As Cuba is more and more in the news these days I’m struck by how little Americans really know about Cuba. So I thought I’d re-post a few of my blogs about Cuba. I’m certainly not an expert, but I have read a lot about the island’s history and culture, and I spent ten days there fact-checking for my thriller Havana Lost. You’ll find a lot more info in the novel. (Just saying).
In the meantime, welcome to “The Cuba Files.”
A short history of Che Guevara
For the first “Cuba File,” I’m taking a look at Ernesto Che Guevara, the man who personifies Cuba for many people, and a true legend, especially for the Radical Left during the late Sixties.
Curiously, Che is from Argentina, not Cuba, and he was educated and trained as a doctor. As a young medical student he traveled through South America, a journey which radicalized him as he experienced first-hand the region’s endemic poverty, hunger, and disease. This led him to eventually become a Marxist revolutionary, author, guerrilla leader, and military theorist.
He met Fidel and Raul Castro in Mexico City where, as Wikipedia says:
(He) joined their 26th of July Movement, and sailed to Cuba aboard the yacht, Granma, with the intention of overthrowing US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Guevara soon rose to prominence among the insurgents, was promoted to second-in-command, and played a pivotal role in the victorious two-year guerrilla campaign that deposed the Batista regime.
In fact, Che is essentially credited with winning the revolution. In Havana Lost, I talk about how he derailed a train that was filled with military troops and ammunition in the city of Santa Clara. Although Che and his band of rebels were outnumbered, the army surrendered rather than fight. This prompted Batista’s flight out of Cuba on New Years Eve and allowed Fidel to ride victoriously into Havana a week later.
Today, Che is treated with the reverence of a patron saint in Cuba. In a country where there’s very little commercialism, Che’s likeness is EVERYWHERE… on buildings, billboards, postcards, shops, books.
They even sell his signature beret on the streets.
He’s almost more hallowed than Fidel, of whom you rarely see images in Cuba, probably because Che is dead and Fidel isn’t… yet.
The Che effect, post-revolution
After the Cuban Revolution, Guevara held key roles in the new government, which included the signing of death warrants (by firing squad) for “convicted” war criminals. He also drove agrarian land reform as Minister of Industries, took on roles as Cuba’s National Bank President as well as Instructional Director of the country’s armed forces. Eventually he travelled the world as a diplomat and representative of Cuba’s unique brand of socialism.
The ultimate betrayal
But Che’s fame had repercussions. He and Fidel, along with Camilo Cienfuegos, had been considered the “Three Musketeers” of the revolution, and they were soul mates. After the revolution, though, things changed. Cienfuegos died in a mysterious plane crash, and Che and Fidel grew apart. In fact, it’s said that Che became disillusioned with Fidel ad his brand of leadership, to the point of contemplating an insurrection.
That never happened, but Che grew increasingly restless. In 1967 Fidel decided to get him out of Cuba, and sent him on a mission to export Cuba-style revolution and Marxism to other countries. Che went to Bolivia, where— gee, wouldn’t you know it—he was caught and executed in the jungle by CIA-assisted Bolivian forces. I wonder how they knew where he was. Did Fidel tell someone? Did he betray his best friend in order to consolidate his own power? Who knows? Maybe the conspiracy theorists have it right.
Or maybe not.
Che’s desire to overturn what he saw as the capitalist exploitation of Latin America by the US could have been his undoing. He, even more than Fidel, became an icon of the radical left in the US and beyond. I’ll never forget when I worked at an underground newspaper in Washington, D.C., the staff always spoke his name with reverence. Millions in Cuba appear to do the same. Just take a look at some of the photos I took. Che pervades almost every area of Cuban life.
Your turn now. When you hear the words “Che Guevara,” what comes to mind?