Updated: Jul 9
You lie back on the beach, draw on your cigarette—adjust the radio volume, pick up the rum bottle that you scrunched into the sand fifteen minutes ago. In the water, on the horizon, fishermen circle—they seek a big catch, just like Papa. Closer to the shore negritas and café au lait girls frolic with a beach ball. You draw on your cigarette, the music on the radio is martial—the beat steps up. It cuts: <<This is an urgent bulletin from Radio Martí. This morning, in Guaruani Province, twenty-three yanqui infiltrators were intercepted by the Popular Committees…>>. From the city behind you—sad colonial architecture with salmon-pink walls that peel in the heat, interspersed with grey concrete slabs—comes an occasional rat-a-tat-tat…rat-a-tat-tat. It comes from the central prison: another member of the ancien régime, a colonel perhaps, shot dead—back to the wall…
Ah, la revolución—hasta siempre, commandante! Except…who is this figure who approaches you on the beach. Handsome for sure, yet rather slim—he pauses to draw on his asthma inhaler. He seems a little…messy and unkept, yet other men follow him—clearly he has authority. Five minutes later the figure looms over you, he keeps an expressionless face yet beneath the calm you detect anger. “Comrade, a revolution is a serious business and yet I see you here, lounging on a beach,” he kicks your cigarette packet, “smoking yanqui cigarettes.” A short finger stabs the air before you…he looks, not Latin…almost…Irish, perhaps with an aristocratic mien—was Bernardo O’Higgins like this too? “Compañero, a revolution is built on love but true love is built on discipline…iron discipline.” Ten minutes later you are in the central barracks—sit-ups, star jumps, and then off to the Congo to spread la revolución. Ah, la revolución.
The key to understand Ernesto Che Guevara is that his parents eloped—they eloped so that Che, their first child, was born in secret: Guevara was a man whose birth certificate and his death certificate were both fake—the first thanks to his parents, the latter due to his death as a revolutionary in Bolivia. Guevara was born to a family with fine blood, the most aristocratic in Argentina—fine Irish blood, fine Spanish blood. Guevara was a blue blood. In recent years, it has become popular to call him Che Guevara Lynch for this very reason; the left plays up his father’s Irishness—the Irish are victims, so if Che had Irish blood you can forget about his Spanish colonial blood; except it was all noble blood, all fine blood. Tant pis.
Guevara was a decadent aristocrat pure and simple—and this is why he was on the left, and why he was an effective operator. His parents married for love, yet they acted impetuously and without forethought; they did not plan ahead or act responsibly—leftist traits. They did not change with age, nobody does. Guevara’s father lurched between business opportunities, spent many years unemployed, and was always on the ropes financially—he was a playboy without money, observed one relative; and he entertained himself with mistress after mistress. Guevara’s mother, the formative influence on his life, led a Bohemian existence; she sat and played solitaire compulsively while she doled out advice to all comers in her kitchen, wreathed in tobacco smoke—just like some matron in a Márquez novel. Ahí. Ahí.
The Guevara household was always in uproar: you could come any time you wanted, eat whenever you wanted—do what you wanted. The downside was that if you leaned on a particular kitchen wall you received an electric shock, since the cooker had short-circuited and nobody had bothered to fix it—the whole wall was electrified, albeit mildly. You get the picture: very little order, very little discipline, father mostly absent. A chaotic environment overseen by a godless Bohemian mother who surrounded herself with lesbian intellectuals and penniless university professors while she broke social convention, smoked when women never smoked and demanded free milk at the school for the poor children—just like some matron in a Márquez novel. Ahí. Ahí.
It was this world that Guevara grew up in: he grew up sickly, due to his chronic asthma, and he grew up very much his mother’s child—in other words, feminised. His leftism was rooted in his physical weakness; although he famously played rugby the reason why he was relatively successful in the game was his great aggression not his physical stature. As with Lenin and Marx, Guevara was an irascible and angry person—grumpy. He eventually learned to control his anger—before he would just pummel people with his fists, a natural reaction from a spoilt frustrated child—and yet his anger still leaked out: Guevara specialised in cutting remarks as a substitute for fists, just like Lenin and Marx—bitchy, just like a woman.
