There were never more than about 30 Bolivians, and none of them all at the same time.

Another bad omen came in January with the sudden arrival of a Bolivian police detachment.  The neighboring farmer, suspicious of the foreigners from the beginning, alerted the police that he thought they were processing cocaine.  After a vigorous inspection of the camp, which required some repair afterward, the detachment departed, temporarily satisfied but now fully aware of the presence of the site.  

Ché accelerated the training of the guerrilleros, feeling that they had accomplished whatever training that could be performed at the camp.  Now was the time to harden the men by performing a long-range patrol, actually more of an expedition, into the surrounding area in order to familiarize themselves with the terrain and to make contact with the natives and begin to recruit support from them.  Ché designated Joaquín as his second-in-command and they set out on their march that was planned to be for 25 days, but it turned into an Odyssey that lasted for 48.

Within several days it became obvious that the group, including Ché, was not physically up to the task.  The rocky and choked terrain and the mosquitoes took their toll, and signs of malaria began to plague them.  The weather became violent – two men were swept away to their deaths and valuable supplies were lost when they tried to cross torrential rivers.  The charts proved to be inadequate and they became lost most of the time.  Like in the Congo, his communication equipment was heavy, awkward and unreliable, and by the end of February he was no longer able to transmit long range.  Scrounging for food off the land proved to be particularly difficult and ended up absorbing most of their attention and time.  Ché's leadership skills proved to be insufficient to the task.  Rather than being a unifying experience, it instead increased the tension and division within the unit.

It is also worth questioning Ché's leadership and decision-making in his idea to undertake this ordeal in the first place.  Certainly the training program to that point, which couldn't have been much more than a month, would have included some short-range patrols within an easy distance of the base camp in order to familiarize themselves with the area, since the basic fundamentals such as formations, hand and arm signals, immediate action drills, and the like would have been addressed in their Cuban training.  Ché would have been engrossed in his usual political ideology classes for the Bolivians, and attending to the details of his end of the support network.  But after so short a time, why did he strike out on such an ambitious expedition?  It is understandable that he would extend the range of his previous patrols.  That makes sense – to conduct squad-sized patrols, with the Cubans leading and the others learning, to conduct reconnaissance of the surrounding area, gaining an understanding of how to ration their food and water supplies and how to live off the land, or even if they could.  But this giant leap into the unknown, in the middle of the rainy season, with charts that he already held suspect, is nothing short of reckless.  And other than Coco, who he left behind to guard the camp and attend to affairs, why did he take the entire contingent?  He pushed all his chips forward in nothing short of a high-stakes gamble, something that only a rookie, and a not very smart one at that, would be guilty of undertaking.

I wrote earlier about questions of whether Ché suffered from a personality disorder.  This is one of the clearer indications, among many others, of what a therapist would call super-optimism.  Ché's demand always to be in charge, habitual arguing with even the highest of authority figures, lack of trust (though not necessarily to the point of paranoia), his love of the power of life and death, his habit of rushing headlong into situations and expecting that all would turn out right through the sheer force of his personality – these and others are all indications of someone with a severe narcissistic personality.

During this slog through the wilderness, it also became obvious that his plan to recruit the campesinos to the foco or to at least gain their tacit support was a non-starter.  Even the Bolivians in the unit had little knowledge of Guaraní and communication was practically reduced to hand gestures.  What communication there was showed a populace that was curious or frightened about the band of guerrilleros but who had no interest or commitment to the cause.  In fact, during the entire campaign, Ché was unable to recruit a single campesino.

The patrol finally found their way back to the Ñancahuazú and stumbled back into camp on 20 March, only to confront two major troubling events.  During their prolonged absence, a small contingent of Bolivians recruited by Moisés had arrived and Coco had taken them in to await the long-delayed return of the patrol.  Within a few days, two of them became disenchanted and deserted, making their way to Lagunillas only to be picked up by the police who were attracted to the fact that they were trying to sell their rifles.  Questioning quickly yielded details of the camp and its purpose.  The Bolivian Army 4th Division, headquartered in Camiri, was alerted.  They were already aware of the site from the previous visit in January, and dispatched aerial surveillance and a unit to investigate, which arrived at the site on 17 March.  The residents scattered at their approach, but the soldiers swept through the camp to discover quite a number of photographs and documents, including Braulio's diary.  The unit returned to Camiri with the added bonus of another captured Bolivian recruit.

The other problem simply compounded the first.  Tania had proved to be a major linchpin in the support network for the guerrillas and had undertaken several trips from La Paz to the camp to bring supplies and information.  Ché had already warned her that her journeys were exposing her to the possibility of arousing the curiosity of the authorities, and that she should curtail them as much as she could.  But she had also been responsible for travelling to Argentina to pick up two contacts for Ché.  Ciro Bustos, an Argentine artist, was responsible for the background preparations for the eventual move of the foco into Argentina (he had been involved in the Masetti expedition) and Ché wanted a report of his progress.  Régis Debray was a French darling of the Left, a radical theoretician and author of a book pandering to Ché's foco theory.  He had met Ché during his tenure as a professor of philosophy at the University of Havana, and he was serving as a conduit for messages between the foco and Havana, and thence to other contacts.  Otherwise, he was there for apparently no other reason than to kiss the hem of Ché's garments.

Tania had brought the two to Camiri, where they linked up with Coco.  Counter to Ché's wishes, she accompanied them to Ñancahuazú.  She apparently had some matter to coordinate with Ché (or some would say that she just wanted to see him), and it seems that she thought that she would return to Camiri soon after.  The "Long March" had not returned though and they had to wait, but while there they heard bad news about a major breach of security.  Tania had left her jeep in Camiri and it had been discovered by the police.  Packed inside were documents and information about the foco and a list of her contacts.  She could no longer return and was compelled to stay with the guerrillas.

There has been some argument about this boneheaded mistake on her part, and includes speculation that Tania had done so deliberately, directed to sabotage Ché by other handlers.  The argument goes on to deny that a highly trained operator such as she would not have committed such a rookie mistake.  The story expands to speculate about who exactly would have told her to leave this important cache of information to be discovered, whether Cuban or Soviet or other, and why.  But consider that she was trained in her espionage craftwork to operate in an urban area, involving disguises, forgeries, dead letter drops, 'recruiting' agents, and other clandestine skills, and yes, she received a lot of attention in her training, and she was bright.  But in this she was out of her element, away from her support structure and on her own between La Paz and Ñancahuazú.  Espionage operations in a capital city are very different from tactical counter-intelligence in the field.  In her partial defense, some of the accounts have her leaving the car parked on a street or along a jungle road, but in actuality, she parked it in a locked carport, but the owner of the building in that small city became suspicious and notified the police.  As for her participation in a plot against Ché: if she was trying to sabotage his effort, why then did she cast her lot with him?  She may have been bright, but her lack of discipline and inexperience tells me that, frankly, she just wasn't that good.

