Magazine article Monthly Review

A Revolutionary Life

Magazine article Monthly Review

A Revolutionary Life

Article excerpt

While Cuba declares 1997 "Ano del 30 anniversario de la caida en combate de guerrillero heroico y sus companeros" (the year of the 30th anniversary of the death in combat of the heroic guerrilla and his comrades), American leftists ponder the meaning of Che as model in the 1960s for the student movement in the United States, for the Black Panthers, and for La Raza Chicano movement. Although dead for years and laughed at by reactionaries as a failure, his bearded image still appears on everything from T-shirts to mud guards on trucks in Latin America. His speeches lived in the mouths of the El Salvadoran and Nicaraguan guerrillas in the 1970s and 1980s, and his words reverberate now in the hills of Chiapas, Mexico.

Journalist John Lee Anderson spent five years in nine different countries interviewing friends and enemies of Che and tracking down previously unpublished documents for this very readable biography. His research makes possible serious discussion of the essential Che, fighter and Marxist theorist who disciplined himself to become the model "New Man" necessary to wage guerrilla warfare and make socialism possible:

I believe in the armed struggle as the only solution for the people who fight to free themselves and I am consequent with my beliefs. Many will call me an adventurer, and I am, but of a different type.... (623-33)

Guevara spelled out this conviction by both word and deed, inevitably separating himself from Soviet leaders who invoked peaceful coexistence. Che criticized the established communist parties of Latin American and Africa which clung to the desperate hope to be safe and socialist; of necessity, they eventually betrayed Che.

The three sections of this book take us from the cradle to the grave with "Unquiet Youth," "Becoming Che," and "Making the New Man." It is, as Booklist reports, "a significant history of the turbulent post-Second World War world of Latin America." And it is more. Anderson writes in his introduction, "It seemed clear that if one could unravel the mysteries of Che's life story, one might also shed light on some of the most relevant, but least known aspects of the Cold War era: the Cuban revolution's support for guerrilla movements, and the spawning of proxy wars in the Third World by both East and West."

From his youth Guevara was always personally adventurous. In daring personal exploits he tested the limits of the possible. He absorbed the anti-fascism of his father; on his own he read Freud, Lenin, Bertrand Russell and Neruda. But in the Buenos Aires of Juan and Evita Peron, Ernesto remained on the sidelines. Friends recall him as "observing, listening, sometimes debating, but studiously avoiding any active participation (in politics)."

The young Guevara, with the built-in arrogance of the well-born, traveled on a shoestring throughout South and Central America. For three years he lived among the poor, victims of what he came to see as comprador governments and foreign investors. As a medical student and later a doctor, he methodically kept a journal of his experiences and his reactions to them. They reveal a growing seriousness, an increasing radicalism.

Che, in company with other young idealists, went to Guatemala in the hopes of seeing socialism in action when Jacobo Arbenz was elected president of Guatemala. They all fled to Mexico City when Arbenz was deposed in a military takeover engineered by U.S. business interests. It was a critical radicalizing moment in Che's life when he realized that United Fruit Company wasn't about to allow any elected government to nationalize a portion of its property.

Arbenz' big mistake, Che wrote, was to placate his middle-class allies. When he opted for land reform, he should have organized the army and the people to defend themselves and arrested those who worked for the enemy. "A few shootings" of key conspirators might have stopped the Yankees from inflicting 50 years of hell on millions of Guatemalans. …

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