Che Guevara



  Jon Lee Anderson

Grove Press


The prospect of reading a biography of Che Guevara appears daunting to a person of non-communist proclivities. Propaganda driven and readability challenged political life stories or hagiographies of sorts tax the patience of even a hard boiled cerebral political faithful. On the other end of the spectrum there is a school of naysayers who abhor alleged Pop biographies. They don’t want any induction of saleability tricks in the treatment of biographical materials of great political luminaries. But Mr. Jon Lee Anderson who is the author of the much celebrated work of Che biography christened Che Guevara a Revolutionary Life steers clear of these two impossibly escape-void pitfalls of essaying a  major work of biography of a personage of Guevara’ ilk. His doorstopper engages the reader from cover to cover even while coming up with Che staples such as the hemispheric war, Cuban Missile imbroglio, and Castro pal hood tales like stolid fare.

As stated in his birth certificate Che was born on June 14, 1928. The astrologer, a friend of Che’ mother on close scrutiny of the deployment of constellations at the time of the earthly ushering in of the little guerilla pronounced her verdict that the baby boy was to have an extremely an uneventful life. Celia Guevara grew blushed in stealth as her friend presented her with her son’s horoscope. For her pregnancy pre-dated her marriage with Che’ s father by a couple of months and the couple had elicited a falsified date of birth from a sympathetic physician in their Diaspora to preempt a scandal back home in their parent society of Buenos Aiers. It seems uniquely fitting that Guevara who spent most of his adult life engaged in clandestine activities and who died as a result of secret conspiracy, should have also begun life with a subterfuge. Earnesto Guevara lynch and Celia de la Serna, parents of Che belonged to pure Spanish and vastly propertied aristocracy on his father’ side and as for his maternal ancestry it was equally patrician but of a Spanish and Irish hybrid.

Ernesto’s mother was a woman who always loved to be aloof and though a congenital loner she was adventure loving to the point of executing her dare devilry with least death scary abandon. She was a good swimmer, but one day when she was six months pregnant the river current caught her and she would probably have drowned if two of her husband’ axmen clearing the forest nearby hadn’t seen her and thrown liana vines to pull her to safety.  Che’ father has reprovingly recalled many such near-drowning episodes involving Celia in the early years of their marriage. Quite unlike his wife Guevara Lynch was an emotionally needy man who liked having people around him a chronic worrier whose vivid imagination magnified risks he saw lurking everywhere.

On day in May 1930 Celia took her two years son for a swim at the yacht club but it was already the onset of Argentinean winter, cold and freezing. That night the little boy developed a coughing fit .The doctor who attended on the boy diagnosed the ailment as asthmatic bronchitis and prescribed normal remedies, but instead of subsiding, the attack lasted for several weeks. To the very end Che’s life was marked by interminable bouts of asthma bred asphyxiation taking their severe toll on his very mobility. Seeking amelioration for their son’s respiratory condition Che’s parents had to leave their vast Mate plantation interests in Misinos and try out different dry climatic destinations upcountry Argentina and at last settled for Alta Gracia with a plan for a short term stay there little imagining it would become their home for the next eleven years

Because of asthma Ernesto didn’t go to school regularly until he was nine years old and so Celia patiently tutored him at home, teaching him to read and write. Ernesto’s asthma continued to be a source of anxiety for his parents. Che was confined to bed for days together because his much labored breath wouldn’t permit him even a slow paced short walk. The long solitary hours were spent reading books for most part and playing chess with his father at times. During his asthma free spells Ernesto was understandably, impatient to test his physical boundaries.  He threw himself to sports, playing soccer, table tennis, learning to ride on horseback, went shooting at the local range, swam in the pools of the local stream, hiked in the hills and took part in organized cock fight. Guevara Lynch was never able to discipline his eldest son, and Celia never tried.

Ernesto was an incorrigible “show off “during his primary school years. He drank ink out of a bottle, ate chalk during classes, and climbed trees in the school yard, hung by his hands from a rail road trestle spanning a chasm etc.

