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Who Killed Che?

How the CIA Got Away With Murder

James D. Cockcroft’s latest book is Mexico’s Revolution Then and Now (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).

Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith, Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder (New York: OR Books, 2011), 195 pages, $16.00, paperback.

Ratner and Smith have done it again! Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder is their second bombshell book dealing with Che Guevara and the U.S. government’s frequent use of illegal and criminal political assassinations and routine whopper lies in its foreign policy, all in the name of “defending freedom” (their first bombshell was Che Guevara and the FBI). In their new Che book these two prominent civil liberties lawyers present forty-four previously classified documents released under the Freedom of Information Act to show—quite meticulously and colorfully, as if in a courtroom drama—how the CIA, in concert with the White House, masterminded the murder of Che and then tried to cover it up.

For some readers this may seem like an old story, since the U.S. government now openly proclaims the legitimacy of assassinating foreign leaders and even U.S. citizens during its hypocritical “war on terrorism.” In today’s climate of Presidential and CIA boasts about the political assassinations they have ordered—such as that of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in the fall of 2011, and then two weeks later his sixteen-year-old son—the murder of Che in captivity, a major war crime, may seem a bit dated. But as Che himself once said in words that Libya’s murdered leader Muammar Qaddafi might have done well to heed, “You cannot trust imperialism, not even a little bit, not in anything.” And there, indeed, is the rub.

The kind of duplicity around Che’s murder so brilliantly revealed in this book helps us understand how we are being lied to today—and losing even our own rights, as U.S. citizens, not to be jailed forever merely on “suspicion” without due process or even—yes—the right not to be assassinated. Actually, the frequent cover-up of the truth for reasons of “national security” practiced in the days of Che and the Vietnam War still characterizes the inner circles of the world’s biggest practitioner of terrorism. “National security” was the U.S. government’s excuse for not providing any details about the murders of al-Awlaki and his son.

That is why the research presented here by Ratner and Smith is so important and explosive. The authors cite CIA and U.S. government documents to blow the cover off the daily lies emanating from Washington. They explain that:

  • Claims of a split between Fidel and Che were unfounded.
  • The CIA had tried to follow Che ever since 1954, and in 1962, with the help of Chicago mobster Johnny Rosselli, it tried to poison Che in Cuba (more than 600 botched CIA attempts on Fidel Castro’s life also took place in those years and afterwards).
  • The CIA, with the U.S. military, vowed to track down Che and to “eliminate the guerrillas” operating under Che’s command in Bolivia in 1966–67 in an operation supervised by sixteen Green Berets (U.S. Special Forces) charged with training the 2nd Ranger Battalion-Bolivian Army, the unit that captured Che.
  • Twenty of the top twenty-three Bolivian military men heading Bolivia’s dictatorship at the time were trained at the U.S. School of the Americas, as were 1,200 other officers and men in the Bolivian Armed Forces and countless military dictators of Latin America.
  • The CIA country chief in Bolivia, by his own admission, had an understanding with Bolivia’s president, General René Barrientos, that Che must be killed if captured, and Barrientos gave his word that Che would indeed be executed.
  • The head of the Bolivian Interior Ministry was on the CIA’s payroll, and the U.S. “military attaché” in La Paz was a CIA agent.
  • Two CIA operatives, both ultra-rightist Cuban Americans, disguised themselves as Bolivian soldiers, and one of them, Felix Rodríguez, would later claim to be the highest-ranking military officer at the scene of Che’s murder.
  • The fingerprints from Che’s cut-off hands were promptly matched in Washington with prior copies of Che’s fingerprints.

In brief, the CIA approved the execution of Che and helped make it happen. Moreover, Ratner and Smith point out, “His death was critical to the U.S., to ensure that the example of the Cuban revolution would not inspire other revolutionary movements” (30).

At the time, “plausible deniability” was of critical importance to the U.S. authorities overseeing Che’s murder. As Ratner and Smith show, based again on the government’s own documents as well as commonsense, the CIA’s autonomy from the legislative and executive branches facilitated its claims, and those coming from the White House, that they had nothing to do with Che’s murder in captivity. Popular revolts would likely have erupted in much of Latin America had the truth behind Che’s execution been acknowledged by Washington. Che was very widely respected and admired in Latin America, as well as in many sectors of the U.S. Civil Rights and youth movements—even as he is today. Actually, as Cuba’s National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcón points out in his very well-documented foreword to this book, the executive branch of the U.S. government had a longstanding policy of trying to hide the paramilitary and terrorist tactics of the CIA. President Eisenhower insisted “he did not wish the specifics of covert operations [like the eventual Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba] to be presented to the NSC [National Security Council]” (13).

