In the 50 years since his death, Ernesto “Che” Guevara has grown into a mythical figure for leftists around the world. As one of the heroes of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, Che came to exemplify the quintessential Marxist guerrilla leader: fearless, uncompromising, and honest to his cause. Despite his failed attempts to spark similar revolutions in Congo and Bolivia, where he died at the hands of the Bolivian military on October 9, 1967, his tenacity—both on and off the battlefield—in his war against capitalism would serve as inspiration for future armed and political movements around the world.
Che had his fair share of enemies. In his 1997 biography of the Argentine guerrilla, titled Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, Jon Lee Anderson explains how the Bolivian military officers who had captured and killed Che hid his corpse in a mass grave in efforts to delegitimize his legacy. They hoped that, with the disappearance of his body, the legend of Che Guevara would also die. Instead, Anderson writes, “the Che myth grew and spiraled beyond anyone’s control.”
I spoke to Anderson, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World, about Che’s legacy.
Miguel Salazar: As you know, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Che’s death. How do young Cubans on the island and recent expats view Che today? Is it different from the way the rest of Latin America views him?
Jon Lee Anderson: There’s an obvious generational watershed that’s happened in the last few years with the beginning of cuentapropismo, the opening [of diplomatic relations] with the US. I think there’s a sense with them that Che represents the past. There’s a type of young Cuban that regards Che as having been forced down their throats as an iconic figure that they were supposed to emulate. But I don’t know that it’s developed into a full-throated rejection yet.
I know young Cubans who are sort of torn. The ones that I know are more certain about their feelings of antipathy for Fidel or the kind of gerontocracy that they feel has held them back, whereas Che has always inhabited for them this other worldly place. He exists in this spiritual realm, and I’m not sure they’ve reconciled that difference. Some of them are trying to read their history for the first time and look at their own figures for the first time. In the past two or three years, they’ve been able to read books, articles, or have access to media that gives them a different perspective on people, including Che. I think the reckoning is still out there; it has yet to come.
MS: Given that Che died half a century ago, it seems that there is room for distortion in the way his story is told. What are the biggest distortions that you’ve noticed by his admirers?
JLA: Cuba made a concerted effort to emphasize el humanismo del Che [Che’s humanism] over the last 20 years or so—to celebrate his revolutionary fervor, but link it to an idea of humanism that isn’t always borne out by Che’s own rhetoric or some of his own writings. He had a radical vision that involved a utopian remaking of the planet through armed guerrilla warfare. It would have been violent, though he eschewed the terrorism that we associate today with irregular armies.
These speeches have to be seen in the context of the time, of the ’60s, in which everything seemed possible, and to a large extent his generation—men and women who came of age during the Holocaust and Hiroshima—saw the possibility of absolutely changing societies on Earth and didn’t shrink away from the possibility of vast bloodletting. He believed that there was an undeclared war by capitalism on the rest of the world. His idea was that millions were already dying, so let’s just get it on, and define the world once and for all. Millions would die, but it would be a better world after.
I’ve noticed in the last decade or so, people [say], “but Che killed people, he had people shot.” I’ve also received questions about his supposed homophobia and racism, neither of which I think are valid or germane to his life. What were his views on transsexual marriage? I don’t think he had any. Homosexuality was illegal in the 1960s in pretty much the entire world. I don’t know his views on being gay, but I know that there were a few people around him who were, and he didn’t persecute them. When it comes to racism, that’s crap, because most of the guys with him were either black or mestizo.
And as for his firing squads, he went through a period from his arrival in the Sierra Maestra to the three months following the triumph in Havana where he was this prosecutor, and he carried it out with zeal. But he was a changed man later. He didn’t execute anybody in the Congo, or Bolivia, and militarily speaking he probably should have.
MS: What were the big differences between Che and Fidel’s successful campaign in Cuba and Che’s failed mission in Bolivia, which led to his death?
JLA: One of the big differences was that he didn’t have a Fidel at his side. During the Sierra war, it became clear that Che was fearless to a reckless degree. Fidel had to assign people to watch him and to look after him so he wouldn’t go ahead. Fidel was the guy who horse-traded, compromised, and was a little more in touch with people. Che had a kind of monk-like devotion to his ideals. Once he was on his own, whether in Congo or Bolivia, he didn’t really have that person at his side.
In Bolivia, the presence of the guerrillas was exposed within weeks of his arrival. From that point on, it was a survival story. The fact that he survived 11 months is the incredible thing. He was a severe asthmatic; he lost almost half his body weight; the terrain they went through was some of the most beastly terrain I’ve ever seen—hot summers, thorn forests, no water, and conservative peasants who are suspicious of outsiders. Fidel cut a deal with the Bolivian communist party, and the leader of it [Mario Monje] screwed him. And they were exposed early. Once the army detected their presence, it was all over. There was a kind of cordon around them the entire time. The area that was chosen, the timing, everything was wrong, and the fact he survived for as long as he did is incredible.
MS: What ideological differences were there between Che and Fidel? Why did the two have a falling out?
JLA: I wouldn’t say they had a falling out so much as they did a parting of ways. Che became increasingly critical of what he saw as the lack of genuine socialist solidarity by the Soviets and their allies. He was shocked at the degree to which they were corrupt. He became convinced that Cuba had to go its own way or do things differently.
