Jon Lee Anderson by David L. Ulin

BOMB 60 Summer 1997
Bombcover 60 1024X1024

The Bohen Series on Critical Discourse

For nearly 30 years now, Ernesto “Che” Guevara has been a figure of myth. Although his name remains celebrated, and the image of his bearded, haunting face continues to resonate from beneath its ubiquitous beret, little is known about his life. According to his biographer Jon Lee Anderson, “Che was this glaring omission. He was not only a ‘60s figure, but he had a full effect on our time. His life had really never been looked at. It was cloaked in mysteries and legends. I realized the only way I could seriously propose to do a proper life’s biography was to unearth the secrets that had lain dormant all that time.”

In Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (Grove Press), Anderson attempts to do just that, looking beyond the myth and resurrecting Che Guevara the human being. Che was the essence of the self-made man. A middle-class Argentine who became one of the heroes of the Cuban revolution; an unrelenting Marxist who loved his family but refused them the privileges of leadership—even when it meant his wife taking one of their children to the hospital by bus. In his early twenties, Che gave in to youthful wanderlust and traveled throughout Latin America by motorcycle. The Motorcycle Diaries , published in 1995, is the account of one such journey. Later, having passed his medical degree and resolved to work with lepers, he then discovered the draw of political insurgency. After meeting Fidel Castro in Mexico City in 1955, Che became part of the small revolutionary force that invaded Cuba in late 1956 and fought the army of President Fulgencio Batista. Upon liberation, he took the post of Minister of Industry, but his heart was on the battlefield, and in 1965 Che left Cuba to foment revolution in the Congo and Bolivia. These latter campaigns were less than successful, and on October 8, 1967 Che was captured by the Bolivian Army. He was executed the next day.

Anderson first became interested in Che while researching his earlier book, Guerrillas . In traveling to various hot spots around the world, “I kept bumping into Che,” he explains. “In Burma, I found these students who had fled Rangoon and were trying to become guerrillas. They were holed up in the jungle with any books they could get their hands on: everything from the Yugoslav constitution to Abraham Lincoln, Mao, and Che. In Afghanistan, some of the Jamiat-I-Islami admired Che. In Salvador, I met a young guerrilla girl who was seventeen. She was in the field at the front, and her parents, who were also guerrillas, were clandestine in the city. She told me about letters her father wrote to her through their courier system in which he reminded her to be like Che.

He was the ultimate role model, appealing to principles of honesty to one’s ideals and to sacrifice. For this reason, Anderson suggests, Che continues to be a potent signifier, representing hope and revolutionary commitment, while transcending ideology and time.

David L. Ulin At the end of your book you say that Che is important today in a way that he hasn’t been for a long time. Given what’s happened in the last seven years with the fall of communism, how is Che as a role model or even an icon still relevant?

Jon Lee Anderson Look at the leaders of today. In Latin America the generals have been traded for besuited bankers, technocrats, and American money and investment has flowed in. But a lot of the problems, the social issues that were around in the 60s, remain. In virtually all the countries where there was bloodshed, the military has walked with impunity. And the residual left sees Che as the untested path of socialism. He was the heretic who marched off to plant the flag for a new way for the developing world to break away from the Soviet application of bureaucratic, institutionalized socialism. He wanted to get the revolution over with now. Liberate Latin America. Let’s have the battle and do it and go for it.

DLU No compromise.

JLA No compromise. He was clean. If all of the rest, speaking in sweeping terms, were tarnished, Che remains as this unsullied hero. People have pointed out that he’s a hero because he died young and he was attractive. Well, that’s a bit pat. Che is a mythological hero, and like all the great mythological heroes he died young. What does youth represent to us really? It represents idealism. The majority of people compromise. They give up. And Che never compromised. He was 39 when he died. He was young …

So why would he suddenly reemerge as a figure of interest or virility now? The kids of the late ‘50s and early ’60s came of age with a cataclysmic awareness of the atomic age. That’s gone away, but for the kids of today, it’s a more cynical and frightening world. It’s not the threat of imminent global extinction, but it’s much more complex and poses a myriad of social disquiet.

