Jon Lee Anderson, author of the 1997 biography, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. Anderson has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1998, reporting from such countries as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, Venezuela, Somalia, Liberia, and Zimbabwe. He has also profiled a number of political leaders, such as Fidel Castro, Hamid Karzai, Iyad Allawi, Augusto Pinochet, King Juan Carlos, and Hugo Chavez. His other books include Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World (1992) and The Fall of Baghdad (2004), a chronicle of the Iraq war.Anderson has received several awards, including, most recently, the 2009 Robert Spiers Benjamin Award from the Overseas Press Club for his piece, Gangland, about Rio de Janeiro’s underworld. State of Nature editors Cihan Aksan and Jon Bailes met with Anderson at Warwick University to discuss the life and legacy of the "Guerrillero Heroico".
Jon Lee Anderson
State of Nature: We could start with why you decided to write a biography of Che Guevara when you did.
Jon Lee Anderson: After reporting in Central America I had become fascinated with the idea of exploring and somehow chronicling the world of the revolutionary, of the insurgent world so to speak, which at the time took up a fairly hefty part of the globe. It wasn’t on the maps of the world, but I knew from Central America that there were in some cases generations-old insurgencies which were new human tribes in the making, and by dint of the fact that they had been there for so long, were creating their own social structures. They were clandestine societies. They were parts of nations that had been dispossessed, for better or worse, whatever the reasons, and this was a feature of the world in the latter stages of the Cold War, which had lasted a long time. So you had unreconciled conflicts, unresolved political and social situations right across the world.
At the time I set out to do this book, Guerrillas, in 1988, the Soviet Union was still in existence, and there were at least forty full fledged insurgencies in the world. You could travel around the world from one clandestine stop to another. You could almost circumnavigate the world through outlaw territories, so to speak, and so I set out to do that. I set out more or less to find out what the differences and similarities were between those people fighting in such insurgencies from different regions and different ideologies. That was really what I set out to do with Guerrillas. So I went from El Salvador, to Western Sahara and to Gaza, to Burma, to Afghanistan. I did this in the run-up to, and in the aftermath of, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the communist world. While I was doing this the world was changing dramatically. The Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan while I was there, Tiananmen Square happened while I was in Burma, and Ceausescu fell just after I returned home from there, and so on. Everything began to happen. I was with the Salvadoran guerrillas when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 – I listened to it on Radio Havana up in the mountains. I noted all these big events that formally make up the history of that period, but I was with people whose lives were day-in and day-out the same as they had been for years, and for them it was still all about the need to survive and carry forward a struggle that had been in many cases forgotten by the world. And soon some of them would dry up as a result of what was happening, as their Cold War sponsors cut off their funding. They were obliged or were encouraged to sue for peace.
So I wrote this book, Guerrillas. And one of the things that I found was a commonality amongst all the groups I was with – which as you can see were far ranging, from Marxist-Leninists to ethnic animists to Muslim fundamentalists – was that they each created a spiritual world to perpetuate their struggles. Even secular groups had created a spiritual pantheon through which to sacralise their struggle, which was an interesting phenomenon. So much so that I’ve wondered ever since if the two – war and religion – aren’t inseparable, if the religious impulse itself in humans comes from the shedding of blood. I was also fascinated by the groups’ various creation myths – for they all had them – and I often felt as if I was amongst new tribes in formation. In these myths, which were founded on real events, ‘Day One’ was usually the day in which they fled as a people to the mountains, or to the desert, after a great bloodletting by their enemy, which was still out there, and they had had to create their own society on their own, and develop codes which moderated their own behaviour as well. The codes were often very similar, and in the end, by and large, were much the same codes we all really adhere to around the world – you shouldn’t steal, you shouldn’t kill, those things – the codes that modify the excesses of human behaviour. In order to live, all people, irrespective of their ideology, tend to erect the same barriers to aberrant behaviour, and to reward behaviour that helps to nurture and perpetuate the tribe. All create martyrs and hold up the ideal of martyrdom as the ultimate virtue and as the necessary sacrifice for the struggle. Another thing I learned was that the original impulse for all struggles could end over time and the ideology could very often be lost, but if there weren’t the political means to provide a way back into the mainstream for the people in the bush, they would stay there forever, and they would do anything to survive.
