Anderson: "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life"

"Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life;" By Jon Lee Anderson; Grove Press; 814 pp.


By David Abel  |  The Palm Beach Post  |  9/14/1997

Europe has Napoleon. The Middle East, Gamal Nasser. And America has Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

Each man was a truculent leader with implacable dreams. Each devoted his life to erasing national boundaries and unifying their regions. And each was a severe romantic with a heart of gunpowder.

But three decades after being riddled with bullets in Bolivia, Che - with his dark, fearless eyes, unruly beard and single-starred black beret - continues to glare at us from T-shirts and billboards (however ironically) as the peerless emblem of revolution.

The infamous Argentine doctor turned guerrilla warrior, who helped win the Cuban revolution and incited rebellion throughout the world, blended Robespierre and Christ: a devout man willing to kill to uphold his high ideals.

But Jon Lee Anderson's epic saga of one of the 20th century's most revered and feared men rarely distinguishes the man between the poles. Instead, he fuels the martyrdom and gilds the myth. Che robbed banks to support his soldiers like Robin Hood, not Jesse James, Anderson wants us to believe.

Yet it would be a distortion to suggest this densely researched and well-crafted biography smacks of social realism or comes up short in detail. Anderson does point to Che's impetuousness, his diplomatic foibles, military miscalculations, wealthy upbringing, his recurring bouts with asthma and his habit of avoiding soap and water. His Che is more than a stoic rebel, he's a needy son, an absent father of five and a cigar-smoking, playful chum well-aware of life's ironies.

But Anderson pays too little attention to Che's role as a brusque, often cruel battlefield commander, over-eager to decree justice with an AK-47. Or his efforts to persuade the Soviet Union to launch a pre-emptive strike against the United States, which could have initiated World War III.

Che grew up in the Argentinean countryside and was diagnosed at an early age as asthmatic, which plagued him through his military campaigns, from Cuba's humid Sierra Maestras to the sultry jungles in the Congo's Great Rift Valley.

Che frequently interrupted his studies - modeling himself on the beat culture and the wanderings of American authors like Jack London - to work as a deck hand on cargo ships and make extended jaunts through Latin America.

When Che graduated, he left Argentina. At 25, after traveling through most of Latin America, he found himself in Guatemala in time to witness the CIA-initiated overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz's democratically elected leftist government.

The overt U.S. role in the coup compounded Che's antipathy toward the United States. His anger had already been stirred as he saw the deleterious effects of U.S. imperialism during his travels, but his experience in Guatemala served as a watershed for Che, deepening his budding interest in Marxism.

Che met Fidel Castro in Mexico and eventually joined the Cuban exiles on their maiden voyage across the Caribbean to depose the corrupt Batista regime. Che led one of the rebel army's main columns that gave Castro his eventual victory in 1959.

He later became Castro's right-hand man and the revolution's architect/priest, serving in positions ranging from roving diplomatic emissary to Cuba's banking minister.

By 1964, Che resolved to leave Cuba and pursue his ultimate goal of sparking a global communist revolution, continent by continent. But the limits of his dreams quickly became apparent. Insufficient popular support and well-armed adversaries forced him to retreat less than a year after starting his first campaign in the Congo.

In his final effort - a fusillade to spark revolution in the Americas - Che paid for his goal with his life. He led a band of about two dozen soldiers through Bolivia's central highlands in the futile hope of inspiring a popular uprising that would spread through South America's most bordered state and engulf the rest of the continent.

But a series of mistakes and the CIA's hot pursuit doomed Che in October 1967. After a long march to evade the encircling Bolivian army, Che was captured and executed.

Although epic in scope and tenacious in detail, Anderson's tapestry is woven mostly in golden thread and leaves too many questions unasked.

How many runaway soldiers or captured enemies did he order executed during the Cuban revolution? Did his dogma cloud his reason? Were his ambitious plans for revolution tenable or merely bombast? Ultimately, was Che a man of rebellion or violence?

Ernesto Guevara was as deeply human as he was monstrous, a man who heard music in gunfire, and saw death as a form of rebirth and peace as the fruit of war.

David Abel can be reached at

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