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Peter Calder Defends His Che Guevara Writings

Peter Calder Defends His Che Guevara Writings

By Peter Calder

The first piece below, published on the Herald's Dialogue page this week, answers the devoted fans of Che Guevara who were upset that I was so nasty to him. The second is the text of the piece I will send out to anyone who takes up the invitation to email me for my sources.

– Peter Calder

See also…
Cuban Ambassador Responds to Peter Calder Article
Cuban Ambassador Writes To NZ Herald Again

NZ Herald Dialogue Piece Reponding To Critics

Several months have elapsed since the publication of two pieces on this page - one written by the Cuban ambassador to New Zealand, Miguel Ramirez Ramos, the other by a representative of two New Zealand-Cuba Friendship Societies, Malcolm McAllister - taking strong exception to assertions I made in the New Zealand Herald and Weekend Herald referring to historical events and present circumstances in Cuba.

The writers accused me of distorting the historical record and of rehearsing unsubstantiated opinions. The accusations demanded a response which I delayed making because a complaint - which was not upheld - was lodged with the Press Council by a third party.

Unlike my detractors, I do not pretend to "know" everything about Cuba. To believe such a thing would be to display deep inadequacy as a journalist and to advance it would be to display a cocksure conceit that befits no writer. That said, I emphasise that in the articles that so outraged diehard supporters of the Cuban revolution, I wrote nothing idly and , which is more important nothing without foundation; with the exception of two minor matters long since willingly corrected in print, every single assertion in the articles either has documentary support (most from more than one source) or is based on my direct observation and/or on conversations with Cubans in English and Spanish (which I speak well).

In a review of the film The Motorcycle Diaries, a popular film by a respectable director which was a competent though tastelessly romanticised version of the young Ernesto Guevara's trip through the South American sub-continent I made several statements about Guevara's later life to which devoted supporters of the man (arguably the most extravagantly romanticised figure of the 20th century) took violent exception. I wrote that the fresh-faced youth, who is transformed in the course of the film from a spoilt, middle-class Argentine brat to a nascent version of the liberationist that posterity would revere, later became a "Stalinist revolutionary thug who summarily executed dissenters; who founded the forced labour camps that would later hold dissidents, homosexuals and people with Aids; who ached for the Cuban Missile Crisis to escalate into purifying nuclear holocaust; who abandoned the revolution because he thought Castro was a sissy; and who died in Bolivia organising a peasant revolution that failed to enlist the support of so much as a single Bolivian peasant..''

Though this view may be susceptible to dispute, none of those assertions - whatever his excellency the ambassador would have us believe - is demonstrably wrong. Supporters and representatives of the Cuban revolution asserted (without being troubled by the need to adduce any evidence whatsoever) that Che Guevara's foco (peasant revolution) in Bolivia enjoyed the support of the Bolivian peasantry. One disputes my assertion by saying that there were "12 [Bolivians] in Che's group of 27." In fact, there were 22, but none was a peasant. Several books about the foco dwell at some length on its failure and ascribe it in large part to the complete absence of popular support.

Jon Lee Anderson's magisterial (and largely sympathetic) biography of Che goes into some detail - at one point quoting Che's own chillingly clinical yet lipsmackingly specific report of having blown out the brains of a young compadre in the Sierra Maestra prior to the triumph of the revolutionaries - about the relish with which he killed and, after the revolution, oversaw executions. The man's own speeches, letters and diaries specifically welcomed nuclear annihilation as preferable to the failure of world revolution and recorded his admiration for "Comrade Stalin". His role in establishing the labour camps which were, long after his death, used to intern Aids victims (before Cuba adopted its present enlightened attitude to the disease) is also a matter of historical record.

I am happy to supply, to anyone who emails me, the references to writings by scholars, travellers, journalists, biographers, historians and independent agencies such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on which I relied [ Note references also posted below]. I note in passing that the voluminous submissions of those who contested what I wrote are leavened by not so much as a single syllable of independent evidence. They brim instead with romantic wishful thinking and outrage at the calumny visited upon the revolution's most glorious son.

