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Magic Death for a Magic Life

Eduardo Galeano, who wrote the essay that follows in 1967 as a response to the murder of Che, is a radical Uruguayan journalist and novelist. He began his writing career as an editor of the weekly Marcha and later of the Montivedeo daily Época. In 1971 he wrote Open Veins of Latin America (Monthly Review Press), his best known work. In it he surveys the history of Latin America from the time of the European conquest and analyzes its economic and political domination by European and later U.S. imperialism. The book remains a kind of anti-imperialst bible for new generations of young Latin Americans and has even inspired a Venezuelan punk band and Argentine and Brazilian rock groups, among others. In 1973 Galeano fled a military coup to Argentina where in 1976 he was added to a list slated for summary execution by death squads and fled again, this time to Spain. There he wrote a masterful three-volume narrative of the history of the western hemisphere, Memory of Fire. Using the devices of fiction it is nonetheless populated with the men and women of history: politicians, artists, revolutionaries, workers, powerful and powerless, known and unknown. Galeano begins with indigenous creation myths and follows the centuries-long history of individual and mass struggle. His work is often compared to that of John Dos Passos and Gabriel García Márquez. Galeano is also the author of Days and Nights of Love and War, published in 1983 by Monthly Review Press.

This essay, first published in Monthly Review in January 1968, appeared in Spanish in Galeano’s Reportajes in 1967. Subsequent eyewitness reports and research have revealed minor discrepancies in the text. Among these is the name of Che’s executioner, not “Lieutenant Pra” as Galeano wrote then, but one Mario Teran, a Bolivian army sergeant led by U.S. Army Special Forces and the CIA (see the filler that follows). Because the essay’s political, historical, and emotional insights endure, it is published here in its original form, uncorrected.

I believe in the armed struggle as the only solution for peoples who fight to free themselves, and I am consistent with my beliefs. Many will call me an adventurer, and that I am; but of a different kind—of those who risk their skins to test their truths. It may be that this will be the end. I don’t seek it, but it is within the logical calculus of probabilities. If it should be so, I send you a last embrace. I have loved you much, but I have not known how to express my affection; I am extremely rigid in my actions, and I think that sometimes you did not understand me. Besides, it wasn’t easy to understand me, but just believe me today. Now, a will that I have polished with an artist’s loving care will sustain weak legs and tired lungs. I will do it….Give a thought once in awhile to this little soldier of fortune of the 20th century.

When these lines, sent by Che Guevara to his parents a short time after his disappearance, reached Buenos Aires, his mother, Celia, was already dead. She had died without being able to communicate with her son. She didn’t receive this “last embrace,” this farewell which contained the premonition of the news that has just shaken the entire world. “In our difficult job of revolutionary, death is a frequent accident,” he had once written, on the occasion of the death of an intimate friend; his letter to the Tricontinental ends by greeting the death that will arrive, providing that it will give rise to “new cries of battle and victory.” A thousand times he said that to die was so very possible and, nevertheless, so very insignificant. He knew this very well: regarding his own successive deaths and resurrections, he himself asserted that he had seven lives.

The last one ran out as he had proposed. He placed himself in the path of death without asking for permission or excuses: he went to meet it in the dusty, broken land of the Yuro, at the head of men surrounded by the Army; his legs were shot from under him and he continued fighting, seated a couple of hours, until the M-l leapt from his hands, destroyed by a direct hit. Despite the courage of the handful of guerrillas who fought for the wounded man from mid-afternoon until the first shadows of evening, he was captured alive by the many soldiers. The bodies of Che’s comrades, who fought in hand-to-hand combat, would later be exhibited at his side, with heads beaten in by gun butts and bodies full of bayonet wounds.

After the battle, at the end of a night and a day, the waiting became insupportable in the military camp in the hollow of Higueras. Lieutenant Pra could no longer stand the challenging silence of that sly smile and that invincible, slightly melancholy look: he placed the barrel of his 38-caliber pistol against Che’s left side and stopped his heart with a single shot. The Barrientos government has not yet said if it will pay the patriotic lieutenant the $5,000 offered as a reward. A few hours later the still warm body, tied to the landing runners of a helicopter, was borne over the inhospitable land fissured by the sun to where the mountains open toward the Amazon River basin.