DLU It’s a world without any sense of absolutes. Just look at Clinton and his response to the uproar about his fundraising activities. It’s a world in which things are measured by legality as opposed to ethics.

JLA Che became a revolutionary as a quest for a moral core. His quest was to find himself, and to find himself vis-à-vis an unjust world. He was like all of us. He screwed around, fucked up. He was bright. He read a lot. He got on motorbikes.

DLU Actually, his behavior was very much in line with what dissident or disenfranchised youth in other cultures were doing at the same time. They were reacting against their own societies, but the search for meaning and an authentic way of living was universal. In Che’s case, however, I was surprised to discover this, because I had no idea such a side of him had ever existed. I thought of him as always the revolutionary.

JLA I think most people remember him in the same way, as Che, the eternal revolutionary. But there was an Ernesto Guevara before there was a Che, and the story of his life is even more remarkable for the fact that his transformation came about through a conscious quest to recreate himself.

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Ernesto “Che” Guevara, 1960. Courtesy of Salas, Grove Press.

DLU To get at the heart of Che’s experience, you decided to move to Cuba and research the book from primary sources. How did that come about?

JLA I approached the Cubans cold, but with my book Guerrillas in hand. In writing that book, I had intentionally avoided ideology. It was written straight down the center. To some degree, it might have nonplussed the Cubans a little. I obviously wasn’t a committed Marxist, but I seemed to be open-minded. I began doing the approaches in late ’91, early ’92, when Cuba was really in dire straits, having just lost the Soviet subsidy. I approached the Cuban embassy in London, where I was living at the time, and sent a proposal, and a few months went by and positive responses were coming back in. Then, I saw the ambassador, and based upon those initial encounters, they sent a positive appraisal to Havana.

DLU Did you have to go to Cuba yourself?

JLA I had to go meet a guy named Jorge Enrique Mendoza, who was the head of the Historical Institute for the Politburo. The only characterization I had of him was the one in Tad Szulc’s biography of Fidel, that he was an irascible, dogmatic, unpleasant communist. When we met, he asked if I had heard about him, and I repeated that and he laughed. Immediately, he whipped me off to a meeting where he was speaking to two hundred selected Communist party elite workers. He kept me on the podium with him, periodically throwing jibes my way, I think to see how I would react. I guess I rolled with the punches, and it was all right. He dragged me around for two weeks … seeing people at two in the morning. It was all rather undefined, exactly how things would be done.

I wanted to meet Che’s widow, Aleida March. From the very beginning, I realized that was something I had to do to get close to the man Che was, and not just the public figure. That first trip, I didn’t get to see her. But when I went back that next October for the anniversary of Che’s death, I finally met her, and I immediately felt it clicked. I liked her. And she gave me what I took to be a tentative expression of willingness to work with me. So I decided to take the plunge and move to Cuba, because I realized that if I came and went, I would get only one level of discourse. I had to be there.

DLU The Cuban government must have been wary, since they had no control over what you were going to do.

JLA That began causing problems pretty early in my stay. I went to Cuba not entirely innocently, but believing that they had completely checked me out and that I had been okayed. I knew from the comments and the guarded receptions I got from some people that I didn’t have absolute trust. They made a point of letting me know that they were surveilling me, to keep me on the defensive.

After I’d been there nine months, I made a return trip to Russia, England, and the States for research, and as I tried to leave Cuba, I was pulled away after going through customs and forced into a room where my diaries and things were taken from me. It was really tense, and I was very angry. I said, “I have approval to be here.” And they told me, “You’re in our domain, you have no choice.” I was allowed to get on the flight and go, but when I came back to Havana five weeks later, I went to see the Central Committee official in charge of my project, and I said, “Either you trust me, or you don’t. Tell me now, because I will not do this book unless I have cooperation.” Very diplomatically, he apologized and said, “You have to understand, Jon, that the people in all countries who do that kind of thing probably want to know what you’re writing.” He was referring to [Cuban] counterintelligence. He said, “I can’t promise it won’t happen again.”

DLU So there was an intimidation factor.

JLA Yes, and it was pretty crude. They spread rumors about me and went around asking questions of people with whom I had contact.

