He was executed in Bolivia almost 55 years ago under the watchful eye of the CIA, and his picture still adorns murals, posters and T-shirts worldwide. In some shops he hangs between James Dean and Jim Morrison, also men from the category ‘sexy and dead’. Whether James Dean would have appreciated such a cult of personality, we do not know. The originally Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (1928-1967) would have put an end to it if he had been able to – let his collected letters on this, published under the appropriate title With luminous revolutionary greetings, little doubt.
The glorification of his person began in his lifetime, in the years 1961-1965. When Guevara was Minister of Industry of the Republic of Cuba, the island he and the Castro brothers had liberated from a corrupt and greedy American vassal regime in a guerrilla struggle. While Che encountered great difficulty in putting his revolutionary ideals into practice, the revolutionary regime began to create its own myth.
‘I did not like the attached photo from recently’, Che wrote to the newspaper’s editor-in-chief in late 1962 Revolution† “A character from Santa Clara has taken off with the one who has indulged in all sorts of heroic adjectives quite ridiculously.” And then there are several letters in which he protests against the superhuman qualities attributed to him: ‘Praise to me that I do not subscribe’, ‘Thank you for the way you portray me: too beautiful in my opinion’, ‘Delete everything ‘what you know is not the truth.’
Speaking of truth, the Castro regime later categorized Che’s ministerial year as the most beautiful of the revolution – in Che’s own letters they are not. The longest letter out With fervent revolutionary greetings dated March 1965, and is addressed to the maximum leader Fidel Castro himself. Che explains in detail what he thinks is going wrong in revolutionary Cuba. Small-mindedness, personal ambitions, luxury horses among the comrades who pay themselves ever higher wages, while the population is deprived of basic resources. How Che thought it was that Fidel in 1997 – at a time when ordinary Cubans died due to the loss of Soviet support – spent millions on a precious Che mausoleum with a five-meter-high Che statue, is anyone’s guess.
It’s hard not to get sympathy for the letter writer from With fervent revolutionary greetings† He can write well, he is not vain, he is not complacent, he is often self-critical, he even possesses self-loathing, think of it with revolutionaries. Cubans who had the misfortune of being categorized as “enemies of the people” were destined for little help if the revolutionary who put a gun to their temples was not self-righteous. (Letter from 1958: ‘Out of 8 guards we killed 3 and captured 4 (…) we must have more .44 bullets’) Che was well-read and capable of critical analysis, but unfortunately never looked beyond Marxist-Leninist dogmas . He did not allow himself the idea that the expropriation practices of the revolutionary regime were as unpleasant to ordinary Cubans as the exploitation practices of the American United Fruit Company – even though ordinary Cubans wrote about it to their Minister of Industry.
Che Guevara is one of the most idealized characters of the 20th century. Jean Paul Sartre crossed the newspaper Revolution to the crown by calling Che ‘the most complete man of our time’. Che is also one of the most demonized characters. For decades, in North American government offices, “a Che Guevara” was synonymous with “a dangerous hothead,” a bin Laden avant la lettre. The big profit by With fervent revolutionary greetings is that Che himself makes it clear to readers that he was an ordinary human being.
These letters provide fascinating material for scientists studying radicalization processes. In the first half of the 1950s, Argentine medical student Ernesto Guevara wandered through Latin America, writing faithfully to his mother and father in Buenos Aires. He already hates the bourgeois environment he grew up in: ‘Free boys like us would rather die than pay for the bourgeois comfort of a boarding house.’ He is far from revolutionary, he hates ideology, he sees his future in medical science, preferably at a European university.
In 1954, he witnessed the bloody coup in Guatemala by the American multinational United Fruit against a moderate left-wing, democratically elected government. “I can not tell you at what point I stopped reasoning and got some kind of faith,” he later wrote to his mother. This belief involves the armed struggle against world capitalism. His mother is shocked by the new militant-revolutionary incarnation of her son and advocates for the benefits of moderation. Che is outraged at ‘advice about moderation, selfishness, etc., or the most disgusting qualities a person can have.’ At the same time, this son contemplates his revolutionary mission with ironic distance: ‘In addition to the brave breasts you have borne, you have kicked a traveling prophet into the world who with a roaring voice proclaims the coming of the Day of Judgment.’
In a letter dated July 6, 1956 from Mexico, he writes for the first time about ‘a young Cuban leader who wants to liberate his homeland through armed struggle’, in whom we recognize Fidel Castro. For the next three years, in the Cuban jungle, Che becomes one of the main characters in the armed struggle. He no longer writes to his parents, he only gives instructions to peers: ‘Remember: the urgent questions are bullets and money, followed by nylon, jackets and shoes.’ Also a typical phrase from letters from those years: ‘I think in the current situation it would be good to rob a bank.’
In early 1959, the revolutionaries won. For Commander Che, that victory is not a blessing. The guerrilla fighter who felt like a fish in water is now given a top political position that often condemns him to an office. He bites the teeth of selfish comrades. He spends days responding to streaming fanmails. With each letter from the early 1960s, it becomes clearer that he will not spend the rest of his life as a Cuban apparatchik.
In late 1965, he tried to create a revolution in Congo. In 1966 he is in Bolivia. He often expected an early death from bullets. In 1955 he writes to his mother: ‘I can not believe that you would rather have a son who is alive but is an evil man than a son who is dead but who has acted everywhere after what he as his duty. ‘ He often quotes the Turkish poet Hikmet: ‘I only take the grief of an unfinished song with me to my grave.’ In 1966, his Cuban children Aliusha, Camilo, Celita and Tatico receive the last letter from their father from Bolivia: ‘Tacito, you first become a great man, and then we must see. If imperialism still exists, we will fight against it; when it’s gone, you, Camilo and I can go on vacation to the moon together. ‘
Ernesto Che Guevara: With Glowing Revolutionary Greetings – Letters 1947-1967. Translated from Spanish by Henriëtte Aronds and Brigitte Coopmans. Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep; 374 pages; € 25.