Fidel let him do that for as long as possible, but in the end he opted for the pragmatic solution—a sugar deal with the Soviets. He had no choice: Cuba was completely isolated in the Western Hemisphere. Che felt that the moment was there, and, in a sense, he was right. Africa was decolonizing at an extraordinary rate. He saw the Algerian revolution take root, the Americans bogged down in Vietnam, and kindred experiments take place across Latin America. When he saw that, but didn’t feel that the Soviets were doing their bit, he broke his sword.
There was the famous nine-hour meeting, which neither ever spoke of, but out of which it was clear that a decision was made that Che would leave with Fidel’s covert support. My understanding is that there wasn’t a falling out so much as there was a kind of necessary parting of ways. They continued to be comrades, but it was time for Che to go.
MS: In your biography of Che, you write that he believed that “in the long term, Cuba’s independence depended not on Soviet subsidies but on the success of the Latin American revolutions.” There seems to be this common thread in Latin American history of military leaders pushing for a pan–Latin American identity. Why was it so romanticized by Che, and why did it become such a rallying point?
JLA: That ideal remained pretty much on the left. The right was largely politically feudal, it was latifundio—business-oriented, military. A few paid lip-service to this pan-American ideal, but knew it was impractical, whereas the left never really gave it up. It works well with the Marxist idea of revolution and internationalist solidarity.
The world was being reshaped radically and violently. Latin America was the one area that was ossified, stuck with boundaries that didn’t make sense and internal boundaries of class and race. There were so many issues that really hadn’t even been addressed yet by the political structures that were in place in Latin America, and a lot of it had to do with this negligent imperial relationship to the region by the United States. Nobody messed with Latin America from the time [of the] Monroe [Doctrine]. Nobody did. It was just this very unequal environment.
MS: Recently, in the US, there has been a push for a more revisionist approach in looking back at historical figures such as Robert E. Lee or Andrew Jackson. In an interview with BBC Mundo, you say that we can’t compare figures from the past using the morals of today. Where do we draw the line on figures like Che?
JLA: I’m not saying that people shouldn’t judge Che. Of course we judge past figures. Now, Che, Fidel, and others were aspirational figures, who left behind a legacy that is controversial and which—Che in particular—provides a kind of “should I love him or should I hate him?” conundrum. The decade in which he lived and died was such an unusual decade. It was a decade in which we had all of these things happen: the moon landing, civil rights in this country, feminism, gay rights, the Vietnam War, decolonization. The decade only began 15 years after the atomic bomb and the Holocaust. It was a decade in which people were still reeling from the effects of the recent past. Che has to be seen within that time warp. It was also at the beginning of celebrity culture, pop culture, and the advent of television. A lot of things converged there. The consumer culture by and large was an American phenomenon, it hadn’t extended to the rest of the world yet.
I would argue against this seeming need to constantly turn historic figures or cultural icons into black or white, good or bad. It’s a very American thing to do. I think we would all be safer and wiser if we attempted to constantly be aware of the nuances.
MS: The long-lasting presence of guerrilla groups in Latin America, as exemplified in Colombia, has led to an unintended backlash in public opinion against the political left and empowered right-wing politicians who point to guerrillas in order to frighten voters into supporting conservative agendas. How do you reconcile Che’s influence on the left with these unintended consequences?
JLA: There is an argument out there that condemns the left, Cuba, the armed left for attempting armed revolution in the first place, blaming them for all of the bloodshed that came afterward and pointing out that those few revolutions that seized power have sold out or failed. You could also point to various former guerrillas around the hemisphere who achieved power through elections and have been corrupted.
I don’t think that the subsequent failure of those experiments delegitimizes the original effort because of the period in which it happened. All of these things are valid to debate. Why spill blood when you don’t have to? I agree. On the other hand, I think there are times when violence is legitimate.
For all the fact that Daniel Ortega [the president of Nicaragua] seems to have sold out now and created a kind of weird little ranchito of a country where he and his wife run everything, and made common cause with the very people that fought against him 30 years ago—does that delegitimize the insurrection that he played a part in against Somoza? I don’t know, but shouldn’t there have been an insurrection against Somoza? I think there should have been, and there was. That’s one of those big “what if” questions that’s worth debating. But I incline toward the direct-action theory of history.
MS: Given Latin America’s current situation, with a host of conservative governments coming to power in recent years, what lessons can the left today draw from Che?
JLA: Che would be saying, “Look I told you so, guys, you can’t trust the bourgeoisie, they’ll always sell you out to their friends.” And there would be a certain validity in those arguments. He would say to the Mexicans today, “The reason why you guys don’t have any armas [weapons] in your negotiations over NAFTA with Trump is because you guys sold out 25 years ago. The American economy now dominates your country,” and he’d be right.
In small ways, I think the left can learn from Che, from the past, from what the Cubans did. There’s plenty to criticize, but Cuba has created a society that is better educated across the board than most Latin American countries, and does not have the extremes of poverty that we see in the rest of Latin America. And perhaps most importantly, they have security. They don’t have narco-gangs.
What’s missing are people who can get past the dogma and sectarianism that so often characterized and bedeviled people on the left; to be more inclusive, to be aware that they have to, on some level, convince other people. We’ve had some little piecemeal examples of this. For example, everybody loves Pepe Mujica [the president of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015], and rightly. Who doesn’t love a president who says no to his salary, drives a bug, and lives in his little cortijo? He’s maybe the best example of what a leftist could be in Latin America. We need people who are charismatic, who are not sectarian, who are not corrupt and corruptible, and who seem to be seeking power so that they can exercise it on behalf of the people.