Thursday, October 18, 2012

Che the Failed Guerrilla

"Che" by Flick User JFabra. License
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Che Guevara has become the ultimate symbol of counter-culture resistence and revolution. Ian Beckett in Modern Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies, (2001), however, has little praise for the actual success of Che as revolutionary.  Beckett's critique is founded on the failure of Che to spread global revolution.  Others have expressed ethical reservations about Che's pop-hero status.  Writing for Slate magazine in 2004 upon the release of the acclaimed biographical film "The Motorcycle Diaries", Paul Berman moves beyond effectiveness in his critique of "The Cult of Che", calling his fame, "an episode in the moral callousness of our time."  To Berman, "Che was a totalitarian.  He achieved nothing but disaster."  Berman suggests that Che was central to the "hardline pro-Soviet faction" in the Cuban revolution, and was neither tolerant nor discriminant when it came to violence.
Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads.  He founded Cuba's 'labor camp' system - the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims.  To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che's imagination.
Ernesto Guevara did not have a particularly revolutionary youth, beginning training in 1947 as a medical doctor at the age of nineteen, and spending summers working as a male nurse on merchant ships. Oddly, in 1950, he failed in an attempt to market an insecticide.  In his youth he travelled across South and Central America and observed the poverty there first hand.  Such experiences hardened his belief in Marxist revolution.
The 1954 American involvement in the overthrow of the Guzman government in Guatemala was a formative experience for Guevara. It was then that he received his nickname “Che”, which was Spanish for “buddy”, due to his frequent use of the term in his speech. In 1955, Che joined Castro in his revolutionary efforts, and led a guerrilla column into the Havana. With Castro's success over Batista in 1959, Che would become president of the National Bank of Cuba and minister of industry, working for the Castro government for a number of years.

One of Beckett’s main arguments is that insurgency is a product of its time and place, and theory developed to counter insurgents is also a product of its historical setting. He sees Guevara’s revolutionary theory, heavily influenced by the French Marxist philosopher Debray, as failing to note that corruption, inefficiency, military ineffectiveness, and unpopularity were the real causes in the end of the Batista regime  (p. 171) Beckett cites a number of attempts at rebellionin the 1960s which failed to replicate the Cuban revolution in countries such as: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela.  Che would leave Cuba in 1965, due to friction there with certain leaders.  He hoped to foment global revolution, but attempts at training guerrilla forces in the Congo failed.

Beckett reserves the title of “the greatest failure of all” for that of Guevara’s attempts in Bolivia. (p. 173) In 1966 Guevara arrived there in hopes to organize resistance, but the 1950s had seen land reform and nationalization of the mining industry which denied Guevara the necessary bedrock of discontent. That Bolivia president Rene Barrientos, was of peasant origin did not help Che’s cause. Even the Bolivia communist party leaders objected to Che’s insistence on military control of the revolution, and abstained from support. Difficulties in the rugged terrain resulted in problems of manoeuvre, and as Beckett puts it, Guevara's force, "spent much of its time lost in the jungle.” (p. 174)
Guevara’s ultimate demise was a product of this lack of support, and the operations of a American Special Forces Mobile Training Team, under Major Robert “Pappy Shelton”. The Green Berets trained a ranger battalion for the Bolivian army which was deployed in fall of 1967. By 8 October 1967, Che’s remaining eighteen guerillas were surrounded at La Higuera. The wounded Che was captured and executed, and his body exhibited in Vallegrande.  Declassified American documents relate the final hours of his life.  A Lieutenant Perez was given the order to kill Guevara, but apparently did not have the heart to do so.   Perez asked Guevera what his last wishes were.
Guevara replied that he only wished to 'die with a full stomach'.  Perez then asked him if he was a 'materialist', by having requested only food.  Guevara returned to his previous tranquil manner and answered only 'perhaps'.  Perez then called him a 'poor shit' and left the room.  By this time, Sgt Terran had fortified his courage with several beers and returned to the room where Guevara was being held prisoner. [...]  'Willy', the prisoner taken with Guevara, was being held in a small house a few meters away.  While Terran was waiting outside to get his nerve back, Sgt Huacka entered and shot 'Willy'.  'Willy' was a Cuban and according to the sources had been an instigator of the riots among the miners in Bolivia.  Guevara heard the burst of fire in his room and for the first time appeared to be frightened.  Sgt Terran returned to the room where Guevara was being held.  When he entered, Guevera stood and faced him.  Sgt Terran told Guevara to be seated but he refused to sit down and stated, 'I will remain standing for this.'  The Sgt began to get angry and told  [...] him.  'Know this now, you are killing a man.'  Terran then fired a burst from his M2 Carbine, knocking Guevara back into the wall of the small house.  "Debriefing of Officers of Company B, 2nd Ranger Battalion"(

The order to kill Guevara was made by General Ovando, the Chief of the Bolivian Armed Forces.  Walt Rostow wrote President Johnson of the execution, "I regard this as stupid, but it is understandable from a Bolivian standpoint.On the 13th of October, Rostow wired the president that Che was confirmed as dead.  It was long thought the body was discarded into the jungles via helicopter, but in 1997 Guevara’s remains were found under an airstrip in Vallegrande and re-interned in Cuba.
Date     Photo taken on 5 March 1960;
Source     Museo Che Guevara, Havana Cuba
Author     Alberto Korda Copyright

Che's beret-clad and bearded head has been said to be the most repoduced image in the world.  It seems that given his success as revolutionary, that Che as symbol, the Che of the rock t-shirts, and flags adorning teenage bedrooms across the world, is a fairly unlikely figure.  Indeed, one might say that he has inspired many more revolutionaries merely through the religious passion that his idol has evoked, more than any actual savvy regarding guerilla war.  In speaking of the Che's portrayal in "The Motorcycle Diaries", Berman notes "the entire movie, in its concept and tone, exudes a Chistological cult of martyrdom, a cult of adoration for the spiritually superior person who is veering toward death - precisely the kind of adoration that Latin America's Catholic Church promoted for several centuries, with miserable consequences."  The romantic ideal of Che as martyred revolutionary will probably never be excommunicated from the public mind.
"Che Guevara Monument and Mausoleum_Cuba 224" By James Emery.  License
Attribution Some rights reserved by hoyasmeg

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