It's difficult to find a balanced assessment of Che Guevara these days. The people who buy t-shirts and posters of his face are generally unaware of the main events of his life, in which he often conducted or condoned acts of brutal violence. Meanwhile, those who condemn him as a bloodthirsty murderer are often ignorant of the political and economic tyranny he witnessed and felt a deep need to change as a young man traveling through Latin America.
Even movies like The Motorcycle Diaries and Steven Soderbergh's upcoming two-parter Che are of insufficient length to cover everything that happened in Guevara's action-packed 39-year life.
Jon Lee Anderson's biography Che: A Revolutionary Life is a perfect antidote for those who are tired of hearing about the Argentinean doctor only in black and white terms. Anderson (who served as chief consultant on Soderbergh's films) gives an exhaustive account of Guevara's upbringing and youth as the weak and asthmatic, but wilful and pampered son of a middle-class Argentinean family. He is also unflinching in his descriptions of the cold-blooded murders and executions that Guevara both carried out and ordered.
The young Che -- known as Ernesto until given his nickname in his twenties -- suffered from asthma, and Anderson outlines how his legendary stamina and determination emerged from this frailty:
Often unable even to walk, and confined to bed for days at a time, Ernesto spent long solitary hours reading books or learning to play chess with his father . . .
During his asthma-free spells, however, Ernesto was understandably impatient to test his physical boundaries. It was here, in the physical realm, where he first felt the need to compete. He threw himself into sports, playing soccer, table tennis, and golf. He learned to ride horseback, went shooting at the local target range, swam at the Sierras Hotel or in the dammed-up pools of local streams, hiked in the hills, and took part in organized rock fights between the warring juvenile barras.
This competitiveness and determination would later re-emerge in Che's famous endurance during the revolutionary guerrilla campaigns in the jungles of Cuba's Sierra Maestra region, the Congo, and in Bolivia. It was also through these early tests of endurance, which often left the young Ernesto collapsed, gasping, and dragged home by his friends, that he developed his rebellious and anti-authoritarian edge. His father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, was usually too preoccupied with trying to keep his financial affairs in order to keep his four children in line, and Celia Guevara, Che's mother, was overly indulgent. The result was that, if there was ever any threat of discipline, "Ernesto would run off into the brushy countryside, returning only when his parents' fears for his safety had long since overcome their anger."
Politically, though, Guevara was still unformed while he lived with his parents. They were secular and democratic with liberal leanings but certainly not communists. Guevara read a lot of political and philosophical books, but, rather than being won over by any of their arguments, he was known among his friends as "The Sniper" for his tendency to argue down anyone who expressed a strong opinion in favour of any one political system.
This would change, though, once Che began to travel around Latin America with friends as a young medical student. He was particularly affected by his time in Guatemala, where he arrived in late December 1953. Guatemala was then the scene of long-running tension between the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz and the powerful United Fruit Company, which was backed by the CIA and the US State Department. Anderson again does a good job of providing context with a few short, explanatory sentences:
Guatemala was a place where the Spanish conquest seemed fresh despite the passage of time, a place where a white and mixed-blood Creole minority had ruled for centuries over a native majority who existed by labouring on the vast private plantations of the oligarchy, or those of the United Fruit Company.
This state of affairs was a fact of life until the reformist ‘revolution' of Juan Jose Arevalo had overturned the ruthlessly authoritarian Ubico dictatorship in the 1940s and called for democratic change. Arevalo had been unable to implement all the reforms he promoted, but he was succeeded by a left-leaning Guatemalan colonel, Jacobo Arbenz, who pushed on with them. The most inflammatory of these was the land-reform decree Arbenz had signed into law in 1952, ending the oligarchic latifundia system and nationalizing the properties of United Fruit.
The United Fruit Company was a tentacular organization that had ruled the economies of several Central American countries for decades, keeping the poor native populations virtually enslaved, living in company towns and picking pineapples or bananas. United Fruit, supported by the US government's diplomatic and military power, set up dictatorships that would keep the masses of working natives from rebelling.