The Spanish civil war lasting from 1936 to 1939 was probably the first political event to significantly impinge on Che’s political consciousness. When the war in Spain turned greatly favoring Franco’s Fascists many a republican family took residence in Alta Gracia escaping vendetta back home in Spain. Most of the families had children who turned out to be Che’s peers in schools; religious class etc .So the fall out of a political upheaval far afield overseas took on the boyish Che’s sensibilities on a regular basis. Soon the Guevaras too found themselves caught up in the emotional campaign to support the embattled Republic. Some twenty years down the line Che wrote to a fawning book publisher who was out to publish a work of hagiography on him that he had no political preoccupation during his adolescence period nor had any participation in the political or student struggle in Argentina. Che’s devil-may-care attitude, contempt for formality and combative intellect were all now visible traits of his personality .As a full-fledged teenager Che developed voracious appetite for books and the opposite sex. On the second count the Argentinean catholic society of the period offered little for easy consummation. The girls of the respected Spanish families were supposed to wait out their pre marital virgin hood spell not violated by any impermissible episodes of unwarranted deflowering acts.

As for boys they had to give vent to their peaking libido by training the same on brothel inmates or poor Indian and Meztiso girls who formed the domestic help segment of the well to do Spanish households. Che was quite ‘good’ at studies but his extracurricular readings verged on the stupendous for his age if not much beyond. But the Marxist tomes which found their way into Che’s book devouring feat hamstrung his read- with- relish quotient. For as per his confession to his wife much later in life he hadn’t understood a word of it all then. The year 1945 was a watershed in the annals of Che’s academic pursuit. That year he took his first course in philosophy. It engaged his attention in a deep and abiding manner that he found himself compiling “a philosophical dictionary “all soon. After reading many American and European works in Spanish translation Che took to reading Latin American literature by authors like Ciro Ale quay, Jorge Icaza and all. These novels and poetry dealt with Latin American themes of unequal lives of marginalized Indians and Meztiso which were ignored in fashionable literature and virtually unknown to Ernesto’s social group first hand . Che’s Alta residence mainly ran by his mother was a fascinating human zoo and a spirit of humanitarian informality ruled the roost in the sprawling homestead. In it Celia collected all kinds of colorful people, irrespective of their social status and there Che found itinerant painters who worked as boot blacks, wandering Ecuadorian poets and university professors who sometimes stayed a week or a month depending on their level of their hunger. The lot of a respite less bibliophile could nothing but be hellish in this overcrowded ark and it impelled Che to read for hours on end behind the shut door of the bathroom. This habit persisted throughout his life switch of place and time regardlesly.

Earnesto was very good at science so his choice for university studies would have been engineering but ended up studying medicine at the University of Buenos Aires. Che’ first ever tryst with death of a close family member was when his grandmother died though at an advanced age. The incident qued he as to how modern medicine failed to lessen the agony of his dying grandmother and how the system in general proved ill-equipped to handle various medical conditions that humanity suffered from. His own treatment defying asthma could have acted as an immediate experience of failing medical science. He wanted to step up the cure capabilities of the much maladyed medical science through very deep and painstaking research.

Half way in to the medical course and just two years before getting his medical degree he was struck by an elephantine lust for wander. An un working affair with a 17 year old Chi China and unstimulating routine of classes and exams exacerbated itch for decamp and score the entire continent of south America. Rescue came in the form of Alberto Granado, who had lately begun weaving grandiose plans to spend a year travelling the length of South American continent. Alberto had a rickety vintage 500cc Norton motor cycle and this contraption ended up being the vehicle of their pan continent road journey. The two itinerants could make people across the national boundaries credulously believe that they were two leprosy experts out on a Tran’s national mission to advice people and official health care providers about the modern method of leprosy treatment. But this trip gave Che some very direct exposition to the impossibly miserable living conditions of the working class people across the entire Latin America especially in the mining areas of Chile, Ecuador etc. The  mine and plantation owning propertariet had enjoyed an extremely swanky lifestyle and the cheek by Jowl location of the residential quarters of those two economic binary groups stood in sharp relief to the eyes of even a casual observer let alone to the perception of a vastly read social science aficionado like Che. Giving another unsaultory twist to scenario the South American mining and plantation interests were mainly owned by the corporate houses and individual investing personnel’s of the United States