At any rate, Ché and the battered patrol returned to find that the site had been compromised and valuable information lost to the Bolivian authorities.  The new 'guests' – Bustos, Debray, and now Tania – would have to remain with the guerrillas for the time being.  Ché was infuriated, and he verbally berated Tania and her "feminine stupidity", bringing her to tears, but then dropped it.  His men were in too sad a shape to pick up and move immediately, suffering from a variety of injuries and maladies including malnourishment, sprained ankles, edema, malaria and just sheer exhaustion.   He elected to remain in place for them to recuperate until he could come up with a better plan, because I expect that he felt that he really had no other choice.

He was soon overtaken by events.  Just three days later on 23 March, a Bolivian patrol, tipped off by oil field workers who had spotted some of the guerrillas, was closing in on the base.  Rather than scatter again and hide until they left, Ché set an ambush.  The officer in charge of the patrol took a good idea and executed it at the wrong place, and the soldiers were pinned and overwhelmed on the banks of the river, surprised by the presence of a well-armed guerrilla force instead of a Bolivian version of moonshiners.  The fourteen survivors surrendered after losing six dead and they were stripped of their uniforms, supplies, weapons and ammunition and released.

This was celebrated by the guerrillas as a great victory coming at an important moment, and served to turn around the spirits of the dejected lot to some degree.  News of the event spread through some of the newspapers and radio stations in the area and Ché even had some proclamations printed in papers as far away as Cochabamba, but still no one rallied to his flag.  The band remained in the camp for another week and Ché knew that their time was up there.  The numbers added up to 17 Cubans, 23 Bolivians and three Peruvians, the high-water mark of his band.  Ché had previously said that he would need at least twenty Bolivians before he would initiate attacks against the army, but he was unimpressed and disappointed with the quality of the recruits, and he was beginning to accept that recruiting among the campesinos was basically a non-starter.  The area was sure to get busy if he stayed in place much longer as elements of the 4th Division were moving closer.  They left some supplies hidden in buried caches and on 1 April packed up and moved out.

By 10 April, they attacked the Bolivians at Iripiti, where the army lost 19 men, in what would prove to be one of their more successful engagements, though Ché laments the loss of his old friend Rubio.  Then an attack at nearby Gutierrez on 19 April.  These were both within a small area near to Ñancahuazú and I believe Ché was probably establishing the ruse that he could be found within a small radius.  He then set out south, past Lagunillas to the city of Muyupampa, west of Camiri, the southern extreme of their area of operations.  The guerrillas had come out the better in several skirmishes, but still lost casualties from a fixed number, whereas the Bolivians had an excess of soldiers for replacements. 

Ché was trying to solve two problems at once.  By now, his radio communications had deteriorated to the point where he could receive but not send.  Havana was in the dark about what was happening with the foco and Ché had to establish a link somehow.  He also had to rid himself of the non-combatant visitors who were eating his valuable supplies and getting on his nerves.  Debray in particular was irksome, because he had quickly seen that the glamour of fighting a revolution in the bush, with real bullets, was a mirage.  He broached the idea that he would be an important courier for the information that Ché needed to get out.  Debray would return to Paris to stoke media attention, by way of Havana to deliver the particulars of Ché's predicament.  Ché was convinced that Debray's contribution to the cause would best be served as a theoretician as opposed to a soldier.  Ché's sardonic entry in his journal reads "El francés planteó con demasiada vehemencia lo útil que podria ser fuera."  ("The Frenchman kept suggesting too vehemently how useful he could be on the outside.")  Likewise, Bustos had to return to Argentina and could provide a secondary means of communicating with Havana.  Tania, who was already burned as an agent of the foco, would have to remain for the time being.  Ché would decide later how to get Tania out of Bolivia and Chang back to Peru. 
 
Régis Debray, "an egocentric little hippie"
 
It was at this point that the tide, already beginning to ebb, turned steadily against the foco.  Ché split his force, leaving some 14 guerrillas north of the town with Joaquín, including the ones who were ill and slowing down the column, which by now included Tania, Moisés and another.  On 20 April Ché had taken his column of about 27 men and maneuvered to the south, in order to attack the town and provide a distraction for Debray and Bustos to peel off and exit the area.  He would then link up with Joaquín within three days and exfil together to the northwest.  Once Ché was in position though, he saw that the garrison there was more heavily fortified than he had thought. 

He was stymied, and then learned that another of his Bolivians had disappeared.  He was steamed about his predicament, holed up on a ridge reconnoitering Muyupampa below them and steadily detaining more and more peasants who walked along the nearby path.  A stranger suddenly strolled up to their perimeter and was in their midst before they quite realized it.  He introduced himself as George Roth, an English/Chilean journalist, though he soon volunteered that he was a Peace Corps employee out of Buenos Aires looking for a little adventure.  He said that he had been listening to accounts and figured that the column was heading in that direction, assisted by some children from Lagunillas in his tracking, and had awaited their arrival for a few days.  Roth and the Bolivian army had apparently read the tea leaves and arrived at the same conclusion, the reinforced garrison there likely confirming Roth's estimate.  Roth also told him that he had been to Ñancahuazú and had read through Braulio's diary, the first that Ché had heard of that indiscretion.  Ché was furious at that and how easily their location had been nailed down:  "Es la misma historia de siempre.  La indisciplina y la irresponsabilidad dirigiendo todo."  ("It's the same story as always.  Lack of discipline and irresponsibility taking over everything.") 

Debray appealed to Roth that he assist in smuggling him and Bustos out of the area with the cover story that they were all a party of journalists.  Ché was suspicious of Roth – his notes called him a "Greek present" – and questioned him about Buenos Aires, but then "washed his hands" of the problem and agreed to let Bustos and Debray leave with him after Bustos reluctantly agreed with the subterfuge.  (Debray said that Ché, an avid reader, gave him a list of books to be sent back to him.  One of the books was Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a sign that Ché intended to remain there for quite some time.)  The three walked into Muyupampa and were immediately arrested, as the column heard the following day. 

Bustos (rear) and Debray after their capture
 
Time was running out, and Ché had to move.  He couldn't attack the town, not with the reinforcements there now.  It was just a matter of time before the soldiers found his locations just as Roth and the children had, and they had already encountered some patrols.  He had detained several Bolivians who had stumbled upon his position and questions would be asked about their disappearance.  Army patrols in the area were increasing, and the capture of the three foreigners would yield valuable intelligence for the Bolivians, sooner rather than later. 

Ché bugged out.  His column was able to skirt around Muyupampa and head for Ticucha to the north-northwest.  Instead of the entire column trying to link up with Joaquín's, two men were dispatched to find him because the area was saturated with army patrols and they were subject to aerial surveillance.  They were unsuccessful, and when the link up didn't occur as planned, Joaquín packed up and departed as well. 
 
Both Ché and Joaquín then assumed that somehow they would find each other while wandering through jungle, where a man's span of control was little more than an arm's length, while avoiding open spaces and patrols by moving at night.  This was another major mistake of fundamental principles: Ché never thought past the main plan and provided no alternatives.  He established that Joaquín's position would essentially be an Objective Rally Point, but didn't provide for an Alternate Rally Point(s) in case the ORP was compromised.  This is part of basic patrolling techniques – always provide a back-up or alternate, rehearse as best you can, ensure that the plan is widely understood.  Ché did none of these things.  In addition, their patrol formations were lax: beyond a forward, center and rear element, there was practically no attention to anything other than the point; they rarely if ever used flank security or were conscious of security to the rear. 

