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Encounters with Che

We think the following letter, written to the daughter of long-time friends, will be of interest to our readers.

The Editors

Dear Camila,

I hope you won’t mind that Mike sent me a copy of your e-mail. I write for two purposes. First, to express my appreciation for your comments on my recent article. Second, to avoid misconceptions about my contacts with Che Guevara. My wife, Beadie, and I grabbed our first opportunity to breathe the revolution. We had no distinctions and no pretense to be more than tourists. We did differ from the usual tourists in so far as we went to a hotel in old Havana. As soon as we could, we began learning about Havana by taking to the streets. Before we knew it, we were in the midst of a stream of youths who pulled us along with them. They were rushing to a student mass meeting. After a few minutes of talk they urged me to address the meeting. I clearly demurred. That made no difference; Beadie and I had at least to be on the platform. There we met and had a good talk with Carlos Rafael Rodriguez. We were of similar ages and took to each other quickly. The ease with which we were accepted as friends was repeated as one introduced us to another. We lunched with the minister of commerce, the head of Mexico’s agriculture bank, the head of the UN economic planning unit, and so forth. Finally, the time came to have lunch with Jaime Barrios, then working at the Bank of Cuba; he later became a close advisor to Salvador Allende and perished in the coup. He came with several friends to take us to lunch at a bodega near the hotel: a small store with a few tables and a guitar-playing singer. As soon as we were seated, Jaime asked for my impressions of Cuba. I uttered a few sentences, whereupon he said, “You must see the Commandante.” I thought it was an idle expression, and we turned to our lunch, listened to the music, and chatted. Later that afternoon we received a phone call at our hotel from Jaime, “You have a date with the Commandante on Wednesday at twelve.” I told him how sorry I was to miss it since we would be returning that day from Santiago de Cuba at noon. He answered: “No problem, your appointment is twelve midnight.”

We walked the dark quiet streets and reached the bank at a minute to midnight. The guard checked the list and let us into a hall full of light and activity. Almost before we could turn around, Che greeted us, and asked, “Coffee or Coca-Cola?” He had a group of about ten people, including a translator. We walked into a room that startled me—it could have been a duplicate of the boardroom of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, with the same huge world map on a wall.

Except for the translator, only Che and I talked for the next almost six hours. No one else uttered a word. I can’t give a full account, but I recall a few things:

My first comment: If Cuba was to be independent, it would have to turn socialist. That would entail sacrifices, especially by the middle class. The currently cheering students may not remain reliable supporters when they see their mother, instead of a maid, on her knees scrubbing the floor. Che laughed and told of plans to fill the university with working-class students.

I urged increased attention to the study of mathematics and scientific subjects. Che thought it was too soon. “They’ll go that way later,” he said. Carlos Rafael came to our room the next night and asked about the session with Che. I told him about Che pushing aside my emphasis on math. Carlos laughed and said, “Che has someone coming to his office several times a week to teach him mathematics.”

Che and I discussed the Ministry of Commerce. I gave my opinion that A., the minister of commerce, an intelligent man with a Ph.D. in economics, was not the best man for the job. (I tell you this for what comes later.)

I strongly urged him to develop a corps of master machine-tool craftsmen.

I advised that financial support be given to the chemistry department at Oriente University. Generally, chemistry in Cuba was taught from books without laboratory experience. Oriente had the only graduate program in chemistry on the island and an equipped laboratory. Moreover, their projects were designed to determine whether the native trees and plants could yield products that would substitute for imports. On this, Che said he had a budget problem, since there was a conflicting budgetary request from the national research institute. He asked me to examine the latter and give him a report.

I discussed the need to ask workers and others for their opinions—not to rely only on lecturing and instructing them.

Meanwhile, Beadie was urging me to bring the meeting to an end. Che’s wife was clearly at an advanced stage of pregnancy and needed sleep and rest. Dawn had broken a while back. Since I did nothing, absorbed in our conversation, Beadie stood up around 6 a.m. and proposed we call it quits. You would have to know Beadie. Neither politeness nor the great Che mattered when a tired pregnant woman needed rest and care.

Before we parted, Che said to me, “You have to stay in Cuba.” After I explained that we couldn’t, he asked me to write him a memo on whether tourism should be encouraged; to prepare a report on the Research Institute in Havana; and to send him a program for a school of economics.

Back in New York a year or more later, we received a call from the Cuban mission to the UN. Che was attending the UN session and asked to see Beadie and me. A date was arranged. I brought some books that might interest him. We continued our discussion as if there had not been a long interlude, and hours flew by. Earlier items of the previous discussion were continued. For example, Che told us that A. had been removed from the Commerce Ministry. Rather than being shifted to another government post, he asked to be the manager of a factory. He did very well and had a good relationship with the workers. At closing time, A. stood at the exit, shook hands with each worker, and exchanged friendly remarks.

I asked Che how he related to workers. (Che went to work in a factory as a machine tender for a week or so each month.) “Not especially friendly,” he said. Why the difference? “Probably character,” he thought. I will not report all of our discussion—this letter is already much too long. A lot of time was spent discussing the roles of the planning commission and the political leaders. I thought that there shouldn’t be a wide difference between the two. Planners should feel free to explore alternative programs and be free to argue about long-term perspectives (a political issue). Che burst out laughing. When Khrushchev was taking Che on a tour of Moscow, Che asked to visit the Gosplan (the ministry of economic planning). Khrushchev replied, “Why bother? They’re just a bunch of accountants.”

We talked about such matters as the relation between the leaders and the masses. I asked him whether anyone in the ruling group agreed with Che’s revolutionary ideas about motivation, etc. Che smiled and quietly said, “Fidel.”

Che was an especially sweet and polite man. I have my portion of vanity, which pushes me to report our parting words. Recognizing that he was a nice friendly fellow, I asked, “You know how I feel about Cuba. What should I do?” Che answered, “Keep on educating me.”

This is the first time I have written this down. Mike’s words about you and your questions about my relation to Che gave me the impulse to do this.

My best wishes,

2004, Volume 56, Issue 04 (September)
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