Castroism dies – Che lives!

Forty years ago, on 11 April 1967, The Times of London sensationally drew the attention of the world to Bolivia, one of the poorest countries of Latin America, and launched one of the most durable legends of the twentieth century. I wrote the report, which took up most of the front page, and ever since have puzzled over the motives of its hero.


Strongly fortified Castro-type base in jungle

Evidence that communist guerrillas have established themselves in strength in the Bolivian jungle, with the possibility of raids into neighbouring countries, has been given by the Bolivian Army's discovery of a strongly fortified mountain base.

The guerrillas, believed to have links with the Cuban regime of Dr Castro, appear to be well equipped and far more skilled in jungle fighting than the troops opposing them. A field hospital formed one part of the base.

Reply to U.S. Doubts

From MURRAY SAYLE, Nachabhuazu, Bolivia, April 10

I have just returned from the four-day jungle patrol with the 1st Battalion, Fourth Division, of the Bolivian Army, which discovered the strongly fortified base of Castro-type communist guerrillas deep in the jungle.

Our find is the first positive proof that communist guerrillas have in fact established themselves in strength in this politically explosive country in the heart of South America, bordering on virtually unmapped parts of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

This vast new extension southwards of communist guerrilla activity came to light by accident when a patrol of six men under a lieutenant of the Bolivian Army was wiped out on 23 March in a skilfully set ambush in a gorge in the foothills of the Andes.

Two days later another patrol of fourteen men and two officers, sent to look for the missing men, was ambushed, taken prisoner and released after forty-eight hours.

Bearded Russians

The returning prisoners, who were illiterate Bolivian conscripts, told fantastic stories of bearded Russians and Chinese. Most Bolivians believed that the guerrillas were, in fact, a band of cocaine or marijuana smugglers, as both drugs grow freely in this wild part of the world. Foreign observers suspected that the Bolivian Government had invented or magnified the guerrillas in order to get American support on the eve of the conference of Latin American presidents at Punta del Este, Uruguay.

In fact, an American diplomatist said to me, 'The Bolivians are trying to put the squeeze on us for more arms aid', and I was charged to make an unofficial report to the Americans of whether the guerrillas, in fact, existed. My report is that the facts are nearly as fantastic as the rumours.

Our patrol marched twelve miles into the jungle-clad Andes foothills on a trail which the Army cut in four days. This double-canopied primeval jungle is full of snakes, huge spiders, jaguars, and boa constrictors. I rate this the densest jungle I have ever seen – thicker than the jungles of Vietnam.

We bivouacked by the side of a small, unnamed river running through a gorge between 700-foot, jungle-clad cliffs. Then we waded up the thigh-deep river, a six-hour march, being eaten alive by mosquitos and leeches. We passed the spot where the patrol was trapped with the bloodstained uniforms lying on the sandy shore of the stream.

Meat from mules

I inspected the expertly placed weapons pits in the cliffs from which the ambush was sprung and began to doubt that this was the work of marijuana smugglers. Two hours' further march up the river one of the released prisoners guided us past the concealed entrance of a track following a small creek up the side of the gorge. At every turn of this track were well-placed intercommunicating weapon pits – which would have delighted a Sandhurst instructor in jungle warfare.

Then we found a fully equipped field kitchen with a big oven capable of baking bread for at least a hundred men. Near it were healthy gardens, growing vegetables, and a butcher's shop where mules had been cut up with machetes. From the condition of the meat I judged that the camp had been evacuated no more than three days ago.

A little farther along the trail, under the dense canopy of trees and creepers was a well-equipped field hospital. I found empty packets of antibiotics, surgical dressings and instruments manufactured in Italy, Britain, West Germany and the United States. The canvas covering of the big hospital tent had been taken away but I saw an operating table and seats for patients to wait outside, all made of jungle timbers bound together with creepers.

In a pile of rubbish near the hospital I found files of patients identified by their first names, and receipts from La Paz medical suppliers for $5,000 worth of medical equipment bought between 8 November and 20 November last through a fictitious firm. A hundred yards farther on was the dormitory area.

In this area were more than fifty home-made hand grenades. These had been welded up in a clandestine factory somewhere from empty fruit juice cans and lengths of gas pipe filled with sticks of dynamite and fired by detonators. These grenades, which were neatly painted green, had been used with deadly effect on the wiped-out patrol.

Among the rubbish neatly raked from the dormitory area, I found a picture of Dr Che Guevara (the former lieutenant of Dr Castro) taken in a jungle and a copy of a speech by General Vo Nguyen Giap, of North Vietnam, translated into Spanish.

It was impossible that these could have been 'planted' as I found them myself in the rubbish and the Bolivian patrol with me had never heard of Giap.

Documents burnt

The guerrillas' camp showed every sign of an orderly evacuation, as nothing of value had been left behind and attempts had been made to burn all documents. Judging by a pile of spent cartridge cases, one part of the camp had been used for weapons training. All the cases were of American manufacture.

From the main guerrilla base, well-trodden trails led off into the jungle in all directions. I explored several and found that they led to sentry positions in the cliffs overlooking the gorge which were well camouflaged with a covering of leaves.

It was clear that the whole position was the work of experts with an excellent grounding in guerrilla war. In fact the guerrillas have much to teach the Bolivian Army.

It was clear that the guerrillas have moved out with their equipment on mules to the north, in the direction of the headwaters of the Amazon. I flew over this area with Colonel Rocha, commanding the Bolivian Fourth Division, in a Beechcraft but the jungle makes a solid green skin over the earth and it is impossible to see anything on the ground.

No indoctrination

Much remains mysterious about the guerrillas. As far as I could discover in the small towns of Lagunillas and Camiri, within fifty miles of the guerrillas' jungle base, they made no attempt to indoctrinate local people.

My own estimate is that the Bolivians stumbled on the training base where the guerrillas were getting into shape for an effort in the jungle heart of South America, with raids into Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina as the opportunity offers.

I have no way of estimating how many guerrillas are under arms, but I should be surprised if the base I saw is the only one they have.

© Times Newspapers Ltd, 1967

MY REPORT, FILED from the cable office in the Bolivian capital La Paz, was distributed worldwide by the Associated Press, together with photos I had taken in the guerrillas' camp. Article and photos were widely reproduced, most influentially by the New York Times. Only when researching this essay did I notice that its version differed from my original. After the mention of Guevara's photo someone in New York had written in: 'The picture of Guevara was of a younger man than the Guevara I saw in Cuba in 1964, and I judge it to have been taken in the Sierra Maestra in Cuba some years ago, so the finds throw no real light on the mystery of where Guevara is and whether he is still alive.' This, I later learnt, was the collective opinion of the CIA at the time, which somehow found its way into the New York Times.