DLU About what you had discussed with them?

JLA What we had talked about. What I thought. Where I got my money. Why I had taken certain trips. Over the next two years, people were assigned to become my friends, people who I regularly visited. I found this out towards the end, although I knew what was happening at the time. Some of the people that I feel really cared about and believed in what I was doing implicitly helped me by getting them to stop doing certain things or giving me warnings about other people who had lately become acquaintances or friends. I began to understand the double-talk that is the language of communication in Cuba. The double entendre. I avoided completely the more or less official institutions and aligned myself to the people I considered to be the most intimate circle of Che Guevara. I really kept my nose to the ground. Fortunately, I was given quite a bit of trust so that I did eventually have access to the key documents of Che’s, by him and about his life.

DLU This raises an interesting question, because one of the difficulties in writing about a figure like Che, particularly in an environment like Cuba, is that, as you note in the book, many accounts have been doctored or turned into parables. Che himself did that when he prepared his private diaries for publication. What kind of challenges did this problem of “official history” present to you as a biographer?

JLA It took a while for me to discern. There are various levels of discourse. I didn’t write for the first year. I was just trying to get a grasp of who Che had been in Cuba. It was very difficult, because Che had become this fetish. His emblematic presence was everywhere, but there was really nothing visible left of his work, his oeuvre.

DLU A fetish in what sense?

JLA He’d become an official fetish and a totem. There was almost no way to approach him as a real human being. It wasn’t until I took an extended trip to Argentina with Alberto Granado, his sidekick during the journey described in The Motorcycle Diaries, whom I got to know quite well, that a lot of things came out. We traveled together for three months in Argentina, and I also hung out with Che’s other boyhood friends. We were on the road just as he had been 50 years before. I really began to gain an intuitive understanding of who Ernesto Guevara, the boy, must have been, and how he had changed. It was at that point I felt I could begin to write, and not before.

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Che with wife Aleida; bodyguard Harry “Pombo” Villegas and wife Cristina. Pombo was one of Che’s most trusted protégés, accompanying him to fight in the Congo and Bolivia. Courtesy of Agenzia Contrasto, Grove Press.

DLU How did your relationship with his wife, Aleida, develop? The private documents she gave you are fundamental to the portrait you develop of Che as a family man, the notion of him as a human being, even within the revolutionary culture. How did the work progress with her?

JLA A pattern evolved. It didn’t come right away. I had to really hang in there for a long time. Aleida moved some years ago out of the house she lived in with Che. She reopened that house, not to the public, but as a study center of Che where she has some of the documents. So I began by going over there almost every day and reading the books he had in his library and being in his place. Then she and I would have lunch together, and we would just talk. She’s not a woman who can be interviewed. I never pulled a tape recorder out on her. She wouldn’t have let me. She’s too shy. In the course of time, we really got to know one another. We had fun. We joked. We bantered. She treated me maternally: you’re getting fat, or you haven’t cut your hair, why don’t you get some new shoes? And she asked about my kids, who were with me there.

One of the crucial things was Sofia, who was Che and Aleida’s nanny for their children, and who was still working with Aleida. Sofia began living with us and became the nanny for our kids, which appeased a lot of the consternation some officials had about me. She was a trusted daughter of the revolution, and if I had been something other than what I claimed to be, they would have heard. There were ups and downs, but I really felt as though I melded in a personal way to Aleida.

After some time, I became aware that people close to Che had never asked certain questions, but were also really interested in finding out certain things, for example, what I had found out in the Soviet Union, the degree of distrust towards Che by the Soviets. Lines of communication had broken down between people in Cuba. I felt sometimes that I was given hints to explore certain paths of research that were really important for me. It was always very implicit. It’s interesting, because the Council of State did give me access to documents they’ve never given to outsiders, and certainly not a non-Cuban. I didn’t get total access, but I did get some really rewarding stuff. Partly, I think, that’s because there are conflicting factions in Cuba, and each wanted to find out what the others knew. We’re not talking about enemies here, just about different groups in the revolution. They all believe in the same end, but advocate, or endorse different means to achieve it.

