Military history



Che’s Quixotic Quest, 1965–1967

THE 26TH OF July Movement, which never had more than a few hundred fighters and that only at the end,135 had scored one of the more improbable guerrilla victories ever by defeating an army of forty thousand and taking over a nation of six million people. Other victorious Communist movements, whether in China or Vietnam, were much larger by the time they won power. Even many unsuccessful insurgencies, from Greece to the Philippines, had many more fighters. In contravention of Maoist doctrine, Castro never managed to field much of a regular army. And, unlike Mao or Ho, his revolution triumphed without much outside help beyond donations from the Cuban diaspora. (Soviet support was still in the future.)

This was a tribute to Castro’s genius for creating an aura of inevitability about his ascension by using a combination of small-scale attacks and large-scale publicity efforts. Ever since his imprisonment after the Moncada barracks attack, he had shown an uncanny talent for turning military setbacks into propaganda triumphs. Yet he would never have prevailed had it not been for Batista’s debilitating weakness, which made even Chiang Kai-shek appear to be strong by comparison. Batista presided over an unpopular regime rife with corruption. His army looked formidable on paper, but its commanders were chosen on the basis of personal loyalty, not merit, and most of its men were conscripts who had no desire to fight—which helps explain why fewer than three hundred of them died during the entire, two-year war.136 Just as Batista’s men were no match for Castro’s, so too he was hopelessly outclassed in tactical maneuvering by the “cunning” rebel commander.137 Castro was particularly adept at hiding his ideological views and forging an alliance of convenience with the non-Marxist opposition. He adamantly denied any “Communist infiltration” of M-26-7 or even “anti-Americanism.”138

It did not take long for his façade of moderation to crumble. With his execution of hundreds of enemies, his refusal to hold elections, his confiscation of large landholdings and imposition of price controls, his alliance with the Soviet Union, his suppression of the independent press and political parties, and his imposition of a police state far more onerous than Batista’s—by the early 1960s Castro had remade Cuba into a Communist state. This alienated many of his former comrades and alarmed the U.S. government, which mounted prodigious efforts, some of them overseen by Edward Lansdale, to overthrow him. In facing these threats to his rule, Castro could count on the staunch loyalty of his brother Raúl and Che Guevara, who had pushed him toward communism in the first place.

Guevara was such a hard-line Marxist that in coming years he would turn against the Soviet Union for being too soft and embrace Maoist China as his model. He was not a mass murderer on the scale of Mao, but he had no compunctions about shedding blood. He had once written, “I feel my nostrils dilate, savoring the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood, the enemy’s death.”139 Castro took advantage of his bloodthirstiness by appointing Guevara in early 1959 to be commander of La Cabaña prison in a forbidding old stone fortress that had long guarded Havana’s harbor, where he was to oversee the execution of hundreds of “counterrevolutionaries” after perfunctory trials. His dirty work done, he became a roving ambassador on behalf of the regime, minister of industry, and president of the national bank.

Guevara liked to joke that he had gotten the latter job at a meeting where Castro had asked whether there were any “communists” in the room. Guevara raised his hand, only to realize he had misheard; Castro had asked for an economist, not a communist.140Putting a self-admitted economic illiterate in charge of large sectors of the economy was not an inspired choice. With his fervor for enforced industrialization and expropriation of land, and his hostility to paying workers (he thought “Socialist Man” should labor for the good of society),141 Guevara presided over a disastrous drop in sugar production and the pauperization of what had once been one of the richest countries in Latin America. Cuba was to become dependent on Soviet subsidies for decades to come.

Before long Che was bored with his work and ready for fresh challenges. He described himself as an “adventurer” and a “condottiere of the twentieth century.”142 Unlike Castro, who loved fine food and drink and playing the big shot, he was too abstemious to be interested in power or privileges. When his wife asked for the use of his official car to take one of their sick kids to the hospital, he told her to take the bus like everyone else; the gasoline belonged to “the people” and could not be used for personal reasons.143Guevara was an idealist or, if you prefer, a fanatic who worshipped “Saint Karl” and compared himself to early Christians “grappling with the Roman Empire in the form of North America.” Like Garibaldi, he had little desire to be a ruler; he was a perpetual revolutionary. He was eager to strike fresh blows against “imperialism, colonialism, and neocolonialism”—to create, in his widely quoted phrase, “two, three, or many Vietnams.”144

In 1960 he published La guerra de guerrillas (Guerrilla Warfare), a manual for other leftist crusaders. Much of it consisted of practical advice that might not have been out of place in a Boy Scout handbook—for instance, “carry no more than a extra pair of pants, eliminating extra underwear and other articles.” Guevara’s seminal contribution was his emphasis on the transformative abilities of guerrilla fighters—the foco (focus) of the revolution. “It is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making revolution exist,” he claimed; “the insurrection can create them.” His acolyte, the French intellectual Régis Debray, expanded this idea in his own manifesto, Revolution in the Revolution? “The setting up of military focos, not political ‘focos,’ ” he wrote, “is decisive for the future.”145

The foco theory was romantic and inspirational but, as one expert notes, it was based on a “considerable distortion of the Cuban experience,” which ignored the vital role played by the urban underground and by the general turn against Batista.146 If focoism did not work in Cuba, its birthplace, what chance did it have elsewhere? It was a mirage that would ultimately lead its foremost champion to an unmarked grave.

