The Bolivian Diary

The Bolivian Diary

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.

Che Guevara corpse

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” [35]). 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.


Che poster

Steven Soderbergh’s Che is far from being a conventional biopic. There is, for instance, little to no back-story: no sequences of a young Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, for instance; no narrative of his politicization; no details of his home life, his wife and family. It’s not as though there is not space enough to flesh out these aspects of Che’s life: taken together, the two films that constitute Soderbergh’s epic make up four and a half hours of screen time. But they focus rigorously on two military campaigns: the (successful) Cuban revolution of 1956 to 1959; and the (disastrous) Bolivian campaign of 1966 to 1967, at the end of which Che was captured and summarily executed. Moreover, in telling the tale of these two episodes, though the spotlight is always on Che, there is hardly anything in the way of introspection or interior monologue. We almost always see our hero from without, and he is consistently aloof and distant. One of the most famous images of the twentieth-century remains resistant to the gaze. Or as the New York Times put it, “the film is [. . .] in a very precise and unusual sense, an action movie. I don’t just mean that it is heavy on battles and gunfights, but rather that action–what people do, as opposed to why they do it–is its primary, indeed obsessive concern.” This is, then, less the story of a life than the sketch of a man in movement, a body in motion amid the chaotic interactions, the complex struggles that (may) lead to widespread social change.

Yet even the depiction of these struggles is curtailed: the first film, which deals with Cuba, stops while Che is still (we are told) 186 miles short of Havana. The triumphant arrival in the capital is eliminated. This despite the fact that, shortly beforehand, we see Che respond to a fellow fighter who asks if, the revolution now won, he can go home to his family. “No,” Che replies. “We only won the war. The Revolution begins now.” As such, then, what the movie presents is not so much the revolution itself as the pre-requisites for revolution. Almost everything else is methodically stripped away, in favour of a strangely unemotional examination of the ways that a revolutionary movement either expands and increases its power and its resonance (in the Cuban case) or contracts and dissipates (in the Bolivian example). Che is the nucleus of these films, but in the sense that his own theory of insurrection understood the role of the guerrilla foco: that what matters is what accretes around it, its capacity to affect its surrounding milieu, rather than any essence that it may have of its own accord.

The second half of the movie (its second part: Che: Part Two or Guerrilla) is more meticulous in its commitment to this principle, and to presenting us its action consistently and solely “in the present tense” (as Roger Ebert observes). Here, the linear chronology of its source, Che’s Bolivian Diary, is respected, and what’s more there are relatively few cutaways to what is happening beyond the (ever-diminishing) sphere of action of Che’s own guerrilla band. The first half (Che: Part One or The Argentine) oscillates between the guerrilla campaign itself and two later brief episodes in Che’s life, both set in 1964 (and both shot in grainy black and white): a visit to New York to address the UN General Assembly, and an interview in Havana with US journalist Lisa Howard. As such, this part of the film–again, perhaps in sympathy with its source, Che’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War–allows itself the luxury of, if not introspection, then at least a measure of retrospection. Even in Manhattan, though, Che remains very much the guerrilla commander. Not simply sartorially, in his beret and fatigues surrounded by men in suits and ties, but also in his relations both with his own entourage and with the US high society, UN dignitaries, or the crowds, whether hostile or supportive, that follow him wherever he goes. Throughout, he is unperturbed and unflappable, unhesitatingly direct, and at most ironically amused by the fuss he consistently occasions.

In short, Soderbergh’s film bucks Hollywood conventions most significantly in its determination to present affect shorn of emotion. This is a movie that refuses triumph (in part one) and tragedy (in part two) alike. We never particularly warm to Che, but nor does he inspire (say) fear or disgust. This is the portrait of an individual, but not of a subject with whom we might empathize or identity. Here, affect is always a matter of the correlation of forces, the concatenation and interaction of bodies in motion. Even in the climactic scene at the end of the second part, which gives us perhaps the only point-of-view shot in the entire four and a half hours, extraordinarily from the viewpoint of Che as he dies on the floor of a Bolivian shack, we feel, I think, that this is a thoroughly impersonal death. It’s as though it served to disprove Che’s (alleged) last words, his claim to transcend the individual body: “Shoot, coward. You are only going to kill a man.” For in fact those bullets did indeed put an end to a Revolution. Which is not to say that another could not arise elsewhere, some other time, around some other nucleus or foco.

