Che Guevara’s career as a revolutionary ended not with a bang but a whimper. There were just seventeen men left in his guerrilla band when, in early October, 1967, they were cornered in a remote ravine in Southeastern Bolivia. Che’s rifle was damaged in the engagement, so he didn’t even have the satisfaction of going down fighting. In the heat of battle, as Bolivian soldiers closed in on his position, he is said to have called out “I’m Che Guevara! I’m worth more to you alive than dead.” But the Bolivians didn’t think so: they captured him alive only to execute him the next day, in the nearby hamlet of La Higuera. Then they tied his body to the skids of a helicopter and flew it to the town of Vallegrande, where they washed it down in the local hospital laundry before inviting the press and curious locals alike to come in and gawk. Contemporary film footage shows many people holding their noses as they circle the cadaver. Either the corpse had already begun to decay or, just as likely, despite the washing it still stank from the previous eleven months of privations and sickness. After its hands were cut off and kept (to ensure fingerprint evidence in the case of doubters or official Cuban denial), the rest of the body was then unceremoniously buried.
It had been clear for a while that the Bolivian campaign was doomed–and not just because Che had lost his boots almost a month previously, as his diary notes (231). There had been multiple signs of the coming disaster: the guerrilla army had split into two parts, which had lost touch with each other; all contact with La Paz and Havana had also long since been lost, not that there had been much of an urban network in place (while some argue that for his part Castro was happy to abandon Che to his fate); deserters had offered up valuable information to the Bolivian authorities; as a result, the guerrillas’ base camp and supplies had been discovered and destroyed; short of medicine, Che found his asthma attacks more and more burdensome; other members of his group were also ill and increasingly malnourished. Above all, despite a string of small but significant military victories earlier in the year, the guerrillas had steadily lost fighters without managing to attract a single new recruit from the local peasantry. Far from establishing trust and sympathizers among the people, they were consistently greeted with fear and suspicion. Instead of establishing the conditions for a general revolutionary uprising, Guevara’s ill-judged enterprise brought his entire foco theory of guerrilla warfare into disrepute.
It might be argued that the problem was a failure to achieve (anything close to) hegemony. But there’s no doubt they tried: though there’s not much in the way of ideological exhortation in Che’s own diary entries, the group’s various communiqués “to the Bolivian people” are classics of their genre, appealing (for instance) “to workers, peasants, intellectuals, [. . .] everyone who feels that the time has come to confront violence with violence [. . . to] raise the standard of living of our people, who grow hungrier every day” (266). And it may even have been true, as Che notes, that “the legend of the guerrilla force [was] acquiring continental dimensions” (203). But this was no way sufficient. Even within the group itself, Che was aware of and no doubt played off his own personal mystique (early on, upon “discovering [his] identity,” one of his men was so taken aback that he “almost drove into a ditch” ). But the small band of revolutionaries was still wracked with dissent and infighting, as Che records on an almost daily basis: the Bolivians complained that the Cubans were treated too favourably; people stole food or didn’t pull their weight; everybody got on each others’ nerves. Given the circumstances, it’s amazing that there were not more deserters, especially as the situation got more and more dire. By the final weeks, they must have known that they were dead men walking. Yet the pathos of it all is that still they walked.
There is something admirable–pathetic as much in the sense that it inspires pathos–in such dedication and self-sacrifice. Almost all the Cubans on the expedition (and whatever the communiqués said about this being a home-grown rebellion, they made up almost half the total number of combatants) had senior posts within the revolutionary apparatus. Joaquín, Marcos, Rolando, and Rubio were all members of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. Alejandro and Pachungo had held top positions in the Ministry of Industry. Many had already fought with Che in the Congo. They had no need to be here. Nor, of course, did Che himself. And yet they went, and endured the most awful conditions: surviving on a diet of horsemeat, rotten cat meat, tapir, and whatever they could forage or hunt; forever exhausted as they traversed the most inhospitable of terrain, scrambling up cliffs and fording rivers (Che continually records the ever changing altitude), hacking through undergrowth; getting so sick as when Che passed out from his diarrhea and woke up “covered in shit like a newborn baby” (154); generally living in extreme squalor and discomfort, such that Che notes he goes six months without a bath (232). And yet they continue to believe that “this type of struggle gives us the opportunity to become revolutionaries, the highest form of the human species, and it also allows us to emerge fully as men” (208). In the end, though–and passing over the not inconsiderable number of soldiers they kill, even in this failed campaign–one is led to borrow a phrase (from Pierre Bosquet, on the Charge of the Light Brigade) and say: C’était magnifique. Mais ce n’était pas la Revolution.