Part One: Che in Cuba, 1956–9
It was early December of 1956 and the world’s major newspapers were publishing accounts of Fidel Castro’s* failed attempt to invade the island of Cuba. The ex-Sergeant Batista*, then self-elevated to the rank of Major General, spread the news, by means of the international agencies, that Castro and his men had been killed during an attempt to invade the island. This took place on 2 December of that year. Fidel Castro had launched the threat to invade Cuba over a year earlier by saying: ‘We shall be free or we shall be martyrs.’ Our family in Buenos Aires was not aware of this threat, but began to understand what was going on when we read in large headlines the first news of it that the leading newspapers of the world were publishing. They were devoting space to the disaster that had taken place when Fidel and his men disembarked near the city of Manzanillo, in the province of Oriente. It was a bombshell. We knew that Ernesto was involved in a conspiracy and that he had been taken into custody in Mexico with Fidel Castro and his men. The Guevara family discovers the real destiny of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna
On 6 July 1956 I received a letter from Ernesto, in reply to one of mine that I had sent to the jail of the Gobernación of Mexico City, on Miguel Schultz Street, in which I told him that we had just learned from the newspapers that he was in jail and asked him to tell me what the situation was, plainly and without beating about the bush. His reply to my letter cleared any doubts that anyone might have had about Ernesto and his position within Fidel Castro’s army. The news, particularly when it came from the United States, gave details of the extermination of the whole contingent. When the news reached Buenos Aires, our friends started telephoning incessantly. They wanted to know what was happening. I was told over the telephone the dreadful news that my son Ernesto had been mortally wounded during one of the skirmishes. The reports said that both Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl* had been killed, as well as several of their comrades. I remember the names of Juan Almeida* and Ramiro Valdés*. The news said that the motorboat Granma, in which the eighty-two had sailed from a small port in Mexico called Tuxpan, had been captured with all members of the invasion force on board and that the majority of the crew had died. The remaining few had been dispersed, according to the newspapers, and would soon have to give themselves up. The whole world believed the news because of the disparity between the regular army of General Batista – formed by selected troops of the rural guard, the marines and the armed police force – and the tiny guerrilla group of just eighty-two men under Fidel Castro. It was impossible to believe that the latter might topple the military government of Batista, far less defeat its army and air force, trained by the United States of America and equipped with the most modern weapons. When we received the news we were depressed. I went to the offices of the newspaper La Prensa of Buenos Aires asking for confirmation. They said, as consolation, that they were unable to tell me if it was true until official confirmation came and, as such confirmation had not arrived, there was still hope. I went home in despair. My wife, Celia, was sitting at a table with a pack of cards playing a game of patience. My children had learned from other sources what the wires were announcing, which was by now in any case in the public domain. When they saw me arrive, they did not utter a single word. They did not say anything to their mother. It was up to me to deliver the awful blow. I sat opposite her and waited for what seemed to me a century until she had finished her card game. She then lifted her head and, perhaps because she had a premonition, asked, ‘What is it?’ ‘Look,’ I replied, ‘there are some reports that I don’t think are true.’ She was livid. ‘Ernesto?’ she asked. ‘Yes. But I can assure you that I do not believe it.’ She jumped to her feet, went to the telephone and called the news agency Associated Press and, with a dry but firm voice, said, ‘I am the mother of Dr Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, whose death you have just announced and will be published in the newspapers. I want you to tell me the truth. Is it true?’ She later told me that they had tried to console her, telling her what I had already been told: that most of these reports ended up not being confirmed. We were used to putting up with all sorts of worries when it came to Ernesto. I imagine the majority of our family and friends believed the terrible news, and I imagine that the government of Batista himself also believed it. But I was not totally discouraged. There was something that told me it could not be true, even if the evidence was to the contrary. I had an intuition – something like a remote hope in this avalanche of unconfirmed news – and that is why my words could be of some comfort to my family. At that time I was in contact with civil servants who worked for the government of General Aramburu*. I went to the President’s private secretary and asked to see the President to request him to intervene with the Cuban government, so that in the hypothetical event that Ernesto had been taken prisoner, he would not suffer the fate that Batista was in the habit of meting out to his prisoners: torture and assassination. General Aramburu intervened and the Argentine Foreign Ministry moved with speed. We were continually in touch with the ministry, but neither denial nor confirmation was forthcoming. We were unable to find out anything. My home, normally so noisy and lively, had become a sombre place. Nobody spoke, everyone foresaw the catastrophe, and around us there was an air of desolation. As for me, I must confess that I found it impossible to concentrate on anything that was not related to Ernesto. I abandoned my job, I didn’t even turn up at the office. I went from one place to another seeking information. The newspapers dropped the story. But some newspapers and magazines arrived by air from Cuba. I remember an issue of the magazine Bohemia that I forced myself to read. It contained the same news that the first agency wires had issued, but in great detail: Ernesto, who was reclining against a tree talking to his mate Dr Pérez, had been mortally wounded. It had happened at Alegría del Pío. Fidel Castro’s men had been surprised by the army, and the rural guards had fallen upon them before they had been able to see them, and the guards had machine-gunned them from a few metres away. The air force had rained napalm bombs on the woodlands and sugar-cane fields. The army had surrounded the area, and it was assumed that nobody could have escaped the ambush alive. For the government of Batista, this was the beginning and the end of the much-heralded invasion by Fidel Castro Ruz. And then a letter from Ernesto, written in Mexico, arrived. For the family this was simply dreadful. It was his farewell letter to his parents. In it he made some philosophical observations. His message was that for him death was not important; what was important was the struggle for one’s ideals. He also said that he was leaving Mexico to enter