The life of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna is most like a legend. The truth is simmered over a slow flame along with countless inaccuracies. Since the date of his birth until the date of his death in the Bolivian village of La Higuera, mix-ups abound.
According to the official Cuban historiography, Ernesto Guevara, alias Che, was born on 14 June of 1928 in Rosario, Argentina, and was assassinated on 8 December of 1967 in Bolivia.
The American biographer and journalist John Lee Anderson offers another version, by pointing out that the date listed on Che’s birth certificate is false. He alleges that the reason must have been to cover up the pregnancy of Celia de la Serna, Che’s mother. At the time of her marriage to Ernesto Guevara Lynch on 10 December of 1927, she was three months pregnant.
Anderson’s version is supported by the Argentine biographer Julia Constenla, to whom Celia personally confirmed Che Guevara’s true birth date and the circumstances of her pre-marital pregnancy.
As far as the official Cuban media are concerned, Che was born a month later. As such, the 85th Anniversary of his birth was celebrated last Friday, 14 June. Surrounding his death, another curious bit arises.
In Cuba’s elementary and high schools it is taught that Che was assassinated on 8 October of 1967 in the Bolivian hamlet of La Higuera. Scholarly texts highlight that he could have been captured in Quebrada del Yuro, after being injured in the leg due to an automatic rifle malfunction.
The Castros regime loves epic odes. They speak little of how José Martí died in an absurd skirmish dressed like a wedding guest and trotting along on a white horse. A perfect target for the colonial Spanish army.
When a security guard at the Peruvian embassy, Pedro Ortiz Cabrera, died on 1 March of 1980, the official Cuban press blamed the driver of the bus that crashed violently against the embassy gates with the intention of requesting asylum.
It was never mentioned that the true cause was the ’friendly fire’ of his own comrades. During the United States occupation of Grenada in 1983, the Cuban media got ridiculous.
In a fervent paean of praise, in the best North Korean style, an official announcement told us that the valiant Cuban collaborators who defended the airport they were building in Granada died embracing the Cuban flag in battle against the U.S. 82nd Division.
A few days later it became known that there was no such fight. Nor did anyone die gripping the national flag: the supposed officer in command of the troops ran away and requested asylum in the embassy of the erstwhile USSR.
Thus, historians should read the official versions of the “legendary guerrilla expedition in Congo or Bolivia” led by Che with a magnifying glass.
Ernesto Guevara has as many followers as he has detractors. To the extent that in May of 1968 in Paris, disgruntled students utilized his image as the guardian of their protests. His photo (taken by Alberto Korda in March of 1960 in the port of Havana, at the site of the explosion of a Belgian freighter that was transporting light arms) has been seen around the world.
Che has become a marketing icon. The “disgraceful capitalists” that he so hated sell countless products with his image. And his relatives in Havana collect copyright royalties.
Guevara, also nicknamed el Chancho (“the pig”) for his scruffiness and lack of personal hygiene, which gave him the air of a Buenos Aires hippy, was the archetype exalted dogmatist. His motorcycle tour throughout various countries of the Southern Cone and Guatemala, defined his harsh, gloomy, and ascetic character. His trip etched into his mind a one-way theory: the only way to be sovereign in Latin America was through armed struggle.
And by November of 1956, when he joined 81 Cuban expeditionaries on their voyage on the Granma yacht, he was a convinced communist.
He became a commander in Fidel Castro’s rebel army thanks to his temerity in battle and his discipline under the threat of atomic bombs. There are various documented witness accounts of his exaggerated disposition toward violence during that era.
He was a soulless tyrant during many executions. He pulled the trigger without regret against those he considered enemies and traitors of the cause. Once the revolution triumphed, Che Guevara took control of La Cabaña, a military fortress adjacent to Havana Bay.
One of the first measures undertaken by the new government was to establish a judicial committee, charged with investigating citizens who were associated with the Batista dictatorship, supposed war criminals, and nascent political opponents.
Between January and April of 1959, approximately one thousand persons – other sources cite several thousands – were sentenced to death or lengthy prison terms in summary trials without due legal process.
The figures of those executed by firing squad vary. Between 550 and 3,000. In his post as military chief of La Cabaña, Che was responsible for the trials and executions. He expressed his opinion on the executions publicly before the United Nations on 11 December of 1964:
“We have to say here that which is a known truth, that we have expressed always before the world: executions, yes, we have executed; we execute and will continue to execute as long as it is necessary. Our struggle is a struggle to the death. We know what the result of a defeat would be, and the gusanos* also must know what the result of the defeat in Cuba is today.”
Guevara was assigned various ministerial portfolios. His performance was dismal. He was convinced that, in order to eradicate the “bourgeoisie vices inherited from the old society”, a “New Man” must be forged.