In a travel piece published in December, which I wrote after a short visit to Cuba, I reported my generally favourable impressions of the place and mentioned the work shortages and the poor quality and high cost of basic foodstuffs. Some, plainly concerned that my impressions undermined the idea that the Cuban revolution is an unalloyed triumph, suggested that my agenda was to undermine it. But I made plain in the article and in an on-air discussion with Kim Hill on National Radio while I was in Havana that, to the extent that the economic situation in Cuba is parlous, the blame for it may be laid entirely at the feet of successive American administrations which have ignored UN resolutions over four decades condemning US policy towards its Caribbean neighbour.

Nothing has caused me to reconsider that view. It has been a source of some distress to me that, in order to defend myself against partisan attack, I have been forced to mount a much more detailed critique than I otherwise might have of a country I enjoyed visiting and a people I admire and respect.

Interestingly, Malcolm McAllister, in an initial email to me, expressed surprise that "a journalist with liberal credentials" would write what I wrote. Setting aside the issue of whether I am happy to be described as a liberal, the comment reveals an assumption that runs, like a subterranean river, through my critics' arguments: that I should have ignored those facts that are inconsistent with creating a favourable impression of Cuba because I should be on the side of the revolution. There are many terms for such an approach to writing, but "journalism" is not one of them. This is a business in which you call it as you see it. My duty was then, and is now, to what my researches and observations reveal, and not to Castroist or any other propaganda, however ideologically alluring it may be.

- Peter Calder



The following is provided, as promised, for recipients' information only. It may be onsent but may not be published anywhere without my consent (which will readily be given). My detractors have had their say: I have defended what I said. A complaint to the Press Council - which was dismissed - forced me to spend several hours assembling this evidence to respond to rambling and incoherent assertions which contained not a single syllable of independent evidence. I have moved on. I will not be pursuing any further discussion about the matter. Any polemical response to this email will be ignored.

Che Guevara was .

1. ". a Stalinist thug ."

Jorge Castañeda, in Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara (New York: Vintage, 1998), at page 62, describes how Che, in mid-1953 wrote to his aunt from San José after seeing the United Fruit Company's holdings in Costa Rica, in the following terms: "I have sworn before a picture of our old, much lamented comrade Stalin [who had died in March] that I will not rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated." On page 181 of the same book Castañeda writes that Guevara "signed another letter to his aunt as "Stalin II" (this is mentioned in Anderson's book cited below, on page 167) and placed flowers at Stalin's tomb when he visited the Soviet Union in November 1960.

In the mammoth history Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom by Hugh Thomas (Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1971), at page 575-6, Che is described as having classified himself as a Marxist in 1955. "A few years later" he said he was "a Trotskyist or ex-Peronist". And in 1962 (footnote, p. 575) he said that "the model we must cite as the closest to the man most resembling the man of the future society is the North American [sic]". Plainly the good Che changed his mind from time to time about his political philosophy so any observer may be forgiven for being confused. The Anarchist Communist Federation, however, is in no doubt. In its online magazine at it describes Che as "a ruthless authoritarian and Stalinist, who expressed admiration for the Peronista authoritarian nationalists."

In Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson, (Bantam, London, 1997) at page 696, Che is described as having been "charged by his early discovery of Stalin." Admittedly, this refers to his early life but Anderson also remarks on the same page that just before he headed off to mount the foco in Bolivia he passed on to a close friend his "well-thumbed" and closely annotated copy of Economia Politica, the Stalin-era Soviet-manual for construction of the socialist economy and pointed that since Lenin (whom he indicted for introducing some capitalist forms of competition into the Soviet Union as a way of kickstarting the economy in the 1920s) "only Stalin and Mao" had seriously attempted to update Marx's ideas.