Spies of all lands, then unaware of Guevara's 'missing year' in Africa, united in the opinion that he was dead. But the photo I saw was of a gaunt, lined Che who looked older than the sleek bureaucrat I had met briefly in Havana. The issue was resolved beyond doubt when, six months later, Che was hunted down, captured wounded, identified and executed by the Bolivian Army.

Write-in apart, my report turned out to have been quite prescient and, as important, generally accurate – marred by a few misspellings from my water-splashed notebook. Che himself in his campaign diary had trouble transcribing the local name of the river running by his camp, which is generally spelled Nancahuasu.

I have a mosaic of recollections to add to my published report. We waded up the river, often thigh-deep. I can still see leeches clinging to my bare legs in the shallows. The soldiers I was with – some looked no more than fourteen, conscription age in Bolivia – were totally without training or discipline, terrifying to someone fresh from Vietnam. They joked, sang, wandered down the centre of the gorge, overlooked from both sides, and took pot-shots at birds, signalling our approach for miles around. Another patrol was ambushed in that gorge only days later. They wandered around the guerrilla camp more like day-trippers than soldiers mimicking ignorance – or, more likely, utterly incompetent.

But were the amateurish Bolivians the only incompetents? The thought troubled me as I flew back to La Paz, and it troubles me still. I had little doubt that the mysterious 'Ramon' reported by the released prisoners was Guevara, but it was equally clear that he had selected an impossible part of Bolivia from which to foment revolution in La Paz or anywhere else. What could his guerrilla band – no matter how many Bolivian soldiers they killed or their weapons seized – offer the few local inhabitants? Not land – as I saw, there were whole baronies and duchies going uncultivated. What was needed was infrastructure, roads, electricity and so on. The guerrillas had no good arguments to counter the efforts of the army, and had not even tried to present them. I assumed that a prudent escape would be Guevara's next move, and that Bolivia would revert to unstable obscurity.

On 6 June 1967, I was in Tel Aviv, embroiled in another seemingly never-ending conflict, and I know nothing at first hand about Guevara's subsequent death. Nevertheless, journalism – at least, my free-range kind – still has an interest, even after clippings mildew and computer discs corrupt. Not as 'a first rough draft of history', to be tidied up at leisure by academic historians. It is a small slice of history – no one can now rediscover Che's camp, or set off its consequences, intended or otherwise. But journalism is history written by those who don't know how the story ended, and are therefore unsure of what to look for, or what risks are worth running. Sometimes history's great 'whys' are never answered, sometimes they are – but only decades later. I believe I understand why Guevara died as he did. A psychological portrait of anyone can be no more than suggestive; in the case of the dead, doubly so. But it is all we have. Who, then, was Che?


LITTLE RELIABLE INFORMATION was known about Che Guevara before he died. A trickle of books has since appeared, rising to a torrent in recent years, together with films, DVDs and the omnipresent T-shirts. From these sources, we know that the future Che was born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna on 14 June 1928, in the river port of Rosario, Argentina, two hundred and ninety kilometres upstream from Buenos Aires on the Parana River, into one of the oldest aristocratic lineages in the New World. His father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, was the twelfth generation of a family prominent in Argentina which included Patrick Lynch, an Irish soldier of fortune and eighteenth-century governor of the Rio de la Plata province in which Buenos Aires stands. His mother, Celia de la Serna y Llosa, was not only descended from the last Spanish viceroy of Peru but had retained some of the family fortune, which financed the bohemian but unmistakeably upper-class lifestyle of the Guevaras. At two, Ernestito – or 'little Ernest', his family nickname – was diagnosed with severe and lifelong asthma.

Rosario had already seen much history. It was there in 1812 that General Manuel Belgrano first raised the Argentinean flag of independence from Spain. Argentina's first, British-built, railway terminated there. Strangely presaging Guevara's last doomed campaign was the arrival in Rosario, via Cape Horn, in September 1893 of the six hundred ton sailing barque Royal Tar built in Nambucca, New South Wales, carrying the first contingent of two hundred and thirty-eight adults and their children destined for 'New Australia'. New Australia is one of the strangest episodes in our history, an indelible link between Australia and Latin America. The colony was the brainchild of the British-born radical journalist William Lane who arrived in Australia at twenty-four, hoping to find, or found, a truly just and equitable society. Born with a club foot, the diminutive Lane was incapable of manual work but compensated with a golden pen with which he urged others to do so. The defeat of the Queensland shearers' strike in 1891 convinced him and his disciples that a just society was no longer possible in old Australia and that the only solution was to start a new one somewhere else.

Inspired by Lane, scouts with farming experience searched for a suitable site. They found one in the landlocked republic of Paraguay, further up the Parana River from Rosario. A war simultaneously fought with Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil had reduced the male population of Paraguay to twenty-five thousand and the Paraguayan government needed to re-stock the country with vigorous immigrants. The Royal Tar left Sydney in July 1893 and three months later, when it berthed in Rosario, via Montevideo Uraguay, the settlers streamed ashore and the unattached males relieved the tensions of the crowded ship as unattached males often do, by getting roaring drunk and visiting local brothels. Lane, a lifelong abstainer whose father had been alcoholic, was shocked to his puritanical core by this predictable behaviour, ruling that henceforth alcohol and sex outside marriage, especially with the local Guarani Indians, would be strictly forbidden. The colonists proceeded up the Parana River in smaller vessels to Paraguay and New Australia was officially founded on 28 September 1893.

There is no evidence that Guevara had ever heard of Lane and New Australia but the resemblance between them is striking. Both were physically handicapped authoritarians, unable to empathise with the failings of 'ordinary people'. Both believed that human frailty could be overcome by the force of the will and that a just society would emerge. After a few years of bickering, Lane and his closest disciples stormed out of New Australia to found a new colony, Cosme, seventy-two kilometres down river. This too eventually failed. Some of the colonists returned disillusioned to Australia, others married locals, a picturesque, half-forgotten incident in Paraguayan history.

Old Australians, however, get a daily reminder of it. One of the original settlers was a radical writer and poet born Mary Cameron on a farm near Goulburn, New South Wales. Briefly a schoolteacher, she became one of Lane's disciples and proceeded to New Australia where she edited a newspaper. In Cosme she met and married another settler, Bill Gilmore, and had a son with him. Dame Mary Gilmore, as she later became, returned to Australia, continued writing on radical themes and developed a formidable reputation as a poet and now stares unblinkingly from our ten dollar notes.

