It’s Che Guevara time again in the pleasure gardens of the West, as publishers and television companies gear themselves up for the thirtieth anniversary of the guerrilla leader’s death in 1997. We’ve already had the early motorcycle diaries, published all over Europe in 1995, and no less than four new books about the sixties hero appeared in France in 1995.footnote1 Half a dozen new biographies are known to be on the launching pad.
One is being written by Jorge Castañeda, the Mexican journalist and academic with a good ear for the nuances of the Latin American Left. Another will come from Pierre Kalfon, a French cultural diplomat who has worked for many years in Chile. There is an American contribution from Henry Ryan, a retired member of the us foreign service who has done much work on the Che legend in the us archives. Régis Debray, the French writer who had a walk-on part in Bolivia in 1967, has just published his own memoirs with some fresh and caustic comments about Guevara’s Bolivian expedition.footnote2
The most important book of them all will be the long-researched biography from Jon Lee Anderson, guerrilla chronicler and archaeologist, who has spent several years in Havana digging in the ruins. Innumerable television documentaries are also now underway. And to complete the picture, efforts have been made to dig up Che’s old bones from under the airfield in Vallegrande, in eastern Bolivia, where they have lain these past twenty-eight years.
So after more than quarter of a century, in which the propaganda versions of Left and Right have held the field, there will soon be a grand new assessment of an archetypal sixties figure whose iconic image and romantic revolutionary activities caught the imagination of successive generations.
Until now, there has been a large and significant gap in the conventional account of Guevara’s life. He ‘disappeared’ from Cuba in March 1965, to reappear dead in the Bolivian jungle in October 1967. We know that he had arrived in Bolivia in November 1966, to start his last ill-fated campaign, and, in general terms, it has always been known that he spent time in the ‘missing’ year with the rebels in the Congo—the former Belgian Congo, now Zaire. But until the publication in 1995 of L’Année où nous n’étions nulle part, there has been nothing resembling a detailed history of the Congolese venture of 1965—of the kind that is available for the Cuban revolutionary war of 1956-59 or for the Bolivian campaign of 1966-67.footnote3 The book, first published in Spanish in Havana in 1994, has three authors. Two of them, Froilán Escobar and Félix Guerra, are Cuban journalists. The third, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, is a Mexican novelist. In 1990, they joined forces in Havana to interview as many of the survivors of Guevara’s African expedition as they could find, to uncover what they rightly call ‘the best kept secret of the Cuban revolution’.
For twenty-five years, the Cuban government had successfully kept the story under wraps. The year 1965, the survivors had always told their friends, was ‘the year when we were nowhere.’ Even today, the publication of this book has been an embarrassment to the Cuban authorities. Doubts have been raised about the authenticity of its revelations. But personally, having followed the story closely over the years, I have no doubts of any kind about this book, even about the particular excerpts that give it its sensational character.
When the three authors had done most of the interviewing work, they were approached by a ‘deep throat’. An ‘important member of the Cuban state apparatus’ allowed them to see an extraordinary document. It was a 150-page, closely-typed account of the Cuban expedition to the Congo,