The result after Muyupampa was that the two columns were doomed to wander throughout the area, ultimately comprising around 4000 square miles, for the next four months, and they were never reunited.  The Bolivian army later made attempts to try to reconstruct the meanderings of these two patrols, including the use of interrogations of the captured and defectors from Ché's foco as well as interviews with campesinos, with other evidence.  There were likely times when they were within a day, even hours, of each other.  There is even speculation that some of the instances of one of the columns taking a nearby patrol under fire and then breaking contact, were in fact examples of the two columns firing on each other. 

While Ché's force was staggering around with no support in a deteriorating situation, the Bolivian government was making rapid progress, though not as much as wanted by President Barrientos.  He suspected early on, and it was increasingly obvious, that news of an insurrection gathering in the southeast was likely caused or supported by the Cubans, and could conceivably be led by Ché.  He had to re-orient and invigorate his army, and he told the US Ambassador Douglas Henderson that Bolivia needed a massive overhaul of its military in terms of modernized equipment to meet the threat.  Henderson, though, had the stereotypical anti-military attitude of the State Department and resisted the request as well as attempts by the US military out of the Canal Zone to send a contingent of officers to study the situation.  In his talks with the Southern Command in Panama, he did meet and allow one officer, USAF Brigadier General William Tope, to travel to La Paz and make an assessment.  Tope proved to be an able diplomat with the Bolivian General Staff and convinced them that a small US presence would be the best way to start, emphasizing training over equipment (because "a poorly trained soldier can drop a modern rifle just as easily as a Mauser"). 

Meanwhile, the arrest of the three 'journalists' in Muyupampa was having its effect.  There was the immediate opinion among some of the Bolivians that they should be shot, with the excuse that they were killed in a cross-fire.  After all, as the reasoning went, they were disguised in their intentions and were actively supporting the foco, constituting an invasion of the country by a foreign military force.  Henderson strongly objected to Barrientos, and the situation was overtaken by the publication of photos of the captives.  (Roth was determined to have been incidental to the capture, playing a minor role, and was released at the end of July.)  Barrientos predicted to Henderson that the captives would prove to be a burden and their subsequent trials would be a media circus, and in this he was spectacularly correct.  The international media leapt on the story, waves of journalists descended on the country, decrying their restriction from the courtroom (which Debray had turned into a bully pulpit for his radicalism).  Debray's mother, a wealthy French socialite and bonne amie of Charles de Gaulle, held press conferences in Paris and La Paz.  The press failed to take note of the detailed collective letter written by some of the families of the fallen Bolivian officers and soldiers, who demanded that "the idealistic guerrilla and assassin Debray be judged by military justice and that he be condemned to the maximum penalty", nor did they notice the 'lynch mob' demonstrations in Camiri where Bustos and Debray were first held, as well as in other cities.  Barrientos published his reply to an appeal from de Gaulle, which included: "It is possible that there in France, and in your generous opinion, he may be considered a young and brilliant university student.  Unfortunately here, in Bolivia, we know him only as a meddling subversive gravely implicated in the assassination of twenty-seven soldiers, civilians, and officers of our armed forces, and as a theoretician of violence aimed at destroying institutional order." 

(The French Left were then, as now, a major force in the radical movement throughout the world, within and without the Communist bloc.  To paraphrase Christine Lagarde, the French are a people that will take an ideology and theorize it to death.  The French have culturally been partial to this bent, from the Reign of Terror and Committee of Public Safety, to the Paris Commune, through Parisian residents such as Karl Marx, Pol Pot and Ho Chi Minh, from the likes of Robespierre, Rousseau, Louis Blanc, Frossard, Fanon and Derrida.  They are particularly fond of any (pseudo)intellectual who speaks French, as did Ché, and Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre visited him in Cuba in 1960 to simper that "he was the most complete human being of our age".  It is no wonder that Debray in particular became the cause célèbre of the moment.)

The situation for Debray and Bustos quickly deteriorated in the light of the fact that they clearly soon turned on Ché.  Ignoring the debates about which of them 'betrayed' Ché, the fact is that both of them did, Bustos going so far as to give a press conference, and provided detailed information and hand-drawn maps.  Debray's cooperation was confined to back rooms but his cooperation was enhanced by testimony from captives that he had been carrying a rifle during their movement to Muyupampa.  It is clear, though, that both ultimately cooperated to a large extent, and their statements finally provided confirmation that Ché Guevara was leading the guerrilla movement and that it included precious few Bolivians.  In the end, they both received a sentence of 30 years in prison, though they were released after only three.

Debray did little to enhance his prestige during this time, and his wealthy background, intellectual poofery, and his knee-jerk defense by the Sophisticati portray him as sort of a French version of William Ayers.  Even C L Sulzberger of the New York Times called him "an egocentric little hippie".  In later years, though, he matured to some extent and provided a clearer aspect of his experiences, souring and turning on the Cuban revolution.  As to his memory of Ché, he provides in part a view of his leadership style as "not giving a damn really whether anyone understood him or not; not bothering to acquire the means to win the 'masses' over to his point of view, as politicians do.  Not even his own lieutenants: he never explained orders, briefed the men, asked them any questions or invited them to speak." 

As for the US military aid, it started with some helicopter support to improve Bolivian air mobility, and most importantly a Mobile Training Team comprising a 16-man (Operational Detachment) A team from the 8th Special Forces Group in the Panama Canal Zone.  The team arrived in late April and set about establishing a camp at La Esperanza in northern Bolivia to train the new Bolivian 2nd Ranger Battalion.  (Debray and Bustos were also moved to La Esperanza for safe keeping.  At no time were Americans allowed access to the prisoners.)  This mission is the raison d'être of the Special Forces – one A team can train one battalion of foreign troops, and they did an admirable job.  The Americans also helped to set up a military intelligence system where none had existed, and as the input of intelligence increased, the training of the Rangers was accelerated.  The general strategy was to have the Bolivian 4th Division in the south of the area and the 8th Division to the north, separated by the Rio Grande, keep the guerrillas hemmed in (which they were doing in an increasingly effective way) until the Rangers could hunt them down.  The agreement which set up the mission specified that no American troops would be utilized as "advisors" in a combat capacity and the Special Forces troops never operated beyond the La Esperanza area.
 
Major Robert Shelton, CO of the US 8th SFG(A) Mobile Training Team
 
Ché's diary entries for May and June show a strange dichotomy in comments.  On the one hand, his health was continuing to seriously deteriorate again.  He was seriously stricken with malaria in the Congo so it is not surprising that he was susceptible to a relapse in such a pestilential place as this, and his lifelong struggle with asthma was wearing him down again as he exhausted his supply of medication.  He is affected by the loss of Tuma, caught in a sudden crossfire and gut-shot, who dies slowly in his arms.  The environment and the weakened condition of them all, due to their exhausting treks and unreliable diet, was affecting the guerrillas and most particularly Ché.  In July, one of his notes says that his band had three disabled, "including myself".  By the end of the month, he loses two more men, including his old friend Ricardo (or "Papi"), as a result of a Bolivian army patrol surprising them in their camp (again, lack of posted security).

