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By Andrew Sinclair
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Andrew Sinclair
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Background of a Revolutionary
'I was born in Argentina, I fought in Cuba, and I began to be a revolutionary in Guatemala.' These words summed up what Che Guevara called his autobiographical synthesis. They also described a continent always in tension between reactionary governments and utopian rebels. Guevara was the first man since Simon Bolívar with a serious plan to unite the squabbling neighbours of Latin America. His own life displayed all the contradictions of his place and time.
He was the child of aristocrats, the first son of Ernesto Guevara Lynch and Celia de la Serna y Llosa, one of whose family had been a Spanish Viceroy of Peru, another a celebrated Argentinian general. The Spanish and Irish Guevaras and Lynchs had come as immigrants to Argentina twelve generations before, while the de la Sernas had much property and radical sympathies. Che Guevara's grandmother, Ana Lynch, also had American blood and was born in California, and his mother Celia, with her reforming beliefs, was the dominant influence on Che's life until he met Fidel Castro.
Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born prematurely on 14 June 1928 in his father's birthplace at Rosario: he was later nicknamed Che. Subject to pneumonia and asthma, he was taken to the mountains at Alta Gracia on the foothills of the Córdoba Sierra to help his breathing. His mother Celia taught the wheezing boy to read and write, while his father pursued his business in construction engineering and shipbuilding. Che went briefly to state schools. His radical mother helped him to get on with whoever was there, but the huge difference between the privileged children like himself and the rest of his schoolmates from poor backgrounds was made clear. His uncle, the poet Cayetano Córdova Itúrburu, a member of the Communist Party, reported on the Spanish Civil War, sending back to Argentina his dispatches from the Republican Front. These influenced the young Che, who never revolted against his free-thinking home, but against the oppression of his continent. As Ricardo Rojo, a friend of the family, testified, certain things were taken for granted in the Guevara household – 'a passion for justice, the rejection of Fascism, religious indifference, an interest in literature and love of poetry, and a prejudice against money and the ways of making it.' This home conditioning naturally led to a sense of rebelliousness, which, once he could understand the social problems of South America, was to make Che into a revolutionary.
Che acted as if he were a youth as a boy and a man as a youth. A classmate found him 'incredibly sure of himself and totally independent in his opinions ... very dynamic, restless and unconventional.' To a teacher, Che 'looked and acted much older than he was, and was clearly already grown up with a definite personality, moody and undisciplined, but extremely mature.' While he was still at secondary school, his friends were university students who accepted him as their equal. His realism already outweighed their wish for romantic protest. On one occasion, when asked to take to the streets in a political demonstration, he refused coldly, 'Go out into the streets so that the police can hit us with their clubs? Nothing doing. I'll go and demonstrate only if you give me a gun.' Such an assessment of the situation in his youth made Che's later assertion plausible, that a man at fifteen already knows what he wants to die for and is not afraid of giving his life if he has found an ideal which makes the sacrifice easy.
However, Che had not yet found an ideal. With General Franco's victory in Spain, Fascist movements emerged in many South American nations. Against the reactionaries stood the Guevara family, who founded a local branch of Acción Argentina and enrolled Che as a youth member. With the outbreak of the Second World War, these radical groups opposed the local backers of Hitler. Acción Argentina also opposed the rise to power of Colonel Juan Domingo Perón after the end of the global conflict, although Che was then more interested in sport than politics. He learned to play football and rugby, as a scrum-half, although his asthma often forced him to leave the field. By temperament, he looked on difficulties as tests of will. Disabilities were to be defeated, barriers to be broken. He reduced a six-year university course to three years, passing sixteen major examinations in six months in spite of forty-five serious asthma attacks. His aunt said of this time, 'We would listen to him gasping, studying as he lay on the floor to ease his breathing, but he never complained. For him, it was a challenge.' By the greatest irony of all, a board of army doctors declared him unfit for any sort of military service, once he was eighteen. His training in warfare had to wait a while. 'There is justice after all,' his mother later said.
In 1946 Che decided to study medicine in Buenos Aires, although Perón was now installed as the President of the Republic of Argentina. His grandmother, Ana Lynch, had died of a stroke and his beloved mother Celia had breast cancer, so he may have been trying to compensate for their sufferings and his own fight against asthmatic attacks. He wanted to find remedies for human ills. He could not see pain or death without wanting to strike at the root cause of it all. He had no resignation in him. He could not stand passive acceptance of suffering. His nature was to challenge, even the impossible.