He was dirty too—so much so he was nicknamed “the pig”; and he refused to wash his clothes for weeks. He dressed in dirty, secondhand, and unfashionable clothes even though he knew upper-class Argentine society valued a well-dressed man. He did it, as with his mother’s behaviour, to narcissistically court attention. The pattern was set: an intelligent boy who was sickly and feminised—unable to face reality—who came to life with “an attitude”, came to life to ignore reality. His friends noted that his early commitments were “ethical” more than “political”—in other words, he had an attitude. His early influences: Freud, Bertrand Russell, HG Wells. He was intelligent, enough to become a doctor—yet he was also twisted due to his physical deformity and by the fact he was spoiled by his impulsive and narcissistic parents.
So much did Guevara hate cleanliness that when he was a minister in the revolutionary Cuban government he declared that Cuba would no longer be able to produce deodorant. Cuba is a very humid island and the Cubans—in sharp white suits and brothel creepers—adored their deodorant, their scent; how could you not, unless you wanted to end up a sweaty piggy mess? Latin men with slicked-back hair—Latin pride! Not for Che, he announced that the American embargo had nixed domestic deodorant production and, unfortunately, the comrades in Moscow lacked the technical expertise and parts to help with domestic production—Russia not being a humid tropical paradise, deodorant production had never been a priority in the five-year plans.
Nominally, Che delivered unfortunate news; really, he was delighted—he saw his filth as purity, and now those snooty Cubans would have to sweat everywhere too. Viva la revolución! Viva! Down to his last days in Bolivia, Che boasted that he had not washed for a month—longer than any other guerrilla in the band—even when he had soiled his trousers with diarrhoea. By his own admission, you could smell him for miles—not optimum guerrilla tactics, compañero! You know the old saying, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” well, it is the simple truth—nothing metaphysical about it. Dirty people—nonces, revolutionaries, perverts—have a dirty ethos as well. In this case, it was “dirty Guevara” to the end—a non-stop dirty protest across the South American continent.
Ultimately, it all comes down to his asthma. As with many young Argentine boys, he lost his virginity with a native Indian maid—his schoolboy friends watched through a keyhole (no, I don’t understand Latins either—this is just how they are). They were very much amused to see that Che, every few pumps, had to pause to quaff on his inhaler. He still had an inhaler with him on the day he was killed in the Bolivian highlands—perpetual and omnipresent handicap. Guevara originally went to university to study engineering, yet he switched to medicine. Because he wanted to help the poor of South America…the poor miners in the yanqui tin mines…Actually, he was soon a research assistant in an asthma lab. Che went to university to…find a cure for the asthma that dogged him. No problem with that, we all look after our own self-interest to one degree or another…comrade.
All Latin Americans mate in a compulsive manner, as if they were dogs in heat. Yet Guevara showed little discrimination, even for a Latin—he would sleep with anything, he was a man-whore; and he would go with the ugliest girl around, just a convenient hole. In this he was egalitarian; he showed no discrimination—he had to act on impulse, satisfy the itch. He was easily swayed by emotion.
Guevara had a maiden aunt, a respectable upper-middle-class lady, who doted on him—bought him presents and mothered him. In turn, Guevara, when in her apartment, seduced her maid—a woman usually locked in her room at night so she could not steal—and, on one occasion, slipped his sausage in her at the dinning room table while his aunt’s back was turned. This is Guevara all over: an ungrateful boy, he openly mocked and provoked his aunt—sneered at the people who supported him.
Another example, as a student in a leper hospital an old friend and fellow doctor warned him that an apparently asymptomatic pretty girl was riddled with leprosy on her back—yet otherwise she looked normal and would try to talk her way out of quarantine. Che saw the girl and…fell for it, demanded she be released. His friend took her to a consultation room, lowered her dress, and stuck a scalpel slightly into her back—no response, completely dead; leprosy, death-in-life. Guevara…refused to believe it…became angry, his face contorted—the rage. The rage against reality. When contradicted by reality, even by his old friend who had warned him and meant well, Che could not accept it. Reality spoiled his narcissistic bubble, it must be pushed back with anger. Gee, I hope this guy doesn’t end up running a country or anything…
Despite his aristocratic blood, Che developed an intense hatred towards “blond Americans”—almost as if he were the anti-Hitler. This developed on his “motorcycle diary” trip, the same trip in which he visited the leper colony. He even gave a speech where he celebrated the mixed-race unity that meant South America was one culture—one mestizo race. Ironically enough, before he set out on this journey Che had a romanced a quasi-feudal pure blood European girl back home whose family owned a good chunk of Argentina—he still dreamed of her while he cursed the blond yanquis. Her Anglophile family—aside from their one pro-Hitler uncle, a curious nighthawk who lived like an owl and bred thoroughbred horses—disdained Che for his damnable rudeness, the way he mocked Winston Churchill.
The way Che condemned “the blond yanqui” is ironic in its own way: Anglo-Protestant America was far more “egalitarian” than Che’s quasi-feudal world; and that was why it was so much richer, not exploitation but voluntary cooperation—itself due to different inherent biological characteristics. Yet Guevara never got it; he came from a world where people who own not much more than a modest estancia and two cows are called things like Don Jose y Callas de Lopes de Vargas y la Otra Vez de Guadeloupe—and that is just for starters—and it was to this “dusky” aristocracy he belonged; purely European, though—Che was praised for his attractive “paleness”, no mestizo he. Guevara only hated the blond yanqui for his handsomeness, his asthma-free ease; it was never about the peasants—it was always about the Anglophile qt, the rich bitch who turned him over.
It would be reductionist to say that Guevara became a revolutionary because a girl turned him down, but, to a significant degree, the Cuban Revolution can be attributed to the upper-middle-class trainee doctor being rejected by the upper-class heiress—as simple as that, resentful upper-middle-class professionals versus the toffs; and the peasantry provides the cannon fodder.
Che’s biographers claim that he exhibited no early interest in politics, but his biographers are mostly leftists. What they mean is that he never joined the Young Communist League or Young Labour; however, Che followed the Spanish Civil War as a child and his parents entertained Republican émigrés. During WWII, Che’s father took him on reconnaissance missions to scout out the large Argentine-German community to see if they could catch them in pro-Hitler espionage (Argentina stayed out of the war until 1945). On one occasion Che undertook a mission alone and was fired at by men in a house he saw moving metal crates (communication equipment for the Nazi UFOs in Antarctica, no doubt). Che was also involved in “anti-fascist” movements that fought schoolyard battles with Peronist nationalists. Now, no conservative person joins an “anti-fascist” organisation, because any fool knows these are front organisations for Marxist-Leninists or Trotskyists—so Che was on the left from his early years.
While it is true Che was not a party man until relatively late in life, he was a leftist—just like his parents—by secondary school; he was involved in Communist fronts and his parents supported the Spanish Republicans. This all happened from age ten at the least. So Guevara was in no way an apolitical “normal” child. What is true is that his politics were not informed by Marx—even though he read (and did not understand, by his own admission) Capital as a teenager. Che’s main influences were Bertrand Russell, Freud, and Jules Verne (the latter’s works he had taken with him to Cuba as an adult). He was described by contemporaries as a “progressive liberal”. This explains why Che was such an important figure for the ’68 generation—a generation that was led by Guevara’s quondam idol Russell, then in his dotage, and also informed by Freudian-inspired sexual liberation (“You have so many hang-ups, man.”) and Sartre’s politics of commitment (“You have to ‘be’, man.”).
It must be remembered that the Cuban Revolution was undertaken in opposition to the local Moscow-backed Communist Party. Fidelismo and Che’s guerrilla strategy were not in accord with Marxist-Leninist theory or Moscow’s geostrategic imperatives—and Che usually pursued his guerrilla activities independently from local South American Communist parties; really, he preferred Mao. Castro and Guevara were certainly Marxists, but for a time there was some confusion as to what they were—so that many Westerners initially welcomed the Cuban Revolution in a naïve way, as if Fidel were Washington; and this view was cultivated by the NYT and pro-Fidel sections in the CIA. Later, the Cubans overtly entered the Marxist-Leninist fold, but there was always tension in the relationship. Hence Che was important to the ’68ers because they were international socialists who were “neither Washington nor Moscow” (but Havana)—and also because Che, at heart, had absorbed the relaxed progressive liberalism that informed ’68 at source. He just utilised a machine gun to spread the message, not flower power.
Che’s politics, rather as with ’68, also had a racial inflexion. As already mentioned, he had staked out an idea that mestizo South America should unite into a single political entity against the blond yanqui north. Guevara had a romantic infatuation with the mixed-race peasantry as pure and sincere—a view cemented by his youthful wanderlust about the continent on a motorbike; an adventure that caused him to doubt civilisation’s value. In his concern for racial politics and his romantic agrarianism—the romance of the mestizo—Guevara resembled Rousseau and the French revolutionaries more than Marx and Lenin; his motivation, as with Robespierre, was his feeling for the peasantry—his compassion.
Again, this is very ’68er—and very much a progressive liberal take on the world, a bleeding heart to the end. Class was not very important to Guevara, caste was. Guevara’s racial romanticism stopped short at the negro: when he first encountered blacks in the Caribbean he noted their inherent indolence as compared with whites—and these observations would be repeated in his acidulous assessment of his erstwhile Congolese allies in his later guerrilla campaigns.
Guevara was an intellectual—a voracious reader and an intelligent man—but he was not a thinker. This was because he was detached from reality; he was an irresponsible narcissist. Che’s active involvement in politics began in Guatemala after he graduated from medical school; he was already on the left—the CIA intervention he witnessed there under Eisenhower did not “turn him left”, it was just the moment he committed himself to revolutionary action. Guevara had just qualified as a doctor; yet, irresponsible as ever, he set off to tour the world for “ten years” with a declared aim to work in “nuclear physics, genetics” (grandiose, narcissistic)—at least this was his stated aim in a letter to his mother, whom he did not expect to see for a decade (unless they met in Paris—ah, working-class life!). Rather than get a job as a doctor, Che decided to wander about South America.
On Che’s final departure from home, a young relative noticed three expensive silk shirts were missing from his wardrobe; at first, he could not credit that Guevara had flitched the lot—he demanded an explanation, and the shameless Che admitted he had put the shirts to “better use” and sold them. This incident sums up Guevara—and you should always keep it in mind about him: Che Guevara was a thief, a spoilt irresponsible boy who would steal the shirt off your back and claim it was “for the revolution” when really it was for his own personal gratification.
When Che’s first wife met him in Guatemala she described him as “egotistical and conceited”—and she was right. It was at this time Guevara became “Che”, since he used a native American word “che” in an Argentine way to mean “come here”. So his name is really Ernesto “come here” Guevara; and I think this tells us a little more about him: “Come here.” You can just imagine the newly-qualified and conceited doctor as he snapped “come here” at you and clicked his fingers—keen to gratify his whim, no doubt.
At the time, his poor father, always strapped for cash, sent Che fine tailored clothes so he could be a respectable doctor on tour. Che sent a note back to inform the old man he sold the lot—and only raised $100 on the enterprise. Nevertheless, though he had barely practiced medicine, Che had started work on a book on “the doctor’s role in Latin America”—just like his other intellectual idol, Sartre, Che was very much an intellectual in the French sense; someone who brings his theory to reality and imposes it on reality. So a man in his mid-twenties who had never really practiced medicine, seemed unlikely to do so, had decided to write a book about what it meant to be a doctor in Latin America; not one country, not one town, not one village—the whole continent no less. This was not a humble man—as you may have guessed; he had a prescription for the Latin American health system ready to go—and the prescription was socialism. Why, the book practically writes itself; no fieldwork required—no need to consult reality when you have a beautiful idea.
Che’s definite political commitment was recorded in a brief testament jotted in a journal that sounds like an extract from Carlos Castenda—although, frankly, after a while you begin to realise that all Latin Americans, from Borges to Che, are like this (they just think in magical-realistic terms by nature—all jaguars in the jungle of the night and women with velvet skin black as obsidian studded with diamond-like stars who whisper in your ear).
