Clowns With Kalashnikovs
In Cuba Debray stumbled into a world straight out of a Buñuel farce. Treated like a bourgeois dignitary, the 25-year-old writer was provided with a car and a driver, a hotel room with a balcony, a private lift and a white telephone ("it was like being in the movies"). But like every other VIP of the World Revolution, he was forced to kill time. Castro liked to heighten the expectations of the elect, sending an intermediary to announce that "Fidel wants to see you"--and then making the chosen one wait for up to three months before an audience was actually granted.
When the moment came, the sovereign paced "like a wild beast in a cage," his torrent of words conjuring up a heroic struggle, treating Debray as a confidant, a co-conspirator, a militant "indispensable to the proper course of things, someone on whom the ruler was going to be able to depend at last." In return, Fidel asked only that Debray undertake a crash course in the art of war. Debray acquiesced with brio, giddy to be given access to a "fabulous Aladdin's cave for weapons freaks," thrilled to learn the martial arts, how to handle explosives, surveillance and countersurveillance, techniques of assassination.
Castro had found his John Reed--a fervent convert and foreign correspondent enraptured by the prospect of epochal social change. His guerrilla training finished, Debray set himself to explain to armchair radicals around the world just how the Cubans were paving the way for a Revolution in the Revolution?, as he grandly titled his pamphlet. Written with an air of Cartesian rigor, the essay was meant "to convince that town mouse the urban Marxist" of the virtues of rural guerrilla warfare. The Cubans printed 300,000 copies in Spanish, and within months Debray's "primer for Marxist insurrection" (as Newsweek magazine called it) had been translated into most of the major languages, including English.
Though brief, it is a remarkably abstract, often dry text, which the author now dismisses as "a bad grafting of ideas onto passion, and doctrine onto conjuncture." But when it was published in the United States in 1967, just as protests against the war in Vietnam were taking a turn toward violent confrontation, the book was something of an event. By making a willingness to brave death for an ideal seem like tough-minded realism, Debray's screed helped to reinforce a certain mood on the young left of grim conviction and apocalyptic hope.
Debray himself is remarkably insouciant about the most alarming aspects of his contribution to the theory and practice of the '60s New Left. "You had to get a bit worked up to believe that a handful of clowns with Kalashnikovs were going to 'make revolution,'" he dryly recalls. "But everyone did believe it, friends and enemies both."
These are the years when Debray was a real witness to history in the making--he was the last intermediary between Castro and Che Guevara, ferrying the leader's views from Havana to Che's jungle redoubt in Bolivia. Che's desperate gambit he now calls "a true masterpiece of political anti-art"--a "holy war, extremely limited in means, but total in its lack of precision and the absence of negotiable aims or possible areas of compromise, which could only end with the annihilation of the enemy or, failing that (more likely actually), himself." It's no wonder that Che liked to compare himself to an early Christian in the catacombs--it was salvation and not victory that he sought.
A willing accessory to Che's final folly, Debray almost became a martyr himself. Captured and imprisoned, he got to experience a simulated execution: April 1967, six rifles leveled at ten paces, his wrists handcuffed, no shots fired. There were other tortures, too, accompanied by an international hue and cry, letters demanding Debray's release signed by Sartre in France and by the New York intellectuals in America.
At his trial, his defense was that he was a journalist, an innocent reporter, a wandering idealist--which was a lie, Debray admits: "In reality I had carried a weapon and taken part in the first ambush; I had fired, I believe without killing anyone; I was not there to interview people but to follow orders."