In the “Senor Malta” hospital of the little town of Vallegrande, Che was exhibited to a group of newspapermen and photographers. Afterwards, he disappeared, along with a fat, bald-headed man who was giving orders in English. A liter of formaldehyde had been injected into the cadaver. Barrientos said that Che had been buried, while Ovando declared that he had been cremated—in a place where there are no technical means of doing so. They announced that they had cut off his hands. In the end, the Bolivian government was left with two embalmed fingers and photostatic copies of the guerrillero’s diary; the fate of the body and of the original diary is a CIA secret.

Innumerable legends have already been woven around the life and the death, so full of contradictions and mystery, of this hero of our time: some, very few, are the fruit of the unlimited capacity for infamy of certain bastards who swoop like crows over the memory of Che dead, although they would have been incapable of looking Che, alive, in the eye; others, almost all, come from the popular imagination, which already celebrates the immortality of the fallen hero before the infinite invisible altars of our Latin America.

“I began to think of the best way to die in that moment in which all seemed lost. I remembered an old story of Jack London, where the protagonist, leaning against a tree trunk, prepares to end his life with dignity.” Thus wrote Che, remembering a decisive instant in the slaughter that followed the landing of the Granma on the Oriente coast in Cuba. Eleven years have passed since that first brush with death. Now, one by one, I examine the radiophotos which have caught this immobile body from every angle, the holes where the lead penetrated the flesh, the smile at the same time ironic and tender, proud and full of compassion, which a worse-than-cretin has confused with a sneer of cruelty. I remain with my eyes fastened on the guerrillero’s face, the magnificent face of this Christ of the Rio Plata, and I feel like congratulating it.

On the day of his baptism of fire, in a place in Cuba called Alegria de Pio, Che made the decision that would definitively mark his destiny: “I had before me a knapsack full of medicines and a box of bullets; together the two were too heavy to carry. I took the box of bullets, leaving the knapsack behind, when I crossed the clearing between me and the cane field.” In the already mentioned farewell to his parents, Che said, “Almost ten years ago, I wrote you another farewell letter. As I remember, I lamented not being a better soldier and a better doctor; the second no longer interests me. I’m not such a bad soldier.”

He chose a post in the revolution’s front line, and he chose it forever, without allowing himself the benefit of doubt nor the right to change his mind; this is the unique case of a man abandoning a revolution already made by him and a handful of comrades, to throw himself into the launching of another. He didn’t live for the victory but for the struggle, the ever-necessary, never-ending struggle against indignity and hunger. He didn’t even allow himself the privilege of looking back at the beautiful fire rising from the bridges he had burned behind him. Che never lost any time.

It wasn’t because of asthma, as a Buenos Aires daily thought; nor was it the fruit of the oblique and sophisticated resentment of a patrician who had lost social status, as a mass circulation magazine insinuated. Che’s apprenticeship in solidarity can easily be traced in his life, and the word solidarity offers the only key to understanding him, although it doesn’t appear in the vocabulary of Ongania’s scribes.

An infinite number of possibilities fanned out before the eyes of the young Guevara, recently come from the mountains of Cordoba to the asphalt of Buenos Aires. He worked twelve hours a day, six to support himself and six studying; he was a brilliant medical student, but at the same time he read complicated treatises on higher mathematics, wrote poems, and undertook ambitious archeological investigations. At 17 he began to edit a “Philosophical Dictionary,” because he found out that the students, and he himself, needed it.

In 1950, a picture of Che, who at that time was signing his name “Ernesto Guevara Serna,” appeared in an advertisement in El Gráfico along with a letter sent to the representatives of “Micron” bicycle motors. In it, Che said that he had traveled 4,000 kilometers, the length of 12 Argentine provinces, and that the little motor had responded well.

The trade union leader, Armando March, youthful friend of Che, has recalled that when Ernesto was a student, his mother had a breast operation; it was feared that she had a tumor. Ernesto improvised in his house a small laboratory where he began to make feverish experiments with guinea pigs, slide specimens, and oil solutions in an attempt to save her life. With March, Che had wanted to go to Paraguay to fight against Morínigo. Intelligent, with many interests, with an innate, seductive power that his later life would only confirm and strengthen, the young Ernesto Guevara was no resentful dandy but a young man open to adventure, without clear political ideas, and with a pronounced tendency to demonstrate to himself that he could do the impossible: the continual asthma attacks—which for so many years obliged his father to sleep seated at his bedside so that the son could pass the night reclining on his breast—did not prevent him from playing football and rugby, although at the end of the games his friends often had to carry him off the field. Asthma kept him from going to school after his fourth year, but arrangements were made for him to take the examinations on his own, and he later achieved an excellent average in high school. The war against asthma was the first war that Che fought and won—won in the sense that he never permitted the asthma to make his decisions for him.