Cuba as a revolutionary. My wife read the letter in front of everyone without a tear. I clenched my teeth and did not understand why Ernesto had to get involved with a revolution that had nothing to do with his homeland. How wrong I was. My son Ernesto had to teach me – I who had guided him through his first steps in life – the duty of men who fight for humanity. It was not clear to me at the time; I could not separate the heroic event in which one gives one’s life for an ideal from a warlike adventure with no precise direction. I would compare Batista with any of the military men who had at one time or another been dictators in my country. I had fought against them, but what eluded me at the time was something that Ernesto had already fully understood: for the oppressed people of the world, the enemy was one and the same, and that enemy was not in Argentina, or Cuba, or Peru, or any other part of Latin America; the enemy was further away – it was from where the capitalist elite originates, and from where it sends its forces against those oppressed people via the heads of governments who serve their interests. Early one morning the phone rang. I was being summoned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to meet the secretary of the Foreign Minister. He saw me in his office; his demeanour was quiet. What must I have looked like! I do not know, but I can imagine. He looked at me with pity and said the following: ‘I have just received a telegram from the Argentine Embassy in Havana, which reads: “Dr Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, according to enquiries made by this embassy, is not among the dead, nor among the wounded, nor among the prisoners of Batista’s army.”’ Had I been thrown into the air by an earthquake I would not have left the premises with greater speed. I ran all the way home with the news, and that same afternoon everything changed for us. An air of optimism enveloped us all and my home was once again noisy and filled with youthful exuberance. Some days went by. We lived in a state of anxiety awaiting confirmation or denial, but neither arrived through the official channels. So we believed the news that had arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from our embassy in Cuba. 1956 was coming to an end. On 31 December we were getting ready, as usual, to celebrate the arrival of the new year, although this time uncertainty hung over us. It was then that the unforeseen happened. It must have been around ten o’clock that night when an envelope was slid under the front door by an anonymous benefactor acting as postman. Nobody in the family will ever forget it. It was a small airmail envelope addressed to Celia de la Serna postmarked from Manzanillo in Cuba. Inside there was a little piece of paper. It was a page torn from a small notebook and was in handwriting that we all knew well. It read: Dear Viejos:I am fine, I only used up 2 and have 5 still left.2 I am still doing the same job, news will reach you sporadically and will continue to do so, but trust that God is an Argentine. A big hug to you all. Teté We felt such a great sense of relief. After a whole month of agony, we became euphoric. The news did the rounds of the entire family and all our friends, and that New Year’s Eve turned into a real rowdy celebration. The blow we had been dealt by the earlier false report of Ernesto’s death had been such that this brief message lifted our spirits dramatically: he would continue the fight, despite the overwhelming odds and with little regard for his own safety. That night we felt some optimism as well as pride in our beloved Ernesto. The champagne flowed and the toasts started. A few minutes before the church bells began to ring and the noise in the streets announced the arrival of the new year, another letter appeared mysteriously under the door. This time it was a larger, square envelope, also an airmail envelope like the previous one, but my wife’s name and the address were written in a female hand. We opened it quickly. It was a printed card. The first page was covered with a red rose. It read more or less as follows: Happy New Year. Teté is perfectly well. It was signed by someone whose name I have forgotten, but it was a woman’s name. This surpassed our expectations. The bells pealed and all those who had come to our home were jubilant. Ernesto had been spared, at least for now. After this, we continued to wait anxiously. I invited my daughter-in-law Hilda Gadea*, who was in Peru with her parents, and our granddaughter Hildita* to visit us. They came to Buenos Aires to stay with us. Hilda brought fresh news, but it dated from before Ernesto’s departure for Cuba. She was very reserved and one could tell she was trying to observe the strict silence imposed by Ernesto. However, with Hilda and Hildita in our midst, we gradually began to understand why Ernesto had joined the Cuban Revolution. Hilda also brought a letter to her from Ernesto. It read as follows: 28 January 1957 My dear Vieja, Here I am, in the Cuban jungle, alive and thirsting for blood, writing these fiery lines inspired by Martí* as if I were a real soldier (I am dirty and in rags, at least). I write on a field mess-plate with my weapon by my side and a new addition between my lips: a Havana cigar. We had a hard time. As you probably know, after seven days of being packed like sardines in the already famous Granma, thanks to the pilots we disembarked in an infected mangrove swamp and our misadventures continued until we were surprised in the now-famous ‘Alegría’ ambush and disbanded like pigeons. I was wounded in the neck and I stayed alive due only to my catlike luck, since a machine-gun bullet hit the ammunition box I was carrying close to my chest and it bounced on to my neck. I walked the hills for a few days, believing myself to be badly wounded, because the impact of the bullet had left me with a serious pain in the chest. Of the boys you have met, only Jimmy Hertzel was killed, executed for surrendering. A group of those whom you and I had met together, including Almeida and Ramirito, spent seven days of terrible hunger and thirst until we broke the encirclement and, with the help of the campesinos,4 we regrouped with Fidel. (One of the ones who is believed to be dead, although it has not been confirmed, is poor Ñico*.) After serious problems we reorganised ourselves, we found weapons and we attacked a barracks, killing five soldiers. The army, who thought we were disbanded, got a huge surprise and put the whole country on alert, and for forty-five further days they set on us the elite troops; we dispersed them again and this time they had three dead and two wounded. The dead were left in the scrub. Not much later we captured three guards and took their weapons. If you add to this that we did not suffer any losses and the woodland is ours, you can imagine how demoralised the army are, seeing us slip through their fingers when they thought we were within their grasp. Of course, the struggle has not yet been won and we still have many a battle to fight, but it is tipping in our favour, and will do so more and more.
Excerpted from Young Che by Guevara Lynch, Ernesto. Copyright © 2008 by Ernesto Guevara Lynch. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.