Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

4.1 27
by Jon Lee Anderson

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Acclaimed around the world and a national best-seller, this is the definitive work on Che Guevara, the dashing rebel whose epic dream was to end poverty and injustice in Latin America and the developing world through armed revolution. Jon Lee Anderson’s biography traces Che’s extraordinary life, from his comfortable Argentine upbringing to the

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Acclaimed around the world and a national best-seller, this is the definitive work on Che Guevara, the dashing rebel whose epic dream was to end poverty and injustice in Latin America and the developing world through armed revolution. Jon Lee Anderson’s biography traces Che’s extraordinary life, from his comfortable Argentine upbringing to the battlefields of the Cuban revolution, from the halls of power in Castro’s government to his failed campaign in the Congo and assassination in the Bolivian jungle.

Anderson has had unprecedented access to the personal archives maintained by Guevara’s widow and carefully guarded Cuban government documents. He has conducted extensive interviews with Che’s comrades—some of whom speak here for the first time—and with the CIA men and Bolivian officers who hunted him down. Anderson broke the story of where Guevara’s body was buried, which led to the exhumation and state burial of the bones. Many of the details of Che’s life have long been cloaked in secrecy and intrigue. Meticulously researched and full of exclusive information, Che Guevara illuminates as never before this mythic figure who embodied the high-water mark of revolutionary communism as a force in history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Superb . . . Mr. Anderson does a masterly job in evoking Che’s complex character, in separating the man from the myth . . .”—The New York Times Book Review

“Excellent . . . admirably honest [and] staggeringly researched . . . It is unlikely that after Anderson’s exhaustive contribution, much more will be learned about Guevara.”—Los Angeles Times

“[Che’s] ideal, that curious mixture of resoluteness and recklessness . . . is brilliantly evoked in Jon Lee Anderson’s massive biography which traces, with exacting precision, the avatars of Che’s epic life . . . . The portrait is now as complete as it will ever be.”—The Times Literary Supplement (London)

“An enduring achievement. It is hard to imagine that any [other biography] will match the volume and detail of research here…. [Guevara’s victories and failures, equally spectacular, are part of our common history….Che lives, not only in this book, but in the world.” –The Boston Globe

“Groundbreaking. . . . Anderson’s book is an epic end run around the guard­ians of the Che legend.” —The New Yorker

“A masterly and absorbing account of Latin America’s famous guerrilla leader . . . Anderson’s book, easily the best so far on Guevara, is a worthy monument to a flawed but heroic Utopian dreamer.” —The Sunday Times (London)

“Remarkable . . . Anderson’s account is well rounded and far from uncriti­cal . . . [his] journalistic flair and hard legwork are evident.” —Foreign Affairs

“Exceptional and exciting . . . Anderson’s up-close look, with beauty marks and tragic flaws so effortlessly rendered, brings the reader face to face with a man whose ‘unshakable faith in his beliefs was made more powerful by his unusual combination of romantic passion and a coldly analytical mind’ . . . An invaluable addition to the literature of American revolution­aries.” —Booklist

“A solidly documented biography that succeeds, with brilliant effect, in stripping away the layers of demonization and hero worship that for so long have concealed the human core of this legendary figure. . . Thanks to Jon Lee Anderson, we now have the true story, the real man, a portrait of excep­tional substance to confound the myth and enhance our understanding of the facts.” —The Kansas City Star

“Jon Lee Anderson . . . draws upon an unprecedented wealth of new infor­mation . . . [an] assiduously researched and perhaps definitive biography.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“A skillful interviewer, Anderson elicited information from dozens of par­ticipants in Guevara’s life….Combining contradictory sources and an immense amount of detail, Anderson produces a multifaceted view of Guevara as a person, seething with ambiguities and complexities. This is an achievement that makes Che Guevara essential for anyone seriously inter­ested in Guevara or the Cuban revolution.” —The Nation

“Thirty years after his death, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life gives an admirably balanced account of the Argentine adventurer, his real achieve­ments and glamorous Robin Hood appeal . . . . An excellent guide to the myth behind the martyr.”
The Independent (London)

“Exhaustive and convincing.” —The New York Review of Books

“The best [biography of Guevara] is Anderson’s epic. . . . A book that puts the evolution back in revolution, a meticulous record of this extraordinary life.”

