‘The True Revolutionary Is Guided by Strong Feelings of Love’

John Gerassi, a former editor of Time and Newsweek magazine and a correspondent for the New York Times, is the author of "The Great Fear in Latin America" and editor of "Venceremos: Speeches and Selected Writings of Che Guevara."

Neither terrorism nor the longing for revolution will ever stop, as long as the people of what was once called the Third World remain convinced that their misery is the result of the greed and contempt of the United States. But terrorists in their desperate and inchoate rage kill innocent people and cannot become genuine heroes even to the world’s most downtrodden.

Revolutionaries, however, can. Whether they fail or succeed, genuine revolutionaries often win the hearts of the world’s romantic and idealistic, especially the young, who admire in them their passionate rejection of an unjust economic and social order which they insist causes so much hopelessness and needless death. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, “probably the most genuine revolutionary leader,” as even Henry Kissinger admitted in his memoirs, inspired such admiration--admiration that can be seen still in the banners and T-shirts worn by a younger generation seeking to protest “globalization.”

Two new books open a window on Guevara and his quixotic quest to remake the world and on his comrades who, like him, were, as he wrote, “willing to forgo every comfort to fight for another country” and to follow him into the worst abysses, from Zaire to Bolivia.


In 1965, Che, as he is known the world over (the nickname meaning “hey” was given to him by the Cubans because he constantly used it, as do most Argentines, to call someone, usually accompanied by vos, “you”) and some of his top aides, veterans of the victorious 1959 revolt against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, secretly went to Zaire (then called Congo) to help the remnants of the nationalist movement of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who had been murdered with the connivance of Belgian and CIA agents.

In 1967, after Belgian and CIA mercenary armies forced the Cubans back across Lake Tanganyika into Tanzania, Che, with only 16 of his Congo veterans, launched a guerrilla operation in Bolivia, hoping to unleash anti-U.S. wars of liberation throughout South America. Yankee imperialism is like an octopus, he explained; its tentacles reach across the globe. “We must cut them off: create two, three, many Vietnams.”

Defeated by 1,800 CIA-trained and CIA-led Bolivian Rangers, Che was caught wounded but alive in October, tortured then summarily shot through the heart by a Cuban veteran of the Bay of Pigs who had become a CIA officer. He was then displayed bare-chested (neatly patched up so as not to show torture marks) in the hope that no more such attempts would ever again be initiated against pro-U.S. regimes. Instead, Guevara became a quasi-religious symbol of justice and liberation to the poor and exploited all over the world and to many of the socially conscious new generations, then and today. “Be like Che,” Fidel boomed to Habaneros on the day he announced his death. “May our children be like Che,” he still says today.

Most works published in the United States since his death 34 years ago scoff at such ludicrous but provocative slogans. Jon Lee Anderson, who has written the longest (814 pages) of the spate of recent biographies (“Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life”), views the Castro-U.S. rivalry as a tit-for-tat game and, while admiring Guevara, cannot take charges of U.S. domination of the Third World seriously, which makes Che’s commitment appear somewhat absurd. Alma Guillermoprieto, a courageous Washington Post correspondent in Salvador during its worst military repressive days, sees Che as a fanatic unable to “back down, admit defeat.” Jorge Castaneda uses his analytic powers (“Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara”) to try to destroy the Che legend as incompatible with a Mexican middle class which seeks accommodation, peace and tranquillity. The late Tad Szulc, once the New York Times’ most perspicacious correspondent in Latin America, feels that Che failed because he ignored Castro’s suggestions (“Fidel: A Critical Portrait”), though he does admit, as he wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1997, that Latin America is still, as Guevara complained, “torn asunder by hunger, poverty, disease, injustice and hatred. In this sense, Guevara’s offering may be found in the lessons of his short life.”

During each of his ventures, or shortly thereafter, Che wrote, and Cuba later published, a detailed memoir about the revolution’s goals, tactics, risks and achievements. Brutally honest about his own character, he gave his critics plenty of ammunition with which to condemn his temper, his arrogance and his misplaced self-confidence. From his “Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War,” skeptics could ridicule his assertion that “the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love.” In his “Bolivian Diary,” they picked at his lament that he did not feel at home--or wanted--in Cuba, abandoning his wife and children and the fruits of power for meaningless bravado.