Almost every entry during this time includes some observation of his increasingly severe attacks of asthma, and he relies more and more on transport by mule.  He comments on a few middling exchanges of gunfire with the army with an unrealistic enthusiasm as to their significance, reminds himself that more recruits are promised from the PCB (unfulfilled), and includes such circular and superfluous observations as "La guerrilla va adquiriendo una moral prepotente y segura que, bien administrativa, es una garantia de éxito" ("The guerrilla movement is acquiring a secure and increasingly powerful morale which, administered well, is a guarantee of success"); for June he lists conclusions that include "Sigue sintiéndose la falta de incorporación campesina.  Es un circulo vicioso: para lograr esa incorporación necesitamos ejercer nuestra acción permanente en un territorio poblado y para ello necesitamos más hombres" ("The lack of incorporation of the campesinos continues to be felt.  It is a vicious circle: in order to achieve this incorporation we need to exercise our ongoing actions in a populated area, and for this we need more men").  Yet the very next line is "La leyenda de la guerrilla crece como espuma; ya somos los superhombres invencibles" ("The guerrilla legend grows like wildfire; we are already invincible supermen").  He seems incapable of distinguishing between the two positions. 

The next action of any consequence is a raid on the small army barracks at Samaipata on 6 July, his extension furthest to the north and about eighty miles from Ñancahuazú.  The raid caught the barracks and the town by surprise, taking place during daylight.  The guerrillas quickly overwhelmed the two police and eleven soldiers, stripped them of their clothes and weapons, and released them outside the town.  After a detachment acquired supplies from the town pharmacy, they quickly withdrew to the southeast.  The raid served no discernible military purpose but did accomplish some potentially important goals.  First, it was a relatively spectacular raid, occurring in front of the citizens in broad daylight, and gathered some publicity.  With the publicity, Ché must have expected that the lost column of Joaquín would take note and the two columns would try to close each other.  Perhaps most important, Ché hoped that his suffering from asthma would be alleviated with the new grab of medical supplies. 
 
Ché in the early days of the Bolivia campaign
 
As for publicity, the army was caught by surprise and the 8th Division staff was kicked into higher gear by the immediate attention of Barrientos.  Joaquín must have heard the word about the raid because his column started moving north.  Looking at the map, it is fairly easy to discern how the two columns could at least draw closer and increase the chances of discovering each other.  But as for the medications that Ché so desperately needed, none of the haul from Samaipata had anything of use to him.  All the more reason, then, for the column to move back into their original area.  Despite the fact that the Ñancahuazú camp proper had been compromised, there were still some hidden caches of supplies in the area which included a reserve of his asthma medications – Ché's last chance for the time being. 

But those chances would be dashed too.  Joaquín's column, pursued more ably by the army, was ambushed on 9 July.  They were able to flee the ambush zone but had to drop a lot of their gear which included more documents and photos that fleshed out the intelligence picture for the army.  The army continued in hot pursuit, and the next day killed a guerrilla and captured two deserters.  These two cooperated with the army and accompanied a detachment back again to Ñancahuazú where they gave up the location of all the remaining hidden caches. 

Ché was unaware of this development when he detached several of his guerrillas to move ahead at a faster pace in order to retrieve his medications as soon as possible.  But by 14 August, the "black" news on the radio told him that all the caches had been found.  "Ahora estoy condenado a padecer asma por un tiempo no definible." ("Now I am condemned to suffer from asthma indefinitely.")  He had already stabbed a mule in a fit of frustration and feuds kept erupting among the men, and the only good news was that his detachment was able to safely rejoin them, bringing his total now to 22. 

Joaquín's column, now numbering ten, was approaching the Rio Grande from the south by the end of August.  He asked a campesino about a place to cross the nearby Masicuri river, and the reply was to move upriver to a ford named El Vado del Yeso, where the water was only about waist deep.  But by the next morning, an army patrol passed by the same farm and the campesino told them of the guerrillas and the ford.  (Again, this is typical throughout the campaign.  The campesinos' reaction to the band of armed guerrillas appearing in their midst was an example of the dictum that 'acquiescence in the face of authority does not constitute compliance'.  They would tolerate the guerrillas despite their fear, or cooperate with the idea that it was in their best interest at the moment.  But they would freely disclose such information to patrols of the Bolivian army.) 

The information was quickly forwarded up the chain of command and the troops hastily displaced to the ford.  On the evening of 31 August, Joaquín's column attempted a crossing of the river, and as they were all wading through the water, they were caught in a V-shaped ambush.  It was over in a matter of moments; all were killed then or tracked down shortly thereafter, except for one captured and wounded survivor.  Among the dead were Joaquín, Tania, Braulio, and Maymura. 

It was here we see yet another serious failure of basic patrolling techniques, in crossing an obstacle.  Two or more scouts should first cross the river and reconnoiter the other side.  Once they determine that it is safe to cross, they then signal the remainder of the patrol still on the other side, and keep security until all have crossed over.  Joaquín, in quickly trying to ford his entire party all at once, easily doomed them all.  Yet again, these Cubans are extolled as battle-hardened veterans but they violated even the most basic rules of small unit tactics. 

Ché, still ignorant of this disaster, characterized August as the worst month so far in his journal notes.  What he describes is a unit completely demoralized, including himself.  Shortly afterward, he is rocked by the news of the destruction of the other column, and then in quick succession the news that the Cuban support network in La Paz and elsewhere in the country has been rounded up, victim of the hemorrhage of captured intelligence.  Ironically, the two columns were within a day of linking up.  On 1 September, Ché’s column crossed the river and passed through the farm of the campesino who had turned in Joaquín.  Ché withdrew once they discovered recent evidence of the army.

(This immense haul of intelligence treasure was from the variety of documents and photos gathered up from the camps, caches, dropped backpacks, captured guerrillas, poorly vetted deserters, and of course Tania's jeep – all from a collection of veterans who seemed incapable of withholding the merest of intelligence tidbits from copious journals ripe for the taking.  Despite the keen attention of the DGI and Ché in particular to such items of tradecraft as disguise and forgeries (and yes, they were obsessive about code names), this was more an effort befitting an espionage cell.  Tactical operational security was abysmally poor, including their almost compulsive need to photograph each other in the field, rivaling even the most camera-laden Japanese tourist.)
 
Tania as tourist, photographing photographer

Ché's column had by now been traveling almost due south toward the general area of where Joaquín's column ended up being destroyed, but then turned due west after hearing the news.  They were truly alone now, and they knew it.  Their only hope was to exit the area entirely and hope to evade the patrols, perhaps to find a means to hole up somewhere and try to get word to Havana, and west was the only direction left to them for that purpose.  Their condition had deteriorated to a point where they were slaughtering their pack animals, still conserving at least one so that Ché could still move.  He was so weak that his men had to place him in the saddle and take him down.  By the time that they had trudged into the higher and less forested area around Alto Seco, they had given up any pretense of maintaining a tactical formation, instead slogging along, weapons at sling arms, crossing open fields or following the road.  Ché's notes are increasingly detached in his observations, and he casually comments on how the campesinos flee at the sight of them. 

