Ernesto Che Guevara: A Half-Hundred Years of Solitude
Thursday, 28 September 1967. Ernesto “Che” Guevara writes in his diary of the Bolivian guerrilla campaign: First they spread the news of my death; then this was denied.
This was a premonition, of course. By then, the so-called “Guerrillero Heroico” had little more than a week to live. This is the first and only time that Che refers to his own death in the diary. His incisive instinct did not betray him: he knew it was the end, and that – after a daring decade of tempting fate daily – immortality was finally within reach. He knew his myth was now at hand, knocking on history’s door.
Guevara killed many people during his lifetime, most of them innocent or with their guilt far from having been proved. But Che didn’t care about such technicalities, a legacy of the capitalist past. Neither the Cuban revolution nor the revolution he felt was now sweeping the world could afford to pay attention to such decadent details of “democracy”, which Che’s vision of the New Man had a duty to ignore in the pursuit of a Marxist utopia – not tomorrow, but right away. Now was the moment. Death for Ernesto Guevara was the true locomotive of history. Justice was a class concept for him. Life, like Heaven, could wait.
In practice, Che killed almost no one on the battlefield. (He wrote some canonical pamphlets about guerrilla warfare, but he himself was not a successful guerrillero.) His victims, in the thousands, were political opponents in Cuba after Castro’s revolution of January 1959, most of them condemned to death in kangaroo courts, their trials lasting only a few minutes.
As President of the National Bank, Guevara signed (as Che) the new Cuban revolutionary currency, with the same swiftness with which he signed Che on these death sentences. What’s more, during the early Sixties he enjoyed leading night sessions of firing squads in La Cabaña Castle in Havana, casually inviting guests – including radical leftists from abroad – to witness this Dante-esque spectacle of “revolutionary justice” alongside him.
In October 1967, it was now his turn to be killed. His final days became increasingly desperate, as they did for the few loyal men still with him. Pastoral poetry emerges from Guevara’s writings as death draws nearer and nearer. The final midnight before his capture by the military in the Yuro Ravine, Bolivia, he writes that he and his men walked under “a very small moon”.
It was the last moon he would ever see, the last moon of an epoch that was now concluding only to be, once again, on the verge of starting. There is nothing more idealistic than a materialist ideology; since its very conception in the nineteenth century, Marxism – as every dogma before or since – has always relied on myth.
On Monday October 9th, around noon, Sergeant Jaime Terán of the Bolivian army entered the schoolhouse where Che Guevara had been held captive for a day. Terán is said to have been shaking when Che asked him to be allowed to stand before being shot. Terán then fired an M-2 carbine at Che’s chest and sides, taking care not to aim at his face. He had received orders a minute earlier to the effect that photos of the corpse were more important than the execution of the man as such. It was an un-dramatic scene; in a profound way, it was very silent. (Che’s biographer Jon Lee Anderson has tried his best to correct this by fictionalising Che’s last words to Terán: “Shoot, you are only going to kill a man.”)
The End. Curtain.
Or maybe not.
In his Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, Guevara narrates a scene that sees him about to die during the revolutionary uprising in Cuba in December 1956, only a decade before he did die in Bolivia. Che evokes one of Jack London’s literary heroes, who decides to “[meet] death with dignity” after realising that he is trapped in the beautiful but ruthless Alaskan winter. The protagonist of this short story, To Build a Fire, suddenly sees that “he had been acting like a fool. He had been running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” He decides “to sleep his way to death” because “there were many worse ways to die”.
Fatefully, Ernesto Guevara would have to die a much more dreadful death, wide awake. It is well known that he was so afraid that he almost fainted when informed that he wasn’t going to be extradited to the United States – as expected – but would be killed, vulgarly, on the spot, by practically illiterate soldiers. (Paradoxically, it was a Cuban – the CIA agent Félix Rodríguez – who gave Che a final embrace after confirming his death sentence.)
All this doesn’t make Che a coward. On the contrary, it makes him human, despite himself. Che had written that hatred and violence were the utmost virtues of the revolutionary; for moment or so, perhaps he understood the pain he had inflicted for no reason upon countless Cuban families. Perhaps he repented being “Che” in front of the Bolivian bullets, and became “Ernestito” again, a virtuous, intelligent kid surrounded by love in Rosario, in the Argentinian province of Santa Fe.
It‘s easy to read between the lines, in Che’s campaign diary, that his band of guerrillas was abandoned as soon as it infiltrated Bolivia; they received little to no effective support from Fidel Castro or the Soviet Union. Che and his men were, for many months, revolutionary Robin Hoods, hunted like chickens while running around foolishly for their lives, their heads already cut off by the Cold War – “howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly”, as per the ending of To Build a Fire.
It’s been half a century since those almost paleo-historical events. Fewer and fewer people are still alive who ever met Che. He belongs now to a remote and literary past, not from Cuba to the Congo or from the Sierra Maestra mountains to the Yuro Ravine, but from Argentina to Alaska: Che has become but a character from Jack London, lost beyond the Yukon.
It’s not only the good who die young, but also the lonesome cowboys who, like Che, wanted to be writers first; to be, as Che yearned in one of his poems, the “dawn’s ardent prophet”, miraculously marching “through remote unelectrified roads” to prevail or to die with his “guerrilla bones covered by a shroud of Cuban tears”.
It’s been half a century of homage to, and manipulation of, Ernesto Guevara, man or monster.
It’s been half a century of homage to, and manipulation of, Ernesto Guevara, man or monster. No one in Cuba sheds tears for him anymore (his mortal remains have rested in Santa Clara city since 1997). Deep into the twenty-first century, I wonder if anyone will ever come to know this utterly unknown Che: criminal, saint, symptom. He is a sort of socialist Steppenwolf who, despite his communitarian vocation, ended up embodying the sensational solitude of our age.