Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Hitch" on "Che"

Today I was filtering through some old files from the course I teach on Cuba and came across a rich and penetrating review article about Ernesto "Che" Guevara written in 1997 by Christopher Hitchens.

The article, from The New York Review of Books, is provocatively entitled, "Goodbye to All That," and is a double book review of Jon Lee Anderson's authoritative Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life and a new translation of Guevara's own "on the road" classic The Motorcycle Diaries.

If my memory serves me correctly, I learned of the article first from my colleague, the anthropologist Ariana Hernández-Regaunt.  H/T to her.

You can, and should, read the entire article yourself.  But keep reading below for some juicy and quite timely excerpts, especially given what's afoot these days in the Cuban economy.

First, however, I give you the exquisite finale of the piece:

"The very element that gave [Guevara] his certainty and courage—his revolutionary communism—was also the element that condemned him to historical eclipse. In setting down the whole story in such a respectful but objective manner, Jon Lee Anderson has succeeded in writing, for himself and I suspect for many others, a nuanced goodbye to all that."

"Much of the attraction of the cult has to do with the grace of an early and romantic death. George Orwell once observed that if Napoleon Bonaparte had been cut down by a musket ball as he entered Moscow, he would have been remembered as the greatest general since Alexander. And not only did Guevara die before his ideals did, he died in such a manner as to inspire something akin to superstition. He rode among the poor of the altiplano on a donkey. He repeatedly foresaw and predicted the circumstances of his own death. He was spurned and betrayed by those he claimed to set free. He was by calling a healer of the sick. The photographs of his corpse, bearded and half-naked and lacerated, make an irresistible comparison with paintings of the deposition from Calvary. There is a mystery about his last resting place. Alleged relics are in circulation. There have even been sightings…."
"And indeed, the script for the events reads like a primer in elementary Leninism. The Dulles brothers and their corporate friends did embark on an armed destabilization of the elected Arbenz government. They did engage the support of neighboring oligarchs such as General Anastasio Somoza. They did find and pay a military puppet named Castillo Armas. And they did invade Guatemala with a mercenary force. Guevara and his “internationalist” friends watched all this with a mixture of shame and incredulity, convinced that their predictions about the uselessness of gradualism were being confirmed, so to speak, before their very eyes. But they were impotent.
Chased into the sanctuary of the Argentine embassy by the coup he had long foreseen and tried vainly to resist, Guevara spent some very concentrated time with desperate militants who would, in the succeeding decades, become guerrilla commanders in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala itself. Together, they reviewed the lessons of the defeat. Chief among these, they felt, was Arbenz’s failure to distribute arms to the people. Next came his refusal to take action against the CIA’s clever manipulation of the local press. It was a crucible moment: a young man receiving an indelible impression at a formative age. Up until then, Guevara had even by his own account been playing at revolution. Henceforth, he would not joke about Stalin. Rather, he would school himself in the intransigence of the “socialist camp,” and begin to study the canonical work of its lately deceased but not-yet-disowned General Secretary."
"Trotsky once remarked that what distinguished the revolutionary was not his willingness to kill but his readiness to die. The anti-Batista war conducted by Castro, Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Frank País was, by most standards, a near-exemplary case of winning “hearts and minds” and recruiting popular enthusiasm. Some informers and deserters and backsliders were executed out of hand, but Guevara seems at first to have shown no relish for such work. Indeed, he cashiered one of his deputies in Camaguey province, a bizarre American freebooter named Herman Marks, because of his undue eagerness to take part in reprisal killings or on-the-spot battlefield punishments. Yet Anderson has unearthed a suggestive detail. Once in power in Havana, and immediately charged by Castro with purging and punishing Batista’s police apparatus, Guevara set up an improvised drumhead tribunal at the harbor fortress of La Cabana, where he sent for Marks again and re-employed him as an executioner.
Some justified this kind of “people’s court” as utilitarian. Herbert Matthews of The New York Times had a go at defending them “from the Cuban’s perspective.” (The paper wouldn’t print his efforts.) But other foreign correspondents were appalled by the lynch trials, ordered by Fidel Castro himself, that were held in the Havana sports stadium. Raul Castro went even further in the city of Santiago, machine-gunning seventy captured Batistianos into a ditch dug by a bulldozer. When challenged by friends and family, Guevara resorted to three defenses. First, he claimed that everybody at La Cabana had had a hearing. The speed at which the firing squads operated made his argument seem exiguous. Second, as reported by Anderson, “he never tired of telling his Cuban comrades that in Guatemala Arbenz had fallen because he had not purged his armed forces of disloyal elements, a mistake that permitted the CIA to penetrate and overthrow his regime.” Third, and dropping all pretense, he told a protesting former medical colleague: “Look, in this thing either you kill first, or else you get killed.”"
"It was clear, in other words, that his authoritarian stance was taken on principle and not in response to “tactical” considerations. Huber Matos and other allegedly “bourgeois” supporters of the original revolution who were imprisoned had already found this out, as had the Trotskyists who dared to criticize Fidelism from the “left.”"
"Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they probably begin by calling “charismatic.” The last few years of Guevara’s life were a study in diminishing returns. He drove himself harder and harder, relying more and more on exhortation and example, in order to accomplish less and less. In the case of the Cuban economy, the argument over “moral” versus “material” incentives became muddied, with the system eventually resolving itself into one of material non-incentive, periodically prodded by slogans, along Eastern European lines."
"Since 1968, the “Year of the Heroic Guerrilla,” Cuban children have been instructed in almost Baden-Powell tones that if they seek a “role model,” they should comport themselves como el Che. This strenuous injunction only emphasizes the realization that Guevara’s Cromwellian, ascetic demands on people bordered on the impossible: even the inhuman. The grandson who is said most to resemble him—a young man named Canek—has quit the island in order to pursue the vocation of a heavy-metal guitarist in Mexico, and it is a moral and material certainty that many of his generation wish they could do the same."
"The very element that gave him his certainty and courage—his revolutionary communism—was also the element that condemned him to historical eclipse. In setting down the whole story in such a respectful but objective manner, Jon Lee Anderson has succeeded in writing, for himself and I suspect for many others, a nuanced goodbye to all that."

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