By 26 September, the group arrived at the town of La Higuera.  In fairly short order, they saw that the eerie quietness that greeted them, which was becoming an increasingly typical reaction to their appearance, was primarily the result of the fact that the town was practically deserted except for a small number of women – never a good sign in these circumstances.  Coco soon discovered a telegram to the corregidor (magistrate) that informed him of the presence of the guerrillas in the area.  Ché ordered that they should evacuate immediately and sent the vanguard out to clear the way.  It had already departed when the main body could see soldiers in the hills appear above them.  The point was taken under fire and three were quickly killed, including Coco – an important loss, and two of the Bolivians deserted and surrendered.  Three escaped and returned to the town, including a wounded Benigno.  Ché and the rest escaped into a nearby canyon and holed up in a piece of forested high ground, observing over the next several days how the army was closing in and surrounding them. 
 
 A map of the Bolivian odyssey (click to enlarge)
 
The Rangers were called into action.  Their training was curtailed (less than two weeks remained) and they were sent immediately to the area around La Higuera.  The battalion set about moving into blocking positions throughout the area, and patrolling to ensure that the guerrillas would not escape.  A Bolivian guerrilla named Camba had surrendered at La Higuera and most of the soldiers had an opportunity to file past him.  Captain Gary Prado Salmón, who would play a significant role in the operation, wrote of him: "Worn out, weak, and in rags, Camba inspired pity rather than fear, and his capture gave a lift to [the] troops . . . in contrast to the invincible image [the guerrillas] were trying to project."  Camba was unable to add intelligence during his questioning since, again, there were no rally points established for the guerrillas if they became separated. 

Soon, a campesino and an old woman came forward with reports of the guerrillas hiding in a rocky and brush-choked ravine called Quebrada del Churo (or Yuro, depending on dialect).  Captain Prado commanded a combined unit of elements of A and B Companies and deployed to the ravine.  He set up overwatch forces on the heights along the ravine and four blocking positions in the branches of the ravine outside of where the guerrillas were supposed to be, while he remained with some troops, along with a machine gun and mortar, at the mouth to the west.  By late morning on 8 October, the platoon to the north entered the ravine to close in on the Cubans and quickly came under fire, losing three men killed.  Targets for both sides were difficult to acquire and maintain in the ravine and the battle continued with intermittent shots back and forth.  Within a short time some of the Cubans tried to assault past Prado's emplacement to try and break out. 
 
Captain Gary Prado Salmón, 1967
 
Unfortunately for the guerrillas, they assaulted into the teeth of the machine gun team.  Two Cubans, Arturo and Antonio, were killed outright and the rest fled back into the ravine, most of them wounded.  Prado maneuvered more troops into the combat area to sweep into the ravine, and soon he heard a call from Sergeant Bernadino Huanca, commanding one of the platoons, that they had captured two guerrillas nearby.  Huanca later reported that the two were crawling out of the ravine within sight of his soldiers, rather than fading back into the ravine with the others, and when the soldiers drew down on them, Ché threw up his hands and waved, shouting "Don't shoot!  Don't shoot!  I'm Ché!  I'm worth more alive than dead!" 
 
Prado was there within moments (he remembers that it was "about 2:00 PM") and saw the two covered by the Bolivian soldiers, "disheveled, covered with dust, gaunt, and showing signs of great fatigue".  Prado recognized Ché from the descriptions and asked him his identity.  Ché answered, "I am Ché Guevara," in a "low voice", and shortly thereafter repeated his suggestion that he was worth more alive than dead.  The machine gun fire had disabled Ché's rifle and he had received a grazing wound to his right calf.  He had hobbled along with the assistance of Willy, one of his Bolivians, with whom he was captured. 

The two prisoners were bound and brought back to Captain Prado's position, where he radioed the news back to Headquarters.  Their wounds were attended to and Prado said that Ché seemed resigned, calm and almost relieved that it "was over", as Ché said at least twice, adding that "we have failed".  He was also concerned about what would happen to him next, as he also asked several times.  Prado, who was in no position to grant any guarantees, acknowledged as much but speculated that Ché would be transferred to Santa Cruz and the 8th Division HQ.  Ché continued to ask about a subsequent trial.  At one point, the Bolivian medic was attending to one of the wounded soldiers.  Ché asked Prado if he could help, and Prado asked him if he were a doctor.  Ché replied, "No.  First and foremost I'm a revolutionary, but I know medicine." 

Another point of contention is Ché's pistol, a Walther PPK.  His apologists have stated that his pistol was empty, or more precisely that Ché had "lost the magazine", in order to explain how he could have given up so quickly after telling his men repeatedly to fight to the death, specifically to fight "to the last bullet" (his exhortations witnessed by Benigno among others).  If the lost magazine story is to be believed, then I have two questions: (1) He only had one magazine? (2) He lost it?  Either one begs the question of his competence, but the fact of the matter is that those who were on the scene and who wrote reports afterward attest to the fact that the pistol was loaded when he surrendered.  The reason that the magazine was later missing when the pistol was examined is because the magazine was removed – “disarmed” – by the troops who captured him and kept him under guard. 

By twilight, Prado passed the word to cease fire and withdraw from the ravine, leaving a blocking force in place.  He was concerned that the oncoming darkness would add to the confusion in the choked ravine and he wanted "to avoid clashes among my own troops".  They would return and continue the next day (and in fact would kill two more guerrillas and capture two more).  Prado and his soldiers marched the prisoners some two to three kilometers back to La Higuera.  Prado writes of "several dozen campesinos" who had gathered to watch the battle and how "all the residents of the town were in the main street", some 200 in all, to watch the soldiers return with the prisoners, in stark contrast to how they had reacted when the guerrillas moved through their area.  Ché was placed in a room of the village school and Willy placed in the room next door. 

Prado would visit and talk with him "every half an hour for the whole night" since Prado said that he couldn't sleep anyway.  Ché had been demoralized before but began to "perk up" with some coffee and cigarettes (he used the tobacco for his pipe), and with the expectation that he would be spared for the purpose of a court-martial.  Ché was reticent to answer questions which would provide anything of intelligence value, replying with "perhaps" or "I don’t know", but would engage in political discussion.  Prado remembers asking him about his experience in trying to create a viable revolution in the Congo, and Ché replied, "You can't do it there because they're still hanging from the trees." 

Ché spoke of how the peasants in Bolivia were ignorant of their plight and of how their liberation was on the way, but Prado responded that he was raised in this area, and of how he had seen and visited with old friends and schoolmates during the campaign, and how "those bonds are stronger than the ones that [Ché] brought in from the outside".  Ché argued that Latin America will be caught up in "many deaths, a lot of bloodshed", but Prado responded "And isn’t there any other attitude, neither accommodation nor submission, but our own attitude – I mean the attitude of each country?  If we don’t like the Cuban model, that doesn’t mean that we are serving the Yankees." 