That is, the prototype of a robot made of flesh and bone, obedient to orders from above, focused on his work like a slave, and barely given to rumba and alcohol. Of course, with a license to kill “Yankees in any corner of the world”.
From his posts among sectors of the Cuban economy, Che launched the confiscation of national and foreign businesses, central planning, and “volunteer” labor. He internationalized the armed struggle. From the Congo in Africa to an uprising in Salta, Argentina, and the failed rebellion in Bolivia.
Personalities from diverse ideological and professional backgrounds have expressed their admiration for Che, like Domingo Perón and Jean Paul Sartre; the soccer players Diego Armando Maradona, Leo Messi, and Thierry Henry; the boxer Mike Tyson; the musician Carlos Santana, the actor Pierre Richard; the writer Gabriel García Márquez; the Chechen leader Shamil Basayev; the rock group Rage Against the Machine; the Sandinista leader Edén Pastora and presidents Evo Morales and Rafael Correa.
His motto, “Ever onward to victory” was used as a crutch by the deceased Venezuelan head of state Hugo Chávez.
Among progressives and subversives of half the world, with a discourse that favors the poor against gringo hegemony, there is never a lack of someone with a tee-shirt or a protest sign with his image.
Perhaps Che Guevara’s greatest achievement was that he risked his own hide to demonstrate his truths. The shadows of his personality are better forgotten.
Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo
30 June 2013
When I invited a group of friends in December to send messages for the second anniversary of the Desde La Habana blog, I didn’t expect that so many would reply, much less with such praiseful greetings to the blog and to me.
In my style, I’ll continue reflecting the reality of my country and its people, without asking anyone for permission, be it from the opposition or from the regime. That’s the freedom I’ve earned in these 15 years I’ve been writing as an independent journalist.
Nor will I stop going to troubled neighborhoods or tenement courtyards. Nor will I stop talking to hustlers, pimps, gays, transvestites, drug addicts, pickpockets and common ex-cons, among others marginalized by society.
I received 19 messages in total. Here go the senders:
Delphine Bougeard and her Spanish-language students at the Julliot de la Morandière high school in Normandy, France; Zoé Valdés; Raúl Rivero; Jorge Luis Piloto; Charlie Bravo; Joan Antoni Guerrero Vall; Alberto Sotillo; Isis Wirth; Jorge A. Pomar; Camilo López-Darias; Carlos Alberto Montaner; Pablo Pacheco; Luisa Mesa; Carlos Hernando; Manuel Aguilera; Rolando Cartaya as well as Regina, Helen and María, translators of my posts into English.
To them and also to Carlos Moreira, Tania Quintero and all the readers of the Desde La Habana blog, I give thanks and send my most sincere embrace.
Painting: Catedral, oil on canvas painted in 1972 by René Portocarrero (Havana, 1912-1986).
Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo
January 27 2011
Fidel Castro loves to make references to the numerous economic, paramilitary, and political aggressions of the 11 administrations that have been through the White House throughout these 51 years the strong-man of Cuba has been in power.
The United States is far from being the ideal neighbor. In the first 40 years of the revolution, it unleashed a ferocious campaign of assaults on Castro. It was an all out fight with all the ingredients. Dirty war, economic pressure, and anti-government propaganda.
But Castro is no saint either. Strengthened by more then 20 million rubles that Moscow granted him, he served as the Russian’s aircraft carrier in the Caribbean. In October of 1962, he made the unfortunate decision of accepting 42 intermediate- and medium-range nuclear missiles equipped with nuclear warheads, strategic bomber aircraft, and 43,000 Russian soldiers on Cuban territory.
He financed numerous guerrilla groups in Latin America and Africa, including some that, years later, have degenerated into terrorist gangs such as the FARC in Colombia and Shining Path in Peru.
On top of provoking the thunderous collapse of the Cuban economy, with his absurd plans and his method of managing the country as if it were his own private estate, the extraordinary comandante maintained military troops thousands of miles away from this island.
He acted as if possessed by a tropical Napoleon complex. Cuba got involved in the civil wars of Angola, Ethiopia, and Somalia. The consequences of our participation in those conflicts have yet to be written about.
During the Cold War, Cuba and the United States maintained a mutually irritating political rivalry. As a center of global power, Washington didn’t want to allow an openly Soviet military presence and, on the part of the government in Havana, support for insurgencies around half of the planet .
After Khrushchev withdrew the missiles, the now vanished USSR maintained troops on the island and a base for electronic spying on North America.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Cuba lost its steam. Once the pipeline of Russian rubles was sealed up, we entered into a period of economic poverty. The Americans plopped down on a recliner to await the fall. But against all winds and tides, Castro resisted.