“It is Anderson’s careful research that will define Guevara for the future.”
The Denver Post

“A thorough and unbiased biography of a little-understood man, dead 30 years, who remains a father figure to modern-day revolutionaries around the world . . . A book that sees the forest for the trees, and in a life as com­plicated and significant as Che Guevara’s, that was no small task.” —The Oregonian

“Detailed . . . the book tells as much as is likely to be known about Guevara’s end....As Mr. Anderson tells it, Che lives.” —The Economist

“The merit of Anderson’s work lies not only in the richness of details, but also in its objectivity. . . . Anderson’s book recounts in minute detail the chronology of an obsession.” —Latin Trade

“A sweeping biography of the Latino revolutionary and pop-culture hero. Anderson . . . steers clear of ideology, arguing that the Argentine-born Guevara was both a brilliant tactician and fighter and the truest represen­tative of the old international communist agitator the State Department warned us about. . . . Students of Che’s life and deeds need look no farther than Anderson’s volume.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Jon Lee Anderson has rediscovered the historical Guevara, and his authori­tative biography goes far in obliterating all the sentimental dross that has accrued around the figure of the heroic guerilla.” —The New York Press

“You would do well to read Jon Lee Anderson’s monumental biography, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life....The book’s mere table of contents could serve as the syllabus for Che l0l.” —The Washington Post Book World

“[Anderson] has researched diligently and has had access to much unpub­lished documentation....This biography is…absorbing and convincing because of its wealth of new information and willingness to let Guevara himself speak, in quotations from unpublished letters and diaries. . . . An indispensable work of contemporary history.”
The Guardian (London)

“Five years of research and unprecedented access to friends, family and unpublished archives have allowed Anderson to fulfil his stated aim, to present the truth about Che Guevara.” —Literary Review

“A massive, painstaking biography of the Argentine guerilla leader who devoted his life to the ideal of a unified Latin American revolution.”

“A revealing portrait of the many Ches: the quixotic, freewheeling youth rambling around South and Central America in search of the good fight; the willful, asthmatic ‘Jacobin of the Cuban Revolution’; and finally...the holy martyr of armed rebellion at age 39. . . Che lives on as a paradox of his own time and ours.”
Time Out New York

“Jon Lee Anderson’s authoritative new biography shows both the passion­ate idealist and the cold-hearted disciplinarian.”

“Vividly detailed . . . Anderson weaves a compelling psychological profile of Guevara.”
The Buffalo News

“Che Guevara by Jon Lee Anderson may still be the best [biography of Che] for its deft stvle and its details of Che’s post-Cuba adventures. It is also the only one to carry interviews with Che’s widow, Aleida.”
Pub1isher’s Weekly

“His biography appears to be definitive . . . . Obviously a reporter of great energy and enterprise, he scored at least two major scoops in his research: obtaining Che’s uncensored diary of the guerrilla war in Cuba and discov­ering more or less where Che’s body was buried in Bolivia . . . genuinely gripping.”

“[Anderson] manages to reflect his subject’s ‘special gleam,’ the mix of quali­ties that made the Argentine-born adventurer irresistible to those of his contemporaries bent upon the violent overthrow of governments, and a durable icon for succeeding generations of revolutionaries. Che Guevara is the best treatment of its subject to date . . . . because the patient reader can distill from it a vivid sense of Che the man.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Neither Castañeda nor Taibo has written the definitive biography of Guevara. If anyone has, it is Jon Lee Anderson, whose Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life appeared earlier this year.” —The Boston Book Review