CHE DECIDED TO put his ideas to the test in the newly independent Congo, a turbulent state then seen as the frontline of the Cold War. After the overthrow and assassination in 1961 of the first post-independence leader, Patrice Lumumba, a variety of rebels were vying for power with Soviet and Chinese support against a weak regime backed by the West. The Congolese armed forces, commanded by General Joseph Mobutu, were pushing back the rebels with the help of a thousand South African mercenaries led by Colonel “Mad Mike” Hoare. Guevara set off with 130 Cuban soldiers to help the communist-backed rebels.

The Congolese rebels held only a sliver of “liberated” territory along the western shore of Lake Tanganyika, a vast inland sea lined with oil palms that had been “discovered,” as far as Europeans were concerned, by the great explorers Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Speke in 1858. In the colonial era, the lake had separated the Belgian Congo from German East Africa; now it separated Congo from Burundi and Tanzania. What Che found there in the spring of 1965 appalled him. “The basic feature of the People’s Liberation Army,” he wrote in his diary, “was that it was a parasitic army: it did not work, did not train, did not fight, and demanded provisions and labor from the population, sometimes with extreme harshness.”

Che tried hard to improve training and discipline but with little success because his newfound comrades lacked the dedication of Castro’s band. The officers were either absent from the front, living in luxury in Dar es Salaam, or else they would spend “the day drinking until they got into the most incredible state.” On those infrequent occasions when they led their men into battle, the officers “took the lead in running away.” The ordinary fighters were just happy “to have a rifle and a uniform, sometimes even shoes and a certain authority in the area.” They were utterly lacking in “revolutionary awareness.” Indeed they lacked “any forward-looking perspective beyond the traditional horizon of their tribal territory.” They placed far more faith in witchcraft than in Marxism-Leninism; they were convinced that medicine men could cast spells to make them invulnerable to enemy bullets. The men even refused to carry their own supplies, saying indignantly, “I’m not a truck,” and later, “I’m not a Cuban.” Guevara concluded that they were “lazy and undisciplined” and “without any spirit of combat or self-sacrifice”—“the poorest example of a fighter that I have ever come across.”

Working with such unpromising material was dispiriting. It did not help that the Cubans were constantly coming down with malaria and other tropical diseases; Che noted that on one occasion, he “had the runs more than 30 times in 24 hours.” Eventually even this inveterate optimist had to admit the situation was hopeless.

In November 1965, seven months after arriving, he and his men left the Congo for good. Within days the ruthless and ambitious Mobutu seized power and established a kleptocratic dictatorship over the country he renamed Zaire that would last for thirty-two years. He would finally be ousted in 1997 by Laurent Kabila, one of the rebel leaders Che had tried to help—and who turned out to be just as corrupt and abusive as his predecessor.147

GUEVARA MADE NO attempt to put a positive gloss on his African experience. The very first words of his account, not published until long after his death, were: “This is the history of a failure.” Yet not even this debacle could quench his revolutionary fires. He returned to Cuba only briefly in 1966—just long enough to prepare for another expedition. He chose Bolivia as his next target because of its central location in South America; he hoped to use it as a base to radiate revolution to neighboring countries, including his native Argentina.

The fact that Bolivia was poor, heavily Indian, rural, and mountainous made it, at first blush, an ideal foco site. Yet in most other ways it was far from promising. Bolivia already had had a revolution in 1952, which nationalized the largest mining companies and redistributed land to the peasants, turning them into a conservative force. General René Barrientos had seized power in 1964, but he was elected two years later with more than 60 percent of the vote. He was a populist who spoke Quechua, the Indian language, and took care to cultivate the peasants. He was also receiving substantial aid from the United States, which was alive to the dangers of Castroism spreading across Latin America.

Che arrived in Bolivia, disguised as a balding Uruguayan agricultural expert, in November 1966. He set up camp in the remote wilderness of southeastern Bolivia, the Nancahuazú region, and immediately began violating every precept laid out in his own guerrilla manual. “The guerrilla fighter is a social reformer,” he had written, but in Bolivia he had no attractive program of social reform to offer. He had also written, “Where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote . . . the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted.” In Bolivia the president’s rule had been ratified at the polls.