United Fruit's close ties to the US government were extremely personal. The Secretary of State and the head of the CIA, John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen Dulles, had both worked for the Sullivan and Cromwell law firm, which worked closely with United Fruit. John Moors Cabot, the Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs, had relatives who owned stake in United Fruit. President Dwight Eisenhower's personal secretary was married to United Fruit's public relations director.
In 1954, soon after Guevara arrived, the CIA launched Operation Success, a plan to help a right-wing, pro-US former Guatemalan army officer, Castillo Armas, take power from Arbenz. Guevara watched as Armas, backed with American mercenaries and funds, took over the country and overturned Arbenz's anti-corporate policies. The event changed Guevara's outlook on life, and from then on he would devote himself to armed struggle against western capitalism -- particularly after meeting Raul and Fidel Castro on a sojourn in Mexico in 1956.
From that meeting, it was but a few short steps, through a shared prison sentence, to the gathering of followers with whom they underwent a rigorous training regime, and then by boat (the famous "Granma") to the Sierra Maestra region of south-eastern Cuba, where, over the course of a two year guerrilla war, the group became battle-hardened leaders and national heroes.
It was on this campaign in the thickly jungled hills of the Sierra Maestra, that Guevara's childhood determination and his new-found political ferocity combined to turn him into a Solomon-like leader, coldly dispensing justice for the good of the revolution. An excerpt from his own journal shows his propensity for chillingly emotionless violence, when he executed a traitor in the rebel ranks:
The situation was uncomfortable for the people and for [Eutimio], so I ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 [-caliber] pistol in the right side of the brain, with exit orifice in the right temporal [lobe]. He gasped a little while and was dead. Upon proceeding to remove his belongings I couldn't get off the watch tied by a chain to his belt, and then he told me in a steady voice farther away than fear: "Yank it off, boy, what does it matter...." I did so and his possessions were now mine. We slept badly, wet and I with something of asthma.
This detached attitude towards violence remained apparent in Guevara after the seizure of power from the fleeing Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959, when he was appointed by Castro as commander of the Havana fortress known as La Cabana. It was there that Guevara, as "Supreme Prosecutor" of a revolutionary tribunal, ordered the execution by firing squad of 55 prisoners in his care and the long-term imprisonment of many more.
Though Guevara can never be faulted for his dedication to the cause of Cuban freedom and his strict adherence to the code of constant education, self-improvement, and hard work that he likewise imposed on others, the industrializing communist ideals that he and Raul Castro persuaded Fidel to gradually impose on the country's largely agrarian economy did the island nation no favours.
In February of 1962, the Cuban government was forced to impose food rationing on the population. Anderson explains:
Who was to blame for the shortages? Was it caused by the US trade embargo? In part, yes. Was it the revolution's radicalization that had caused the crippling exodus of technicians, managers, and traders from the island? Yes. Was it the incompetence of the revolution's leaders in attempting to convert a capitalist economy to a socialist one? Yes, all of these were contributing factors.
For a while, Che became the Minister of Industry in the Cuban government, but after only a few years, he felt he was missing his calling -- to be a beacon of liberty in other third world countries, leading fellow rebels against the forces of bourgeois western capitalism. From 1965 to his death in 1967 at the hands of a CIA-supported Bolivian army unit, he planned and fought largely failed missions in the Congo and Bolivia.
Like a powerful but tormented Greek hero, his own finest qualities drove Guevara to excesses of heedless violence. While his goal of liberating the oppressed populations of the Third World may have been admirable, his "ends justify the means" attitude led him to break the bounds of common decency and basic humanity. To paraphrase what William Gladstone said of Otto von Bismarck, Guevara was great for Cuba, in that he helped liberate it from the kleptocratic US puppet Batista -- but he was terrible for Cubans.