[Book Review] Che by Jon Lee Anderson

'What made you decide to operate in our country?' 'Can't you see the state in which the peasants live?' Che asked. 'They are almost like savages, living in a state of poverty that depresses the heart, having only one room in which to sleep and cook and no clothing to wear, abandoned like animals ...' 'But the same thing happens in Cuba', Selich retorted. 'No, that's not true,' Che said. 'I don't deny that in Cuba poverty still exists, but the peasants there have an illusion of progress, whereas the Bolivians live without hope. Just as he is born, he dies, without ever seeing improvements in his human condition.'

This biography achieves what I thought was inconceivable when dealing with a figure like Ernesto “Che” Guevara: being relatively objective.

Jon Lee Anderson's depiction of this complex figure starts with an overview of the Guevara household – a bourgeois family that fell into disgrace. Ernestito had a complicated childhood tainted mostly by his fight against asthma, a disease that would surface during the most tense moments of his life (e.g. the Sierra Maestra campaign, his Congo Expedition and his final moments in Bolivia). “Che”, however, made up for his physical shortcomings by exerting ferocious self-discipline, a trait that would frighten both his enemies and his revolutionary camaradas in the future.

Ernesto was certainly influenced by Socialist literature and ideals that grew in his fertile mind. As per Anderson's tale, it seemes that he was the real ideologue of the Cuban Revolution and the influence he had over Fidel (who bestowed the first comandante title of the Cuban Revolution on Che) can be seen throughout Cuba's political decisions.

Because of these ideals, Che's ruthlessness is one of the points that sticks out. Both the extrajudicial killings in the Sierra Maestra and the use of forced labour camps for civil servants that didn't perform according to expectations were some of the uses of violence by Che. However, this violence was only a means to an end in his mind. Che's ultimate ambition was to forge a society made up of real socialist men and women – people that would have a supreme collective ideal – and the only way to do so, in Che's mind, was through armed struggle. Interestingly, most, if not all, of Che's guerrilla incursions were accompanied by both a sense of doom and a sense of absolute duty to the revolution (“consider yourselves dead men” is what Che would say when sending people into battlefield).

As a means to justify this violence, Che was, in a way, the best embodiment of a socialist and political commissar: he refused extra privileges, kept everyone else around him in check, despised the Soviet Union leaders for living lush lives and he was always thinking about the collective. However, these ideals didn't always translate well into real life: part of Cuba's failed economic transformation into socialism, was due to Che's work in Government.

Che was the eternal foreigner motivated by the belief of a better way of life (in his late writings, he even critiqued the Soviet Union's economic paradigms of planned economy, which were also dogma in Cuba). In a way, his death in Bolivia seems to serve as a symbolic representation of his life: your own personal image and your view of the world might not be accurate reflections of reality. In fact, in spite of his beliefs, he wasn't the great strategic guerrilla commander he thought he was (as proven by his failures in Africa, Argentina and Bolivia) and in the places where he tried to export his struggle people were not so interested in the revolution as he estimated. His strategic principles worked in Cuba because of the Castro brothers' leadership. In short, it seemed like he was able to see the grand strategy but not the small human elements that make up the bigger picture.

Che's final words allegedly were:

“shoot coward, you are only going to kill a man.”

In that moment of final clarity, he knew he represented more than just himself even though he had failed to prove to himself that he would be able to export the Revolution.

Jon Lee Anderson's Che is absolutely recommended if you are interested in Che and in early modern Cuban history as both are one and the same.

See you in the next adventure,