“The guerrilla fighter needs to have a good knowledge of the surrounding countryside,” Che had continued, but the Bolivian countryside was utterly alien to him and his men. He started with twenty-four fighters of whom only nine were Bolivians, and most of them came from the cities. “The guerrilla fighter needs full help from the people of the area,” he had written, but not a single peasant joined his band. In April 1967 he was to admit in his diary, “The mobilization of peasants is nonexistent, except as informers.” Nor did Guevara receive help from an urban underground. The Bolivian Communist Party had not asked him to come and did not think the time was right to launch armed struggle. Che was on his own.

Yet another precept that Guevara violated was the need for “absolute secrecy, a total absence of information in the enemy’s hands.” His movement’s secrecy was shattered in March 1967 by two deserters who revealed the Cuban role, allowing President Barrientos to rally nationalist sentiment against the foreign invaders. Further details about Che’s operations came from the interrogation of Régis Debray, who was captured in April 1967 after spending a few weeks with the rebels. Soon a team of seventeen Spanish-speaking Green Berets led by Major Ralph “Pappy” Shelton, a veteran of the Korean War and covert operations in Laos, arrived to train a Bolivian Ranger battalion to stop Che. CIA agents would provide intelligence for their operations.

The rebel band, which at its peak numbered fifty fighters divided into two columns, managed to ambush some of the security men, but the toll of pursuit began to wear on them. Temperatures were high, the jungle thick, “torrential” rainfall unceasing. As the situation worsened, so did Che’s temper; he unleashed “murderous tongue-lashings” that reduced even veteran revolutionaries to tears. He was frequently sick, even debilitated, because he had lost his asthma medicine. The rebels were also short of food. The only way they could get fed was by holding peasants hostage. This practice naturally won them no friends and made it easy for the soldiers to get on their trail.

With the army “demonstrating more effectiveness in action,” as Che had to admit, his small force suffered one setback after another. On August 31, 1967, he lost ten fighters in an army ambush. A month later another guerilla patrol was wiped out: three men killed, two deserted. By the end only seventeen fighters were left. On the morning of October 8, 1967, they were caught on the floor of a narrow canyon by a hundred Bolivian Rangers who had been alerted to their movements by a peasant. During a firefight that began in the early afternoon, Guevara was wounded in the leg and had his M2 carbine hit by a machine-gun bullet that rendered it useless. He tried to escape but, lame and unarmed, he did not get far.

As dusk fell Che hobbled with his captors to the nearby hamlet of La Higuera, where he was detained in a mud-walled schoolhouse. He was found there the next day by a Cuban-born CIA officer, Felix Rodriguez, an adviser to the Bolivian army who had flown in by helicopter. “His clothes [were] tattered and torn,” Rodriguez later wrote, “his feet shod in rotting leather, his hair matted and filthy, his dream of a peasant uprising an utter failure.” Rodriguez claimed that he tried to save Guevera’s life but to no avail. Orders came down from the Bolivian High Command to “proceed with the elimination of Señor Guevara.” A sergeant irate at having lost three buddies in combat volunteered to do the foul deed. Rodriguez had to concede that Che “died with courage.” Legend has it that his last words were “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”148

To avoid creating a martyr’s monument, his body (minus the hands, which were amputated to make a positive identification) was dumped into a mass grave that was covered by an airstrip. The fate of Che’s corpse remained a mystery until 1997, when it was exhumed and flown to Cuba for a hero’s burial.

WELL BEFORE THEN Che had passed into the realm of myth; the famous photograph Alberto Korda had taken of him in 1960 wearing a beret had become one of the most recognizable images on the planet.149 His outsize fame is similar to that of another fanatical if heroic failure. Like Che, John Brown was a darling of progressive opinion in his day and a practitioner of focoism avant la lettre. His attempt to spark a slave revolt in Virginia was just as unsuccessful as Che’s efforts to spark a communist revolt in Bolivia. Brown even had roughly the same number of followers at Harpers Ferry—twenty-two. The difference is that only a few years after Brown’s hanging the scourge of slavery, which he had given his life to oppose, was eradicated, whereas the revolutionary forces that Che had championed went from failure to failure.

From the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador to the Tupamaros in Uruguay and the Montoneros in Argentina, Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s gave birth to a bewildering array of guerrilla and terrorist groups with similar names, similar proclivities for violence, and similar ideologies to justify their acts, notwithstanding bitter and self-defeating divisions between Trotskyites, Maoists, and pro-Moscow Communists. Most of these movements were inspired by “the glorious Cuban Revolution.”150 Some were based in rural areas in accord with Guevara’s advice: “In the underdeveloped America the countryside is the basic area for armed fighting.”151 Others—particularly in more urbanized countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay—were more influenced by the Brazilian Marxist Carlos Marighella’s Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla (1970), which substituted an urban foco for a rural one.