The problem is Che’s been so mythified, and the Cuban public is in some ways less aware of what happened in his life than the rest of the world is. He’s absolutely unsullied. So it’s difficult for them. The Sierra diary, for instance—covering the war years—contains his negative appraisals of people who are still alive and in power today. They were concerned I would make an issue out of that.

DLU Those tensions are apparent throughout the book, the levels of personal emotion, of insecurity and anxiety.

JLA I would share with Aleida the transcripts of interviews from my travels abroad. She would give me feedback on them. It was part of the cooperative process. I think it’s important to say I had approval for my project, but no one vetted my book. They would have liked to, but I didn’t give them the opportunity. I made an important point of asserting my independence because I didn’t want to offend any of the people who helped me and who may not like the final results. However, I think they’ll agree that I was faithful to my only loyalty, which was to the truth about Che.

DLU One of the most interesting aspects of your book has to do with the haphazard, accidental, small scale nature of the Cuban revolutionary movement, and guerrilla movements in general. Castro’s invasion force, for instance, at one point had only 12 people in it.

JLA It’s an important aspect of the story.

DLU In many ways, it’s altogether miraculous that this rag-tag band of not particularly well-trained or well-equipped people was able to take over a country, regardless of how small it was.

JLA I think that informed what Che and Fidel tried to do over the next few years. It became a dogma. This idea that you can replicate the revolution because they had done it. It was miraculous. It was against the odds, but they had done it. What happened, I think, was that the right things came together. On the one hand, you had Fidel’s really canny politicking, extraordinary political acumen. You had his partnership with key people who helped to make it all come together, including Che. But Che didn’t have a Fidel at his side in the ventures he got involved in outside of Cuba. Many of the guerrilla expeditions the Cubans sent off were led by men who were not of their stature, either as strategists or as politicians in terms of brokering what you need to really keep something going.

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December 1964: Che addresses the United Nations General Assembly, decrying “racist” intervention in the Congo. Courtesy of UPI/Corbis-Bettman, Grove Press.

DLU One of the things that comes across in the latter part of the book, when Che decides to go back out into the field, is a feeling of contrivance that is unexpected and compelling. His sense that the time is now, I’m 36 years old, and I’m not going to be able to tramp through the jungle much longer. It’s reminiscent of the way he got involved with revolution in the first place—more a matter of an intellectual or emotional idea than something motivated by his own experience.

JLA Yeah, that alchemy between the medical researcher’s mind and the lyrical passion of the frustrated poet made Che unique. He had a rare thing. He, honestly, was not afraid of death, which is something I’ve seen only a few times. But he definitely had that facility, and consciously strove to maintain it. It was the key ingredient to his self-notion of being a revolutionary.

DLU That’s an extraordinary statement.

JLA Che had an extraordinary sense of his own self-construction. Nobody else was really like that. You see some of the Guevaristas today, and they’re quite extraordinary people because they’ve tried to be faithful to these principles. It’s as though they’ve been in the presence of this transcendent figure and have struggled to maintain faithfulness to these ideals, which are truly larger than life.

But no one was up to Che. Even his death had to be an exemplary death. Publicly, people don’t say that, but privately, the people who really knew him do. I quote the Cuban intelligence official “Santiago” who said, “He knew his death would become an example in the cause of Latin American revolution, and he was right.” Because I asked, what was he doing at the end, in Bolivia? Walking across those hills towards the army, with the peasants fleeing before him, and clearly distrustful of him? It was though he was disembodied. And, of course, he still tried to survive when it came down to it. It wasn’t a suicide, but an act of revolutionary valor. He never lost sight of the purpose in being there: to engage, to get the message across. And he failed, but that has only added to his mystique. There are so many parallels with Christ.

DLU He’s a dark Christ.

JLA He once wrote to his mother, who evidently made the comparison as well: “I’m no Christ, old lady … To the contrary, I fight for the things I believe in, with all the weapons at my disposal, and try to leave the other man dead so I don’t get nailed to a cross … “

DLU The idea of Che’s self-invention is fascinating. He begins as a disaffected middle-class youth looking for meaning, and ends up a martyr for the revolutionary cause. How do you jibe the young Ernesto with the mature Che? How do you compare the ruthlessness of the later Che with the playfulness of the younger one? Are they consistent in any way?

