Jorge Castañeda, author, Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara
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JORGE CASTAÑEDA: Che became a symbol of those two rebellions because of the
time; the timing was perfect and because he was a figure that lent himself perfectly to this
rebellious mood. He was a martyr, he was young, he was good looking, the pictures were
available, the timing was perfect, he dies in late 1967. The big marches, the big demonstrations
of the ’60s begin in late ’67 and they all, the explosion is in 1968, all over the world. And
he became the symbol, the emblem, that was carried in all of these demonstrations.
KEITH PORTER: The life of Ernesto Che Guevara, today on Common Ground.
CASTAÑEDA: As a symbol of the political rebellion, he disappeared because a
political rebellion was defeated and is totally senseless today. But since he was also a
symbol of the cultural rebellion, and the cultural rebellion is still with us today, then
today he reappears as a symbol, not of the politics of the ’60s, but of the cultural revolt of
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
Che Guevara was born in 1928 and he died in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967. Now, 30 years
later, Che still fascinates and infuriates a surprising number of people. Several Che movies
are in the works and at least two highly researched biographies of Che have just been released.
Today we hear from the author of one of those biographies. Jorge Castañeda has written
several books and is professor of International Affairs at the National Autonomous University
of Mexico. Castañeda begins with a brief introduction to Ernesto Che Guevara.
CASTAÑEDA: He was an Argentine Revolution who participated in a leading role in
the Cuban revolution at the end of 1950’s, who played a leading role in the consolidation of
the Cuban regime—Castro, the fight against the CIA, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis—in
those years. And then for a series of reasons, which are not worth mentioning at this stage,
left Cuba, went to lead a revolution in the Congo that was defeated, went then to lead a
revolution in Bolivia that was defeated and he died there. And then he became the symbol of
a generation, the symbol of a time, the 1960s, when young people tried to change the world as
they thought best.
PORTER: I went to my small town library, the little town I live in, looked on their
computerized card file and found 20 books on Che and there must be many more than that. Why
did you want to go over this ground that had been gone over so many times?
CASTAÑEDA: There are far more than 20 as you say. There are easily 70 or 80
biographies of him that were written of him in the late ’60s and early ’70s all over the world,
and maybe a few more that were written during the 1970s, the late ’70s. The reason that
justifies doing it again is, are, the reasons are essentially three. The first one is that
there is a lot of material that is not, was not available then that is available now.
Archives, interviews, testimony, people who did not talk at the time, who did not wish to
speak at the time, documents that were now declassified were not available at the time are
available now. And they cast a very different picture of the man and of the time. Second
reason is that all of these books were not only written, were written just after his death,
in the wake of his death, and consequently have, by definition a very glowing, admirative
attitude approach towards a hero. Something written 30 years later, even if you have a great
deal of affection and admiration for the man as I do, has to be more balanced because you’re
not doing it on the spur of the moment. And thirdly, all of these books, of course, were written
when the Cold War was still going on, when Socialism still meant something, when the Berlin
Wall had not fallen, etc. and they are inevitably marked by that feature, by that aspect.
Today, all of this is ancient history and so you have to look at it in a different way also.
PORTER: How hard is it for a Che biographer to avoid romanticism?
CASTAÑEDA: Well, it’s hard but if you, unless you have an ax to grind of your
own which is the case of some but not mine, it’s relatively easy to avoid because the story
almost tells itself. It’s such a great story that just by telling it straight forwardly, you
can almost create a romantic image without wanting to. As a matter of fact what you have to
do is try and be careful not to load up the romanticism, so to speak, because it really is such
a great life and such a great story. So I think it’s doable.
PORTER: Some biographers of Che have faced criticism because of their cooperation with
the government or things like that. What kind of access did you have to materials and was
there any political pressure that went along with the access you were granted?
CASTAÑEDA: Well, there have, there are in a sense two types of biographies that
have been published recently. Those that have either a Cuban blessing or that are pretty
clearly pro-Cuban and those that are either critical or more distant from all of that. The
Cubans only gave access to some people, the Cuban government, so I did not obtain access from
the Cuban government. Nonetheless, I was able to go to Cuba on three occasions, spent a week,
a little more than a week each time, and was able to interview a great number of people who
worked with Che, who fought with Che, who were friends of his, to obtain documents, unpublished
manuscripts of his, minutes of the ministries where he worked, and other documents. Because
in Cuba today the government doesn’t control everything the way it used to. So even if the
government doesn’t want you to do things, you can do them anyway. At the same time, this sort
of absolved me of the problem of having some sort of too intimate a relationship with either
the government or the family which is the case of some of the other biographers. Access in
the United States and the Soviet Union and in Britain, to archives, is the same for everybody.