Yet at the Faculty of Medicine in Buenos Aires, Che was more of a humanitarian than a revolutionary. He did not join the student groups opposed to Perón. He later declared that he had no social preoccupations in his adolescence and failed to support the political and student struggle in Argentina. He left his commitments open; travel and observation would later determine his choices. His motorcycle would be his Rosinante towards a quixotic liberty, that would later become revolutionary. When Che's Motorcycle Diaries were published posthumously, his father affirmed in a prologue what later became evident, that his son was to follow the path of the conquistadores Cortés, Alvarado and Pizarro, but with quite a different purpose.
With his close friend Alberto Granado, Che set off on his quest for a continental solution on a 500 cc Norton, nicknamed La Poderosa II. 'Why don't we go to North America?' was the question. The answer lay on the seats of the motorcycle. The pair set off for a hobo's tour of the whole continent, labouring as truck-drivers, porters, doctors and dishwashers. At one time Che was even a guard for a North American mining company in Chile. But the most telling job for the two Argentines was in a leper colony at San Pablo on the Amazon. There Che saw that the highest kinds of human solidarity and loyalty were formed among lonely and desperate men. Che ended the trip starving in Miami, before returning to Buenos Aires to complete his medical degree.
This grand tour at subsistence level was the evidence and basis for Che's feeling that he knew the Americans and their problems. He stated later that he had never felt like a foreigner anywhere. 'I felt Guatemalan in Guatemala, Mexican in Mexico, Peruvian in Peru.' The journey also began to change him into a radical. In a speech in 1960 he remembered the beginnings of his metamorphosis.
Because of the conditions in which I travelled, I came into close contact with poverty and hunger and disease. I discovered that I was unable to cure sick children through lack of means, and I saw the degradation of undernourishment and constant repression. In this way, I began to realise that there was another thing which was as important as being a famous researcher or making a great contribution to medical science and that was to help those people.
The rough conditions of travel had another effect. They proved to Che that he could endure great hardship and privation – the existence on the margins of survival necessary to any guerrilla fighter. His friends noticed that he could live in the most sinister places and still keep his sense of humour. He only tolerated a travelling companion who could walk huge distances, forget about clothing and go without money. He could also manage to keep moving, even when he had not eaten for three days. Being poor among the poor made Che feel their indignation against their exploiters, their comradeship among themselves, and led him to the self-discipline which he needed to become one of their leaders.
Two months after qualifying as a doctor in 1953 with a thesis on allergies, he threw away his career – to his father's annoyance. He left Argentina never to return, escaping his home and Perón's dictatorship in search of his destiny. With another friend, Carlos Ferrer, he went to Bolivia, which was being ruled by the first effective reform government in its history. The new régime nationalized the country's tin mines, perhaps the largest and worst-run in the world, and distributed the wasteland of the barren altiplano among the Indians, who had held no claim to their own soil since the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. Che was not yet a Marxist nor a revolutionary; according to his friend Ricardo Rojo, who was also in La Paz, Che's chief interests were still medicine and archaeology, not politics. Yet this first-hand contact with a large programme of social change in action turned Che towards the ideas of revolutionary progress. Paradoxically enough, Bolivia was the country which both inspired Che's political career and would kill him.
When Che visited the tin mines, a leader of the Bolivian Communist Party, Mario Monje, described him as 'a kind of orchid seed, looking for a place to settle'. Che knew, however, that the Bolivian revolution was doomed to partial failure. He and Rojo interviewed the Minister for Peasant Affairs and were disappointed by him. Standing in the street in front of a statue of Bolívar, Che said:
The question is one of fighting the causes and not just being satisfied with getting rid of the effects. This revolution is bound to fail if it doesn't manage to break down the spiritual isolation of the Indians, if it doesn't succeed in reaching deep inside them, stirring them right down to the bone, and giving them back their stature as human beings. Otherwise, what's the use?
The two friends also visited the great mines of Oruro and Catavi. The Minister of Mines, Juan Lechín, had claimed that the revolution was more deep-rooted in Bolivia than even in China, but Che remained unconvinced. The fact that the government had raised the wages of the miners when it had nationalized the mines made Che gloomy. He thought that it was a grave error to confuse the necessities of a nation in arms with the bribes paid to workers when a business changed hands. For a pittance the miners had lessened the material and moral reserves of a revolution that would need every reserve it had in the end. None of Che's friends in Bolivia could change his mind.
Che and Rojo left Bolivia by truck with a party of Indians, heading for Peru. Rojo's account of the Indians' reactions to himself and Che was a prophecy of the reactions that Che would meet as a guerrilla in Bolivia fifteen years later.