SEEKING A HEALTHIER climate than humid Rosario, the Guevaras also left and eventually settled in Alta Gracia, a mountain resort in the foothills of the Andes, where the reactions of Che's parents differed wildly.

An architect of sorts by profession, his father was an exponent of machismo, the cult of irresponsible, womanising masculinity, rabidly (or perhaps suspiciously) homophobic, which flourishes among New World aristocrats. Sure that his frail eldest son could overcome his disability by courage and willpower, Guevara senior taught him to swim, ride, shoot and even to play competitive football – not soccer, the Argentinean national obsession, but Rugby Union, the tough contact game imported from England and much in favour with Argentinean bluebloods. Too delicate for scrums, the future Che played scrum-half, presaging his future political career. As Rugby followers know, the scrum-half needs courage to dodge flying boots, and tactical sense to feed the ball to an appropriate wingman, but need not run fast or far himself. It is often the captain's position, and Ernestito did well at it, earning yet another nickname: 'Furioso Serna', or 'Fuser' for short. His father's style, however, included a haughty disdain for politics and no need for success in life, except with women and the 'masculine' sports.

Che's politics came from his formidable mother. Celia de la Serna was an upper-crust firebrand of extreme left-wing views, a figure more familiar in Italy and France than in the Americas. She had long been a member of the Communist Party of Argentina, and Ernestito played boyish games in mock trenches in his backyard imitating those of the Spanish Civil War. Until he was ten, young Ernesto was unable to attend school regularly. His guilt-stricken (she had been asthmatic herself as a child), over-protective and adoring mother tutored the bright little boy at home in French and wide European culture, instilling in the future Che his lifelong love of books and reading and his rigid left-wing views. In his farewell letter to his parents before his fatal Bolivian misadventure, he wrote that 'a willpower that I have polished with an artist's care will carry my weak legs and tired lungs'. His most insightful biographer, the Mexican leftist Jorge Castañeda wrote inCompañero (Bloomsbury, 1997): 'If anyone ever believed that wanting the world was enough to have it, and have it now, that man was Che Guevara… If ever there was a time when millions thought the same thing, it was the [nineteen] sixties.'

That revolution was still far from Ernesto's mind is shown by his first choice of profession, engineering. But in 1947 he transferred to the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Buenos Aires. Many reasons have been given for the change, none political: he sought to treat his own asthma; his mother Celia had already suffered her first breast cancer; he had cared for a much-loved grandmother during her last illness. All three theories may carry some truth. What calls for more explanation is the future Che's total political passivity in his student years, when many young people flirt with radical politics.

The answer – and a clue to his ultimate failure and death – is the impact on the Argentinean left of Juan Peron and his wife Eva, the pair who still haunt Argentina.

The athletic, handsome professional soldier Colonel Juan Peron, as his country's military attaché in Italy in the 1930s, was impressed by the radical populism and pseudo-military swagger of Benito Mussolini. Entering politics, Peron was elected president of Argentina in 1946 with a power base in the army and among trade unionists and the discontented of Buenos Aires. The descamisados, or 'shirtless ones', were descended from the Europeans who had flocked into Argentina early in the last century when Argentina was one of the richest countries on earth, but failed to penetrate the rural industries – particularly cattle – from which its wealth came. Passionately anti-American and anti-British, Peron proceeded to distribute the foreign exchange which Argentina had accumulated during World War II in flashy gestures by his glamorous new wife, Eva Duarte de Peron, a synthetic Lady Bountiful publicly handing out the contents of the state treasury. Like all old families, the Guevaras despised the middle-class Peron and the former cabaret dancer Evita, dismissed by one rural grandee as una puta de las profundidos mas bajas, 'a prostitute from the lowest depths'.

The support that communists like the Guevara household might have expected from the urban working class was pre-empted by the Perons, leaving Marxism as an impotent opinion among a fringe of squabbling sects. This was of no interest to the ambitious Ernesto and his formidable mother. When a new generation of students took up Guevara's brand of romantic leftism, they were easily rounded up and, abandoned by the Peronists, exterminated.

Even before the future Che began medical studies, his parents' marriage – never close or companionable – was disintegrating. The macho code permits, or even encourages, a husband's extra-marital affairs, but strictly forbids them to his wife – who is expected to show a 'boys-will-be-boys' forbearance. Guevara Senior began a blatant affair with a Cuban cabaret dancer, followed by a string of mistresses he took little trouble to conceal. He established a separate residence, thinly disguised as an office, and appeared less and less often at the family home, usually amid stormy scenes.

The effect on his eldest son has been described by other family members: in her loneliness, his adored and adoring mother cast her son in his father's role as she struggled to bring up her other children in an atmosphere of chaos and domestic discord. This is the psychologist's classic recipe for narcissism, the conviction in the worshipped son (or, rarely, daughter) that they have been chosen for some special destiny. It may be significant that this pattern – cold or absent father; adoring, indulgent mother – is seen in other charismatic leaders: Mao Zedong, TE Lawrence 'of Arabia' and, in guerrilla politics, Adolf Hitler. In the case of Guevara, whose personality uneasily combined many of his mother's and father's traits, his classic response was a rigid denial. Nowhere in his letters and postcards does he mention his parents' estrangement, addressing them as 'Folks' or 'The old ones'. But he left his unhappy home as soon as he was able, to make his now-famous eight-month motorcycle odyssey through Latin America, returned only to keep a vow to his mother to complete his medical degree – exhibiting, in doing so, another of his well-marked characteristics: disciplined, focused work when his inner demons demanded – and promptly left home again, this time for good.

Ironically, it was as peripatetic prophets of Peronism that the Argentines Ernesto and his pharmacist friend Alberto Granado were welcomed on their eight-month journey through Latin America, initially aboard an elderly 500cc Norton motorbike. Both were called Che, the all-purpose verbal tic with which Argentines then peppered conversations. The 2004 film of their adventures, The Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Water Salles and produced by Robert Redford, won an Oscar and is indeed a stunning simulation of the look and feel of the continent's 'Southern Cone' as I glimpsed it at about that time.

But to this student of Guevara, for one, its thesis is dead wrong. Granado – who also kept a diary – was a naive old-line communist who had decided long before they set out that 'imperialism' was the fons et origo of human suffering. Guevara's diary is more that of a sightseeing intellectual, viewing with some sympathy the plight of the indigenous Indians who were long ago enslaved, not by blond Anglo-Saxons but by gold and silver-hungry conquistadors, his own ancestors, leaving behind the clash of classes, races and colours which have, along with recent foreign intervention, riven Latin America ever since. At one point in his diaries, Guevara imagines himself to be a conquistador, like his forbears. Plainly, Guevara was still looking for a cause, some enterprise that might heal his own internal conflicts and realise the destiny he was sure awaited him.