Boston Globe
An enduring achievement. It is hard to imagine that any [other biography] will match the volume and detail of the research here.
NY Times Book Review
A superb biography....Mr. Anderson does a masterly job in evoking Che's complex character, in separating the man from the myth.
Tad Szulc
Excellent...admirably honest [and] staggeringly researched...It is unlikely that after Anderson's exhaustive contribution, much more will be learned about Guevara. -- Tad Szulc, Los Angeles Times
Alma Guillermoprieto
Groundbreaking...Anderson's book is an epic end run around the guardians of the Che legend. -- Alma Guillermoprieto, The New Yorker

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Product Details

Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
Revised Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.90(d)

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Che Guevara

A Revolutionary Life
By Jon Lee Anderson

Grove Atlantic, Inc.

Copyright © 1997 Jon Lee Anderson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8021-3558-7

Chapter One

A Mate Plantation in Misiones

I The horoscope was confounding. If the famous guerrilla revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara was born on June 14, 1928, as stated on his birth certificate, then he was a Gemini-and a lackluster one at that. The astrologer, a friend of Che's mother, did her calculations again to find a mistake, but the results she came up with were the same. The Che that emerged was a grey, dependent personality who had lived an uneventful life. There were only two possibilities: Either she was right about Che, or she was worthless as an astrologer. When shown the dismal horoscope, Che's mother laughed. She then confided a secret she had guarded closely for over three decades. Her famous son had actually been born one month earlier, on May 14. He was no Gemini, but a headstrong and decisive Taurus. The deception had been necessary, she explained, because she was three months pregnant on the day she married Che's father. Immediately after their wedding, the couple had left Buenos Aires for the remote jungle backwater of Misiones. There, as her husband set himself up as an enterprising yerba mate planter, she went through her pregnancy away from the prying eyes of Buenos Aires society. When she was near term,they traveled down the Parana River to the city of Rosario. She gave birth there, and a doctor friend falsified the date on her baby's birth certificate, moving it forward by one month to help shield them from scandal. When their baby son was a month old, the couple notified their families. Their story was that they had tried to reach Buenos Aires, but at Rosario Celia Guevara had gone into labor prematurely. A baby born at seven months, after all, is not an out-of-the-question occurrence. If there were any doubts, the couple's story and their child's official birth date were quietly accepted by their families and friends, and remained unchallenged for years. If that child had not grown up to become the renowned revolutionary Che, his parents' secret might well have gone with them to their graves. He must be one of the rare public figures of modern times whose birth and death certificates are both falsified. Yet it seems uniquely fitting that Guevara, who spent most of his adult life engaged in clandestine activities and who died as the result of a secret conspiracy, should have also begun life with a subterfuge.