The trip was an indispensable one in our education about the America of the Indians. We entered a hostile world, we were trapped between bundles and people who looked like bundles. There was silence. Jolts, bruises and silence. We found out that it was impossible to try and show our sympathy before those eyes of metal which stared at us, those lips as tight and forbidding as a vice that refused to reply to our questions. ... We couldn't communicate in any human way with the Indians, yet the guards at the Peruvian border were absolutely convinced that we had turned their heads with ideas about agrarian revolution.
With other Argentine students, Che and Rojo travelled on to tropical Guayaquil, where Che was laid low by ill health and poverty. There he made a decision that he never revoked. He had sworn to join his friend Granado at the leper colony at San Pablo, but he needed little persuasion by the Argentine students to continue on with them to Guatemala, where there was another revolution in action. As Rojo said, Che was not yet a Marxist and was not yet really interested in politics, but another friend noticed that Che already seemed to feel responsible for the world's injustices. He was groping his way towards the root cause of all the misery he had seen and sometimes shared among the poor of Latin America. Yet he was still unread in political philosophy. He saw the evidence of exploitation, but not the method of changing the system.
Juan Bosch, who later became a short-term and reforming President of the Dominican Republic, also met Che on his travels. He found that Che was intensely preoccupied with what he saw. He seemed dissatisfied with all solutions proposed up to that time, and when he was asked specific questions, he criticized all parties, but he never defined his own position. Yet Bosch was convinced by the way that Che answered questions that he had not yet become a Communist. His heart was moving before his mind. His sense of liberty was still in conflict with his feeling that a bureaucracy might have to run a socialist state. He needed to see another revolution in action and to study revolutionary thought, in order to find a system for change.
Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who led the new revolutionary government in Guatemala, had a lasting influence on Che. Backed by a coalition of young army officers and intellectuals, Arbenz had decided to tackle the most dangerous reform of all. When Che arrived in 1953, Arbenz was redistributing to the Indians and the peasants large areas of the land just nationalized from the United Fruit Company. The danger of the reform lay in provoking a counter-attack by large interests in the United States, for the United Fruit Company had long been used to controlling what it called 'banana republics' for the benefit of its American shareholders. Arbenz brought Che up against the realities of North American economic power. He also defined the political character of his régime in terms that were not materialist. 'Man is not just a stomach,' Arbenz declared. 'We believe that, above all, he hungers for dignity.' This attitude was central to Che's later thinking, which elaborated this same concept that the socialist is not and cannot be a materialist in outlook, because true socialism is a negation of materialism, even though Marx himself had declared for dialectical materialism. Throughout his life Che remained an admirer of Arbenz and his programme.
Yet Che's admiration was not enough. His wish to work for the revolution as a doctor in the jungles of the Petén fell foul of his distrust of bureaucracy. He visited the minister in charge of the Public Health Department and seemed to be accepted until he was asked for his card. 'What card?' Guevara asked. The minister replied that naturally Che had to be a member of the Guatemalan Labour Party, another name for the local Communist Party. Che replied that he was a revolutionary and did not believe that affiliations of that sort meant anything. Anyway, he would never join the Party from a sense of obligation, only from a sense of conviction. He did not get the job and had to survive by selling encyclopedias and working in a laboratory. He was also helped by a relationship with a Peruvian revolutionary, Hilda Gadea, of Indian and Chinese as well as Spanish ancestry. She supported Che and had a heart of platinum, as he wrote to his mother. They later wed in Mexico and had one daughter, Hildita, but their marriage would always be the victim of their cause.
The downfall of the Arbenz régime in 1954 was Che's baptism in the practical techniques of revolution and counter-revolution. In retaliation for the seizure of the plantations of the United Fruit Company, the Eisenhower government had permitted the Central Intelligence Agency to begin organizing and financing a coup d'état in Guatemala. Three factors were working in favour of the CIA plot. First, the Guatemalan army officers behind Arbenz were becoming discouraged by the slow pace of the revolution, which had not yet had the time to win the support and confidence of the Indian masses. Secondly, the régime itself was split by personal ambitions which hid themselves in ideological differences. Thirdly, the middle classes were becoming frightened by the government's open defiance of the United States.
Excerpted from Che Guevara by Andrew Sinclair. Copyright © 2013 Andrew Sinclair. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Background of a Revolutionary,
2 The Cuban War,
3 Master of Guerrilla Warfare,
4 The Changing Revolution,
5 An End to Money,
6 In Search of Liberation,
7 Death and Influences,
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