Not long after the end of this motor cycle ‘cross country’ marathon hit its last destination in Mexico there occurred political upheavals and insurrections in some of the major countries of Latin America like Che’s own Argentina and the offshore Cuba. A young man named Castro was the leader of Cuban insurrection endeavor who was imprisoned and later freed. It was during Castro’s self imposed exile in Mexico that he ran into Che. It was a rendezvous of two utmost desperadoes and Che joined Castro’s Cuban liberation movement when the latter proffered an invitation. Fidel Castro’s father was an illiterate and penniless Galilean immigrant in Cuba who with sheer grit and hard work climbed up the economic ladder to own moderately vast land, sugar and cattle fortunes in the island nation. Presiding over his finca, Manacas will its own store, slaughter house and bakery Angel was a rural patriarch who ruled the destinies of 300 workers and their families. Angel Castro bought his bright, rebellious third son (the offspring of his second marriage to Luna Ruz, the family cook) the best education money could buy. Even during his student days in Havana University Fiedal acquired a macho image of a gun-toting rabble rouser who possessed an intensively competitive and ballistic temper. Cuba was a “pseudo-republic” or a virtual vassal state of the US. The Americans took fancy to invest puny puppet potentiates in the administration of Cuba who would dutifully dance to the tune of the Yankees. Expansive tracts of land in Cuba where under sugarcane crops and the US owned and ran them. Fiedal’s own father leased much of his cane cropping lands from the major American companies and had to sell his produce( mostly sugar) back to the company mostly at grossly  un remunerative prices dictated by the company itself. Not surprisingly Castro turned anti US holding the company responsible for perpetuating Cuba’s export-dependent plantation economy, creating a wealthy class of land barons while consigning the workers to life of endemic poverty. By the time Che met Fiedal the former  have started nurturing some political ambitions. But Che hankered after power not to meet the mental requirement of a doughty megalomaniac in the making but to just establish an egalitarian society to put an end to the last human trait that he could brook of humans exploiting fellow humans. Though Che and Fiedal were arch egotists and prototypes of Latin American macho male an altruist intend always drove Che. During the Guerrilla fight for Cuban liberation in the rugged mountainous territory of Sierra maestro Che and his assistant received an urgent message to reach a clandestine destination some 200 miles off. Barely two hours were permitted to make the journey and what the twin guerrillas had at their disposal was a ramshackle jeep to execute an extreme roller coaster type ride down a much narrow and sinuous ghat road that mostly ran along steep ridge sides with abysmal gorgeous bordering it almost throughout on the other side. When the jeep screeched to a halt at its destination it had clocked an unbelievable just one and a half hours but Che ‘s fellow traveler had almost fainted with fear. Being a medical doctor Che could put him back at ease with some medicine and informed verbal assurances. But he relapsed to a comatose condition when Che told him after his first black out spell that he was driving a motor vehicle for the first time in his life.

At last the Cuban revolution saw grand success and the country went under the sole charge of Fiedal Castro. Che would serve the revolutionary government in various capacities including ministerial. He was in charge of ‘cleansing’ Cuban defense establishment and civilian segment of war criminals. Che discharged his duty with unerring eyes to incriminating dossiers on each felon wrong doer and adjudicated death to the meriting cases with unwavering sense of duty. A summary trial that would begin in the evening saw its procedural closure as subdued fusillade rang out behind the high walls of military garrison by midnight until the spell of operation purge was complete. Whatever the ‘necessity’ of the revolutionary tribunal they did much to polarize the political climate between Havana and Washington. Che suspected that the US would unleash its monstrous annihilative forces on the tiny Cuba allegedly to stop Fiedal, Che terminator twosome in their ‘blood bath’ of   erstwhile Batista loyalists and minions. Che warned the US that the price of such a grave misadventure would be ‘200000 dead Americans’. The US embassy was monitoring Che’s activities and speeches closely, with a growing sense of disquiet. It was during this time of looming US attack on Cuba that Che trotted out his grandiose idea of the entire Latin America waging hemispheric war against their oppressor extraordinaire the US. Che was the main architect of soviet Cuban friendship. The Cuban missile crisis brought the two super powers on the verge of a direct show down a far cry from the entire battery of proxy belligerence of cold war era that had been raging at the peripheral theatres far afield.

