Monday, October 9, 2017

A day of anguish

‘A day of anguish. At times it seemed as if it would be our last. At dawn we brought up water and then Luis and Willy went out immediately to scout for another possible descent to the canyon. They returned at once as the entire hill in front was traversed by a road and a peasant on horseback was riding on it. At 10 a group of 46 soldiers with their knapsacks passed by, taking ages to get out of sight. At 1200 another group, this time of 77 men, passed by. At this moment a shot was heard. The soldiers immediately took their positions.’ This is from the diary of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the great Latin American revolutionary hero. Having been a key figure in the Cuban revolution and then in Fidel Castro’s communist state government, he left Cuba wanting to take up arms again for the revolutionary cause elsewhere, first in the Congo, and then in Bolivia where 10 days after the above diary entry, and half a century ago today, he was executed by Bolivian forces.

Guevara was born into a middle-class family in Rosario, Argentina, in 1928. From 1948, he studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires but undertook two substantial and formative journeys during his undergraduate years: a solo trip through northern Argentina on a motorised bicycle, and the more famous trek through the rest of South America with his older friend Alberto Granado on a Norton motorbike. Granado remained in Venezuela but Che returned to Buenos Aires to finish his medical degree, which he did in 1953. By then, he had become determined to do something about the poverty and poor conditions he had witnessed across the continent. He went first to Bolivia with a friend, but soon ended up in Guatemala, where he saw an opportunity to battle against capitalist exploitation. He joined the pro-communist regime until it was overthrown; he then fled to Mexico, where he met Fidel Castro. He joined Castro’s revolutionary group and began training for an invasion of Cuba.

Che served as Castro’s chief lieutenant soon after the invasion of Cuba in 1956, playing a prominent role in the two-year guerrilla war. With the fall of the dictator, Fulgencio Batista, Guevara served in many key roles for the government, guiding Cuba towards alignment with the Soviet Union, instituting agrarian land reform, helping improve literacy, becoming president of the national bank, and acting as a diplomatic representative abroad for Cuban socialism. In the first half of the 1960s, he served as Cuba’s minister for industry. He was married twice, to Hilda Gadea in 1955, and to Aleida March in 1959, with one child by Hilda and four by Aleida. In 1965, Che left Cuba, first to foment (unsuccessfully) revolution in the Congo, and then in Bolivia where he was captured by the Bolivian army and executed on 9 October 1967.

Wikipedia offers this assessment of the man: ‘Guevara remains both a revered and reviled historical figure, polarized in the collective imagination in a multitude of biographies, memoirs, essays, documentaries, songs and films. As a result of his perceived martyrdom, poetic invocations for class struggle and desire to create the consciousness of a “new man” driven by moral rather than material incentives, Guevara has evolved into a quintessential icon of various leftist movements. Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, while an Alberto Korda photograph of him [above], titled Guerrillero Heroico, was cited by the Maryland Institute College of Art as “the most famous photograph in the world” ’ Further information is also available at NSA archives, companero che, and World Affairs.

As well as several political books, Guevara also left behind diaries. One, about his youthful journey by motorcycle, has been turned into a famous book and film - The Motorcycle Diaries. But there are others less well known - The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in Congo; diaries that Che kept during the Cuban guerrilla war; and the Bolivian diaries first published in 1968 - The Complete Bolivian Diaries of Ché Guevara as edited by Daniel James. This latter was reissued by Cooper Square Press in 2000 with an introduction by Henry Butterfield Ryan.

Ryan, indeed, provides a fascinating insight into how, in the 1960s, the Bolivian diaries themselves ‘entered the tumultuous world of revolution, counter-revolution, and espionage’. And he has this to say about the contents: ‘Shortly after the Bolivian diaries became public, Guevara’s supporters began to speak of them as works that threatened “imperialism,” calls to revolution. They are far from that. They are the very frank and personal journals of a man trying desperately, and against great odds, to do something that proved impossible. He records all the irritation, pain, and disappointment of his mission. There are no heroic phrases, no ringing cries to rush to the barricades. The diaries comprise, whatever else, a poignant story, courageous but sad; they chronicle the increasing hopelessness of Guevara’s undertaking, and end only on the day before the inevitable disaster, which one can foretell almost with certainty by the middle of the written entries.’

The following extracts from the Bolivian diary have all been taken from the 2000 edition. (See also Che’s last days about the Bolivian government’s decision in 2008 to publish a facsimile edition of the Bolivian diaries.)