The socialist scholar Samuel Farber, in "The Resurrection of Che Guevara," New Politics, Summer 1998, remarks that "Guevara's collectivism was pure, unadulterated Stalinism." Herbert L. Matthews, who glamorized Castro before 1959 in The New York Times, referred to Guevara as "a firm believer in maximum centralization." (Revolution in Cuba (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975), p. 294.) In any event, my Collins English Dictionary (5th ed., 2000 at page 1494) defines "Stalinism" as "a variant of Marxism-Leninism characterised by totalitarianism, rigid bureaucracy and loyalty to the state." We could argue for years about where Che fitted into that particular philosophical framework but no one can cite a text where he specifically abjures any of those precepts.

2. ".who summarily executed dissenters ."

In the magisterial (and very sympathetic) biography by Anderson (op. cit) at page 237, (referring to the time in the Sierra Maestra before Batista's flight and the triumph of the revolutionary forces) the following appears: "When a boy in Guevara's forces stole some food, however, he ordered him shot. Guevara also personally executed a peasant named Eutimio Guerra who informed on the rebels and described the act in his diary: "I ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 pistol in the right side of the brain, with exit orifice in the right temporal. He gasped for a little while and was dead. Upon proceeding to remove his belongings I couldn't get off the watch tied by a chain to his belt, and then [one of Che's compañeros] told me .: "Yank it off, boy, what does it matter." I did so and his possessions were now mine." These are Che's own words not those of any historian.

Anderson remarks that "Che's narrative is as chilling as it is revealing about his personality."

My critics seek to limit what I am saying by referring only to "executions after the revolution." They say that Che did not preside at the trials and that due process was followed. Unfortunately Castañeda (op. cit.) does not agree. He says, at page 143, "[Che] presided over hundreds of executions in proceedings that even a sympathetic biographer [Anderson] notes "were carried out without respect for due process."

Miguel Angel Duque de Estrada who was the man responsible for preparing the prosecutions in the early months of 1959 also takes a contrary view to that of Che's admirers. In Anderson (op.cit) at pages 386 - 90 the trials and executions at the fortress at La Cabaña are described in some detail. Che, says Duque de Estrada, was "the supreme prosecutor who made the final decision [on whether to order the execution of a given accused]."

" 'Che consulted with me,' said Duque de Estrada, 'but he was in charge and as military commander, his word was final.' "

On page 386: "Che as supreme prosecutor took to his task with a singular determination and the old walls of the fort rang out nightly with the fusillades of the firing squads." At page 390, Anderson makes reference to the distress expressed by Che's father about the bloodbath taking place under Che's direction at La Cabaña. "[His] befuddlement was shared by some of Che's old friends [who were] initially thrilled over his guerrilla war exploits but their delight had turned to horror with the news of his role in the summary executions and they could not fathom what had happened to their friend to make him, so merciless."

Che is widely reported to have pronounced at the time that "To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail. This is a revolution! And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate."

In A Dictionary of Modern Revolution, Edward Hyams (London, Allen Lane, 1973) Guevara is described as " a ruthless disciplinarian who unhesitatingly shot defectors". Hyams adds that Che "later . got a reputation for cold-blooded cruelty in the mass execution of recalcitrant supporters of the defeated president Batista."

3. ". who founded the forced labour camps that would later hold dissidents, homosexuals and people with Aids ."

Farber, (a socialist scholar, remember) in "The Resurrection of Che Guevara," New Politics, Summer 1998, referring to "Cuba's gulag system" remarks:

"Clearly, Che Guevara played a key role in inaugurating a tradition of arbitrary administrative, non-judicial detentions, and later used [emphasis mine] the UMAP [Military Units to Aid Production] camps for the confinement of dissidents and social "deviants": homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, practitioners of secret Afro-Cuban religions such as Abakua, and non-political rebels. In the '80s and '90s this non-judicial, forced confinement was also applied to AIDS victims.