The year 1954 was pivotal, both for the questing Guevara and as the year the Cold War finally reached Latin America. The newly qualified, but idle, Dr Guevara happened to be visiting Guatemala as a tourist and a supporter of the elected regime of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. While there, he began reading elementary Marxist texts – which he never mastered – and the Peruvian writer Jose Carlos Mariategui, the first to propose the downtrodden rural Indians and mixed-bloods as a possible focus for revolution (though, as a desk-bound cripple, he was never able to try out his theory). In June 1954, the land-reforming Arbenz Guzman was deposed by a military invasion from nearby Honduras organised by the CIA. Guevara seems to have regarded the coup as something of a lark and taken no active part; instead, he prudently retreated to Mexico City, where he scraped a living as a street photographer of American tourists.

Through his Peruvian, part-Indian girlfriend Hilda Gadea, later his discarded first wife, Guevara met a Cuban hard-line Marxist refugee: the dour, beardless Raul Castro, and through Raul his older brother, Fidel. Within weeks, he had joined their projected return to Cuba, which Guevara had never visited and knew next to nothing about, initially as the expedition's doctor, increasingly as Castro's lieutenant. About this time, Guevara composed his Song to Fidel which reads like an adolescent's crush on an older male:

Let us go,

Fiery prophet of the dawn

On silent spatial roads

To free the verdant isle you love ...

And so on, for eight cloying stanzas. Was there an ideological or psychological basis for this apparently mutual love at first sight?

From Che's side, the answer is obvious. Fidel was offering to heal a divided personality. He was a macho man, as much or even more than Guevara Senior, whose sexual morals and outdoor skills he shared. But he was committed to a cause, much as Che's mother was. As well, the planned expedition – eighty-two men crammed into a leaky yacht – was suicidally dangerous, and Che had learnt from experience that the presence of danger sets adrenalin flowing, and offers the asthmatic a brief, exhilarating respite from his illness.

On Castro's side, the case is more complex. He wrote no hymn to Che, or to anyone else. First, he needed a doctor – seldom revolutionaries. Then he soon found in Che a diligence, application and punctuality rare among easygoing Cubans, valuable qualities in any chief-of-staff. As a foreigner, he stood little chance of taking over a patriotic movement, the constant fear of all self-appointed leaders. Finally, Che was an intelligent, lucid writer and sharp observer within the limits of his obsessions – an attractive international face for the revolution, compared with the florid repetitious oratory of Castro which only works, as I found in 1964, to rouse excitable Cubans. Finally, amid the rigours and boredoms of guerrilla life, Che was someone to talk to. It is certain that his meeting with Castro shaped the subsequent life, death and canonisation of Guevara. To Castro, on the other hand, Che was only one among the associates used and discarded by the wiliest and luckiest political opportunist of our times, as the forty-six years of uninterrupted rule by el maximo lider attest.

The actual course of the Cuban revolution is shrouded in myth and propaganda. The industrious Guevara set up as its theoretician and enunciated three lessons:

Popular forces can win a war against the army.

It is not always necessary to wait for all the conditions to be present [to make] a revolution; the insurrectional foco (centre) can create them.

In the underdeveloped Americas the terrain of the armed struggle must primarily be the countryside.


    THESE THESES ARE not only flagrantly un-Marxist, they are wrong, and Castro – who knew better – never endorsed them. The Cuban revolution did not demonstrate their truth; Castro's guerrillas did not create revolutionary conditions in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra – there had been fighting there for years between landowners' agents and semi-bandit gangs led by one Crescencio Perez, who took in the lost and bewildered guerrillas, sheltered and fed them, and accepted their help. The mercenary army of the bitterly unpopular dictator Fulgencio Batista was not defeated, but disintegrated when Batista fled with their wages, finessed into panic by Castro's support network in Havana, where Guevara had never been.

    Put in charge of the Cuban economy, Guevara brought it close to ruin by insisting that everyone should, like himself, work not for reward but as an exercise of willpower. He punished homosexuals. Through all these errors runs a common psychological faultline: wrestling with his own immense physical and psychological burdens, Guevara had no way of empathising, much less sympathising, with the run of common humanity, whom he constantly denigrates as 'the ordinary people' as opposed to the 'dedicated revolutionary' – himself.

    Failing in Cuba, and later failing in Africa, in Bolivia Guevara again showed his lack of political skill – which needs knowledge of 'ordinary people' – by spending his last months, trapped between asthma and macho pride, raiding villages in a futile search for medicines to let him fight just one last battle. During his entire Bolivian campaign, not a single local was attracted to join his foco. As his one-time admirer Regis Debray recorded, he made only one attempt at indoctrination, in the little village of Alto Seco, accompanied by a raid on the local pharmacy in search of medicine for his asthma.

    Che's group, taking over the village in the manner of Ned Kelly's seizure of Jerilderie, called a meeting in the village hall at which Che delivered his call for an uprising against the Barrientos government. Shortly after they left, the mayor reported their presence to the Bolivian army. As Che himself later conceded, the guerrillas could not offer the locals land, most of which lay idle. What they needed was infrastructure – roads, schools and electricity – which was what the Bolivian Army was building for them. In fact, as Debray says in his book, Che's Guerrilla War (Penguin, 1975), Guevara had no interest in taking power in Bolivia. His aim was to set up a series of foco in the small, mountainous northern part of neighbouring Argentina from which he hoped to stage a revolution in his homeland. The sparse population of this region comprises Guarani Indians, in whose language the first person singular 'I' is 'Che', taken up by all of Argentina as a generalised 'Hey, you!' and conversation filler. But he never came anywhere near this ambitious objective.

    Why, then, does Che's legend live on? Most of us can recall younger days when we half-believed that the crux of history was here and now, that ours was the generation of destiny, made more urgent in this case by his physical disability and short life expectancy. The young prophet who sacrifices for us all has been in our folk memory since the Stone Age. The light of common, democratic day has now dawned – fitfully, to be sure – in much of Latin America, but the image of the young hero with luminous eyes and wispy beard has never gone away.