At another point, Ché spoke of the Bolivian Rangers being trained by the Americans and carrying American weapons, as showing how beholden they were to American imperialism.  Prado asked if it would be any different if he were trained by Russians, with Russian weapons, as was Ché's unit. 

Prado writes of other officers briefly questioning Ché, such as Major Miguel Ayoroa (CO of the 2nd Ranger Battalion), Colonel Joaquin Zenteno Anaya (CO of the 8th Division), and Lieutenant Colonel Andrés Selich (CO of the Engineer Regiment and commander of the troops involved in the fight at La Higuera), though they mostly confined themselves to examining captured documents.  Nothing out of the ordinary arose from these questions, though Ché showed signs of annoyance with Selich, an avid anti-Communist of Yugoslav background. 

Prado dismisses the account of Julia Cortés, who claimed to have brought a bowl of soup to Ché and who recounts a romantic depiction of him and an extended conversation that flies in the face of the other accounts and descriptions.  "She was too young to be a teacher.  If she were able to see him, she couldn't have spent more than fifteen seconds with him."  This is added to the other claims of women bringing him soup, and Ché would have had hardly any time to talk to anyone.  At any rate, La Higuera has developed into a third-world Ché theme park and any number of residents in this Guevar-a-rama, including Srta Cortés, beggar belief in their assorted stories of his sainted final day.  The proportional number of hawkers and witnesses rivals the pantheon of vendors of fresh relics around the Vatican.  There is also the story of how he spat in the face of an Admiral and kicked a Lieutenant, but both of these tales are traced directly (and only) to an article in Ramparts magazine, a 1960s radical-chic rag of purple prose extolling the upcoming Revolution, and which no one of any sense can take seriously.  There are other stories that have him spitting in a variety of faces.  The tales were made up out of whole cloth. 

Another major player in the accounts was Félix Rodríguez.  Rodríguez was one of several Cuban Americans who were assigned by the CIA as advisors to the Bolivian army.  Together with Gustavo Villoldo, both of them Cuban refugees and veterans of the Bay of Pigs, they were seconded to the Bolivian army to help create a military intelligence system where none had previously existed.  Villoldo remained at the forward displaced headquarters of the 8th Division at Vallegrande, and Rodríguez tells of ending up in La Higuera in the uniform of a Bolivian captain, arriving by helo with Colonel Zenteno at 7:40 a.m. on 9 October.  With other higher-ranking officers returning to action at the ravine early that morning, Rodríguez says that he was by default the ranking officer on the scene when the order was later received to execute Ché. 

While there are differing accounts (almost a feud, to some extent) between Prado, Rodríguez and Villoldo about the particulars of the events of that final day and what their respective roles were, all are in agreement, together with the accounts of credible sources, that the decision to execute Ché was ultimately from President Barrientos himself.  After the international media and diplomatic debacle of the Debray trial, the Bolivian government knew that a trial of Ché Guevara would be a catastrophic circus.  As Prado later said, "Can you imagine how the trial of Ché Guevara would be?  The trial would sentence him to 30 years of prison and where were they going to keep Ché for 30 years?  The jails here in Bolivia were a joke, absolutely useless; there was no place to keep him."

Rodríguez says that the American position was to keep Ché alive, to transfer him to the Canal Zone for interrogation, and he interjected this position several times when he relayed the execution order to Colonel Zenteno, but the Bolivians had their mind set, and Zenteno added that "he was well aware of the treatment that Fidel had meted out to Cubans".  It had already been announced over the radio that Ché had fallen in combat (Rodríguez was told as much by the same Julia Cortés) and he knew that the execution had to take place immediately.  Rodríguez finally relented: this was a matter for the Bolivian army, fighting a war on their soil against foreign invaders.  "It was their decision, their war, and he attacked their country, so it was their responsibility and I should not interfere with that, and I let history take its course."  Rodríguez had no authority beyond trying to represent the American position, and he preserved the sentiment of the old English saying that commends that one should always grant gracefully that which one has no power to withhold.  Despite the claims that the CIA were somehow masterminds in some sort of assassination of someone who, through some preposterous interpretation of the Rules of Land Warfare, was supposed to be a prisoner of war, the US government maintained throughout that Ché should be spared an execution, if for no other reason than his intelligence value.  Walt Rostow, the National Security Advisor to President Johnson, called the Bolivian order "stupid".
 
Félix Rodríguez, as a Bolivian captain, with the captured Ché Guevara
 
Rodríguez states that he had also spoken with Ché during that morning in a series of generally polite conversations.  Selich's notes has him in the room with Rodríguez, saying that it would be inappropriate for a foreigner to question Guevara alone, but Rodríguez does not mention anyone else.  When he found Ché he was filthy, "like a piece of trash", with matted hair, torn clothes and pieces of leather tied to his feet for shoes.  Rodríguez had hated Ché since the beginning and for good cause, but found the circumstance of sitting in the same room under those conditions strangely egalitarian.  It was he, claims Rodríguez, who first broke the news to Ché that he had done all that he could, but the situation was out of his hands.  Ché knew immediately what that meant, and blanched, but responded "It is better this way.  I should have never been captured alive."  Rodríguez said that Ché remained somewhat composed thereafter, knowing that his hope of a trial and his life being spared was a pipe dream from the moment of his surrender.  He had had time since then to ponder his situation, and provided an example of Samuel Johnson's observation that when one is about to be executed, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.  Here was the ultimate irony for Ché, responsible as he was for the executions of "a couple thousand" as he acknowledged to Rodríguez (though he shrugged them off as "imperialist spies and CIA agents"), and now he would have to live up to (for the time remaining) one of his quotes that he professed in times of cheap bravado: "Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome." 

The task for the execution was given to a volunteer, Sergeant Mario Terán.  Stories circulate about his role but most are interpretations that favor a political bent, and I rely here on the accounts closest to the event itself as likely more accurate, rather than the later embellishments.  For reasons of personal security, he later changed his name and assumed another identity – sort of a Bolivian witness protection program for obvious reasons.  There are claims of later interviews with him, including one by Ché biographer Jon Lee Anderson, but these cannot be corroborated and they are at the very least suspect.  (One celebrated story from 2007, circulated by the Cubans, purports to document his gratefulness at his sight being restored by Cuban doctors in Bolivia.  The photograph of the elder Terán does not, however, match up to the facial features of the archived photo of Sergeant Terán.) 
 