It’s just a question of luck and perseverance and up to a certain extent, money. Probably I
have more material than the others do because I spent more time trying to get it, because I
went to Moscow to find the Soviet archives and because I knew where to look, but that is
available to everybody. In terms of interviews, there are some key interviews that I was
able to obtain outside of Cuba that were not available to others because of contacts, because
of a certain amount of trust that develops and I think that they make a big difference.
PORTER: I think so too. Give us the names of a couple of the people who were closest
to Che that you were able to speak with personally.
CASTAÑEDA: Well, there are three people that I think were central that I was
able to interview and that others were not. The first is his girlfriend in Cordoba, Maria del
Carmen Ferreyra. Although this was a relationship that took place when they were very young—he
was only 22 and it never really got anywhere—it was decisive for him at a time when he was
in a transition. And the types of personal intuitions she gave me, the letters that he wrote
to her that she made available to me and let me quote, gave me a sense of the fellow as a
young man that I don’t think is present in the other works. A second figure is a figure who’s
absolutely decisive is his aide in the Congo and in Bolivia and one of the three survivors of
Bolivia, a fellow by the name of “Benigno” who left Cuba a couple of years ago and who spoke
at length. He is in a sense, probably the highest level Cuban official of that time involved
in that time, who left Cuba and he spoke up very clearly. He wrote a book, but what he told
me was much more detailed than was in the book because I had enough information of my own that
I was able to confront him with. That made it possible for him to remember things and go into
details and sequences that he wasn’t able to do on his own, even in his own book. And the
third person who agreed to speak to me and speak with a great deal of frankness and reveal
things that are absolutely decisive and that had not been made public before, was the leader
of the Bolivian Communist Party, Mario Monje, who lives in Moscow, has been living in Moscow
since 1968 and who was blamed by Fidel Castro for Che’s death and for having betrayed Che in
Bolivia. And he finally gave his side of the story, which in a sense, makes a great deal more
sense than Castro’s.
PORTER: That’s must have been fascinating, to actually meet those people and know that
you were having really such a close contact with this figure that you were writing about.
CASTAÑEDA: It was a fascinating experience.
PORTER: Yeah. I have here a Cuban 3 dollar bill with Che’s picture on it and it reminded
me, that one thing I didn’t know until I read your book, is that Che spent a short time as
head of the Cuban National Bank and I was just wondering if you think that any time in the
future, will we see Che’s face on a piece of currency anywhere in the world? Do you think
this is likely to happen again?
CASTAÑEDA: Well, in another country, probably not, although there are two places
where one could conceivably see monuments to him erected, commemorating his life, his death,
whatever. One is the Congo, the new Democratic Republic of the Congo, ex-Zaire, the president
of which, Laurent Kabila, fought with Che in the Congo 30 years ago, and who Che supported,
armed, trained, encouraged, scolded. To a large extent, Kabila’s?? struggle over the last 30
years began in 1965 with Che and a hundred Cubans that were sent over to help him. So conceivably,
if he has any sense of gratitude, he would erect a monument, even if he wouldn’t necessarily
follow the policies that Che stood for. And secondly in Argentina, although all of these
years Che has been more of a pariah in Argentina among sort of centrist, mainstream, middle
of the road Argentines and the Argentine oligarchy, the establishment have only not commemorated
or raised monuments in his honor, but instead have tried to forget him as much as possible.
The fact is that now the Argentines are particularly proud of a strange occurrence which is
that two of the most significant cult heroes in the world at the end of the century, Evita and
Che, are both Argentines. And so they’re terribly excited about that and they are more
arrogant than conservative. They’re both, but they’re more arrogant and proud than
conservative and so conceivably they would also perhaps now, not put his picture on a dollar
bill, but perhaps…
PORTER: You mentioned Laurent Kabila and I thought it was, it’s just fascinating,
you’re reading along in this book, it feels like ancient history almost and then all of a
sudden out jumps this man marching across the pages who’s also on the front page of the
newspaper the same day. It’s interesting that there’s this connection that lives on, I guess.
CASTAÑEDA: Well, one of the things that are interesting and working on this
period of time is that on the one hand, because so many things have happened between the 1960s
and today, all over the world because history has speeded up, so to speak, it’s seems like an
enormously long time ago. And in many ways, it is a long, long time ago because so much has
happened. On the other hand, in biological terms, it’s only 30 years and 30 years in the life
of an individual and in the life of a country and the life of a region, is very little. Many
of the central figures, if not all of the central figures of this book, are still present in
Cuba, in Moscow, in Latin America, in Africa because they were in their 20s or 30s, 30-40
years ago and people today live to 75 or 80. They live very productive lives. They don’t
just live biologically. So you have this combination of two things. On the one hand, it
looks like it was a long time ago. On the other hand it was just yesterday.