The first of these camps was in Guanahacabibes, "at the remote, rocky, and devilishly hot westernmost tip of Cuba." Guevara spoke of those sent there as "people who have committed crimes against revolutionary morals." As mentioned above, I do not suggest that Guevara set up the camps to punish victims of a disease that would not appear until 15 years after he died. I said in my review that the camps "would later hold dissidents, homosexuals and people with Aids." ("Would" is the past tense of "will" as used in reportage and is used in sentences such as "In 1941 in Hibbing, Minnesota, was born a man who would later writer Blowing In The Wind." The quality of Cuba's latter-day treatment of people with Aids is accepted. But if Che had been around, they might not have been so lucky. Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the expatriate Cuban socialist writer (in Mea Cuba, Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1994) on page 71 remarks that Che "considered homosexuals to be sick people who must give way to the politically healthy 'new man' made by communist Cuba."

4. ". who abandoned the revolution because he thought Castro was a sissy ."

This provoked howls of outrage from those who said that Che actually went on serving the revolution by trying to extend it - in Angola and Bolivia. This is an interesting turn of phrase since it betrays a no doubt passionately held belief that "the revolution" is some amorphous global movement in which Vietnamese, Cubans, Burmese and, if only they would realise it, African-Americans and New Zealand boilermakers, are ineluctably engaged. I was, of course, referring to the Cuban revolution. It is accepted that Che sought to extend "the revolution" (in the sense his admirers use it) to Angola and Bolivia with results that would have been comic if they weren't so tragic (see below). But my remark referred to Che's decision to leave Cuba.

Here, the historical record is murky and profoundly contestable. In early 1965, (see Anderson, op. cit. pages 626-7) Che returned from a world trip which had concluded with a speech delivered to a conference of the Organisation for Afro-Asian Solidarity in Algiers on February 26. In this speech, he referred to the mistakes of the Cuban revolution and was sharply critical of the Soviet Union which, he said, was devoting too much energy to trading, in its own interests, with the capitalist world and not enough to supporting sister revolutions. The speech which referred to European communist countries as being "accomplices of imperialist exploitation" was, to put it mildly, frowned on in Havana. Anderson refers to a government official he spoke to at the time of his writing who said that the speech caused "problems" and that no doubt "some strong words" were exchanged on Che's return. On March 15, when Che returned (to a rapturous reception at the airport), he was driven straight to a meeting with Fidel. (Anderson remarks, incidentally, that this was the last time Che was seen by the Cuban people at large) This meeting, Anderson tells us, lasted several hours and culminated in Che's unheralded departure for Angola about a month later (he disappeared from view in the interim). The circumstances of his departure are much disputed. Richard L. Harris in Death of a Revolutionary: Che Guevara's Last Mission (Norton, 2000) page 68, concedes that there is "a great deal of speculation" about the matter. It is traversed in some detail on pages 27 to 31 of editor David Deutschmann's introduction to Che: A Memoir by Fidel Castro (Ocean Press, 1994). Norton (pp 68ff) goes into the disagreement between Che and Castro at this time about whether to remain aligned with Moscow or to join the Chinese, with whom Che had recently become on excellent terms "to support popular revolutions in the . Third World." Che reluctantly conceded that he could not do both. So he took off to Angola.

The official record, of course, shows that Che and Fidel parted on the best of terms. A month after Che left, Castro published a fulsome letter of praise from Che, in an apparent attempt to quieten internal and international speculation that they had parted brass rags. But since Che and Fidel are the sole authors of the official record it is permissible to be sceptical of that.

In saying that Che thought Fidel was "a sissy" I used robust and colourful language to characterise the split. It is a strong term to apply to Che's attitude, but it may easily enough be defended: Che had made it plain that he thought Castro was abandoning the primary duty of the revolutionary - to spread the revolution and not simply to ensure Cuba's prosperity by protecting its client-state relationship with the Soviet Union. Of course he publicly endorsed Castro. But it is easy to advance the case that, in purely ideological terms, he thought el lider was being a milquetoast. In any case, in my review, the phrase "who abandoned the revolution because he thought Castro was a sissy" appears straight after "who ached for the Cuban Missile Crisis to escalate into purifying nuclear holocaust". It is of a piece with that: Che was angry with Fidel and went to pursue his mission elsewhere. No amount of revisionist wishful thinking changes that.

5. " . "who ached for the Cuban Missile Crisis to escalate into purifying nuclear holocaust".