JLA He was in constant evolution. When he was in the mountains and sweeping towards Havana, he was at his most radical. His letters show it: “I believe that the answer to the world’s problems lies behind the Iron Curtain.” Then, finally seeing it for himself, in faithfulness to his principles, he broke away to find a different path. And he was in the course of doing that when he died. He was a man in constant evolution, and I think he would have remained so. Both the Ernesto and the Che were always present.

DLU You mean that Che was present in Ernesto, and Ernesto was present in Che?

JLA Yeah, but speaking of his later life, there were moments when we can see that he was still aware of his own duality—just as he had been in the Sierra when he was trying to forge himself as a revolutionary by ridding himself of the desire to live, and proving that he had no fear in battle. There’s a letter he writes to his mother when he’s traveling abroad in India, where he talks about feeling a sense of awareness of the human loss he’s experienced. The notion of a single identity. I don’t know that he entirely reconciled that. His Bolivian diary—the story of that 11-month odyssey—can only be read as a story of survival. He was not the same harsh Che he had been in the Sierra. Was it only because he was sick? I don’t think so. He seemed to be really clear-minded; but he was almost softening. He caught spies and didn’t kill them. The manual of any guerrilla war would have dictated that he kill them, but they looked human to him. It was as though, because of the accumulation of failures, he was seeing things once again as they were, rather than through that implacable revolutionary prism.

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Havana: May Day parade, 1963. The “Big Three” of the Cuban revolution: Che, Raul, and Fidel Castro. Courtesy of Salas, Grove Press.

DLU That’s an important distinction. In terms of revolution, when does theory get in the way of the human element? It’s particularly significant when you consider Che’s idea, and Castro’s as well, of bringing revolution to countries where there was no focused revolutionary movement or sentiment, as they attempted to do throughout Latin America.

JLA I think it was Sartre who once praised Che for making a valid philosophy out of empirical observation, and others also criticized him for that. In other words, his philosophy was based upon his own experiences. He codified, exalted the guerrilla as the highest form of human species. It gave an ideal to aspire towards, but in practice, it was not that practical.

Admittedly, there was this euphoria and triumphalism. There was this fever to change things. In every one of the Latin American countries where they went, they didn’t just stubbornly insert fighters who weren’t there anyway. There already was an insurrectionary climate or tradition in most of those countries. The argument was, what was the best methodology? You could fault Che for what he tried to do in Bolivia, but, in fact, it had been a country ripe for insurrection and revolutionary change for years. The Cubans thought the only problem was the people they had to work with. That’s why they were trying to recruit Communist youth—in essence, to try and subvert the Soviet supported Communist party. It didn’t work. But they were playing with both things, and in some cases they massaged the circumstances to fit the theory.

DLU In a lot of ways, that mirrors Che’s own transformation, because the process by which he converted himself into a revolutionary was very much an intellectual one. At some point, there was a decision, a crystallization of his thinking, based on, as you say, empirical observation. What’s your sense of his motivation? Was it just that, in his search for relevance, this is what he found?

JLA On his early journeys, he confronted the harsh world outside of his rarefied Argentine existence. It transformed him. Che’s family didn’t have much money, but they lived very privileged lives. It was very genteel and bourgeois. Relatives with big estancias and all that. Che liked adventure stories when he was a kid. They were all about people who achieve larger than life things. When he went into allergy medicine, he said, “I wanted to achieve something great for mankind.”

There is no question that he was different and he was iconoclastic. He was holding himself in reserve, weighing everything, trying to figure out what he could do. He went through this almost Schweitzerian phase, where he thought he was going to work with lepers, and he identified with the most marginal of society’s creatures. But that didn’t really engage, it lacked a political focus. He was bursting with innocence in a way that translates into social indignation. As the political side of him grew, he looked for answers, first through the orthodox, established things he found around him. He lived in what was a very small part of the world then, and had the opportunity to meet really relevant people in the politics of his time. You can see him there listening, asking hard questions, and then dismissing what he hears. He knew ultimately that the politicians were going to sell out to American capitalism, which became the yardstick by which he judged them. He began to read Marx, and to despise American tourists when he saw them.