    MY NEAR-ENCOUNTER WITH El Che in the Bolivian jungle traces through a skein of bizarre improbabilities to a winter night in London fifteen years earlier. On 5 December 1952, the capital of a fast-disintegrating empire was struck by the last and greatest 'London Peculiar', the deadly smog (smoke plus fog) caused by the open coal fires used to heat a million homes, made worse in the drab years after World War II by the low-quality sulphurous coal being burnt to conserve better qualities for export. Within hours, visibility was down to nine metres. Driving became impossible, and stranded buses crawled like blinded behemoths to their depots, their conductors feeling for the kerbs and tapping instructions to invisible drivers. Passengers who knew their way home walked, while others piled into anywhere that would have them. Pubs became islands of refuge, drinking hours unenforceable and ignored.

    A newcomer to London, I had no idea which pub had taken me in, but as a chance customer I warmed to the booze and cheerful exchange of introductions. Next to me at the bar stood a tall man about my own age, with dark skin, a bushy moustache and an engaging gap-toothed grin. He introduced himself as Abdul Rahman Mohamed, adding that, Muslim names being common on the island of Zanzibar where he came from, everyone called him 'Babu'. We were soon exchanging personal histories. Babu was a cradle Muslim, but far from strict (he downed British pints with relish, explaining that alcohol turned to water by passing down the throat of a true believer). Whereas I was a cradle Anglican from even further away – Australia – of, I hoped, equally relaxed religious observance. We were getting better acquainted when a ghostly yellowing of the fog announced dawn and, armed with maps drawn by fellow drinkers, we departed for our respective homes, exchanging phone numbers. That London Peculiar killed or hastened the deaths of some fourteen thousand Londoners, and set in train the ban on burning coal that, domestically, is still enforced. For Babu and me, it began a personal friendship that lasted until his death in London, after many tribulations and trials in 1995. Unexpectedly, it also led me to meet El Che.

    Babu and his demure English girlfriend, Mary, were soon fixtures at our mostly Australian parties. He was a great talker and dancer, with a keen interest in politics, maintaining himself as a postman while he studied. In those days, Zanzibar was a British protectorate and Babu saw himself as a pan-Arab nationalist and supporter of the Free Officers' Movement, which had deposed King Farouk of Egypt and was eventually to install Gemal Abdel Nasser as ruler. Sometimes Babu brought other 'Zanzibarbarians', as he called them, to our parties. They were affable and well-behaved, but Babu was clearly their leader.

    He was, however, much more than the life of any party. In 1954 the left-wing MP Fenner (later Lord) Brockway founded the Movement for Colonial Freedom and Babu, still on his postal round, became Zanzibar's representative, attending meetings at the House of Commons.

    Babu's busy London life came to an end when Britain announced its intention to grant independence to Zanzibar and its sister island, Pemba, in January 1964, to be preceded by elections – the first ever held there. Politics had come to Zanzibar, and Babu the politician was off like a shot. In racially and culturally diverse societies, electorates tend to divide on ethnic lines, and Zanzibar's colourful history guaranteed conflict. The island had been the hub of the slave trade of East Africa, Arabs dealing in Africans, and it was to suppress slavery that Britain had exchanged the North Sea island Heligoland for Zanzibar in 1870.

    Zanzibar's new political landscape pitted the Zanzibar Nationalist Party, Arab supporters of Sultan Sayyid Jamshid ibn Abdullah, against the Afro-Shirazi Party of Obeid Karume, of African descent. Over centuries, the slavers had interbred with female merchandise, but the distinction was still written on their faces. By another rule of nation-building, the only alternative to ethnic strife is some form of ideology. Babu had moved on from pan-Arabism and led a group of dissidents out of the ZNP to form a third party he called Umma, in this context translated as The Masses and welcoming African support.

    On 1 January 1964, Zanzibar was declared independent under the Sultan and his ZNP (Arab) supporters. Days later, an African from the mainland, the self-styled 'Field Marshal' John Okello, and some six hundred followers seized the police armouries and the radio station and began broadcasting blood-curdling threats: 'We're going to fry you like chickens. You'll be shot by untrained marksmen, given a thousand years in prison and then deported.' and so on. A gruesome massacre of Arabs followed, in which several thousand died. The Sultan fled. Karume became President with Babu – who had reportedly helped end the killing, Bren gun in hand – as Foreign Minister.

    I followed these events from afar, but was still surprised to get a message from Babu saying that a small delegation had been invited to visit Cuba for the eleventh anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks reckoned to have launched the Cuban revolution. Would I like to accompany them as delegation interpreter?

    This proposal had slightly more validity than an interesting trip offered by an old mate. In general, East Africans speak ki-Swahili ('the language of the coast'), various African tongues and, very widely, English. On the west coast of Africa, the lingua franca is French, after generations of French occupation. After a lengthy stint with Agence France-Presse in Paris, my French to English and vice versa was at least serviceable. Over the years I had often interpreted between east and west coast African militants of various political persuasions. Such meetings were likely to recur in Cuba, so there could be some call for my services there.

    I connected up with Babu in Cairo, where we spent a fascinating evening with Muslim convert Malcolm X, and then proceeded by way of Prague and a refuelling stop in Goose Bay, Labrador, to Havana, flying in an ancient, British-built turbo-prop Britannia belonging to Avianca Cubana. We spent three weeks in Cuba, mostly listening to interminable speeches by Fidel Castro, a Jesuit-trained lawyer with all that profession's prolixity. His speeches (no one else spoke) followed a pattern set by the first harangue in Havana. Castro had mastered one trick of oratory: whenever his audience began shuffling and coughing, he dropped the argument he was pursuing and interjected a phrase such as los imperialistos Yanquis or a reference to Woolworths or the gusanos (counter-revolutionary worms, the old middle class) to which his audience would raise their straw hats and shout Paradon, Fidel! ('To the wall, Fidel!' – shoot them), a response I soon joined out of sheer boredom.

    Our regimented troupe of delegados then accompanied Fidel and his bearded entourage on a tour of eastern Cuba, culminating in a visit to what was described as a reconstructed guerrilla camp in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra and finally to a rally outside the Moncada Police Barracks in Santiago, where Castro and a few companions had launched the revolution with an unsuccessful attack on 26 July 1953, thus giving his struggle the politically enigmatic name 'the 26th July Movement'. These proceedings took place in an atmosphere of music and merriment, facilitated by the rum in short supply in Cuba, which mysteriously appeared wherever Castro went. Cells of the Cuban Communist Party produced bongos and maracas, and sang and danced lustily, mystifying the earnest Russian comrades whose pink-sunburnt knees projected from baggy shorts of the type known in India as 'Bombay Bloomers'. Both singing and dancing were non-political, but I remember one catchy tune of the time, Un caramelo para Margot, si señor.

