ONLINE ONLY: False Icons
Fidel & Che: A Revolutionary Friendship by Simon Reid-Henry
There is no stronger proof of the power of marketing to overcome reality than the posthumous reputation of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. At a time when the death penalty was increasingly regarded as a barbarous relic of a bygone age, an enthusiastic mass-executioner – after only the most summary of trials – came to represent youthful rebellion. His puerile economic theories self-evidently entailed the most absolute form of tyranny, yet Guevara came to represent the free spirit itself – complete with wind through the hair – for the flower-power generation and all its progeny.
How did this remarkable transmogrification come about? This is one of the questions – perhaps the most interesting that can be asked about Guevara – that this dual biography of Castro and Guevara does not answer. It does not answer it because it does not ask it. And it does not ask it because its attitude to the dynamic duo is unclear.
The book ends after nearly 400 pages with the following declaration:
“The fact that both men’s stars seemed to dim when they parted suggests one thing: they may be two of the most iconic individuals of the twentieth century, but it is [their] common bond that underpins their individual acclaim. It seems right that it is so, for they achieved more together that they ever did apart.”
Although one senses an underlying sympathy for Castro and Guevara in these words, rather as one feels when one is being followed on a dark night, they are sufficiently ambiguous or slippery for any deep admiration to be disavowed. For example, it can hardly be denied that, in overthrowing the Batista regime, Castro and Guevara performed a remarkable feat – indeed one of the most astonishing political feats of the 20th century. If someone had invented what actually happened as the plot of a novel, it would have been decried as implausible or even as totally impossible. For a group of 82 young men to invade a country in a leaky rust-bucket of a boat, for the great majority of them to be killed almost immediately on landing, and yet for the invasion ultimately to succeed in overthrowing a government equipped with a large army and something of an air force, is an exploit of epic proportions.
But the sheer unlikelihood of an historical event is no indicator, let alone guarantee, of its desirability. Adolf Hitler’s career was as unlikely as Castro’s, and Goebbels’s as unlikely as Guevara’s, but we would regard a dual biography of Hitler and Goebbels that left us in doubt as to the author’s attitude to his subjects as unsatisfactory.
Again, the author is in no doubt that, in the quarrel between post-revolutionary Cuba and the US, it was Cuba that started it. But he does not give us an inkling of a clue as to whether he thinks that the exchange of the Unites States for the Soviet Union as Cuba’s sponsor was wise or in the long-term interest of the country.
Where the biography is good is in explaining the shifting nature of the relationship between Castro and Guevara. If Guevara, a disorganised and drifting bohemian of radical views, had never met Castro he would probably never have been heard of. Castro, on the other hand, was the kind of man who would have made a great noise in the world anyway.
Having discovered his metier as a guerrilla fighter, however, Guevara for a time almost eclipsed Castro in the popular imagination, both in Cuba and abroad. His startling victory, which more or less ended the revolutionary war at the Battle of Santa Clara, made him the most visible of the revolutionary leaders; but once the revolution had triumphed Guevara, with his uncompromising and loudly-expressed quasi-Trotskyite or Maoist view of the need for world revolution, increasingly became a nuisance to Castro, who needed to cultivate good relations with the Soviets, who in turn were anxious to appear moderate to the Americans.
Nevertheless, Castro was not at heart moderate, even if he had for a time to appear to be one for purely pragmatic reasons. According to the author, the perfect solution to his dilemma was to allow Guevara to leave Cuba and try to foment revolution abroad. The author does not discuss the persistent rumours that Castro knowingly shipped off Guevara to his death; for Guevara dead was far more use to him than Guevara living.
I, personally, am not susceptible to the romance of these two figures, and there is nothing in this book to cause me to change my views. To overthrow one dictatorship in order to institute another, incomparably more thoroughgoing dictatorship, seems less than admirable to me, even if brought about by acts of the utmost daring. Castro and Guevara were both monstrously egotistical, and a cause is not good in proportion to the lengths people are prepared to go to promote it. This is a pretty elementary lesson, but one that even now has not been drawn, certainly not in this book.