CASTAÑEDA: And so you see the same people popping up. You see it in Africa, but
you also see it in France, you see it in Argentina, you see it in Cuba, you see it in Mexico,
you see it in all sorts of places.
PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with Jorge Castañeda,
author of Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara. Printed transcripts
and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for
details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan
organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage
dialogue on world affairs.
KEITH PORTER: What ultimately happened between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara? I mean
what was sort of the, how was their relationship left at the end?
CASTAÑEDA: My impression is that their personal relationship remained very
strong, very close until the very, very end. Perhaps the last couple of months Che had a
sense in Bolivia that he was being abandoned, but it was never reflected in any public statement
of his, in any written statement of his, in any communication or anything said to anybody who
saw him. On Castro’s side, Castro obviously preserved the great deal of affection, fatherly
affection that he had for Che from the very beginning. Their political relationship, of
course, is a different story. There was a political estrangement and it was a political
estrangement going back to the middle of 1964, even the beginning of 1964, a full year before
Che leaves Cuba and three years before he dies in Bolivia. When, for a series of reasons, it
became obvious to both of them that Cuba was too small for both of them and that one of them
had to leave and it was obviously going to be Che and not Fidel. The differences had to do
with economic policy. They had to do with the Soviet Union. They had to do with the Latin
American Communist parties. They had to do with the revolution in Latin America. And Che
basically lost. The other guys won. Fidel was not one of the other guys. Fidel was the
ultimate arbiter, but the minute Fidel stopped taking sides, stopped taking Che’s side in the
fight with the other guys, with the bad guys, Che was doomed and so their political
relationship did deteriorate seriously to the point that in 1967 that in Bolivia alone,
stranded, isolated, sick, with his guerrilla group decimated, when Castro could have and
should have made an attempt to save him, he didn’t. And he didn’t not only because of the
Soviet Union, the Soviet Union telling him not to do so, but he also didn’t because it would
have been a tremendous problem if he had succeeded, let alone if he’d failed.
PORTER: What would’ve happened? Any prediction on Cuba, I mean what would’ve happened
if the other guys won, if Che’s side had done a little bit better and Fidel had chosen
differently, any prediction on what Cuba might look like today?
CASTAÑEDA: In a sense, the question has no answer because in the long term,
Che’s guys, and Che would’ve lost anyway. They could’ve lost a little later, they could’ve
lost a little more slowly, they could’ve lost less decisively, but the basic feature of the
Cuban revolution which was that it was not viable without Soviet support and Soviet support
implied a series of conditions. of conditions that were both technical, economic, and political,
ideological, and international, diplomatic were such that Castro really didn’t have much
choice. It was that way or risk the revolution and risk power for principle. Now Che might
have done that, but not Fidel. Fidel has shown that over 40 years now, in a couple of years
it will be 40 years since he took power, which is a mouthful, Castro has shown over this long
period of time that he will never put power at risk if he can avoid it. There is no principle,
there is no goal that is worthy of being placed ahead of the conservation of power. If he
was convinced, and he was and he was right, that the only way to insure the survival of the
revolution and to insure his permanence at the head of the revolution, was through Soviet
support, then he was going to do nothing that would jeopardize that support. And that became
perfectly clear from 1964 onward when he realized that the whole thing, I mean, it wasn’t
PORTER: In the book you both begin and end with some commentary on the times, on the
connection between Che and his era. I think it’s in the prologue you say,” If anyone ever
believed that wanting the world was enough to have it and have it now, that man was Che
Guevara. If there was ever a time when millions thought the same things, it was the ’60s.”
Tell us about that connection between Che and his era.
CASTAÑEDA: Well, the ’60s were a time when two different rebellions took place
throughout the world. One was a political rebellion: the war against, the demonstrations
against the war in Vietnam; May ’68 in Paris and the students and the workers trying to change
the regime; the Prague spring in Czechoslovakia to build socialism with a human face; the
students in Mexico City trying to democratize the authoritarian political system in Mexico;
etc. etc. etc. All of those political, that was a political rebellion, was defeated, country
after country. They achieved some success, depending on the countries, depending on the
moments, but by and large they were all defeated. The socialism with a human face in Prague
was destroyed by Soviet tanks. The elections in June of 1968 in Paris gave de Gaulle and the
conservative parties an overwhelming majority. The students in Mexico were massacred in the
square, Tlatelolco Square on October 2 and most of the demonstrations against the war in
Vietnam were eventually, eventually died down. The war continued for another seven years in
fact, although Americans began to be pulled out of Vietnam and in fact through the end of the
draft in 1970, the American youth commitment to the war came to and end, but that’s all.
