Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

Continuing on my quest to get a better handle on why the world is the way it is today, I figured I’d read about a prominent figure in recent Latin American history. That naturally led me to Che Guevara, who I initially had a bit of doubt about. From the Mao book, I learned that he had great plans for Che and Latin America, but was spurned away when he learned that Che wouldn’t allow Cuba to be dependent on Chinese aid. So since Mao rubbed me the wrong way, I suppose a bit of guilt-by-association made me feel a bit sketchy about socialism and all related things. But I resolved to give Che a fair shot in our greater quest to learn about recent history, and I was pleasantly surprised in what I found.

Like the quote on the cover says, Che is certainly a “complex character”. In fact, he’s almost the polar opposite of Mao. Mao is extremely one-dimensional; he’s only concerned with getting more power and more control over his life, and by consequence, over the world. And as a result, Mao as a character isn’t very interesting: you always know what he wants and that he’ll do anything to get it. Furthermore, he doesn’t care about socialism or communism except as a tool to enslave the masses and further cement his own power over those around him.

Reverse these statements and you get Che. Che has a lot of depth in his character, and makes a number of incredibly smart decisions as well as a number of incredibly terrible decisions. He isn’t concerned with personal power or control, but really is convinced by the Communist message and wants to use it to save the world (here, from the evils of imperialism / colonialism). As a result, Che is largely consistent but just often enough makes an odd choice that really makes him a lot more interesting than Mao as a person. Mao, in fact, seems a lot closer to Fidel Castro in the Latin world in terms of ideology, but with the key difference being the sheer difference in the number of deaths their respective regimes have led to.

Che starts off in a relatively humble upbringing, but through his travels throughout South and Central America, he starts to see the poverty of the region. Furthermore, he sees how the workers in these countries are exploited by American companies (the United Fruit Company is named as the primary exploiter) and how the United States government supports this activity (see the Monroe Doctrine and Spanish-American War). He then links them together in a natural manner and sees the United States as the main enemy of Latin America. Che becomes frustrated with how the United States preaches freedom for the world but keeps Latin America economically enslaved to the United States and goes one step further: just as the United States kept Latin America under its thumb, imperialism has kept people across the world from being free and must be stopped no matter the cost.

While I don’t necessarily agree with Che’s insight, I feel he definitely makes an interesting and thought-provoking case for it. The book contains excerpts from most of Che’s diaries and gives a unique look into Che’s mind. Again, this differs from Mao, where we only saw a few insights at the beginning of this book (albeit very well chosen ones), while here we constantly see how Che felt throughout his travels.

So while I feel that the corporation is exploitative by its very nature, I’ve been trying to see what exists as an alternative to it. Che’s socialist method, unfortunately, does not seem to work in a world such as ours. He proposes “moral incentives” and other non-material gains (since material gains would would put him on the road back to capitalism), but since not everyone in the world displays anywhere close to the work ethic or sense of responsibility that Che has, it quickly falls apart.

Similarly, Cuba simply has too many people to be able to be completely independent from the rest of the world. Oddly enough, in this “independent” quest, it then becomes dependent on the Soviet Union and China on most things it relied on the U.S. for earlier. Jon Lee Anderson, the author, summarizes perfectly the problems of a small nation trying to be independent while discussing a food shortage:

Who was to blame for the shortages? Was it caused by the U.S. trade embargo? In part, yes. Was it the revolution’s radicalization that caused the crippling exodus of technicians, managers, and traders from the island? Yes. Was it the incompetence of the revolution’s leaders in attempting to convert a capitalist economy to a socialist one? Yes, all of these were contributing factors.

Interestingly enough, these problems aren’t really problems with socialism as much as they are problems in politics. Any nation will run into problems if it can’t (1) play nicely with the U.S., (2) keep its ideology from running the educated out of the country, and (3) can’t keep its government staffed with competent individuals. The third point is shown to be a big issue, as many of the “experts” in the country have no experience at all in their field and are very much learning as they go. And while that may work out in the long-term, the short-term will certainly be riddled with problems. And the first point is an unfortunate consequence of the Monroe Doctrine and the Cold War. As much as I love America, the fact that a new nation would have to get approval from another for things to go along smoothly is a bit of a shame. Consider the converse: would America be the same country if we had a foreign superpower meddling in our country’s affairs since the beginning? Certainly not.

While I can agree with Che on these points, there are some things I can’t condone. It is completely contradictory to me that he deplores the deaths of innocents in the Congo by U.S.-Belgian forces (on p.615 he refers to them as “massacres”) but thinks that the Soviets should have nuked the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis (p. 604). How can he call the former a massacre and then denounce “peaceful coexistence”  with the West and claim that the murder of millions of innocents would have been acceptable to free the world from imperialism? It’s really disappointing since I got such a strong feeling of morality from Che and a genuine desire to save the world, but I just reconcile moments like this from him. It makes him look very one-dimensional when he says “murder is bad when America does it but when we do it it’s glorious revolution” and really strips a lot of the shine from his character. Yes, I get that people are going to die in a revolution, but it would seem like you could really do a lot to minimize the casualties involved and keep a relatively higher moral ground than statements like this from Che lead on.

But maybe his actions would agree with what I’m saying. It’s abundantly clear that he minimized casualties throughout the Cuban Revolution and didn’t execute prisoners or deserters except when it was absolutely necessary. So that makes his previous statement about the Cuban missile crisis even more odd. But this really makes Che human: his views change and evolve over time, and sometimes he says things in an off-the-cuff manner that he “kind of means but not really means”, if you get my drift.

What’s also interesting is Che’s involvement in the failed Congo and Bolivian revolutions. It’s a stark contrast to see Che do so well and learn guerrilla tactics in Cuba and then completely fail in the Congo and Bolivia. But he fails in these areas for very different reasons. This is more interesting because Che knows the standard guerrilla warfare techniques, which I summarize here based on the book (p.730): don’t move in the open without precise intelligence on the area, get support from the peasants, and know where the enemy is at all times. He fails in the Congo because he fails on all three points: his intelligence is based on monstrously-poor sources, and as a result, he rarely knew where the enemy was or where his help was, and the peasant population was afraid of the extremely negative reputation of the Congo revolutionaries (due to their exploitation of them). Che saw these traits in the Congo revolutionaries but still decided to help them since he had decided that the time was right for revolution in their land. Unfortunately, this, paired up with an incredibly dangerous belief possessed by the revolutionaries that they were immune to bullet fire (dawa), spelled out certain doom from the beginning, and Che was lucky to get out alive.

Che then fails in Bolivia in a very different manner. The forces that he relies on here again are extremely sloppy and as a result, they had poor intelligence about the area and the enemy. The Bolivian government also scared the locals about the revolutionaries, and since the revolutionaries didn’t seem to try too hard to remedy this, the situation didn’t improve. This seemed like something Che could fix relatively easily (p. 768), but it seems like Che went to Bolivia to die a hero in their revolution. It’s strongly implied that he was getting old and wanted to make an impact with his life, knowing that if he was killed in action that it would be felt across the world. The United States was well aware of this, too, and it’s CIA agent was under orders to make sure to retrieve him alive. Unfortunately for them, the Bolivian government wanted him eliminated, and that was how it went.

It’s a lot more complicated than that, of course, but hopefully I’ve piqued your interest enough to read this amazing book and learn more for yourself. It talks about a lot that I didn’t (like Che’s personal life) and I’ve only scratched the surface here. I found the book to be a fascinating read about a man who showed that one person can definitely have an impact on history.