Now, in his “The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo,” critics will be able to mock his lack of irony, his talk of creating a just society by “rebuilding men’s souls” and his conviction that revolutionary soldiers “cannot be formed in an academy but only in warfare.” Written in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the weeks after he escaped from Congo in 1964, this diary reveals Che in all his strengths and weaknesses. He is harsh with his men but harsher with himself, intolerant of carelessness but forgiving of mistakes, incapable of wooing the Congolese into concerted action but always willing to lead his contingent head first. Cuba did not publish “The African Dream” until Laurent Kabila, whom Che had met in 1964 and who decades later toppled the dictator Mobuto Sese Seko from power, was assassinated last January. Che had described Kabila as a lazy, hard-drinking, womanizing opportunist (albeit with great charisma) and his ragtag forces as superstitious, incapable of military discipline and too proud to listen to instructions.


With only one rather useless map of the whole contested area, however, and none showing the deployment of forces, this memoir has little historical or military value, though it contains many psychological insights into Guevara’s character. The battle plans are confusing; the camp sites hard to locate or even imagine; the confrontations murky. Even the list of names offered as dramatis personae fails to explain who was where and who did what. But those details are mercifully included in Richard Gott’s first-rate introduction, which gives a clear overview of Congo’s bloody history from its 1961 independence from Belgium to the present and a step-by-step account of the 160-strong Cuban force which went with Guevara hoping to end the Belgian-U.S. design upon Congo’s vast mineral wealth. Gott never underestimates the problems facing Guevara and his men, nor does he dismiss the CIA’s vicious campaign to capture that wealth. His account dramatically supports Guevara’s warning that neocolonialism “is the most redoubtable form of imperialism--most redoubtable because of the disguises and deceits that it involves, and the long experience that the imperialist powers have in this type of confrontation.”

In “Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976,” Piero Gleijeses brilliantly describes those deceits and disguises, with all their accompanying blood and guts and glory. Over the 10 years it took him to research this book, Gleijeses seemingly tracked down every lead, every participant, every document on all sides of the conflicts. His book is a necessary corrective to past misinterpretations of how and why the Cubans intervened in Africa. He shows that Anderson’s faith in his CIA sources was naive, that many of Castaneda’s “facts” were wrong or invented, that Guillermoprieto’s judgment was flawed and that Szulc misread Che and Castro’s squabbles.

Gleijeses persuaded the Cuban authorities to open their archives and even obtained a copy of Che’s Congo diary before Che’s widow, Aleida March, edited it for the American edition and even before it had been published in Havana. British mercenaries and CIA officers he interviewed speak candidly and reveal their arrogance and prejudice, and Cuban survivors describe their fears, their suffering and their commitment even now to the revolutionary project.

The result is a fascinating account of Cuban involvement in Africa, starting with Castro’s overtures in 1962 to Ben Bella, newly independent Algeria’s first president, including an account of how the Cubans defeated South Africa’s white elite corps in “Operation Carlota” in Angola in 1975 and ending with how the Cubans helped to bring down South Africa’s apartheid regime.

But Guevara’s diaries are the record more of failure than of success, and one has to ask whether the citizens of one country want to be led by strangers from another. And do their leaders want to be led by such a stranger? The Cubans never did win the support of Congolese peasants. But Guevara blamed neither his Congolese comrades, who had no experience mounting revolutionary war, nor his men, who couldn’t speak Swahili, much less the local dialects. (He took lessons and tried hard, but there was never enough time.) He repeatedly complained that everyone had misjudged how much time it would take to start making progress. Back in Havana, he wailed: They thought in terms of months. He had estimated at least five years. In reality, it would take 30.

Of one thing there can be no doubt: the personal courage and commitment of Guevara and his men. They were totally committed dedicated revolutionaries. They fought under unbelievably adverse conditions in Congo, often going without food for days at a time, ravaged by malaria, mosquitoes, scorpions, snakes and superstitious allies (whose cult forbade them to touch a dead man). Sixteen of the Cuban survivors of the forlorn African adventure would go on to join Guevara in his equally arduous and doomed attempt to generate a continental guerrilla revolt in Bolivia. Like Guevara, they sometimes got depressed, sometimes lost their cool, sometimes wanted to quit, sometimes lost their lives. But they stuck it out, because, like Guevara, they believed that human beings deserve a better world--a world worth fighting for in the face of imperial intransigence. That desire, however tarnished by acts of terrorism (which Guevara, for one, always condemned), is an impulse which cannot be stilled and which yet has the power to impassion people throughout the world.