Marighella was head of National Liberation Action, a Brazilian terrorist group formed in 1967. It kidnapped several foreign diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador, hijacked a Brazilian airliner, and robbed numerous banks. But while Marighella focused on targets different from Guevara’s, his views on the redemptive power of violence and the heroic qualities of the revolutionary were similar. “Today,” he wrote, “to be ‘violent’ or a ‘terrorist’ is a quality that ennobles any honorable person, because it is an act worthy of a revolutionary engaged in armed struggle against the shameful military dictatorship and its atrocities.”152

There was another resemblance: Marighella was just as unsuccessful as Guevara. In 1969 he was shot dead in an ambush by Brazilian police. His urban foco disappeared as rapidly as Che’s rural foco in Bolivia.

The same fate was suffered by almost every rebel group in Latin America, rural or urban. The one exception was the Sandinista movement, which took over Nicaragua in 1979 from Anastasio Somoza, who was as weak, corrupt, and incompetent as Batista. But the Sandinistas were hardly an isolated foco. They had been organizing since 1961 and were part of a broad-based antiregime movement that came to include the Catholic Church, the chambers of commerce, and much of the upper class—something that happened nowhere else in Latin America outside of Cuba. And, just as in Cuba, the revolutionaries’ triumph in Nicaragua was facilitated by a last-minute cutoff of U.S. aid to the old regime.153

EVEN WHEN ULTIMATELY unsuccessful, most of the Latin American revolutionary groups managed to inflict considerable carnage for substantial periods of time. Rural guerrilla movements, in particular, had the ability to stay alive for decades. But the social change they achieved was mostly negative by inadvertently spurring military takeovers. Latin military juntas unleashed the security forces, often complemented by paramilitary “death squads,” to wreak carnage against the rebels and their suspected sympathizers—a category wide enough to encompass almost any leftist. As many as 30,000 people were said to have died in Argentina’s “Dirty War” alone—the name given to the campaign by the junta in Buenos Aires against suspected leftists from 1976 to 1983.154 The toll in Guatemala was even higher: a civil war that raged between 1960 and 1996 cost the lives of an estimated 200,000 people.155

Heavy-handed repression was counterproductive in Algeria and Indochina, where the counterinsurgents were foreigners who lacked popular support. Batista and Somoza showed how repression could backfire even when perpetrated by homegrown regimes. But by the early 1970s many Latin Americans, perhaps most, were genuinely alarmed about growing violence and chaos and the possibility of a communist takeover. This led to widespread if tacit support for the harsh steps taken by military regimes to restore law and order. Once the crisis passed, the public turned on the generals and demanded the restoration of civilian rule. By the turn of the millennium most Latin American insurgencies had been crushed and, not coincidentally, most Latin countries had become democratic.

The defeat of all these communist movements did not require direct American military intervention, except in the Dominican Republic and Grenada, but there was a considerable role for American military backing especially in El Salvador in the 1980s and Colombia in the 2000s. In both cases democratic governments, benefiting from much greater American support than Batista or Somoza had ever received, curbed the excesses of their own militaries and embraced the sort of population-centric counterinsurgency methods that had been used by Templer in Malaya and Magsaysay in the Philippines. El Salvador’s FMLN gave up the armed struggle and became a political party in 1992. Colombia’s FARC survived President Alvaro Uribe’s 2002–10 offensive but as a much diminished force and one that appeared more interested in criminality than in revolution. For his success in beating back an insurgency that once seemed on the verge of power, Uribe deserves to be remembered along with Gerald Templer and Ramón Magsaysay as among the most effective counterinsurgents since World War II.156 Though no American adviser of the stature of Edward Lansdale emerged from these conflicts, there were many “Quiet Professionals,” as the Green Berets like to call themselves, who played an important behind-the-scenes role in bolstering indigenous counterinsurgency capacity.

Latin America was not, of course, the only region that experienced an epidemic of revolutionary violence in the 1960s and 1970s. This was a worldwide phenomenon that afflicted even the advanced liberal democracies of Western Europe and North America. Everywhere radicals inspired by the example of Mao, Ho, and Che—the one-name gurus of guerrilla-ism—mounted a violent assault on the “establishment.” Many of them received direct support from Cuba, the Soviet Union, East Germany, and other communist or radical states. In the process they ushered in a second age of international terrorism that in sheer savagery easily eclipsed its forerunner, the anarchist epoch.

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