Now, the world isn’t the same. Even Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales reached power through votes, not through bullets. Ernesto Guevara’s theory of “Revolutionary Focalism” has been tossed into the sack of obscurity. The theater of action presents a new design.
The elderly warrior that miraculously escaped death in July of 2006, has reemerged, transformed into a kind of international guru, predicting catastrophes and lending credence to any old incendiary conspiracy theory.
Only on the immigration issue is Cuba a national security problem for the United States. A hypothetical internal crisis could unravel whereupon thousands of people would hurl themselves into the sea on any floating object to escape the island. The White House is the most interested party in the Cuba situation not getting out of its government’s control.
In spite of Castro’s anti-yankee discourse, today the United States is the island’s fifth trading partner and first in foodstuff sales. We hear talk of the ban on travel from the United States to Cuba being lifted. The embargo is an absurdity. In the foreign currency stores they sell Coca-Cola and Dell computers, among other products.
The biggest of Cubans’ problems don’t come from the North. The enemy sleeps among us at home. Rampant corruption and economic inefficiency are, among others, the causes the nation is treading water neck-deep. Fidel Castro attempts to blame the gringos for many of our calamities, but sensible people here believe that bad governance and the system’s inoperability are the most responsible.
On top of being a current minor evil, the United States contributes financial liquidity to Cuba: 100 million dollars annually by way of family remittances and 50,000 Cuban-Americans who travel to the island every year and spend dollars at full throttle.
But it’s always easier to pin the blame on the same old lifelong villain. If the United States hadn’t existed, Fidel Castro would have invented it.
Photo: Ralph Crane, Life Magazine, October of 1962. In a store in Los Angeles, people follow the news of the naval blockade against Cuba authorized by Pres. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo
The initial joy over the release and flight to Spain of some 20 prisoners and a substantial number of their relatives, has given way to a certain malaise over the news that’s reached the island from different sources on the Iberian peninsula.
It hasn’t gone over well, not within the dissident community, nor among those with the highest access to information in Havana, that many of those former political prisoners, in less than 48 hours after their arrival in Madrid, began to complain publicly.
First, it was over the accommodations, then they started demanding to be granted political asylum status, because they rejected the “assisted international protection” status, proposed by Spanish authorities.
Moreover, one group refuses to be sent to other cities, as almost a dozen already have done. To be sure, almost all of those who accepted a move to Andalusia, Valencia, and La Rioja are professionals: doctors, dentists, nurses, art teachers…
The Madrid group has dug in its heels and, with the advice of an attorney, not only have they questioned the Spanish Constitution, they consider themselves within their rights to submit their protest to the Public Defender.
“What upsets me most is that they’re giving the impression that all of us Cubans are ungrateful, and it’s not true. Because if there’s a people with which we’ve always sympathized with, it’s with the people of Spain”, said an indignant
María Rosa, age 56, home-maker, who stays in the know through foreign radio stations.
A dissident who preferred to remain anonymous, thinks that these prisoners and their families, on top of giving the Cuban dissidents’ and political prisoners’ movement a bad image, are being manipulated. “According to what I’ve read, the Partido Popular (Spain’s leading right-wing party), as well as long-established Cuban exiles, has been using them. And it’s a shame, because these men have just been freed after seven years of being locked up and they find themselves misinformed. And that misinformation has been taken advantage of for [the Partido Popular's and Cuba exiles'] political interests,” he stated.
Lorenzo, age 23, university student, had the opportunity to browse the Internet and was able to read commentaries left by readers of Spanish online news media. “I felt ashamed, because you don’t spit on the hand that offers you food. More so, when you come from a prison and a country with so much hardship. And over there, they’re making demands, as if here they’d been living in mansions in Miramar or Nuevo Vedado.”
There are all kinds of opinions. Yarisleidys, age 20, street-hustler, lamented not having been able to get with a political prisoner in jail, since maybe now she would’ve been able to leave with him for Spain.
When I tell her that if they release the 52 the Cuban government promised, there’d still be nearly 100 political prisoners in jail, she responds: “Oh, yeah? Well, look here, I’m gonna get on these guys’ side, I don’t care if they’re old and sick. What I want is to get the hell outta this country.”
In politics, as with sports, one has to wait til the game ends before chanting victory. Those who protest today in Spain, not only should have shown themselves to be more grateful, they should’ve hung in there until the rest of the prisoners were out from behind bars, either on the island or en route to exile.
At any moment the Castro brothers may decide to blow the whistle, and declare the game ended before the clock’s time.
Photo: EPA. Meeting held by ex-President José María Aznar with the group of former political prisoners and their relatives on July 28, 2010, in Madrid.
Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo