The year was 1956. A young Argentinian doctor, suffering from severe asthma, joined Fidel Castro. Nicknamed by Cubans as Che, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara soon became Castro’s most trusted man. Together with a band of guerillas, they overthrew the dictatorial government of Cuba in 1959.
On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, HarperCollins has come up with twin books, essentially diaries of Che, chronicling the events which follow his earlier diary, Motorcycle Diaries. Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and The Bolivian Diary—both of them now two parts of a major motion picture—recount the experiences that would catapult Che into the icon and legend, and make him perhaps the most popular figure in Europe after Jesus Christ.
After Cuba was taken over by Che and his comrades, Che was fearful that the events would ‘dissolve into the past.’ He asked his fellow revolutionaries to write down their experiences the way he was, urging only ‘that the narrator be strictly truthful.’
The first part of Reminiscences… appeared previously in various Cuban periodicals. Later, it was published in book format by Cuban publishing house Union. Afterwards, Che is believed to have made additions and alterations which never appeared in reprints. They appear now for the first time in the book, with photographs of those pages edited by Che. The second part, written by Che after 1963, is more reflective, and offers analysis of the period from 25 November 1956, when Che began his journey to Cuba aboard the yacht Granma as doctor to the revolutionaries, to 1 January 1959, when the Cuban revolution succeeded.
In many ways, Reminiscences… is also a chart of Che’s own development as a guerilla, and what decisions he has had to take in the course of being a guerilla. In one of the chapters, titled The Murdered Puppy, Che writes about the difficult decision of ordering one of his men to murder a puppy because it was creating noise which could have gotten them into trouble. So this man called Felix goes and strangles the puppy.
Afterwards he writes: ‘I don’t know whether it was the sentimental tune, or the darkness of night, or just plain exhaustion. What happened, though, is that Felix—seated on the ground to eat—dropped a bone. One of the house dogs came up meekly and took it. Felix put his hand on its head, and the dog looked at him. Felix looked back at the dog, and then he exchanged a guilty look. We were suddenly silent.’
The Bolivian Diary is Che’s last diary. It was found in his backpack after he was captured and finally killed by the Bolivian Army with the aid of America’s CIA in 1967. The diary begins in Bolivia in 1966 one November night. Che has just arrived in Bolivia and is scheduled to meet three workers from the Bolivian Communist Party in a farm, trying to avoid the suspicion of the neighbouring farm owner who thinks the four men are in the business of manufacturing cocaine.
The guerillas are walking all the time, often without shelter, and survival in harsh jungle terrain is tough. On top of it, there is always a danger of being ambushed by the ‘enemy’. An August 1967 entry reads: ‘There was nothing new and not much food; tomorrow we will slaughter another horse, which should last us six days.’ Another reads: ‘The situation is becoming distressing now… Miguel and Dario are drinking their own urine, as is Chino, with the disastrous results of diarrhea and cramps.’
The diary ends in October 1967, eleven months after Che and his fellow comrades have established a guerilla base in Bolivia. A few hours later, after an informant leaked out information about Che’s whereabouts, he was arrested after sustaining wounds in an encounter with the Bolivian Special Forces. Che’s biographer Jon Lee Anderson writes that after his gun developed a fault, a wounded Che shouted: “Do not shoot! I am Che Guevara and worth more to you alive than dead.” Two days later, he was killed in cold blood, on the orders of the Bolivian President Rene Barrientos, by a drunken sergeant.
Che’s last words before he was executed were: “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”
The Bolivian Diary also includes an introduction by Fidel Castro where he reminisces about his association with Che and what he describes as Che’s ability to ‘touch the most sensitive fibers in revolutionaries’. ‘Never in history have so small a number of men embarked on such a gigantic task. Their faith and absolute conviction that the immense revolutionary capacity of the peoples of Latin America could be awakened, their confidence in themselves, and the determination with which they on this objective—these things give us a just measure of these men.’
It was in 1997 that the remains of Che Guevara were found in the jungles of Bolivia. But he has been hailed as a hero by many ever since his death, and perhaps, even before that. Nelson Mandela terms him an “inspiration” while Jean Paul Sartre called him “the most complete man of our age”.
Over the years, Che has been quite popular with the younger generation as well, as is evident from the sale of T-shirts and other merchandise featuring Che. But the twin books are for those who want to go beyond that T-shirt or coffee mug.