COMPANERO: The Life and Death of Che Guevara
By Jorge Castaneda
Alfred A. Knopf
352 pp., $30
This is the year of Che. May saw publication of "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life," by Jon Lee Anderson (Grove), a grand and sweeping biography of a short, violent, yet evocative and impressive life.
Now comes a searing account by Jorge Castaneda, a prominent Mexican academic. Both books have been brilliantly assessed in the Oct. 6 issue of The New Yorker by Alma Guillermoprieto, who offers a view from the Latino side.
So it is with Castaneda's brilliant book. Rich in narrative detail, it presents a broad, philosophical overview that pivots on one key question: What has gone wrong with Latin America over the past century?
For Americans, the answer is simple: the absence of parliamentary democracy and consumer goods capitalism. But Castaneda's response typifies that of the Latino intelligentsia by pointing to the terrible pressures of poverty, illness, corruption, military coups, and intense class and ethnic disparities.
Hence the broad appeal of revolution, of Castro and of Guevara, who proclaimed in 1965, "There is no life outside the Revolution," even as he admitted that "The Congolese Revolution was irreparably doomed to failure owing to its internal weaknesses."
How did Che move from the first statement to the second, from a political/military triumph in Cuba during 1958-59, to the frustrations of economic failure in the early 1960s; to great plans - and painful defeats - in the Congo during 1965; and to the ultimate disaster in Bolivia in October 1967? There is no simple answer, and Castaneda bluntly portrays the terrible ambiguities afflicting Castro's Cuba in general and Che in particular.
He begins with the young Che, the frail, yet strong-willed son of a prominent but disjointed Argentine family, who left the Peronist turmoil in 1953 to acquire a radical political education while wandering through Latin America.
Fetching up in Guatemala, he watched bitterly as the leftist democratic Arbenz government was overthrown by a CIA-sponsored coup. His conclusion: The United States was the great enemy of progress in Latin America, an enemy to be confronted and defeated.
Enter Fidel Castro, already known in 1955 as a radical plotter in Cuban politics. He and Guevara waged a victorious guerrilla war from the island's eastern tip. Guevara, the Argentine outsider, had found a new Bolvar, a charismatic liberator for all the Americas, who would evict the Yankees and their puppets, just as he had done with Batista. With Cuban backing, small guerrilla groups would raise revolution throughout the continent; Castro was less hopeful.
Subtle rifts developed between the two over industrializing one-crop Cuba - another of Guevara's crazier ideas - and spreading the revolution, first in the Caribbean, then in black Africa and finally in South America; all failed. Che meanwhile diverted himself with that classic radical dream, the creation of a "new man," militant, disciplined, and idealistic; Castro was skeptical.
Che posed a problem for him. Of course he symbolized the revolution, and Cuba's new global idealism and heroism. But Che was wildly unrealistic, ready to risk everything to confront American power, no matter what the cost. It was better to dispose of him; of course not violently, but perhaps by encouraging him to leave Cuba, to risk his life elsewhere. So Castaneda contends, portraying Che moving ever deeper into the Bolivian jungles, where illness, exhaustion, lack of food, an antagonistic peasantry, and pursuing troops combined to bring him down. He was executed on Oct. 9, 1967.
* Leonard Bushkoff regularly reviews books on history and biography for the Monitor.