In this testament, Che announced that he would no longer “psychoanalyse ideas” but would instead commit to a course, a course steeped in blood, to destroy the corrupt world around him—he fully expected this process to kill him, yet in the process he would birth a new world that would raise the masses up to the civilised level; and if the masses could not adapt to this process, so much the worse for them—for nature demands adaptation (here meant in a quasi-Darwinian sense). This testament reflected a constant theme that was also to be found in a poem he composed at eighteen in which he imagined himself shot to death in pursuit of a heroic enterprise—a premonition as to his final fate in Bolivia.
In war, as can be expected, Che hardened. Before he set off with Castro’s band on the Granma for Cuba, he sent a letter to his mother in which he declared himself to be the opposite to Christ—in other words, Che symbolically said he was the anti-Christ; he said it right there in writing. There are journalists, such as the storied Pole Kapuściński, who used to liken the South American guerrilla to “Christ with a rifle”; yet Christ never carried a rifle, though he once wielded a whip—yet he was never a political revolutionary, and this idea that Che was “guerrilla Christ” was distortion; a distortion put about by Communist sympathisers like Kapuściński.
Che’s definitive moment in guerrilla combat came in his first engagement in Cuba. Castro’s men were caught in an ambush and Che froze. There seem to be three ways men respond to combat: to do as they were trained to do, fire and seek cover; to run away; or to freeze and wait for whatever fate befalls them. Che fell into the latter category. It was not cowardice, perhaps “shock” is more accurate. Whatever it was, the incident set up in Che’s mind the fear that he might be a coward—and his subsequent guerrilla adventures became an opportunity to prove to himself, as much as to others, that he was not a coward.
Guevara’s chief virtue was his self-discipline, very rigid and consistent: it was due to his self-discipline that Guevara the asthmatic was included in a rugby team—and how he willed himself up the Sierra Maestra mountain range in Cuba. So Guevara just forced himself to be brave, just like he forced himself to do so many other things. He was not like Fidel: Fidel was a “natural”, a big Hemingwayesque figure who was always going to be a leader; a natural alpha, never with any dogmatic beliefs and with a canny view to his own survival—Guevara, often quiet in large meetings, was simply glad to be there; for Guevara, it was an achievement to make the cut at all, whereas for Fidel it was always a question as to whether he would be team captain or vice captain.
In a common development seen in people who are brought up in a progressive liberal homes, Guevara was a strict disciplinarian—a martinet. This is the typical reaction to an over-indulged childhood where one is allowed to do whatever one wants—and especially so if the mother takes the lead in discipline, as in Che’s home, for women discipline in an inconsistent and fanatical way. Hence Guevara the leader had no “indulgence” for his men—even though he was still a sloppy dresser as ever. The way he embraced Marxism-Leninism, a tyrannical belief system—so that it eventually consciously forced out Freud, Sartre, and company in his mind—also shows a desire for stable masculine authority, a desire he fulfilled in a perverted way. At least Che was as tough on himself as he was on other people, so that it was not the case that he was tyrannical—he never asked people to do what he would not do himself, the basic hallmark for sound leadership.
In propaganda terms, a lot has been made about the fact that Che personally executed people—traitors and spies. So far as I can tell, these executions were par for the course in warfare and especially in guerrilla warfare—not “war crimes”, although the term “war crime”, in popular discourse, just means “any act of violence we dislike”. The Batista regime was much more violent and cruel than the Fidelistas.
One reason why Che was often the man who volunteered to execute traitors and spies has been overlooked among all the propaganda from think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation about “Che the psychopath”: Guevara was one of a handful of foreigners in Castro’s revolutionary army—and he was also a doctor. It was easier for Guevara the Argentine to execute a Cuban spy than for the Cubans in Castro’s army to do so—after all, they were often peasants who may well have known the guilty man’s family and would have had to look them in the eye after the war. Hence Guevara was a logical choice as an executioner; further, as a doctor, he knew where to shoot a person to kill them quickly and painlessly—and his own diary records that he waited with his watch, like a good doctor, to determine the exact time of death. “Clinical! monster! Heartless!” This is just feminine hysteria. As a foreigner, Guevara was the logical choice to execute prisoners; and he was clinical about it because he was a trained doctor. Guevara was many discreditable things, as already noted, but he was not a “war criminal” in the sense people mean it in today’s political discourse.