    One already well-known face, however, was strikingly absent from all this singing, dancing and speech-making. Then, one magical tropical evening, a messenger informed Babu that an important person would like to talk to him and gave a room number at the Havana Libre, formerly the Havana Hilton and, apart from the neon sign outside, almost unchanged from its pre-revolutionary splendour, complete with counter-revolutionary worms cooling off in the swimming pool. Babu took me along as interpreter, just in case. We were checked by an armed guard outside the designated door, entered, and found a smiling Che Guevara. Guevara had disappeared from the world's view months before after a semi-public row with Castro over Che's criticism of the Soviet Union for charging Cuba the world price for its oil, a businesslike practice euphemistically known in Marxist circles as the 'Law of Value'.

    Guevara in the flesh was something of a shock. He was a frail-looking, small man with the pipe-stem arms and sunken chest of a severe asthmatic clad in a green uniform that looked several sizes too big for him. Carefully examined, all the published photographs of Guevara with Castro seem to have been taken from angles concealing the fact that the 'little Argentinian doctor' barely came up to the bulky shoulder of el maximo lider. Guevara's wispy beard made him look somehow feminine, rather like sexless devotional portraits of Jesus, as opposed to the Old Testament prophet style of beard favoured by his boss.

    His best – and best-known – features were his luminous eyes and the broad disarming smile which he directed at his two visitors. He did indeed speak French, with a Spanish accent, almost bookishly correct – much more so than mine, which was learnt in gritty news agency offices. He obviously wondered what I, a blue-eyed Anglo and possibly a gringo, was doing in the company of Comrade Babu, and the conversation I interpreted was rather formal and not very informative, but I gathered that Guevara was interested in political conditions in East Africa. As I was not in Cuba in a journalistic capacity on that occasion, this is the first time I have written of this encounter, although I did refer to it in my report to The Times about finding a photograph of Guevara in Bolivia.

    The rum continued to flow freely as long as our visit lasted, and I woozily recall Babu, myself and the rest of the Zanzibar delegation singing The British Grenadiers during one street procession, there being no Marxist marching songs with English words. All good things come to an end, and the delegados dispersed taking the same battered Britannia back to Prague, thence to Zanzibar for Babu and London, via Rome for myself, memory bank stocked with impressions that so often in journalism come in handy later. But at that point I was still far from the Bolivian jungles. I reached them by another chain of coincidence.

    LATE IN 1966, The Sunday Times had bought rights to the radio messages sent by Francis Chichester from his yacht Gipsy Moth IV in his successful attempt to sail single-handed round the world, via Cape Horn, with only one stop in Sydney. My bosses in London calculated that radio communications in the Horn region would be bad, just when interest in Chichester (another desperate and doomed adventurer, handicapped by short-sightedness) would be at its height. With a background in yachting, I proceeded from Vietnam to Sydney to reach an agreement with the soon-to-be Sir Francis that I would 'edit' his messages during the critical period – an operation that, we tacitly agreed, might include some tidying up and ghostwriting using his characteristic phrases, depending on circumstances.

    I proceeded to Punta Arenas in Southern Chile near Cape Horn, and successfully photographed Chichester rounding the Horn in a howling gale. I then flew to Buenos Aires, which has the most powerful marine radio in Latin America, and wrote – or rewrote – 'How I Beat the Horn' by Francis Chichester, published in The Sunday Times on March 26, 1967.

    Mission accomplished, as they say, I found myself in Buenos Aires with a window of opportunity of perhaps two months to pursue some other, unrelated story in Latin America while Chichester sailed his solitary way up the Atlantic to Plymouth, England and a hero's welcome. I had discussed with my editors in London the idea of looking into one of the shadowy guerrilla movements reportedly inspired by the example of Cuba, then much in the news, and consulted our knowledgeable Buenos Aires correspondent Robert Lindley, who suggested the Tupamaros, said to be operating in Uruguay across the wide estuary of the Rio Plata. I was puzzling how to proceed when a report in a local newspaper caught my eye. General René Barrientos, President of Bolivia, announced that he would not be attending the forthcoming meeting of the United States-inspired Alliance for Progress in the fashionable Uruguayan beach resort of Punta Del Este, as he had to deal with a guerrilla outbreak in the remote south-east of his poor, landlocked country. The rebels were said to include bearded Russians, Chinese and Cubans. The first two sounded comical, the last newsworthy. Bolivia was the next-door country, the capital La Paz barely an hour away by plane. Collecting contacts from Lindley, I packed and went. In the follow-my-leader world of journalism this was about as spontaneous a self-assignment as there can be.

    La Paz is the highest capital in the world. It occupies a cleft in the bare, windswept Altiplano that covers much of Bolivia. The more salubrious parts of town are the lowest – down to 3,250 metres – while the city, now with a population of around a million – clambers up the canyon walls to the Altiplano at 4,100 metres with the airport ringed by the snowy peaks of the Andes. The higher-up residents are mostly Aymara and Quechua Indians descended from the Incas – politely called campesinos (country people) – who make up more than half the population, with a further third mestizos, persons of mixed race, and only 15 per cent affluent, low-living whites. With long skirts and many petticoats, beads, bare feet and what look like bowler hats, the Indian women throng the streets, gazing impassively at the bustling Europeans, although the conquistadors had arrived some four hundred years ago in search of the silver that financed the Spanish Empire.

    I booked into a modest hotel, was pleased to find that my room came with a cylinder of oxygen, and looked up a contact of Lindley's, the New York Times correspondent Paul Montgomery, who turned out to be an engaging raconteur, friendly as (most) isolated journalists are to visiting colleagues in search of a quick rundown. Montgomery suggested we call on the US Ambassador, Douglas Henderson. Everyone in official La Paz seemed to have plenty of time to talk.

    Maybe it was the energy-draining thin air, maybe boredom, maybe I was expected. Henderson, who presented himself as a State Department professional of the older, fast-vanishing school which believes that diplomacy trumps force in international conflicts, was genial but dismissive. 'It's a shakedown,' he opined. 'These people are cocaine smugglers, if they exist. Barrientos wants us to give him tanks, helicopters and so forth, maybe to pursue Bolivia's search for an outlet to the sea. But if you find out anything, let me know.'

    As I planned to publish my findings, I saw no harm in obliging an obliging ambassador. No one is, nor should be, compelled to talk to a journalist, so those who do usually expect some kind of trade-off – even if it is nothing more than publicity. On the other hand, contacts are not on oath. Deceit enters not with trading, but with not revealing it, disclosure being the resolution of choice for all journalism's ethical dilemmas. Montgomery proposed a visit to Barrientos to get his response, which turned out to need only a telephone call to his ornate palace. Although eight of his predecessors had been shot in the palace and a ninth, Major Gualberto Villarroel, had been dragged out wounded and hanged from a lamp-post outside as recently as 1946, the guard was a single, somnolent sentry who saluted perfunctorily.