The importance of role models to look up to, to emulate, was one that I found again and again and came to the conclusion that it was one of the maxims of the insurgent life. And so it was that after about the fifth or sixth time I heard talk of Che Guevara in the most unusual places in different parts of the world, I began to think about Che Guevara. This was, remember, the end of the Eighties, a generation after he’d ceased to be a poster boy in the West. I myself had been just 10 when he died, so I wasn’t part of that generation – the one that had put posters of Che, as in the cliché, on their dorm-room walls. I remember when he died – that was when I first became aware of Che Guevara, because his photograph was published in newspapers. So I was aware of him, but really it was my older sister’s generation, or even older than that, who had revered him or thought he was cool or whatever. And all those years later, I realised that I really didn’t know that much about him other than a vague awareness, a vague knowledge of his role in history. And the more I looked into it, the more I realised that very little was actually known about him other than the speeches he had given, the famous moments in which he had appeared in the limelight during the brief time that he was a public figure. Because of the fact that this had taken place mostly in revolutionary Cuba and much of what he was involved in was clandestine, and because we were still in the latter days of the Cold War, most of his life, or his truth, was still unknown. Most of it had remained in the domain of military intelligence; it had not filtered out yet as the stuff of history. It had never been possible to ask about many of these things because it was still an ongoing history. Much of what Che had unleashed or been involved in, the insurgencies that he’d helped sponsor or inspire, had been countered bloodily and had been ongoing for years, so you had a kind of still-haemorrhaging history and it remained lethal terrain, which is what I had entered and inhabited to try and document the life of the guerrillas.
But I had found Che serving as the inspiration for young kids who were with the guerrillas in the mountains of El Salvador. I remember a girl in the backwoods of rebel-held Chalatenango, whose parents, who were also underground elsewhere, sent her letters containing quotes of Che’s, so as to encourage her and inspire her. She regarded him as a kind of godlike role model. It struck me that there was this 16 year old girl, in 1990, who spoke about Che Guevara much as a girl in Minnesota might talk about Prince or some pop celebrity of the time. I was struck by that, and by the realization that although it had been years since he’d been on any poster; and that Che was essentially ‘gone’ from the First World, he remained a potent, totemic symbol in the battlegrounds of the Third World. I found it was the same in the Polisario. It was interesting to see that the Sahrawis had created a Che-like figure out of their own early martyr-figure, a guy called Luali Moustafa, whose photos, and whose story of battle and struggle and death too seemed a conscious echo of Che’s symbolism. Che was somehow a Christ-like figure. He died for us.
SoN: For our sins.
JLA: For our sins. So there’s this idea of the redemptory figure who provides the ultimate sacrifice to emulate, which is a very inspiring narrative, for young people particularly. How do you get young people to give up their lives if not to elevate that experience and justify it with something more than just a miserable death in the street or on the ground? Conventional armies do it too. It’s not exactly War-Making 101, but there are certain commonalities. I found that Burmese students – who had just fled Rangoon from the 1989 military crackdown and who had come to the jungle fiefdom of the ethnic Karen guerrillas – were reading Che Guevara’s 1961 manual on revolutionary warfare in order to try to learn how to be guerrillas. There were Afghan mujahedeen who were aware of Che and who admired him even though their ideologies were completely different. That didn’t matter to them. And that was what was interesting about Che: he had endured in the very environment that he was most identified with – the guerrilla battlefield – and he had transcended ideology to endure in that environment as the archetypal revolutionary man, as the archetypal warrior to emulate and to follow.