This great Latin American fighter was declared unfit for military service in the Argentine army. Consequently, Che crossed the Andes by motorbike and entered Peru on foot, attracted by the legend of Macchu Picchu. The patients in a leprosarium constructed a raft for him and his friend Alberto Granados, who together followed a river from the heart of the Brazilian jungle to Colombia. In Iquitos they were football coaches. Deported from Bogotá, Che finally reached Miami in an airplane transporting race horses.

A second trip through Latin America took him to Bolivia—to the streets of La Paz where miners paraded in triumph with sticks of dynamite at their belts—and later to Guatemala. “We couldn’t see el Che in Ernesto Guevara,” some Guatemalan revolutionaries who had known him during the time told me years later. He was then only a functionary in the agrarian reform, or an Argentine confined to bed in a pension full of exiles from Peru’s APRA [American Popular Revolutionary Alliance]. On the other hand, Ernesto Guevara did discover el Che in Guatemala; he found himself in the euphoria and the defeat of the Guatemalan revolution, in the victories and errors of the process of reform which was taking place, and in the impotent rage with which he witnessed the fall of the Arbenz regime. Paradoxically, it was a boat from United Fruit’s White Fleet which had carried Guevara to the country where his definitive socialist passion would be revealed.

He could have been a distinguished doctor from the North End or a well-known specialist in blood or skin diseases, a professional politician or a pampered technocrat; he could have been a coffee-house charlatan, as brilliant as he was mocking and audacious, or an adventurer enjoying adventure for its own sake. Years later, he could have chosen to remain the idolized leader of a revolution already consecrated by success.

The Right is always eager to push the revolutionaries onto a psychoanalyst’s couch, to diagnose rebellion by reducing it to the clinical frame of some basic frustration, as if militancy and commitment were no more than the result of an unchanneled aggressivity, the product of a warped personality. Che was the living example that revolution is the purest form of brotherhood, but also the most demanding, the most difficult. It was not a pathological outlet for a young gentleman from a “good family” which had seen better days, but a continuous act of love and generosity performed without regard for personal interest; very few men in the history of our time have renounced so much, and so repeatedly, in exchange for one or two hopes and without asking for any personal reward.

Without asking for anything except first place at the hour of sacrifice and danger and last place at the hour of recompense and security. Very few men in the history of our time have had so many alibis to offer their consciences: the relentless attacks of asthma or the extremely important role he played in the construction of socialism in Cuba. He himself has recounted how difficult it was for him sometimes to climb a mountain during the Sierra Maestra period: “I remember the efforts the guajiro Crespo made to help me walk in those moments: when I couldn’t go any further and asked to be left behind, he said, using the choice vocabulary of our troops: ‘You shit of an Argentine, you’re going to walk or be driven along by my gunbutt.’’’

Despite the permanent challenge of asthma, Che had known how to be the best student of Colonel Bayo, in Mexico, when Fidel Castro’s men were training themselves for the revolution. In those days in Mexico, Che earned his living taking pictures of children in the plazas and selling small prints of the Virgin of Guadalupe; deported by the government, he fled from the airport and re-established contact with his comrades.

Before Mexico, he had also begun another secret war, the fight against cynicism and the lack of faith that seem inherent in the mocking spirit of the people of Rio Plata, particularly those from Buenos Aires. When, in a cafe in Costa Rica, he listened to a bunch of noisy young Cubans talking about the assault on Moncada and of the revolution that was going to be made against Batista, Che commented: “Why don’t they tell another cowboy story?” In Mexico these same youths introduced him, some time later, to a giant recently liberated from the prison on the Isle of Pines. His name was Fidel Castro.

Recently, in Buenos Aires, I had the undeserved privilege of reading the letter that Che’s mother tried to send him shortly before she died, and which never reached its destination because Guevara had already disappeared for the time being. As if she sensed her impending death, in that letter the mother announced that she would tell him what she had to say as naturally and directly as possible, and she asked him to answer in kind: “I don’t know if we have lost the candor with which we used to treat each other or if we never had it; we have always spoken to each other in that lightly ironic tone which we who live on the banks of La Plata use, aggravated by our own still more private family code….” Che must have given her some intimation of his immediate destiny, because in another paragraph Celia says: “Yes, you would always be a foreigner. It seems to be your permanent destiny.”

