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A Life (More or Less) Revolutionary
Jorge Castañeda finds that Latin America's "only truly universal figure" is not politically relevant -- and neither is the revolution he helped shape

November 20, 1997

Last month, thirty years after his execution by the Bolivian army, Che Guevara was brought back to Cuba to be buried at the site of his greatest military triumph during the Cuban Revolution. The official burial of Guevara's newly discovered remains created a worldwide stir. In the years since his death the Argentinian guerrilla has become a cultural icon: five biographies are due out this year, and the man's image has been used to sell everything from skis to CDs to watches.

Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara Jorge Castañeda, the author of the new book Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, argues that Guevara's continued cultural relevance stems from his "mystical affinity" with the 1960s, when students and protesters rose up all over the world against economic, political, and cultural oppression. The idealistic guerrilla fighter, Castañeda writes, "came to embody the aspirations and beliefs of '68ers in Berkeley and Prague, Mexico City and Paris, Córdoba and Berlin." But just as those political and economic movements failed, Castañeda argues, so did Guevara ultimately fail. His efforts as the number-three man in Cuba to turn his adopted country into a communist utopia ran up against the pragmatism of both Castro and the leaders of the Soviet Union; his attempts at fomenting revolutions in the Congo and Bolivia were debacles.

Castañeda is well qualified to tell Guevara's story. A prominent Mexican intellectual, he has written or co-written six books, including Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War (1993), and The Mexican Shock: Its Meaning for the U.S. (1995), part of which grew out of his July, 1995, Atlantic article, "Ferocious Differences." He is a professor at both the National Autonomous University of Mexico and New York University, and is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times and Newsweek International.

Castañeda recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bacon.

Discuss this interview in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

From the archives:

"The Lowering Hemisphere," by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (January, 1970)

"While we squander young lives, resources, and prestige in Vietnam, we persist in shortsighted, niggardly policies in Latin America, an area far more vital to our national security than Southeast Asia. A noted historian examines our hypocrisy toward the Good Neighbors and offers some remedial suggestions."

"Latin-American Guerrillas," by Barry Lando (December, 1967)
"The fact is that nowhere in Latin America has a new popular revolution, through guerrilla warfare or other means, been successful. What could be more symbolic of this fact than the death of Ché Guevara? Supposedly the master guerrilla of them all, Ché was one of the oldest veterans of Castro's struggle in the Sierra Maestre."

Related links:

  • Read an excerpt from Compañero.
  • The Che Guevara Page
    An extensive resource that includes photographs and the first chapter of Guevara's book on guerrilla warfare.

  • Jorge Castaneda
    Jorge Castañeda
    What drew you to write Guevara's biography?

    He is the only truly universal Latin America figure. Also, his life was really a fantastic life, despite its complications and difficulties and contradictions. And a biography of Che was a way of dealing indirectly with the 1960s, which are for me a very fascinating time. Finally, this was part of a previous work of mine -- trying to help the Latin American left settle scores and accounts with the past. I had previously written a book on the Latin American left called Utopia Unarmed, the purpose of which was largely to have the Latin American left look back on its recent history and try to come to terms with what had succeeded, what had failed, what had been right, what had been wrong, and what to do. From there it made sense to move to the whole mythology of the armed left in the 1960s. Che was really a central figure of the armed left, so his biography was a part of that broader effort.

    Fidel Castro once commented that when he and Guevara first met, Guevara's "revolutionary development was more advanced than mine, ideologically speaking." How important was Guevara's ideological influence in bringing about the Cuban Revolution?

    Che's ideological influence wasn't important in bringing it about, but it was important in setting the course of a revolution that would have been victorious anyway, with or without him. During the time from just a year or so before the rebels took power until a couple of years after, Che's influence was very important in three ways: he was a key architect of the alignment or rapprochement with the Soviet Union; he was a key figure in the alliance of the rebel movement with the old Cuban Communist party; and he was a key figure in the radicalization of the revolution and its break with the United States.

    Guevara and Castro wanted to export the Cuban Revolution to other Third World countries. Was this a realistic goal? Are revolutions exportable?

    There were two problems with this notion they had. The first was Che's reading of the Cuban revolution itself. What he thought happened was not necessarily what happened -- that is, his sense that the Revolution was rural guerrillas with peasant support who overthrew a powerful dictatorship with no one else's involvement was not really accurate. This left aside the political part, the urban part, the labor part, the intellectual part, the foreign part. The Cuban Revolution was a much more complicated affair than Che made it out to be, so even if he had been right in believing that you could replicate the Cuban experience elsewhere, what you would have had to replicate was much more complicated than Che believed. One of the main reasons no such experience can be repeated is that in all revolutions the surprise factor is enormously important, and by definition the second time around there's no surprise. If you eliminate surprise, you're not eliminating revolution, but you're making it very difficult.

    Was Guevara influential in inspiring the Latin American guerrilla movements of the sixties and seventies?

    I think he was. It was very clear that in the 1960s the Cuban Revolution, the situation in Latin America, and Che's sex appeal all contributed to inducing a large number of Latin American youths, activists, and students to take up arms and replicate the Cuban Revolution elsewhere in Latin America. All of that ended in defeat, blood, death, torture, and oppression. None of it really prospered or worked. Che has to carry part of the responsibility for that, but not all of it. You can't blame someone for how others read his writings -- but he did write manuals for guerrilla warfare. Not only that, he helped train people, he organized them, and he sent them along what I consider to have been a mistaken path. But forget what I think. The fact is that that path led to defeat and death, and that's not an arguable proposition. One can argue about whether it was worth it, whether in the long term it was still a good thing, whether they ended in defeat and death because of terrible things the United States did -- but those are all different issues. It all ended in death and defeat.