Nothing changed in the United States. It’s important to recall that in late 1968, Richard
Nixon was elected, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated and in 1972 McGovern was defeated by Nixon
On the other hand, you had a cultural or social rebellion in the 1960s—linked to this
political rebellion, but different from it—that implied, struggled by students, by young
people all over the world, for the right to dress differently, to wear their hair differently,
to live their lives differently, to listen to music that they liked, to use drugs if they
wanted to, to have the sexual habits that they wanted to, to organize their schools the way
they wanted to, to have the relationships with teachers, with parents, with friends, with
authority, the way they wanted to. And this cultural rebellion eventually moved into other
areas: into prison reform, into medical reform, into educational reform, that is it had to
do with a rebellion in changing people’s lives, everyday existence, without necessarily
changing the political environment in which all that took place. That rebellion was
successful, as opposed to the political one. That rebellion achieved enormous changes in
society that are still with us today, that young people today don’t know come from that, but
they do, whether they know it or they don’t know it. What makes it possible for kids today
to stand up in class and argue with their teacher, argue with their parents, dress the way
the want, eat the way they want, drink they way they want, have the friends and enemies that
they want, all of that goes back to the 1960s. Che became a symbol of those two rebellions
because of the time;. the timing was perfect and because he was a figure that lent himself
perfectly to this rebellious mood. He was a martyr, he was young, he was good looking, the
pictures were available, the timing was perfect, he dies in late 1967. The big marches, the
big demonstrations of the ’60s begin in late ’67 and they all, the explosion is in 1968, all
over the world. And he became the symbol, the emblem, that was carried in all of these
As a symbol of the political rebellion, he disappeared because a political rebellion was
defeated and is totally senseless today. But since he was also a symbol of the cultural
rebellion, and the cultural rebellion is still with us today, then today he reappears as a
symbol, not of the politics of the ’60s, but of the cultural revolt of the ’60s, which is so
PORTER: It is amazing that it’s the sort of cultural icon that he’s become. And
actually you mentioned that also in the early part of the book about the picture that’s taken
of Che. Tell us about that, the picture that was taken shortly after he died.
CASTAÑEDA: There are two pictures, one picture, the famous picture is the one
of him dead, of his body laid out on a concrete slab in a little town in Bolivia, where the
Bolivian army and the CIA showed him to the world and had to convince everybody that was him.
And so they cleaned him, they shaved him, they bared his breast, they had to convince people
that it was him. There was another picture that was taken just before he was executed which
shows a terribly different Che; a Che depressed, dirty, disheveled, who doesn’t look like Che,
and so you, what is remarkable is how it was the Bolivian army who transformed the beggar
almost that they had captured into the Christ-like figure that they executed and that became
PORTER: Well, just one last question for you. This death of Che in 1967, was it
inevitable, or was it largely avoidable?
CASTAÑEDA: That specific death in Bolivia those days, or those months, was
avoidable. He made an enormous amount of mistakes in Bolivia, tactical, strategic, political,
military, that could’ve been avoided. He did not receive the support from Cuba that he had
been promised, that he needed and with that support, that death could have been avoided. Once
all of the mistakes had been made and once the Cuban resources made available to him had been
proved insufficient, he could’ve been rescued by the Cubans. It was not an easy thing to do,
but there was a possibility of doing it. It was not impossible and that would avoid his death.
So those specific circumstances were avoidable. What was not avoidable was that somewhere he
was going to die fighting. And the reason he was going to die fighting was that he could not
stay in Cuba because he did agree with the policies that were being followed but he didn’t
want to combat them in Cuba either because he was too loyal to Castro and too sensitive to
the need to maintain the unity of the revolutionary group. And so he had to go off somewhere
else to fight and given what was going on in the world at the time and in Latin America
particularly at the time, wherever he would’ve gone off to fight, he would’ve been defeated.
And wherever he would’ve been defeated, whoever defeated him would’ve had the same, would’ve
faced the same dilemma that the Bolivian army faced when they captured him. Which is that if
you capture him alive, what do you do with him? If you try him, you create an enormous
opportunity for world outrage. You give him the most extraordinary stage to carry out many
of the things that he would not have been able to carry out fighting. If you hand him over
to the Americans, you are doing something that you shouldn’t do because after all, in theory,
you’re the one who’s fighting him, not the Americans. So you have to execute him, which is
what they did. So in a sense it was inevitable, but it wasn’t inevitable there and then.
PORTER: That is Jorge Castañeda, author of a new biography titled, Compañero:
The Life and Death of Che Guevara. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
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