Che believed that a guerilla rebel couldn’t afford a break from his vocation of respite less insurrection. He believed that his Cuban stint of rehabilitation and resurrection job was already too drown out and an aberration for a professional revolutionary to stomach. As a part of his hemispheric war against the imperial US and company Che decided to personally train and lead a Congolese rebel outfit in Africa but it turned out to be a great disappointment. Dar-Es-Salam turned out to be Che’ revolutionary waterloo. But Che’ growing anti-Yankee global struggle couldn’t be put-off by minor setbacks. Back in Cuba from Congo Che wrote that only deep-rooted hate bred good fighting capabilities and this Yankee oriented macabre emotion of his soldering section of humanity would one day take the war to the US home territory and wipe it out traceless. Hate would equip humans to brave all the weaknesses that humans were heir to by nature formed the crux of Che speak.

By the summer of 1964 Che’s Cuban stint was all set to end for his revolutionary zeal was in need of fresher pastures to graze. He knew that he wasn’t indispensible in Cuba. Assortments of causes were on trigger to realize his hasty exit. Khrushchev now extolled Cuba as ‘’ the daughter of USSR’’ and the Cuban echelon and rank alike appeared to revel in the soviet sire ship to the complete exclusion of the other contestant of competitive siredom which turned out to be none other than the red giant China.  Guevara despite repeated protestation otherwise became a Maoist suspect in Cuba and across mainland Latin American communist parties. Fidel seemed to have little qualms, in case, no ready alternative when it came to playing into Soviet hand. On this count in Raul’s estimation of Che fell from his deferential mentorship loftiness of yore to one of pure adversarial when his guru fell out with the Soviets in the wake of his making adulterous overtures to many a Chinese political view point . Unmistakable claustrophobia was taking root in Cuba too turned on heat. But Che didn’t leave for Bolivia in the light of these puny, infra dig and un revolutionary pin pricks. Che’s departure from Cuba coincided with Fidel’s ‘’swing back’’ to aggressive ‘’Internationalist’’ stand. Bolivia was on the cusp of a severe political crisis then as a military junta usurped power overthrowing a civil president, a familiar story of political sabotage across south and Central American countries and the puppet mastering CIA going about this macabre gaming in bluff calling arrogance. At last Che  had on his hand a war which measured up to his formidable bellicosity and which would finish off the imperial US by leading a hemispheric army Colum in to its very inner most recess.

Rodriguez told Mario Teran not to shoot Che in the face, but from neck down for Che’s wounds had to appear as though that had been inflicted in battle. He walked up the hill and began making notes. When he heard the shots he checked his watch. It was 10.10 pm. The day was 9th October 1967 and Che was 39 and in an extreme run down school room on the crust of a hill in the Bolivian forest Che’s body lied dead awaiting amputation of his hands and legs before the grossly dismembered mortal remains were to be transported to an undisclosed burial site . CIA went for this well thought out anonymity conferment for fear of the ‘holy’ sepulcher generating endless generation of crusaders of justice in the time to come. When Rodriguez asked if he had any message for his family, a few minutes before he was shot dead Che told him to” tell Fidel that he will soon see a triumphant revolution in America. And tell my wife to remarry and try to be happy. ’’

Jon Lee Anderson has done his research in so meticulous a manner that he broke the story of where Guevara’s body was buried ,which led to the exhumation and state burial of the bones in Cuba .An ardent student of Che’s life and times doesn’t have to ever look beyond the Anderson volume.