Young Che is the latest addition to the vast flood of devotional literature on the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara.
Young Che: Memories of Che Guevara by his
By Ermesto Guevara Lynch
Edited and Translated by
Lucía Álvarez de Toledo
(Vintage Books, 350 pages, $14.95 paper)
Young Che is the latest addition to the vast flood of devotional literature on the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara. At first blush, the inexhaustible appetite for this sort of thing is mystifying. Surely everything that could be said on the subject has had plenty of time to see the light of day? It has been a good forty years since Guevara was captured and executed in Bolivia, fifty since he landed in Cuba with Fidel Castro to fight his way to power, sixty since he departed his native Argentina to make his way around Latin America. The revolution for which he is known (now celebrating—if that is the right word—its fiftieth year) has reduced Cuba to ruin. No Latin American country, not even Chávez’s Venezuela, is pursuing his recipes for social transformation. Paradoxically, Guevara’s star shines brightest in countries that have never known violent revolution and are not likely to know it in the future.
The phenomenon of Che nostalgia is now a decade old. It feeds principally on the end of the Cold War, which allows the figure of Guevara to be conveniently decoupled from the monstrosity that was Communism (a process that would have caused him no end of indignation were he here to see it). Under these circumstances he becomes merely a generic rebel, a kind of meaningless icon ripe for an Annie Leibovitz portrait in Vanity Fair. Young people in what the New York Times likes to call “rich countries” mindlessly don T-shirts emblazoned with his image; his brand is even purloined by manufacturers of cheap watches and beer!
Apparently to restore some ideological meaning to his figure, Guevara’s epigones have been busily at work. The latest contribution is the volume under review, which is really two books in one. The first, by the revolutionary’s father, appeared in Spanish as long ago as 1981 and is available in English for the first time. The second is a collection of Che’s letters and diaries beginning in 1950, first written as a medical student roving around Argentina, and then later as a kind of revolutionary doctor in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and finally Guatemala. The last section deals with Mexico, where he met Fidel Castro, whose rebel band he famously joined.
These documents are stitched together with a commentary and notes provided by the editor. Though I have been reading material on this subject for nearly forty years and have written a fair amount about it as well, I cannot recall ever hearing of Mme. Álvarez de Toledo. She appears to be an Argentine lady of very advanced progressive views living in London, one who imagines that American readers are so ignorant of history that they need everything explained to them. The biographical notes instruct us as to the precise identity of such obscure figures as Karl Marx, Benito Mussolini, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, John Foster Dulles, and Nelson Rockefeller, though not always accurately. She ends her prologue by boasting that at present “Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela have democratically elected governments whose policies and ideals are probably closer to Guevara’s than to those of the United States”—a statement that blurs crucial distinctions beyond all imagination.
Guevara senior’s “memories” are often revealing, though not necessarily in the way intended by the editor. The revolutionary’s parents—one, a Guevara Lynch, the other a De la Serna—were both from “old” Argentine families, although in both cases they had long since lost their estates and were forced to labor in the liberal professions (Guevara senior was an architect). As Karl Marx on one occasion reminded us, downward mobility is often a generator of revolutionary sentiment, and in fact both parents were what we might call parlor pinks. At various points in the narrative it is obvious that while very left of center politically, the Guevaras mère et père lived a thoroughly haut-bourgeois lifestyle (even their home—the actual address is given in the text—was located in what is still one of Buenos Aires’ smartest districts). Moreover, according to this account, they were not reluctant to take advantage of their prestigious social connections.
Though asthmatic, their son Ernesto Junior grew up with the best of medical care, spent summers at the ranches of wealthy relatives, and could count on his parents to bail him out when he got into trouble. Señor Guevara’s narrative is painful to read. Though apparently an educated man, he writes with the voice of an agitated and disturbed 13 year old who has not fully digested the day’s Daily Worker. Here are some examples:
My son Ernesto had to teach me…the duty of men who fight for humanity…the enemy was not in Argentina, or Cuba, or Peru, or any other part of Latin America; the enemy was further away— it was from where the capitalist elite originates, and from where it sends its forces against those oppressed people via the heads of governments who serve their interests.
For the world around us, the fall of Batista should signify the return to a “democratic” type of government, where the people would elect their representatives and leaders. Experience has shown us that it is precisely in this type of government that the greatest contradictions are hatched.
And the most embarrassing of all:
The United States’ policies of direct interference in Latin America, in order to avail itself of the natural resources of the underdeveloped countries of Latin America over the last forty years [this was written in 1980], may have changed in appearance, but not in depth. The United States needs the natural resources of the Latin American continent in order to continue to be the world’s superpower—today more than ever, in view of the military defeats it has suffered in Asia, and the fear that these may repeat themselves in Africa and the Middle East. The present scarcity of energy and proteins is of great importance for this nation. The Latin American continent possesses vast oil reserves and enormous mineral wealth, as well as sufficient land to be able to become the bread-basket of the world. These are valid reasons for the United States to refuse to let go of its prey.
If this is what Guevara junior heard around the breakfast table every, one cannot be surprised at his subsequent ideological development.
THE SECOND PART OF the book consists of letters and diaries written by young Ernesto from various points in Latin America, some of which were found as recently as the 1970s. They make somber and often tedious reading. Much of the narrative concerns personal details of a rootless intellectual wandering around with no immediate focus, someone dwelling as it were in the interstices of life. Many obvious features of the Latin American environment are treated as if startling scientific discoveries— for example, that in Peru and Bolivia there are impoverished Indian populations. Or that Mexico—far from being a revolutionary state—is run by a clique of generals in tandem with corrupt businessmen and bought-off intellectuals. There is also much critical comment about Latin American politicians, even ones who at the time were regarded as mildly progressive. Behind the region’s problems, major and minor, there supposedly lurks the evil United States, which stays awake nights worrying about how to make things worse for the poor. The dogmatic intolerance of his statements foreshadows his sanguinary appetites when in charge of the execution squads at the La Cabaña fortress in Havana after the triumph of Castro’s revolution.
Guevara in power is of course far less interesting a subject than the young man morphing into a triumphant revolutionary. What kind of fascination attaches, after all, to a minister of industries who produces toothpaste that turns to stone upon being squeezed from the tube? Moreover, by focusing on the early years, all kinds of embarrassing questions can be avoided—such as the kind of regime that Guevara helped install in Cuba, complete with a censored press, neighborhood spies, and prison camps for non-conformists, Catholics, or homosexuals. Why dwell on the 16,000 executions or the more than 100,000 Cubans who have been jailed on ideological and political grounds? Only backward folk who watch Fox News could possibly be interested in such details.
The most important reason, however, why book publishers and movie producers seem so fixated on Guevara’s early years is even easier to explain. For liberals, intentions (real or imagined) are of greater value than results. In fact, for many of them results do not matter at all, only stated intentions. (Have you ever tried discussing rent control with one?) While Ernesto Guevara did not quite die in time to avoid all historical judgment, by flooding movie theaters and bookstores with prettified versions of a harmless revolutionary youth the purveyors of the myth can satisfy their yearnings for social change that is painless and pure. Perhaps it is no accident, as Marxists like to say, that these things are reaching high tide at this particular point in American political history. People who ordered this book on Amazon.com also ordered Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. A coincidence? Possibly, but probably not.
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