Revealing Che’s revolutionary roots
Lucía Alvarez de Toledo, author of a new biography ‘The story of Che Guevara’, tells Roberto Navarrete how her Argentine heritage and interviews with childhood friends helped her to reveal more intimate truths about the revolutionary hero that many previous texts have achieved
Can you tell us how ‘The story of Che Guevara’ book project materialised?
For years I worked on a project for a documentary film with one of Che’s lifelong friends Pepe Aguilar who unfortunately died before it came to fruition. Pepe was a Spanish Republican refugee who arrived in Argentina as a child with his mother and siblings, while his father stayed on in Barcelona as Head of Sanitation of the Republican army. Alta Gracia, where the Guevaras had moved in an effort to cure Che’s asthma because of its benign climate was where many Republican refugees had gone to live.
The poet Rafael Alberti was there as well as the composer Manuel de Falla. Che’s parents were instrumental in organising a welcome committee for them and in helping them to settle down. Pepe used to jokingly say: the Guevaras provided the food, the Aguilars provided the appetite. I thus had all this material which had not been made available to anyone else and it seemed absurd to waste it especially as I was constantly reading accounts of Che’s life which were speculative, which did not understand his context, even when they were not deliberately malicious (there are plenty of those as well of course put out by the American media who have always had an absolute obsession with Che and rightly so in my view).
In your book you paint a very intimate portrait of the young Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, illustrated with many family photographs. How did you manage to get access to all this material?
The people who really knew Che were as interested as I was in making the truth known. In Cuba I could count on journalists Adys Cupull and Froilán González, and historians Heberto Norman-Acosta and Juan José Soto. Most of the photos came from the Cuban National Archives.
Calica Ferrer, Che’s childhood friend, who travelled with him on his second trip across Latin America generously provided his own (some shot by Che himself) for that period.
His brothers, Roberto and Juan Martin Guevara, clarified many doubts for me as they spoke candidly because they did not perceive me as an intruder and knew that I would not misquote them since I came from the same social background, the same city, knew many of the same people and had grown up under the same political regimes.
Che’s formative years were not that different from mine in spite of the age difference (I am ten years younger). Also, I did not have to have the jargon spoken by porteños (those native to Buenos Aires and conversant with tango lyrics and the city’s particular argot) explained to me as I speak it myself.
From my research and interviews with family and friends it became clear to me that Che was already exposed to the influences which shaped his thinking at an early age. His humanist stance, which never left him, developed from an early age. His parents were an example of solidarity with the poor and the exploited even when they themselves did not have much. They were unpretentious and cheerfully bohemian unlike those who came from their social milieu since they both came from traditional upper class founding families of Spanish origin.
As a child growing up in Argentina, when did you first hear about Che Guevara and how is he seen now in Argentina?
I heard about Che as a teenager and did not take any notice. Of course, then he was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, a medical student, a rugby player, someone who lived a few blocks away from my own home.
Later, Argentina went through many years of barbarous de facto military governments and the mere mention of Che could get you into serious trouble. But those dark ages are over, hopefully for good, and Che now occupies his legitimate place in the collective psyche of Argentines, wherever we may live, as the example of courage and decency he always was, even for those who do not share his political views or his methods for attaining power.
In addition to this book you have translated several books about Che, including a book by his travel companion, Alberto Granado, about their first trip in Latin America, which together with Che’s own account of the trip, inspired Walter Salles’ film ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’. Can you tell us how his experience of travelling throughout Latin America influenced his political thinking?
Alberto’s book was a joy to translate as Alberto was still around and I could consult him frequently. I included a chronology for the English edition with which he also helped me and he wrote a new prologue as well. We then sold this updated version to French, Greek, and Japanese publishers. Alberto also travelled with Walter during the shoot which helped the film become an authentic document of a trip which changed Che forever.
He was exposed to the many inequalities of the continent: the class and race distinctions, the abject poverty of many in a continent rich beyond belief, and most importantly he acquired firsthand knowledge of how the criollos, his own people, those born on Latin American soil of Spanish parentage, exploited the native populations who had been there long before the arrival of the European colonisers. It marked him forever.
He now understood who Bolívar and Martí had fought for and that knowledge never left him. I also translated and edited Young Che, a book which includes both his father’s accounts of his life: ‘Aquí va un soldado de America’ and ‘Mi hijo el Che’.
How was the relationship between Che and Fidel during the Cuban revolution?
When Fidel met Che in Mexico where he was organising his ‘invasion’ of the island (that is was what he called it) he could not help noticing Che’s potential. Here was a man who had read Marx, who had seen the destitution and disenfranchisement of the poor of the continent, who was a medical doctor, as well as a good shot, someone who had an analytical mind, as well as a lot of courage and who was incapable of being self-important.
They hit it off immediately. Che was in fact the third man to be offered a place on board the Granma (after Fidel and his brother Raul). When they reached Cuba and the fighting started Fidel was able to see clearly that Che was a first class guerrilla leader.
They complemented each other, they shared their detestation of Cuba’s colonial master, they were a perfect match, not least because their ambitions were so different. Fidel wanted his island, Che wanted to free the world from imperialism.
Other biographies of Che have suggested that his decision to leave Cuba was due to a rift with Fidel Castro. Did you find any evidence of this in your research?
As I have said in my book, then Argentine liaison officer Ciro Bustos, who was with Che in Bolivia and whom Che distinguished with his friendship and spoke candidly with, told me Che never ceased to speak highly of Fidel.
The rift is a figment of the imagination of tendentious biographers. Wishful thinking, frankly. If they had grown apart, would Fidel have given Che’s campaigns (in the Congo and Bolivia) all the financial support, logistics and men he gave him?
Many contemporary leaders in Latin America have been inspired by the ideas of Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution. What is the connection between Che’s call for a continental revolution and the emergence of ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) and other initiatives for Latin American integration promoted by left-leaning governments in the first years of the 21st century?
The connection is that Che never left. His example continues to inspire the oppressed in Latin America. He was a prolific writer so new generations are able to learn from him first hand. Maria Florez, who was the Cuban Ambassador in London all those years ago (and who appears in my book in a rather poignant anecdote) once said to me: as new generations are born and their reality is different from that of Che, the young will be inspired by him for different reasons, they will read him and they will find in his words the answers they seek. I believe Che has helped all Latin America to begin to stand on its own two feet. To stand up to the giant in the north. Would an Ecuadorean president (Correa) have dared to tell the US either to withdraw their base from his territory or to reciprocate by allowing him one in theirs? That is pure Che. Hugo Chavez turns up at the UN General Assembly and makes incendiary remarks about the last US president oblivious to protocol and the expectation of how one should behave in that hallowed assembly. Che did it all those years ago with his speech about our America Morena (the America of non-white people). You can rest assured, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna will be with us for a very long time in whatever shape or form. For as long as people are oppressed, disenfranchised and denied their basic rights, the black and red banner of Che will lead every demo from Buenos Aires to Berlin to Kathmandu.
This interview is courtesy of Roberto Navarrete and first appeared on www.alborada.net