A close friend of Che’s mother explained it to me this way:
Che’s inner circle is very wide now in Córdoba and his girl friends are legion; if one were to believe them, Che’s life wouldn’t have been long enough to give each of them two kisses in a doorway. But the truth is that he had a tremendous magnetism. Do you realize that this boy, who listened to Vivaldi, read Heidegger, and travelled throughout the continent was tempted by practically every option? I think it was Trotsky, I’m not sure, who said that the most admirable revolutionary is the one who is in a position to choose something else, but who prefers the revolution. From that time on, solitude became, in a way, an obligation. He could not allow any tie to be as strong as the tie to the revolution itself. He always had a deep need for totality and purity.

And, in fact, this man, for whom the doors of professional and worldly success were wide open, became the most puritan of the Western revolutionary leaders. In Cuba, he was the Jacobin of the revolution: “Be careful, Che’s coming!” the Cubans would warn, only half in jest. This need for totality and purity was translated into an insuperable capacity for personal sacrifice; he was so intransigent with himself that he did not permit himself a single weakness, a single accommodation, in order to have a solid basis for the great demands he made on others. He lacked the flexibility of Fidel Castro, who has given numerous proofs of his skill in handling political negotiations, from the time he made deals with God and the Devil on the way to winning power in the mountains and the plains. From the time he became a guerrilla fighter, Che seems to have lived by the slogan, “All or nothing!” It is not difficult to imagine the bitter struggles this refined intellectual had to wage against a consciousness frequently tempted by doubt, in order to gain finally this iron certainty, this astonishing ideological rigor.

“He is perhaps the most fascinating legend of Latin America since El Dorado,” wrote the London Times. In Madrid a Falangist daily compared him with the conquistadores, for the breath-taking magnitude of his enterprise, and Azul y Blanco, the organ of Argentine right-wing nationalism, affirmed that he was “a nineteenth-century hero.” Fidel Castro says he will never be able to speak of him in the past tense, and even General Ovando recognizes that he was “a hero in any part of the world.” President René Barrientos, described, with reason, as an “idiot” by Che in his war diary, declares that “an idealist has died.” The priest Hernán Benítez, who was Evita Perón’s confessor, exalts the figure of the fallen chief in these terms: “As the Jews of the Old Testament believed in the immortality of the Prophet Elias, the medieval Spanish in that of the Cid Campeador and the Welsh in that of King Arthur, it is also possible that, in the years to come, the soldiers of the Third World will believe they feel the luminous presence of Che Guevara in the fury of the guerrilla battles.”

I recall a certain phrase of Paul Nizan: “There is no great work that is not also an accusation against the world.” The life of Che Guevara, so perfectly confirmed by his death, is, like all great works, an accusation, formed in this case of bullets aimed at a world, our world, which converts the majority of men into beasts of burden for the minority of men, and condemns the majority of countries to slavery and misery for the benefit of the minority of countries; it is also an accusation against the egoists, the cowards, the conformists who do not throw themselves into the adventure of changing it.

Cubans Treat Man Who Killed Che

Cuban doctors working in Bolivia have saved the sight of the man who executed revolutionary leader Che Guevara in 1967, Cuban official media report. Mario Teran, a Bolivian army sergeant, shot dead Che Guevara after he was captured in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands. Cuban media reported news of the surgery ahead of the 40th anniversary of Che’s death on October 9. Mr. Teran had cataracts removed under a Cuban program to offer free eye treatment across Latin America. The operation on Mr. Teran took place last year and was first revealed when his son wrote to a Bolivian newspaper to thank the Cuban doctors for restoring his father’s sight.

But Cuban media took up the story over the weekend as the island prepares for commemorations to mark Che Guevara’s death 40 years ago. “Four decades after Mario Teran attempted to destroy a dream and an idea, Che returns to win yet another battle,” the Communist Party’s official newspaper Granma proclaimed.

“Now an old man, he [Teran] can once again appreciate the colors of the sky and the forest, enjoy the smiles of his grandchildren and watch football games.”

BBC News, October 2, 2007

Essays in this series…