Later, hearings conducted by the U.S. Senate’s “Church committee” (named after Senator Frank Church who headed the investigation) to examine CIA- and Presidentially ordered political assassinations faced a barrage of claims that “we didn’t do it, honest, we didn’t,” most notably from CIA agent Rodríguez, who claimed he received the order to have Che killed from higher-ranking Bolivian officers. Ratner and Smith do a thorough job of revealing Rodríguez’s grisly past and propensity for murder and mendacity both before and after Che’s murder. Today, lying and the spreading of half-truths continue to consume a lot of energy in the U.S. political class and mass media—and in the still secretive and protected confines of the CIA and all branches of government.

While the abundant evidence provided by Ratner and Smith as to how the CIA and the U.S. presidency masterminded Che’s murder is damning enough, additional suspicion is aroused by Paco Ignacio Taibo II in his excellent biography Guevara, Also Known as Che. There, Taibo II writes about the legend of “Che’s curse” that emerged when several key players known to have been involved in Che’s capture and assassination, as well as the disappearance of his body, “died unnatural deaths” in the next fifteen years. For example, President René Barrientos, not long after confirming the order to execute Che as he had earlier promised the chief CIA operative in Bolivia, died when his helicopter burst into flames and crashed; the commanding officer when Che was captured was killed in a car crash; and in 1981 the army captain who captured Che was shot and left paralyzed. CIA agent Rodríguez himself experienced attacks of asthma, which he had never experienced before, but when allergy tests turned up nothing the doctors concluded it was either psychological or “Che’s curse.”

The Ratner-Smith book has the additional advantage of providing us with an accurate and up-to-date review of Che’s life, based on several recent biographies, consultation with Cuban and U.S. researchers, and years of the authors’ following the story of the Cuban Revolution. Their short, highly readable book ties in events happening around the world to help young readers gain an understanding of Che and Cuba’s impact then and today. It should be ordered by every school library and used as a basic, inexpensive textbook for colleges.

One reason for this is that Che is still very important forty-four years after his death, and countless people around the world want to know more about just who he was and why he was killed. Ratner and Smith’s book holds the key to this mystery. It concludes with a citation of what Bolivia’s first indigenous president Evo Morales, elected in 2005, said in an important section of his inaugural address. Che, President Morales explained, “fought for a new world of equality.” When Morales was asked why he liked Che, he answered, “I like Che because he fought for equality, for justice. He did not just care for ordinary people, he made their struggle his own” (76). Several militants who either fought with Che or supported his guerrilla force are now active members of Bolivia’s government.

The omnipresence today of Che T-shirts might conceivably be written off as just one more example of how “capitalism consumes communism,” but the image of Che held high in recent popular uprisings from the Middle East to Canada and the United States suggests something else. As I have written in my poem “Forty years ago I was walking (homage to Ernesto “Che” Guevara on the fortieth anniversary of his murder),”

Che is present in all parts of the world,
a symbol of the best of humankind,
of the dreams, the principles of solidarity,
internationalism, honesty, generosity,
acting according to the best available analysis,
in order to achieve social justice and world peace.1

Or as Alarcón concludes his foreword:

Che remains alive, above all, in a Latin America that today is building a new politics of independence and solidarity, a politics that owes a great deal to his ideals and his sacrifice. His spirit also lives on through the lives of the Cuban Five: Gerardo, Ramón, Antonio, Fernando and Renéunjustly imprisoned for more than twelve years for fighting anti-Cuban terrorism sponsored by Washington. (14)

Che was an anti-sectarian revolutionary intellectual “motivated by profound feelings of love” who criticized the Stalinism of the Soviet Union and its foreign policy and carried in his Bolivian backpack books by Leon Trotsky and Georg Lukács. He viewed internationalism as “not only a duty for the peoples who struggle for a better future” but “also an inescapable necessity.” A highly cultured man, he wrote magnificent books, essays, and poems. He liked to play chess and soccer. While suffering from asthma attacks all his life, he maintained an ironic wit. He loved cameras and took stunning photographs. He led major economic projects for the Cuban Revolution and championed subjective factors in the transition to socialism in hopes of creating “the new man.” He led freedom fighters in Africa and Latin America and spoke eloquently against imperialism in the United Nations and other international settings. By courageously practicing the values and ideals for which he lived and died, he epitomized—in the words of José Martí—the “only practical man, whose dream today will be the law of tomorrow.”

The Ratner-Smith bombshell is a quick, illuminating, and exciting read.


  1. James Cockcroft, WHY? ¿POR QUÉ? POURQUOI? (Canada: [email protected], 2009), 92.
2012, Volume 64, Issue 01 (May)
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