Guerrilla Warfare

Guerrilla Warfare

“An army marches on its stomach,” said Napoleon (or maybe it was Frederick the Great; it’s unclear). But in Guerrilla Warfare, Che Guevara is keen to remind us that an army also marches, rather more prosaically, on its feet. For he repeatedly stresses the importance of shoes, “one of the fundamental accessories in the struggle” (83). “Above everything else,” indeed, it is a vital necessity that a guerrilla army “have adequate shoes” (29). These should be “of the best possible construction” and “one of the first articles laid up in reserve” (50). After all,

it is not possible for a troop to walk without shoes in wooded zones, hilly, with many rocks and thorns. It is very difficult to march without shoes in such conditions; only the natives, and not all of them, can do it. The rest must have shoes. (102)

No wonder that one of the very first tasks of the guerrilla army, once it has liberated even the most limited of zones, is to establish “shoe factories” that “can initially be cobbler installations that replace half-soles on old shoes, expanding afterwards into a series of organized factories with a good average daily production of shoes” (29). Along with an armory, this is one of the “two fundamental industries” a rebel army has to establish–and in fact, it is mentioned in first place (102). Not just for the human combatants, what’s more. The mule train also “should be well supplied with shoes” (85).

These comments on cobbling indicate the practical nature of Che’s guide to guerilla strategy and tactics. Nothing is too mundane to go unsaid. He equally notes the importance, for instance, of salt, and methods of procuring it. There are discussions of how to string a hammock, and how much underwear a fighter should carry (answer: not much). More obviously to the point, there are diagrams outlining how to make a device that can launch Molotov cocktails and how best to train new recruits in target practice without great expenditures of precious ammunition. This is a manual for the would-be revolutionary that leaves little to chance.

But more than this, the focus on footwear is a clue to the specificities and idiosyncrasies of what we’d now call “unconventional warfare.” For “the basic tactic of the guerrilla army is the march,” which is also why “neither slow men nor tired men can be tolerated” (119). The guerrilla band is relentlessly on the move: its “fundamental characteristic [. . .] is mobility” (18). It always attacks far from its base, and is prepared to retreat if necessary. At times it “can dedicate itself exclusively to fleeing from an encirclement”; at other times “it can also change the battle into a counter-encirclement” (19). The guerrilla constantly changes front, redefines the lines of combat, advances, steps back, circles around, advances again. No wonder Che compares tactics in the field to a “minuet” (19). Creativity and innovation are at a premium: “Against the rigidity of classical methods of fighting, the guerrilla fighter invents his own tactics at every minute of the fight” (20-21). The all-important shoes have as much in common with ballet slippers as with hiking boots. As well as mobility, guerrilla warfare requires extreme flexibility. The guerrilla must be prepared to turn, side-step, glide, perform arabesques, and then melt away, always en pointe, in a heightened state of awareness.

The foco theory at the heart of Guevara’s book has long been much maligned. The notion that a small vanguard of rural fighters can create the conditions for its own success failed dismally in many Latin American countries, not least in Bolivia under Che himself. Not many people will now be taking this book as the practical guide that it was initially intended–even though it was anxiously examined as much by the would-be experts in counter-insurgency as by trigger-happy leftists. But there’s still surely something for revolutionaries to learn here on a more abstract level. For instance about the importance of space, of knowing the lay of the land, and finding suitable terrain that best aids your cause and disadvantages your enemy. But also the importance of timing, of the tactic of surprise, of knowing when to break off an engagement and regroup. Or the observation that it is the enemy that will be the best source of your ammunition (another reason why shoe factories are if anything more vital than armories), that nomadic adaptability outweighs even the virtues of ascetic purity and sacrifice that the book also (and less convincingly) preaches.

For if Emma Goldman complained that “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” a contemporary Che might respond that the Revolution itself should be a dance, playful and joyous. So go get your shoes.