And then after I came out of the Guerrillas experience I started looking, and I realised there were no good biographies – nothing had been written that was lasting. There was a great deal to be learned. I got started with a few interviews. The easiest ones to obtain were with the people who had fought against Che. For instance, one of the first interviews I had, which was when I was still at the exploratory stages of the biography, was with the Bolivian ambassador in England. He was a guy named Gary Prado Salmon, who as a young army officer thirty years before, had been responsible for Che’s capture at La Higuera before he was put to death, and I found that thirty years on, he was an admirer of Che’s. Part of his expressed admiration was intentional and opportunistic, but part of it was genuine, and I soon found that there were others like him. I realised this when I read a few memoirs that were just beginning to come out, including that of Felix Rodriguez, the Cuban-American agent, and the man who had presided over Che’s execution after his capture. He also confessed to admiring Che. So Che began to emerge as a most extraordinary character: Here was a man who, in death, seemed to transcend the ideology that had made him famous, and had become a figure of admiration to friend and foe alike. That was intriguing.
Then of course I was attracted to his life story. What wasn’t clear from everything I could see was what had made him do it – what had turned this well-born son of Argentina into this visionary, and at times implacable, revolutionary. He had given up so much again and again and finally had given his life. Where had he found those resources? What was it that had made him like that? That was what I wanted to find out, because what’s crucial to my mind in trying to comprehend someone like Che is understanding what makes you cross that invisible line in the sand. That’s the key, transformative moment, which is why I was always fascinated by guerrillas. I was never interested in warfare per se, or military history. I’m not interested in conventional armies. You either go to the army because you’re a forced conscript or because you’re in the kind of culture or society where that’s what you do at a certain age. There’s nothing otherworldly about it, you just do it or you’re forced to do it. But so many of the people I found in the bush, wherever they were and whatever their ideology, were there because they’d believed they should be, because of an idea they had in their heads. And this kind of idea is of course the thing that has changed history and spurred great political change for better or worse, over and over, since time immemorial. That was the interesting thing to me, and that was what I tried to pursue and resolve in the book.
SoN: Yes, and the idea to choose the path that Che did obviously doesn’t come out of a vacuum, and there are certain events that become turning points for some people. In your book you explore how the CIA backed overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 was the turning point for Che. He himself claims he became a revolutionary due to the events in Guatemala. How did his witnessing of what happened in Guatemala influence his actions when he later became Commandante Che Guevara in Cuba?
JLA: Yes, Guatemala was absolutely the turning point, although he might have remained just another angry left-wing Argentine dilettante living in Mexico – and in fact for a while that’s what he was – someone who was not yet entirely committed to a single cause. However, that part of him continued to evolve and was being nurtured by a very curious mind – someone with a very strong moral impulse, someone hungry for knowledge and open to debate, and who had been on a quest for knowledge for some time, since he was a teenager, a search for the right philosophy through which to examine the world and to live within it. There had been a process of elimination along the way, and if his earlier readings had included everything from Sanskrit scholars to Benito Mussolini, just a grab bag of whatever was available to him, he’d become more and more acquainted with Marx. And then in Guatemala several things happened, one of which was he found himself with Marxists really for the first time. He’d just come off the road having travelled all the way from Argentina off and on again with a series of mostly Argentine travel companions who were Peronists. They were a little more right-wing, a little more nationalistic, than he was. Some had aspects of Marxism in their discourse, some were ne’er do wells, some were friends of his, but they had this ongoing debate when they met up and travelled together through South America and then through Central America and reached Guatemala. And there’d clearly been a process of elimination, he was becoming less and less patient with certain discourses that hadn’t begun to change anything, and seemed to him to be accommodationist and had not altered the political landscape in Latin America, which was crying out for change. So he arrived in Guatemala with a very idealistic frame of mind and eager to throw himself in as a volunteer into this social experiment, which, with its agrarian reform and its chance for redemption for the country’s indigenous majority, offered a greater promise of change than anything else that had happened in Latin America in Che’s lifetime.