    President Barrientos was another surprise. Far from playing the haughty, bemedalled dictator, he was a relaxed, articulate figure, then forty-eight, clad in a plain Air Force uniform with only a parachutist's wings. I already knew something about him from Montgomery. Son of a Spanish immigrant father and an Indian woman, he spoke the Indian language Quechua fluently, and English with an American tinge from his time studying with the US Air Force. He had been an early supporter of Victor Paz Estenssoro's National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), which in 1952 gave political rights to the Indian majority – making Bolivia, along with Cuba and Mexico, one of the only Latin American countries in which the injustices of the original Spanish-Portuguese conquest had been radically, if imperfectly, reversed.

    Barrientos had been jailed for his MNR support and had been given the honour of piloting Paz Estenssoro home from exile. However, the highest inflation rate in the world had alienated many middle-class MNR supporters and the movement split. Barrientos staged a coup and then ran for president himself in 1966, and had been elected – honestly, it was widely agreed. A shrewd self-publicist, he governed with a light hand and spectacular displays of machismo, the cult of exaggerated masculinity that still flourishes among the heirs of the conquistadors. When three parachutists were killed in a bungled drop, Barrientos jumped from 17,000 feet over La Paz with a parachute from the same batch. Another time he negotiated with striking miners underground and joined them in their favourite test of nerve, catch-thedynamite-stick. He was killed in a helicopter crash while out campaigning in 1969, so there is no way of judging his possible future, but he struck me as his own man, a Bolivian patriot according to his lights, very far from the supine stooge of the CIA he has been painted.

    I opened the interview by asking – rather listlessly, I confess – whether the British shareholders of the Bolivia-Antofagasta Railway had any hope of seeing the compensation they had been promised when the line was nationalised in 1957, along with those of the similarly placed La Fabulosa (unfortunate name!) mine. A masterpiece of Victorian engineering, the line carried tin ore a thousand kilometres down to Chilean ports, mostly to be transhipped for refining in Hull and Liverpool, in England. Barrientos said that Bolivia 'sincerely intended' to settle the claim, but could not give a date. As far as I know, the shareholders' heirs are still whistling for their money. This, however, gave me some sort of story to test communications, and partly to justify my presence should the bearded Russians, Chinese and Cubans turn out to be a wild goose chase. 'What about these reports, General?' I asked.

    'On March 23,' Barrientos said, consulting a file, 'a patrol of six of our soldiers and a lieutenant were ambushed and killed in the Nancahausu River, in the department of Santa Cruz in the south-east part of our country. Next day a patrol of twelve men and two lieutenants, sent to look for them, was ambushed and taken prisoner near the same place. They were released, without their weapons, and came back with the stories you mention, which I admit are confused and hard to believe. I am sending an international press group to investigate the guerrilla camp they described. You are welcome to join.'

    I readily agreed – why not? – and, after consulting his editors in New York, so did Montgomery. We assembled at La Paz airport at first light and boarded a rather dilapidated Bolivian military transport aircraft. Breathing was even more difficult as we flew over the Altiplano and descended to the fair city of Cochabamba in a sub-tropical valley on the other side. The third biggest city in Bolivia, Cochabamba is the centre of a lush agricultural region which has fed the whole country since Spanish times. There was no sense of alarm in the balmy air, and no one knew anything about guerrillas, bearded or otherwise. Montgomery made a decision I would have made in his place, with a daily file to maintain from La Paz, and announced that he was returning with the transport. I waited until, at last, another, smaller and more battered version arrived to collect the fast-dwindling press party and take us to Camiri, a garrison town nearer the scene of the reported action. Here we were shown a row of seven coffins. I lifted one lid and found bones and a tattered uniform. At least something was happening – a ghoulish thought, perhaps, but war and dead soldiers go together. An unescorted army jeep then drove me over a bouncy road to Llagunillas, barely a hamlet, where I had been booked into a 'hotel'.

    This turned out to be a thatched hut with a bed under a mosquito net, its four feet standing in pots of kerosene. As Montgomery had warned, these were precautions against the dreaded Chagas beetle which bores into a sleeper's toes and migrates to the heart. Twenty years later, the victim dies – a deadline now, in my case, safely past. I detected no sign of fear of the army among the villagers – an indication, clearer than words, of where their sympathies lay. Early next morning, I settled my modest bill and set off with a platoon-sized patrol of mostly young conscripts to look for the reported guerrilla camp. The international press were now down to two: a Chilean radio correspondent and me. What happened next is best told by my report, circulated worldwide with fast consequences, unexpected by me, which began this essay.


    HISTORY PROCEEDS FORWARDS, but is only understood – if ever – in time's rear-vision mirror after the story has developed. Only recently, with the disintegration of the Castro regime and a flood of books and DVDs, are we beginning to understand what happened all those years ago in Bolivia. Nothing can disguise the fact that the attempt by Che, a self-appointed expert in guerrilla warfare, to turn the Andes into the Sierra Maestra of America and 'create two, three, many Vietnams' ended in miserable failure.

    Much about it mystified me at the time. Why, for instance, the beards in virtually beardless Bolivia and the distinctive green combat uniforms? All the other experts on guerrilla war insist that the guerrilla should wear the clothes of the local people so that he can melt into the crowd when things get too hot. But this fashion, we know, was begun by Fidel Castro himself. To what end? The answer is simple: to be photographed. Che, in his wanderings, actually carried photographic developing gear which produced among other things the picture that betrayed his presence. Why burden himself? The answer is to be had in a shrewd observation by the British historian of Cuba, Hugh Thomas – incidentally no great admirer of Castro. El Jefe, he explains in his 1971 book, Cuba: or The Pursuit of Freedom, was first, last and always a Havana politician, his eyes fixed unwaveringly on seizing power in the capital.

    The dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista customarily dealt with such firebrands by locking them up or exiling them. Castro's contribution to the struggle was to deluge the habañeros with propaganda from a safe distance. The beards, rifles, uniforms were essentially media props made all the more effective by Castro's striking appearance. Beyond the reach of Batista's army and police in the Sierra Maestra, one of his first enthusiastic visitors was the veteran New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews, who visited the uniformed Castro, photographed him cradling a rifle and splashed a glowing report in his newspaper.

