A new film about Che Guevara stirs memories of a grim and bloody episode in his career
Steven Soderbergh took the first part of his new movie Che to the Havana Film Festival in December. Benicio del Toro’s performance has been deemed superb and I’m eager to see it. What I wonder is how the filmmakers could pass over, unmentioned, any account of the controversial period when, shortly after the 1959 revolution, Che Guevara was in charge of La Cabana prison in Havana, supervising detention, summary judgment and execution of political prisoners. I wish, then, I could contrive to see the film, to answer this question, without actually purchasing a ticket.
Che’s role at La Cabana shortly after the 1959 revolution touches on one of the stranger moments from my time working at the Paris Review with George Plimpton. Some 15 years ago, from a friend at Grove Press, I got hold of the unpublished translation manuscript of Che’s memoir, The Motorcycle Diaries, six months before it was published as a book. The writing was fine, a somewhat conventional but well-observed travel book, with vivid tableaux of people and land and cities in the countries of Latin America where he’d travelled while training as a doctor.
I thought it could work for the magazine as an historical and literary oddity, and one without attendant controversy. The Cold War had ended, and with that the side-conflicts in Latin America had by and large been rolled up. One aspect that made the book particularly interesting was to watch the unfolding of the writer’s humanist sensibility, and so far as I could see it was devoid then of sub-Marxist dialectics. That sensibility was well-depicted by Walter Salles in his film adaptation of the book.
I pulled pages from the manuscript, carefully stitched together an excerpt, and called my contact at Grove. There was little advance word on the book, and the Grove people were happy to have the interest, as no one else was bidding for the serial rights. I took the paper-clipped excerpt upstairs to the Boss, flopped down in the chair to the side of his desk, an Eames chair from which he liked to watch his “teams” (the Detroit Lions, the Celtics and others who’d invited him to step on to the field as a participatory journalist), and said I had something strange and good. As I started to tell him about it, his smile faded. I stopped my pitch and said, “Boss, what’s the matter?”
“I just… No…”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “It’s not at all…” He cut me off.
“James, I’m sorry.”
I held the manuscript out to him, and said, “OK. Don’t take my word for it.”
A sad look came over him, and he said, “Years ago, after we’d done the interview, Papa invited me down again to Cuba.” George had done a justifiably famous interview with Ernest Hemingway for the magazine, and usually referred to him as “Papa”, as Hemingway had encouraged him to do.
“It was right after the revolution,” George continued. One afternoon, Hemingway told him, “There’s something you should see.” The nature of the expedition was a mystery; Hemingway made a shaker of drinks, daiquiris or whatever. They got in the car with a few others and drove some way out of town. They got out, set up chairs and took out the drinks, as if they were going to watch the sunset. Soon, a truck arrived. This, explained George, was what they’d been waiting for. It came, as Hemingway knew, the same time each day. It stopped and some men with guns got out of it. In the back were a couple of dozen others who were tied up. Prisoners.
The men with guns hustled the others out of the back of the truck, and lined them up. Then they shot them. They put the bodies back into the truck. I said to George something to the effect of “Oh my God.”
Then I said, “I don’t believe you.” I’m not sure why I didn’t.
George had a Forrest Gump-like ability to be on the spot where things happened, including, as I was to find years into knowing him, the moment when he was among those who, along with my uncle, leapt upon and disarmed Sirhan Sirhan after he had assassinated Bobby Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
What’s more, though George loved to play the role of trickster, I never found him, when pressed, to be less than truthful.
He shook his head, and said, “James, I’m afraid so. And…well…so you see?”
“Did you ever write about this?”
He looked uncomfortable and shrugged.
It was unusual for George to talk about politics, or in this case, since it was more than 30 years later, history, unless it was distant history – the Civil War and the exploits of his two ancestors who had been noted Union generals. But still I didn’t quite believe him. Quite simply, I’d never heard a word about such executions.
In the weeks that followed, I sought out accounts of the events he described. Authoritative first-hand accounts do exist. Some historical records speak more loudly to us than others. We know, for instance, of executions in Chile that followed the 1973 Pinochet coup because six months later a brave lawyer presented a dossier to a gathering of foreign ministers visiting Santiago. About Guevara’s role in the execution of political prisoners in Havana, the world has taken less interest. For myself, after reading the accounts I was never able to feel the same way about some things ever again.
Sitting across from my boss in our office on the East River, in New York, I held the manuscript pages out to him one more time. “It’s not what you’d expect. Won’t you at least read this?” He sat unmoved. “James, I’m sorry, I just can’t.” In the 20 years I knew George, it was the only time he refused to look at a piece of writing.