Sergeant Mario Terán, 1967
 
Some stories have Terán being ordered to shoot Ché, drawing straws, yet accounts of the time record how he was upset at having lost three of his compañeros in the fighting of the day before.  (Even Anderson, in his purported interview years later, tells how Terán still suffered from the loss.)  His anger would provide understandable justification for his role as executioner.  A declassified after-action report states that "Rodríguez told a sergeant of the order to execute Guevara and entrusted the mission to him.  He was told to fire below the head.  [Rodríguez later explained this was to give the semblance of a death in combat.]  The order was given to the sergeant at 1:00 p.m. and Rodríguez heard the shots fired at Guevara at 1:20 p.m."  (Rodríguez himself later recalls the time as 1:10.)  Some insist that Captain Prado passed on the order, including another declassified document that included an interview with a Lieutenant Espinosa of B Company, stating that "Cpt Prado gave the order to execute Guevara to Lt Perez, but he was unable to carry out the order and in turn gave it to Sgt Terran [sic], Company B."  Prado would say in later years that after his speculative conversation about the liklihood of a court-martial, he returned with his men early the next morning to continue operations in the Quebrada del Churo, and when he returned to La Higuera later that afternoon, he found that Guevara had been executed.

Sergeant Terán (the only witness henceforth) entered the room after fortifying himself with some beer or liquor.  (Prado insists that stories of wholesale drinking at the site are overblown and points out that the little town of La Higuera could hardly supply that much alcohol for a reinforced Ranger company and other attachments.)  Ché knew what was to happen, and stood up, saying that he was ready.  Terán paused for a moment, told him to be seated, then left the room to compose himself still further.  (Some casual observers interpret this as Terán's unwillingness to follow through with his orders.  I interpret this as Terán recognizing that shooting a man in combat is a far different affair indeed than shooting him in an execution.)  During this pause, Sergeant Huanca entered the room next door and executed Willy.  Terán then re-entered and confronted Ché, shaken by the shots next door but still composed. 

It is at this point that another myth takes off, which claims that Ché yelled at Terán "Shoot, coward!  You are only killing a man!"  The initial reports indicate otherwise.  Terán said that Ché had stood up again, facing him, but Terán told him to be seated.  Ché replied "No, I will remain standing for this."  Terán became angry and told him again to be seated, but Ché didn't move.  Terán records Ché's final words as "Know this now: you are killing a man."  Terán then squeezed off a burst, hitting him nine times and killing him. 

Rodríguez records that he heard "some angry words" from one of them before the shots were fired, which by Terán's account – the only one that is valid – would have been uttered by him, not Ché.  The last instruction from Ché was not a final insult hurled at his executioner, but instead should be taken as a directive that Terán should act with the full import of the moment and not make a mess of it.  Standing as Ché did not only presents a more honorable way to face one's executioner, but also assures that one is more open to a clean kill and avoids additional suffering.  With Ché's experience in La Cabaña, he would know this well. 
 
The bodies were flown to Vallegrande and subjected to an autopsy.  Argentine forensic experts were flown in and certified that Ché Guevara was indeed dead, and his body was cleaned and put on display so that the press and the world could see the proof.  Lying thus in repose, one of the reporters labelled the image as "Christ-like", a term which the press seems unable to resist whenever the photo is reprinted. 

Ché in final repose, with Gustavo Villoldo (right)

The Bolivian government wanted to rid themselves of the Communist relic of the slain revolutionary to avoid future spectacles.  Gustavo Villoldo said that he gladly took control of the body one night and, with the assistance of two Bolivians, buried it with two other Cuban cadavers in an unmarked grave off the Vallegrande airstrip.  Selich claims that he was in charge of the disposal.  Captain Mario Vargas Salinas, the division's intelligence chief and leader of the unit that ambushed Joaquín's column at the Vado del Yeso, was also present at the surreptitious internment, and it was retired General Vargas Salinas who later gave up the location.  The body was exhumed in 1997 and now resides in a shrine in Cuba, which gave Fidel another chance to bask in vicarious glory at its establishment. 
 
The reward poster for the five fugitives, "alive if possible"
 
As for the other guerrillas, some eleven were able to escape the encirclement in the Quebrada del Churo.  C Company of the Rangers tracked down some, killing six at Cajones and elsewhere.  Only five were able to escape Bolivia – three Cubans: Benigno, Pombo, and Urbano – as well as two Bolivians, Inti and Dario (David Arezola).  The group escaped through Chile with the assistance of Salvador Allende, later the Marxist president until his suicide during a coup (at the instigation of the legislative and judicial branches) in 1973.  Pombo and Urbano returned to Cuba and served with Cuban forces in Angola and Nicaragua, both rising to the rank of brigadier general.  Benigno, however, eventually became disillusioned with Fidel and defected to France, where he wrote a book bitterly denouncing Fidel and what the revolution had become.  Inti returned to Bolivia in 1969 to try to reinvigorate the revolution but was killed in September.  Dario likewise perished during an attack on a bank the following December. 

Salvador Allende welcoming Urbano, Benigno and Pombo
 
Some years after Benigno's defection, he met with Prado, and they discussed their mutual conclusions that Ché had been deliberately abandoned in Bolivia by Fidel. The helicopter pilot who brought Zenteno and Rodríguez to La Higuera, Jaime Niño de Guzman, also joined the lineup of people who claimed to have spoken to Ché in captivity and he also asserted in 1998 that Ché told him "several times" that Fidel had betrayed him.  At the same time, Niño de Guzman produced as partial evidence another small journal of drafts of exhortations that Guevara was working on at the time, which he said he received from Ché in gratitude for some pipe tobacco.  Rodríguez also indicates a similar sentiment from Ché during his conversation with him.  Fidel, of course, blames the Bolivian Communists and in particular Monje, and Guevara's widow Aleida calls Monje "ese feo indio" (that ugly Indian).

Today, the political pendulum in Bolivia has swung again and the government is led by the socialist Evo Morales, friend of Fidel and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.  It is Morales who is leading this resurrection of Ché as a hero, and Prado, now a retired General and former ambassador, says of the annual ceremonies and the monuments being erected in La Higuera and elsewhere, "We feel sick about this grand show that goes on every year on the anniversary of his death.  Rather than honor a man who came to invade the country, we should honor the armed forces, the soldiers who defended the country."  He goes on to say that the ceremonies are "an offense to the country's dignity."

As for the legacy of Ché Guevara, his revolutionary appeal and theories continued to occupy the attention of the worldwide military leaders and political panjandra for some time after his death.  I was mostly focused on his contributions to the subject of revolutionary warfare in the early to mid 1970s, when one may recall that the US military was very much involved with the subject of such warfare in jungle environments, not only in Viet Nam but also the rest of Indochina (Cambodia and Pol Pot were a particular interest of mine for a time) as well as a continuance of concern for Latin America and Africa, particularly Angola and Mozambique.  I maintained contacts through the years with various friends and academic acquaintances in such places as (what is now) the Expeditionary Warfare School, the Joint Forces Staff College, and the Naval War College.  I have met and spoken with two members of the original Special Forces detachment that was in La Esperanza and have spoken with officers of the Bolivian Army, and I had access to documents that were classified at the time.  All of the above led me to a variety of conclusions concerning Ché Guevara and his impact, which you have read throughout this article, but some bear some final illustrations. 