So he found himself in an environment where there were all kinds of people. As the CIA-backed paramilitary invasion force that was in cahoots with the Guatemalan military grew in strength, and as President Arbenz, the rather wishy-washy figure at the centre of Guatemala’s "revolution" buckled, Che found himself identifying with the most committed and clear-minded people he saw, who were the members of Guatemala’s Communist Youth movement. They begged the government for weapons to help defend it, and fight the invaders. In the end, Arbenz didn’t hand out the weapons and it was all a disaster – it was a rout. The revolution crumbled, and the invasion force came to power. So young Guevara came away from Guatemala with some very strong convictions that we would see emerge later when he became Commandante Che. One was that the United States was without a doubt the enemy of social reform and radical change in Latin America, and that the only way to counter it was through armed warfare – that any kind of political accommodation with the U.S. meant ultimately the co-option of the local party. Also, he realised that a strong leader who would stand fast was needed in order to bring revolutionary change, and that the standing army needed to be purged and a new, loyal one formed in its wake. So in other words, Che came away with some very radical notions, and yet when he met up with Fidel afterwards in Mexico and went through the training with the Cuban expeditionaries and went off on the Granma, in a sense it was a boatful of men not unlike, in microcosm, those who had been in the Guatemalan capital before. There were a few lefties, a lot of social democrat kind of people in the middle, and it was only after they got to the Sierra Maestra and a few managed to survive that the process of adopting a single political ideology began to take place, in the vortex of war. It was a process in which Che, as one of the survivors, played a crucial role.
SoN: How many survived?
JLA: It was actually seventeen. They always spoke about the Apostolic twelve for historical purposes, but in fact it was seventeen. And Che found himself trying to survive in a new environment, that of warfare, and he thrilled to that environment. It turned out to be his environment. This is the thing about war, you don’t know until you’re in it if you’re suited to it or not, no one does – he was. He was uniquely cold-blooded in war, and I say that carefully. He was unafraid, and that’s unusual, that doesn’t happen that often. Most men, I say men because it’s mostly men in war, feel a certain amount of fear, even if they are brave in and of themselves. Che was unafraid, however, to an almost foolhardy degree. This became apparent to everyone around him.
SoN: People tried to rein him in to protect him.
JLA: Yeah, and it was also a source of strength for him and for them. If you have someone who’s unafraid, it makes you less afraid too, just as if you have someone who’s fearful in the ranks, you need to get them away from the others because fear is contagious. You can’t fight a war if you’re too afraid. So this is key in war, and Che was extraordinarily gifted in that regard. Che also went through a very radical and astringent phase. This was the Che of the Sierra Maestra and up to the end of 1959; the most severe, radical Che – Che the supreme prosecutor, Che the executioner, Che the advocate of revolutionary justice, of the purging of the army of Fidel. His motto was you must be brave, willing to sacrifice yourself and others for the cause; you must be uncompromising in this; you must be strong. All of this was a Pavlovian response to what he had seen in Guatemala. As a result though, Che was a key figure in helping to forge and to strengthen what I would call the crucible of the Cuban revolution; he really was key to making it happen. He made it radical where it needed to be radical. He bound together a force that was otherwise a kind of a grab-bag of teenaged runaways, adventurers, Christian Democrats, and a few commies. He helped define the rebel army as a radically-committed, disciplined force, and, in his own behaviour and amongst a handful of his protégés, he helped create an example of the new revolutionary man that he felt was necessary to make the revolution go forward and to replicate itself.
SoN: Arbenz had failed to arm the people, and he’d failed to purge the army, as you say, but he was also isolated within Latin America. Was this also one of the reasons why Che wanted a more continental revolution, to protect Cuba from a similar fate?
JLA: Exactly. In the end when he went to Bolivia, his ultimate goal was his own homeland, the neighbouring country of Argentina. Imagine if he had managed to liberate Argentina: the scale of the country’s natural resources, its vast agricultural wealth, its vast coastline, its ports and its industrial base were almost unparalleled in Latin America at the time, and would have provided Cuba with a continental partner that would vouchsafe its economic survival in a way that otherwise could never be achieved. He also wanted to lessen Cuba’s dependency on the Soviet Union, realising pretty quickly after Cuba’s revolutionary triumph that the Soviet Union had not lived up to its ostensible aims in creating an egalitarian socialist society, or anything remotely like it, at home.
SoN: But he was initially the architect of the Soviet-Cuban relationship.