DLU That’s clear from his early writings, like the article on Macchu Picchu that takes the Americans to task for having stolen “the treasures of the indigenous city.”

JLA In that article, you see the first glimmering of his continental theory. He was already thinking in absolutes of wanting to do something large. The adoption of a Latin American identity was key. It was both a personal and political thing. He was beginning to break away from the Argentine identity, spurning his background, and trying to find himself in fraternity with Latin Americans who had a common identity and common problems. And he found that fraternity in the Communist party in Guatemala. But there was also something fundamental and intrinsic about Ernesto Guevara that precipitated the formation of Che. In his diary in Guatemala, he talks about how he felt inadequate because of his asthma. That had a lot to do with his sense of fatalism. After all, what is asthma? You asphyxiate. It’s horrifying. If you begin the process of asphyxiation, the end of it is death. This is skirting pop psychology, but [with asthma] you confront your mortality—and, on some level, in a repeated way. In one of his early poems, Che alludes to that: “I’m just going to be strangled anyway; I’d rather do something big with my life. I’d rather die.”

I also think he was very lonely. He finds real fraternity and is truly happy finally when he’s in prison with the Cubans. He absolutely gives himself over to that guerrilla fraternity. And later in the Sierra war, he goes a step further, and it becomes codified by him as the ultimate form of brotherhood. His ideals are crystallized as he wakes up each day prepared to die for the common cause. That emotional identification, and the fact that it was successful, allowed him to make it something of a crusade. I do understand that, and see how that is possible. In the best of cases, it’s a positive rather than a dark experience, even though a lot of it is about death.

DLU Do you think it’s because of such camaraderie that the romantic myth of the revolutionary and of someone like Che evolves? Not necessarily the myth that he felt, but the myth that turns him into an iconic figure?

JLA Well, it was he who romanticized it.

DLU But he was also very honest about it. One of the most striking aspects of his campaign diaries is how relentless and ruthless the life is.

JLA Nonetheless, later, in his published writings, he turned almost all of those experiences into redemption tales. Enlightenment and harmony through sacrifice. And as prose it appeals to us. It was that peculiar visionary faith that Che had in everything he said and did. It was palpable to all the people who ever saw him speak, or who worked with him.

DLU He was truly that charismatic?

JLA He truly believed it in a way that a lot of the people around him never did. Privately they’d say, Che esta loco. That’s the way the Cubans are. They are very feet-on-the-ground people. Che was the mad mix that they loved and sometimes despised. There’s a great phrase in Spanish which is fuera de serie, “exceptional”—and it’s used in Cuba as a term of endearment and respect to describe Che. Che had a superlative mystical faith that was not apparently there in the others. That was palpable, and it also informed his legend and, yes, the romance of it. Some of it is obviously more superficial in that he simply looked so dramatic. He’s alone, the ultimate embodiment of rebellion.

DLU The hardest of the hardcore.

JLA That’s why he’s transcended ideology, and people admire him uniformly. One of things that really intrigued me and convinced me that I wanted to write about him was that I had a lot of preliminary interviews with his enemies. And they all admired him. They would talk and talk and talk about him. At some level, they knew that when their obituaries were written, it would be because they had been the handmaidens to his death. There are few figures I know of in history—modern history, certainly—whom that can be said about.

I remember reading Felix Rodriguez’s ghostwritten memoirs, and I asked him about it. I was struck because he turned out to be a lot more sincere than I expected. He was a CIA agent in Latin America and I think I was predisposed to dislike him because he’s done some pretty nasty stuff. I’m not sure he ever will come clean, but in terms of his actual contact with Che, I believed him. He described how he told Che he was about to die, and that he would have preferred to say Che died on his knees like a coward, begging for mercy. But the truth was that Che died like a man. He said Che turned “white as a sheet of paper” when he gave him the news, then composed himself and said, “It’s better this way, I should never have been taken alive.” And when Rodriguez said this to me, this man who’s quite obese, he physically changed, you could see his skin goosebumping, and he said to me, almost like an appeal, “It’s as though I’m there again.” It was quite extraordinary to see. He said that he felt obliged to embrace Che before he died.