    Seeking American tourist dollars, Batista had no way of keeping America's most influential newspaper out of Cuba. The next step was a visit by the television crew from CBS, smuggled into Castro's mountain fasthold and smuggled out again. Batista was able to ban the film in Cuba, but at the dawn of the age of television politics it had an immense impact among Americans at home. Here we have one of the enduring secrets of dictatorship as practised by such well-known names as Mao Zedong, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, the late Saddam Hussein and the rest. The leader rules only to a limited extent by force and fear – his real strength is that he alone knows everything that is going on and can thus easily outmanoeuvre rivals who know only part of the story. This seems to be an exclusively male activity. There have been many powerful women in political history, but none has approached the longevity in power of these men. This cannot be simply because of the feminine inability to grow convincing beards, but points to something more fundamental hardwired into human psychology: the male who must be obeyed, which we have brought with us from the Stone Age.

    But who was protecting Castro as he was playing Havana politics via the American media from his mountain retreat? Common sense suggests it was more than the picturesque uniformed barbudos, who never numbered more than eight hundred, even in their last triumphal stage, while Batista's forces of army and police totalled more than twenty-five thousand. Herbert Matthews himself later described the imaginary columns supposedly under Castro's orders, one of which was supposedly 'led' by Guevara – or so Castro had boasted to him.

    Inadvertently, Guevara himself disclosed the secret in a collection of writings edited by John Gerassi, one of his most fervent admirers and the editor of his collected speeches and writings, Venceremos (1968). On the theme of age being no barrier to guerrilla success, Guevara mentioned the mysterious Cresencio Perez, then past sixty, who was not only promoted to major at the same time as Guevara, but put on the Central Committee of the Revolution. Perez, who speedily disappeared from the Castro story once victory had been achieved, turns out to have been a semi-revolutionary, semi-bandit who had been waging war against absentee landowners in the Sierre Maestra for decades. It was Perez's band and network of peasant informers who were actually protecting Castro's guerrillas (many of them university students from Havana) between television appearances, not the other way round. Perez was variously reputed to have killed sixty men in gunfights and to have fathered sixty illegitimate children – a useful reputation to have as boss of the Sierra Maestra. The key to any guerrilla war is information, not firepower, and thanks to Perez the army and police could do nothing without Castro being forewarned. Although Castro himself had been born close to the Sierra, he left at the age of twelve and had no useful contacts of his own.

    But who put the essentially urban Castro in touch with Perez and his 'bandits'? Here we see the crucial importance of another almost forgotten figure, Celia Sanchez. She was the daughter of one of the rare doctors prepared to practise on the outskirts of the Sierra Maestra, at a place called Manzanillo. Guerrillas, even of the rough-hewn variety, are likely to need the services of a doctor. Dr Sanchez is known to have sympathised with the plight of the Sierra Maestra peasants and, through his daughter – who had met Castro in Havana – Dr Sanchez was the living link between Castro and Perez's network of informants.

    Castro and his small band set sail from Mexico on 25 November 1956, eighty-two men and their weapons, plus two thousand gallons of extra fuel, crammed aboard a leaky old pleasure yacht, Granma. They intended to land at Niquero, a fairly obvious place as the revered revolutionary Jose Marti had also landed there to begin the Cuban uprising against Spain in 1895. Instead, Granma and her desperate passengers made landfall at a place called Playa de los Colonados, twenty-five kilometres south, more of a swamp than a beach. Who made the error is not known, as the navigator – a former Cuban ex-navy lieutenant named Roque – died in the ensuing bloodbath when Granma was spotted by a Batista helicopter. Of the eighty-two on board, only twelve survived, including Castro, his brother Raul and Guevara. In an interview published before her death in 1980, Celia Sanchez said: 'We were waiting for them with trucks, jeeps, food, weapons and about fifty men.' Who 'we' were Sanchez does not say, but the likeliest source was Cresencio Perez and his ragged band. On this occasion, according to Guevara, he threw down his medical bag and seized a rifle, thus making a choice of lifestyle he never gave up.

    This was the first time Guevara's boots had touched Cuban soil. The subsequent history of Celia Sanchez is revealing. Until her death, she was in almost daily contact with Castro and, although six years older than the maximo leader, was naturally described as his mistress by gossipy Cubans, who still have trouble with the idea of non-sexual partnerships between the sexes. She may have been at one time, but sex was not the basis of their friendship. Castro changed his residence frequently, but as often as not spent the night in Sanchez's Havana apartment where it seems she gave him political advice, psychological support and mothered him. At the time of her death in 1980, she was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba and secretary of the Council of State and Council of Minister. A modest plaque in Manzanillo commemorates her contribution to Castro's revolution.

    Guevara – the self-appointed theoretician of guerrilla war – failed in Africa, where even his presence went unreported, and failed even more spectacularly in Bolivia. The 'foco theory' simply led to the slaughter of young radicals by dictatorial regimes in Chile and Argentina, an unintended consequence that history so often delivers. When the dictatorial regimes in turn collapsed, the result was a move to something more like democracy in Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, but all based – in flat contradiction of the foco theory – on the fast-growing cities of those countries, not discontented peasants in the mountains. It is notable that all the exponents of the foco theory have been French, including the political weathercock Regis Debray, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, who once declared that Guevara was 'the most admirable human being of our time'.

    The French enthusiasm probably relates to the long-standing Gallic tradition of revolutionaries taking to the maquis, but it does not make Guevara either a fake or a fantasist. His enthusiasm for the theory no doubt has two sources: a misinterpretation of who was protecting who in the Sierra Maestra, understandable in someone who had never been in Cuba before and knew next to nothing about the country, or the less understood psychological flaw in Guevara which drove him all his short life. Those who feel that history speaks through them have no time to wait for suitable conditions for revolution to develop, as Marx recommended. They need to be able to create appropriate conditions by the force of will, as the foco theory contends. The '60s, as Jorge Castañeda writes, was pre-eminently the time when a whole generation felt the finger of destiny on them and, as the song says, 'wishing could make it so'. Thousands died at the hands of oppressive regimes to show that this was not the case, and that revolutions only happen when conditions are right.

    The nobility of the revolutionary's declared purpose does not guarantee success. In fact, Che Guevara stumbled on an ancient faultline in revolutions. It may be that human conflict is caused by human weakness, and that people can be forced to be free. In the phrase of George Orwell: 'The Utopian ideal of a just society is something which seems to haunt human imagination ineradicably and in all ages, whether it is called the Kingdom of Heaven or the classless society.' As another self-selected martyr, Oscar Wilde, in a sonnet listing the crimes committed in the name of liberty, wrote:

    ... and yet, and yet,

    These Christs that die upon the barricades,

    God knows it I am with them, in some things.

    Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

    Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

    Griffith Review