In this regard, as with the accusation that Che was “racist”, we just see the liberal progressive belief system in operation—it attacks anything that is masculine, warlike, or primal; it is just our “moral compass”, as much as Che was guided by the “revolutionary morality” found in Marxism-Leninism. Guevara continued to make deprecatory remarks about blacks throughout his life, even, as noted, late in his career in the Congo. His progressive liberal defenders always emphasise that Guevara hung out with blacks—yet this was mostly, as with his dirtiness, to shock people and be different. In private, Che talked about the blacks like some stereotypical Southern sheriff; and in the Congo he showed utter contempt for the sloppiness exhibited by black Africans and their belief in witchcraft.
Guevara’s political beliefs were very much moralistic—in line with his femininity and his original progressive liberal orientation. He was repelled by the cynical Soviet bureaucrats who were happy to have a fridge, a dacha, and a Lada to putt-putt about in. For Guevara, socialism was not about material improvement; it was a moralistic move, as with his dirty protest, to reform humankind. People would implement socialism, in his view, through moral willpower alone—through strict self-discipline.
Hence he liked Mao, since Mao was similarly ignorant as regards Marxism—Mao was really still the anarchist he always was in his youth; a romantic who thought the cities had corrupted people and everyone needed to go back to the land. So Che’s experiments in economics in Cuba centred on model farms where he encouraged people to work without any financial incentives, just for the pure joy of labour—supposedly. He set his former comrades to work on these projects, dropped by occasionally to harass an illiterate peasant who struggled to learn to read—reduced the man to tears, told him he was a stupid ass who would never read in decades…yeah, Che was nothing like his liberal parents—he had no mercy if you failed to be perfect, like a woman.
When the Cuban Revolution triumphed Che took up two jobs—one where he was responsible for the covert nationalisation of industry and land and one as the director of the national bank. You would think that it would make more sense to be health secretary, but remember that he was a grandiose narcissist. He worked hard, worked two jobs and barely slept—had himself taught advanced mathematics as a recreation. Yet, ultimately, he had no idea what he was about. He just thought he could overcome any problem with self-discipline and hard work. In a typically adolescent move, he signed Cuba’s banknotes “Che”—yes, even in his mid-thirties, he could still stick it to “the man”.
It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. Che could only tear down, he could never build—so soon enough he was off again to spread revolution around the globe. Yet he was no Fidel—no natural alpha leader, no survivor; hence in the Congo and in Bolivia everything went wrong. It was Raúl Castro, the younger brother, and Che who had been the Cuban ideologues—Fidel always hung back from orthodox Marxism, and that was why he died in his bed and his revolution lasted; he was a survivor—a leader, a nationalist; he was not rigid. So far as Robespierre-like terror went, it was Raúl who took the lead there—and Che barely participated. When Guevara went to the Congo and Bolivia he could never bring it together; he was not a natural leader: he was too dogmatic, he was a stranger—ultimately he wanted to die; and die he did.
The reason why Che has resonated for so long is that he was not really a Marxist-Leninist; he was a progressive liberal—he was a spoiled white boy with a health condition who had been indulged by his mama and brought up without his father. In one sense a reflexive nationalist, he was pissed that “the gringos” had so much power—they could change governments here and there, even in his relatively prosperous native Argentina; hence, they had to go—they frustrated him whereas he was “good”, “good” with his dirty clothes and non-bourgeois attitude.
A teenager who was for the brotherhood of man, he liked to shock people by appearing with blacks—and yet he privately saw them as useless, just like the poor peasants he harangued for their illiteracy; and, just like the ’68ers, he liked to globe-trot—his ideas were based on resentment, wishful-thinking, and naïve moralism. As such, he was ideal fodder for the ’68ers—white people are bad, and although I am a privileged white I am not really so; not like the asthma-free blond gringos with mighty lungs—hence, la revolución.