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Che’s body lying on public display, inspected by his uniformed enemies in the laundry house of the Vallegrande hospital, Nuestro Señor de Malta, on October 10, 1967. Courtesy of Freddy Alborta, Grove Press.

DLU This is obviously a matter of conjecture, but if Che were alive today, what do you think he would be doing?

JLA I’ve been asked that question many times, and I don’t think it would have ever turned out any other way.

DLU You don’t think history would have turned out differently if he were alive?

JLA No. And I don’t think Che’s personal history would have been any different either. In other words, I can’t conceive of him staying in Cuba. He was desperate both to fulfill his personal destiny, his historical quest and mission, and to open up a role for Cuba and the cause of Socialist revolution in the Western hemisphere. Theoretically, he could have implanted the global confrontation that he wanted to achieve.

DLU What do you think he’d make of what’s happened in Cuba, as it moves closer to a western-style economy? It’s almost a validation of his warning about not being dependent on the Soviets any more than you’d want to be dependent on the Americans.

JLA It’s the most highly individualized society. It’s become a bunker of self-interest because of the breakdown of the collective. The one thing Che would be pleased with is the continued absolute political control by the party. Which, of course, is how the Marxists, the true believers, vouchsafe the changes. They rationalize the argument, concede that times have changed, and they now embark on this path, but say the goal is the same. They will maintain a socialist ideal while becoming capitalists. They’ve had the example of the dismal breakup of the Soviet bloc to know that they should not give an iota of concession to any political opposition. Then they have the successful example of China to emulate.

For the most part, though, I can only say that Che would be rolling over in his grave. It’s a cliché, but I can’t see him in this world today. Although some of his battles still await their final denouement. Che’s brother-in-law, Ricardo Gadea, is in exile in Spain from Peru, accused of being the brain of the Movimento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru, the group who was holding the Japanese embassy in Lima. Thirty years later, the same problems remain. They’re just graver.

DLU It’s not the United Fruit Company anymore, but it’s the same American interests, and American dollars.

JLA I guess I do think things would have turned out differently if Che had lived and had been able to learn by his errors. He was one of these people who was constantly questioning, and he was probably headed towards a personal watershed of some kind. If he had, the evolution of the insurgency era in Latin America would have turned out differently. But it was not to be. The crucial thing to remember is that for Che, this was an absolutely conscious process, and when I finally realized that, it made what he tried to do all the more extraordinary and real. I don’t think knowing this will reshape the myth, but it does make him in some ways a more potent character.

DLU It may not reshape the myth, but it certainly diffuses it.

JLA Ultimately, I got past the myth through Che’s own words. Che had written throughout his entire life. I tried to get everything I could get my hands on. This became my maxim, the only thing I could truly believe in.

David L. Ulin is the author of Cape Cod Blues (Red Dust), a chapbook of poems. His children’s book, Garage Band, is forthcoming from Price Stern Sloan. Currently, he is writing a book about Jack Kerouac for the University of California Press.

Hilton Als by Coco Fusco
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From This Side and from That Side by Gabriela Wiener
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We are street people. Nomadic by nature. We are the grandchildren of poor, adventurous strangers. Our living radicalizes their legacy.

Kayapó Chief Tuire by Pinar Yolaçan
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“I won’t open my palm for those wanting to dominate.”

Big Faces: The Cool Kids of the Russian Avant Garde by Kevin Kinsella

Throughout the early 1920s, Aleksandr Rodchenko took many photographs of his friends and colleagues. Some were snapshots, others author photos for book covers, and still others would be used in his propaganda collages for the Russian Telegraph Agency.

Originally published in

BOMB 60, Summer 1997

Featuring interviews with Barry Le Va, Jane Dickson, John Lee Anderson, Lydia Davis, Judy Davis, Peter Greenaway, Roger Guenveur Smith, David Del Tredici, Alfred Uhry, and David Armstrong.

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