It should be apparent by now that my opinion is certainly not the one shared by the Sophisticati of the chattering classes.  Ché's allure still lingers among those who are swayed by the most superficial appeals, but one would be hard pressed to find a professional member of the military, in any country, who would argue that Ché made a valuable or even viable contribution to the art of warfare.  His book Guerrilla Warfare is hardly a ground-breaking exposition on the subject, long on laundry lists of how operations are performed, and derivative as it is from the thoughts of Mao Zedong.  I discovered this connection fairly early in my readings on the subject, independently, and enjoyed a slight personal conceit until I quickly discovered that I had been lounging on the shoulders of giants, as many others had arrived at the same conclusion.  A short time later, some others discovered a connection to the lessons of the Soviet-assisted Republican army of the Spanish Civil War, and that led me after further study to draw my conclusions about the impact of Alberto Bayo, particularly through Bayo's rather similar 150 Questions to a Guerrilla, an often simplistic slog that often reads like a militarized Boy Scout Handbook. 

I remember one particular study of his methods in which we did a statistical analysis of Ché's conclusion that an armed band (such as the survivors of the Granma landing), through a succession of growing attacks on larger enemy units as the band increased in size and support from the populace, could acquire over time a sufficient amount of weapons and ammunition to sustain the revolution.  While there was a chance that this is possible as it pertains to basic weaponry, we found that it is practically impossible to acquire enough ammunition through this means alone.  Outside support is vital to a revolution, for this and other means of support.

Another meme found frequently is how Guevara tried to replicate the results of the Cuban revolution through his foco theory, but the Cuban revolution did not occur as explained in contemporary official Cuban-approved history.  Castro and his movement did not create a revolution or the necessary situation for one, rather one was already in place.  Castro successfully hid his ideological bent long enough to gain support from a number of outside sources, including the US, and a number of Cuban sources other than the Communists, until he had gained and consolidated power.  He was then free to proclaim a Communist Cuba with the support of the Soviet Union, and his compays such as his brother Raúl, Ché Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos could openly declare how they had been Communists all along.  Castro did not create the core of his army from peasants; rather they were mostly middle-class and well-educated.  In short, for these and other reasons, Castro's revolution was not the go-it-alone, up-from-the-ashes overthrow of a weak dictator who was supposed to be identical to all other Latin American dictators.  The Castro regime, and particularly Ché Guevara, was a victim of believing its own propaganda.
For these reasons among others, it struck many of us that it was more than curious that Ché ended up violating practically every principle in his book, as well as basic military principles of infantry tactics, with his experience in Bolivia.  There was a widespread theory at the time that his boneheaded mistakes must mean that he didn't actually write the book.  I have come to the conclusion that he probably did, but it was likely heavily subjected to some generous ghost-writing.

But it wasn't until the 1990s that Ché's journals from the Congo became available to the public, which added another layer to the question of his competency.  Now we could see a fairly continuous line of Ché's involvement with the abortive insurrections in Latin America, his useless attempt in the Congo, and finally his abject failure in Bolivia.  It is a bland cliché now to say that insanity is the act of doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.  (No, actually that would be 'neurosis' or more accurately 'pathological perseveration', but you take my point.)  Throughout that time period, we can now see that Ché failed time and time again to learn and apply the basic and realistic skills and leadership of a military commander.  He was one who, through an almost pathological reliance on his good looks, charm, sophisticated language skills and his mediocre abilities, was responsible for the deaths of his enemies, real and perceived, and whatever allies who didn't survive long enough to have the benefit of abandoning him.

*****
A recent addition, in a lighter vein:

In an homage to the revolutionary icon, Cuba produced the song Hasta Siempre, Comandante, a Latin take on the heroic style, made popular in 2002 by a video recording by the French actress (that's two strikes) Nathalie Cordone.  In it she sings as a peasant girl, so poor that she can't afford buttons for her peasant blouse, who becomes inspired by the Passion of El Ché to the extent that she walks about the extended countryside and villages, carrying an infant and an AK-47, throwing haughty glances at the people who respond in downcast supplication (though I would expect that the Kalashnikov has something to do with that).
 
José Cónde

In response, the great Latin group José Cónde y Ola Fresca produced a delightful guajira variation of the melody, entitled El Chacal (de La Cabaña).  The lyrics and translation follow.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
 
 
 
Obligaron a ponerte                                       
En histórica altura                                          
Promovieron tu bravura                                 
Al mundo entero con tu muerte
              
Aquí se quedó tu cara                                    
En camisetas y postales                                 
No dicen todas las verdades                          
Del Chacal de La Cabaña
 
Tu mano apretó tan fuerte                              
Que sobre la historia dispara                         
Desde un momento en Santa Clara                
Donde el poder te sedujó
 
Ahora de moda está tu cara                           
En camisetas y postales                                 
Pero no dicen todas las verdades                   
Del Chacal de La Cabaña
 
Aristidio te siguió                                          
Hasta el día que se canso (de la mentira)       
Cuando te dijo que él se iba                           
Con una .32 usted lo silenció
 
Aquí de moda sigue tu cara                           
Y aunque limpies la camisa hasta la entraña  
No lava la sangre en las manos                      
Del Chacal de La Cabaña
   
De La Cabaña fuistes Gerente                        
Condenastes a miles al matadero                   
Más te gustaba jugar guerrero                        
Despidiendo tú mismo los inocentes
 
Ahora hay de moda está tu cara                    
A las mujeres que dejastes viuda le extraña   
Como puede estar en todos lados                  
El Chacal de La Cabaña
 
Un heroe para unos y otros criminal              
Te conocen tu cara y causa ideal                    
Por el sendero violencia nunca se puede llegar     
Te consumió tu pasión y te convertiste (en el Chacal)
 
Aquí de moda siguió tu cara                          
En inútil camisetas y postales                        
Y la gente no sabe las verdades                     
Del Chacal de La Cabaña
 
 
They forced us to hold you
in historic prominence.
They promoted your bravery
to the entire world upon your death.

Here your face is set
on t-shirts and postcards.
They don't tell all the truths
about the Jackal of La Cabaña.

Your hand gripped so tight
that it overcame the history,
from a moment in Santa Clara
where Power seduced you.

Now the fashion is your face
on t-shirts and postcards,
but they don't tell all the truth
about the Jackal of La Cabaña.

Aristidio followed you
until the day that he tired (of the lie).
When he told you that he was leaving,
with a .32 you silenced him.

Here your face is the fashion
and although you clean every fiber of the shirt
you cannot wash away the blood on the hands
of the Jackal of La Cabaña.

At La Cabaña you were the warden.
You condemned thousands to the slaughterhouse,
but even more you wanted to play the warrior,
disposing with the innocents on your own.

Now your face is the fashion.
The women that you left widowed are surprised
how it can be everywhere,
the Jackal of La Cabaña.

A hero to some and to others a criminal,
they know well your face and your idealistic cause.
On this violent path no one can follow.
Your passion consumed you and converted you (into the Jackal).

Here the fashion was your face
on vain t-shirts and postcards,
and the people don't know the truths
about the Jackal of La Cabaña.
 

4 comments:

  1. Wow. You should, ahem, write a book. Amazing that the clown ever had a statue in NYC.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Bravo! Un primera clase obra, maestro.

    ReplyDelete
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