Che was furious that the Soviets backed down in the Cuban missile crisis. Speaking to the First Latin American Youth Congress, in July 1959, he stated: "These people [of Cuba] you see today tell you that even if they should disappear from the face of the earth because an atomic war is unleashed in their names ...they would feel completely happy and fulfilled." Thomas, (op.cit. page 1007), quotes an article Che wrote at the time of the missile crisis but published posthumously in which he said "we must proceed along the path of liberation even if that costs millions of atomic victims." To say that a man who supported the idea of unleashing nuclear war to advance his political aims regarded someone who didn't as a sissy seems to me very mild indeed. It would have been more accurate to describe him as a deranged psychopath.

5. " . and who died in Bolivia organising a peasant revolution that failed to enlist the support of so much as a single Bolivian peasant."

Che's admirers were quick to tell me that there were 12 Bolivians in the foco. They are wrong: there were 22. They were disaffected middle-class youths. None was a peasant. The count is enumerated accurately on page 100 of Richard L. Harris' Death of a Revolutionary: Che Guevara's Last Mission (Norton, 2000) (there were also 17 Cubans, three Peruvians and two Argentinians, counting Che).

I never said there weren't any Bolivians with Che. I said that Che organised "a peasant revolution that failed to enlist the support of so much as a single Bolivian peasant." I thought this was pretty common knowledge but here are some references.

In The Defeat of Che Guevara by Gary Prado Salmon (trans. Deridita, Praeger, 1990) page 229ff, Che's edict that "the fighting core [of the guerrilla band] ought to be campesinos [peasants]" precedes the following: "[Che's] guerrilla band was made up of people of all types save [emphasis mine] campesinos and - worse yet - save natives of the area." At page 220 Salmon notes that the campesinos "[denied] support to the guerrillas. It became a rule of thumb for men to disappear when the insurgents [appeared] for fear of being recruited or taken hostage. That attitude was observed during the entire campaign and in virtually every community. [emphasis mine]"

Harris (op.cit.) devotes an entire chapter to the subject, suggestively entitling it, "The Absence of Popular Support" (pages 167-78). To quote a few passages:

"The complete absence of popular support for [his operation] was one of the main reasons, if not the prime reason, that his mission there failed. (167)" ; "One of the reasons Che's guerrilla movement failed to obtain any popular support in Bolivia is that the majority of Bolivians at that time believed their country had already undergone its revolution of national liberation.(169)."; "Instead of supporting the guerrilla movement [the peasants] opposed it." (172); "Che became increasingly preoccupied with his movement's lack of support among the peasantry. He wrote: 'The inhabitants of this region are impenetrable as rocks' . Not only did the peasants distrust the guerrillas, they also [continually] gave information to the authorities about their movements . The guerrillas found that the vast majority of the local peasantry were both frightened and suspicious of them." (174-75). [all emphasis mine].

6. ". the regime Guevara was to design would routinely deny food to its non-believers ."

Some of the more rambling responses of those who took exception to this phrase suggested that their present-day shopping experiences are sufficient to refute what I have said. My comments above on the sequence of tenses (". was to design would .") may be referred to here. I do not contend that people are refused service in shops if they say something bad about Fidel. The non-believers referred to are what are known in Cuba as enemies of the revolution and outside Cuba as dissidents. At Amnesty International reports on the jailing of dissidents. A Human Rights Watch press advisory at (which no Cuban will have seen since Cubans don't have access to the internet) makes the point that dissidents are denied food: "Human Rights Watch interviews with former political prisoners, dissident groups, and prisoners' family members reveal that Cuban political prisoners face serious human rights abuses. Cuba's confinement of nonviolent political prisoners with prisoners convicted of violent crimes is degrading and dangerous. Many Cuban political prisoners spend excessive periods in isolation cells, both during pre-trial and post-conviction detention. Police or prison guards often heighten the punitive nature of solitary confinement with additional sensory deprivation, by darkening cells, removing clothing, or restricting food and water.".

- Peter Calder


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