23 February 1967
‘A black day for me; I made it by sheer guts, for I am very exhausted. Marcos, Braulio, and Tuma left in the morning to prepare the path while we waited in the camp. There we deciphered a new message announcing that mine had been received at the French letterdrop. At 12:00 a.m. we left under a sun that melted the stones and shortly thereafter I had a fainting spell as we reached the top of the highest hill; from then on I walked by forcing myself. The highest point of that area has an altitude of 1,420 meters and overlooks a vast area including the Rio Grande, the mouth of the Nacahuasu, and part of the Rosita. The topography is different from that which is marked on the map. From a clear dividing line it descends abruptly to what looks like a wooded plateau 8 to 10 kilometers wide, at the end of which flows the Rosita; then there rises another ridge with altitudes equivalent to those of this chain. We decided to go down through a practical but very steep path in order to follow a stream which leads to the Rio Grande and from there to the Rosita. Contrary to what the map indicates, there appear to be no houses along the banks. We camped at 900 meters after a hellish journey, without water, and the night falling upon us. Yesterday morning I heard Marcos cursing at a comrade and today at another one. I will have to talk to him.’

26 June 1967
‘A black day for me. It seemed as though everything was going along quietly and peacefully and I had sent 5 men to relieve those in the ambush on the road to Florida, when shots were heard. We went quickly on our horses, and came upon a strange spectacle. In the midst of an intense silence, in the hot sun were the bodies of 4 soldiers lying on the sand of the river bank. We couldn’t find the weapons as we didn’t know the enemy’s position. It was 1700 hours and we waited for nightfall to effect the rescue. Miguel sent word that he could hear sporadic firing on his left. It was Antonio and Pacho, but I gave the order not to shoot without being sure. Immediately, one could hear shots that seemed to come from both sides, and I gave the order to retreat as we could lose under those conditions. The retreat was delayed and news arrived that Pombo had been wounded in one leg and Tuma in the stomach. We took them quickly to the house to operate on them with the instruments that we had there. Pombo’s wound was superficial and he only had a headache and was still mobile; but Tuma’s wound had destroyed his liver and punctured his intestines, and he died during the operation. With his death I lost an irreplaceable truly loyal comrade of many years standing, and I miss him as I would a son. He had asked that his watch be given to me, but while I was still attending him the others gave it to Arturo. He agreed that it be sent to Tuma’s son, whom Tuma had never seen, as I had done with the watches of the other two comrades who had been killed earlier. We loaded the body on one of the animals and took it some distance away for burial.

We took two new prisoners: a carabinero lieutenant, and a carabinero. We gave them a lecture and we let them go in just their undershorts. Because of a misinterpretation of my orders, they were stripped of everything they had. We came out of it with 9 horses.’

10 July 1967
‘We left late because we lost a horse which turned up later. We went over the highest altitude, 1900 meters, via a route that was rarely used. At 1500 hours we reached an abandoned house where we decided to spend the night, but a disagreeable surprise awaited us, for the path ended right there. Some abandoned footpaths were explored, but they also led nowhere. Some huts which might make up the village of Filo can be seen in front of us.

The radio announced a skirmish with guerrillas in the El Dorado area, which is not shown on the map but it is located between Samaipata and Rio Grande; the Army reported that one of its members was wounded, and attributed two deaths to our force.

On the other hand, the statements made by Debray and El Pelado were not good; above all they should not have admitted the existence of a plot to form an intercontinental guerrilla group.’

28 September 1967
‘A day of anguish. At times it seemed as if it would be our last. At dawn we brought up water and then Luis and Willy went out immediately to scout for another possible descent to the canyon. They returned at once as the entire hill in front was traversed by a road and a peasant on horseback was riding on it. At 10 a group of 46 soldiers with their knapsacks passed by, taking ages to get out of sight. At 1200 another group, this time of 77 men, passed by. At this moment a shot was heard. The soldiers immediately took their positions. The officer ordered them to go down to the ravine which seemed to be ours. Anyway [illegible word]; they communicated by radio and seemed satisfied, and continued their march. Our refuge has no defense against an attack from the height, and the possibilities of escape are remote if they discover us. Later a soldier who had been delayed passed by with a tired dog he had to pull along. Later still, a peasant guiding another straggling soldier went by. In a short time the peasant returned and nothing finally happened. But the fear when the shot was heard was really serious.

The soldiers all passed with knapsacks, which gives the impression that they are retreating, and we saw no fires in the little house that night, nor did we hear the gunfire with which soldiers usually welcome the evening. Tomorrow we will scout the whole day, all over the ranch. A light fell on us, but I do not think it was sufficient to erase our tracks.

The radio reported that Coco has been identified and gave some confused news about Julio; Miguel was confused with Antonio, whose duties in Manila were mentioned. At first they reported my death, then later denied it.’

The Diary Junction

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