    How did Guevara reconcile the violence that he and others used to ensure the success of the Cuban Revolution with the socialism based on moral incentives that he espoused?

    I don't think Che ever reconciled one with the other. He was never one to establish a link between means and ends, and he was never one to consider that the way you treated your enemies would probably end up having a great impact on the way you treated your friends. For him the use of violence to obtain power had nothing to do with the objectives that you sought when you were in power, and had nothing to do with the way you dealt with your friends when you were in power. These were all totally different things. Up to a point this was still a very fifties, traditional Marxist view. With some exceptions the Marxist-Leninist tradition held that what was important was not how you got to power but what you did with it, and not how you dealt with your enemies but how you dealt with your friends. It was only later -- in the late sixties and seventies -- that it became increasingly obvious to the left-wing Marxist-Leninist movement that all of these things were linked. But Che just didn't link them.

    How did the citizens of Cuba react to the violence used to obtain and retain power?

    My impression is that those acting in the cause of the Cuban Revolution, at least up until recently, did not exert the type of violence and repression against the people that you saw in other communist countries. And so the issue was not as pressing. Yes, they may have shot 400 or 500 people in the first weeks after they took power, in 1959. But that's a far cry from the violence of Soviet Russia under Stalin or of China under Mao. The violence in Cuba was much more selective, specific, and short-lived. In many cases, even without excusing the absence of due process, the people who were punished or shot actually were guilty of the things they were accused of.

    What was Guevara's vision for Cuba? How distant is modern Cuba from that vision?

    He had a very utopian vision of Cuba, and of the revolution in general. Cuba today is further removed from that vision than it ever has been. Since 1989 it has changed very dramatically -- it has become Latin Americanized. People are hustling after dollars and the country is faced with prostitution, crime, delinquency, inequality, unemployment -- things that weren't going on before and that certainly weren't part of the vision that Che had for Cuba.

    Guevara went from being a passionate believer in the Soviet Union's brand of socialism to a thorn in that country's side, arguing that it and its allies were "accomplices of imperial exploitation." Why did Guevara's opinion change so drastically?

    There were several factors. The first had to do with the quality and expedience of Soviet aid to Cuba. He quickly realized that it was just junk -- and it was junk that wasn't on time. Second, there was the political conditionality of that aid; in other words, in addition to sending junk that didn't arrive on time, the Soviets were much less altruistic and noble in this business than he had thought they were. Another factor was the missile crisis, which he considered to be a betrayal of Cuba by the Soviets. He was terribly upset when the Soviets withdrew their missiles. A fourth reason was the way in which the Soviets continued to support and to pressure the Cubans to support the Latin American communist parties, which Che had viewed from the very beginning as obstacles to real revolution in Latin America. And, finally, in a less important way, he radically disagreed with the reforms that were underway in the early sixties in the Soviet Union -- the so-called Khrushchev reforms that included decentralization, self-management or autonomy for some companies, and the introduction of some market elements into the socialist economy. He was an anti-Khrushchevite in that sense: anti-deStalinization, anti-decentralization, anti-peaceful coexistence of the Soviet Union and the United States.

    You suggest that Castro could have planned a rescue mission for Guevara in Bolivia but was deterred both because such an operation would have been difficult to conduct and because he wouldn't have known what to do with Guevara were he saved. Do you think that Castro betrayed Guevara?

    I don't think it's a question of betrayal, because betrayal would have meant actively trying to sink Che, and I don't think that was the case. I think Castro made a decision based on the information he had available, including what he thought Che would have wanted. Che didn't want to die in Bolivia, but he didn't want to be dragged out of there either. So Castro did both what he thought was best for the Cuban Revolution and what he thought Che would have wanted. Now that's not a betrayal, but obviously it was a conscious decision not to save him.

    Guevara died just before 1968, a year, you write, "when for the first time the youth of a large slice of the world engaged in short-lived but far-reaching revolts that Che, more than anyone else, would come to personify." Why was Guevara in life not able to inspire revolutions in the Congo and Bolivia, yet in death he became the symbol of revolt -- socialist and otherwise -- all over the world?

    He wasn't able to inspire revolutions because individuals don't inspire revolutions -- they inspire movements, respect, and, sometimes, adulation and admiration. In the Congo and Bolivia, where he was really trying to do something much more concrete than just be a source of inspiration, it was impossible to get anything accomplished. Once he was dead, of course, the fact that you could read him any way you wanted, and that there was no danger of being contradicted by him, made it easier in a sense for Che to inspire people. But the fact is that none of the political movements that Che inspired after his death in 1968 were triumphant. The cultural movements were, but the political movements didn't go anywhere.

    The New York Times reported last month that when Guevara's bones were interred at Santa Clara, the site of his greatest military victory during the Cuban Revolution, Castro said, "Che is fighting and winning more battles than ever." Do you agree? How important is the myth of Che to Castro's present hold on power?

    I don't think Che is still fighting and I don't think he's winning. I don't think that Che is politically relevant today. He's relevant culturally. I know it makes Cubans very upset that anyone would say this, but that's too bad. The myth of Che is not decisive for Castro's hold on power. It's helpful, but it isn't decisive. Castro would certainly not have been in a weaker situation if they hadn't found Che's remains, if they hadn't brought them back, if there hadn't been a ceremony marking the thirtieth anniversary of his death.

    People in the Cuban government have made several explicit statements (and Castro has made some elliptical ones) responding to my stance that Che is just a cultural figure. They don't like that at all. They identify the Revolution with him and feel that if you say that he's not relevant politically then in fact you're saying that the Revolution isn't relevant politically -- which I happen to believe is the case. But they don't like that to be said.

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