II When, in 1927, Ernesto Guevara Lynch first met Celia de la Serna, she had just graduated from the exclusive Buenos Aires Catholic girls' school, Sacre Coeur. She was a dramatic-looking girl of twenty with an aquilinne nose, wavy dark hair, and brown eyes. Celia was well read but unworldly, devout but questioning. Ripe, in other words, for a romantic adventure. Celia de la Serna was a true Argentine blue blood of undiluted Spanish noble lineage. One ancestor had been the Spanish royal viceroy of colonial Peru; another a famous Argentine military general. Her paternal grandfather had been a wealthy landowner, and Celia's own father had been a renowned law professor, congressman, and ambassador. Both he and his wife died while Celia was still a child, leaving her and her six brothers and sisters to be raised by a religious guardian aunt. But despite her parents' untimely deaths, the family had conserved its revenue-producing estates, and Celia was due a comfortable inheritance when she reached the legal age of twenty-one. At twenty-seven, Ernesto Guevara Lynch was both moderately tall and handsome, with a strong chin and jaw. The glasses he wore for astigmatism gave him a deceptively clerkish appearance, for he had an ebullient, gregarious personality, a hot temper, and an outsized imagination. He also possessed Argentine surnames of good vintage: He was the great-grandson of one of South America's richest men, and his ancestors included both Spanish and Irish nobility. But over the years, his family had lost most of its fortune. During the nineteenth century Rosas tyranny, the male heirs of the wealthy Guevara and Lynch clans had fled Argentina to join the California gold rush. After returning from exile, their American-born offspring, Roberto Guevara Castro and Ana Isabel Lynch, had married. Ernesto was the sixth of their eleven children. They lived well, but they were no longer landed gentry. While her husband worked as a geographical surveyor, Ana Isabel raised the children in Buenos Aires. They summered at a rustic country house on her inherited slice of the old family seat. To prepare his son for a working life, Roberto Guevara had sent him to a state-run school, telling him: "The only aristocracy I believe in is the aristocracy of talent." But Ernesto still belonged by birthright to Argentine society. He had grown up on his mother's stories of California frontier life, and listening to his father's own terrifying tales of Indian attacks and sudden death in the high Andes. His family's illustrious and adventurous past was a legacy too powerful to overcome. He was nineteen when his father died, and although he went to college, studying architecture and engineering, he dropped out before graduation. He wanted to have his own adventures and make his own fortune, and he used his father's modest inheritance to pursue the goal. By the time he met Celia, Ernesto had invested most of his money with a wealthy relative in a yacht-building company, the Astillero San Isidro. He worked there for a time as an overseer, but it was not enough to hold his interest. Soon he was enthused about a new project: A friend had convinced him he could make his fortune by growing yerba mate, the stimulating native tea ritually drunk by millions of Argentines. Land was cheap in the yerba-growing province of Misiones, twelve hundred miles up the Parana River from Buenos Aires on Argentina's northern border with Paraguay and Brazil. Originally settled by Jesuit missionaries and their Guarani Indian converts in the sixteenth century, annexed only fifty years earlier by Argentina, Misiones was just then opening up to settlement. Land speculators, well-heeled adventurers, and poor European migrants were flocking in. Guevara Lynch went to see it for himself, and caught "yerba mate fever." His own money was tied up in the astillero, but, with Celia's inheritance, they would be able to buy enough land for a yerba mate plantation, and, he hoped, become rich from the lucrative "green gold." Unsurprisingly, Celia's family closed ranks in opposition to her dilettante suitor. Celia was not yet twenty-one, and under Argentine law she needed her family's approval to marry or receive her inheritance. She asked for it, but they refused. Desperate, for by now she was pregnant, she and Ernesto staged an elopement to force her family's consent. She ran away to an older sister's house. The show of force worked. The marriage was approved, but Celia still had to go to court to win her inheritance. By order of the judge, she was granted a portion of her inheritance, including title to a cattle and grain-producing estancia in central Cordoba province, and some cash bonds from her trust fund-enough to buy a mate plantation in Misiones. On November 10, 1927, she and Ernesto were wed in a private ceremony at the home of a married older sister, Edelmira Moore de la Serna. La Prensa of Buenos Aires gave the news in its "Dia Social" column. Immediately afterward, they fled Buenos Aires for the wilderness of Misiones bearing their mutual secret. "Together we decided what to do with our lives," wrote Guevara Lynch in a memoir published years later. "Behind lay the penitences, the prudery and the tight circle of relatives and friends who wanted to impede our marriage."

III In 1832, British naturalist Charles Darwin had witnessed the atrocities waged against Argentina's native Indians by gaucho warlord Juan Manuel de Rosas, and predicted: "The country will be in the hands of white Gaucho savages instead of copper-coloured Indians. The former being a little superior in education, as they are inferior in every moral virtue." But even as the blood flowed, Argentina had spawned its own pantheon of civic-minded historical heroes, from General Jose de San Martin, the country's liberator in the independence struggle with Spain, to Domingo Sarmiento, the crusading journalist, educator, and president who had finally wrested Argentina into the modern age as a unified republic. Sarmiento's 1845 book, Facundo (Civilization and Barbarity), had been a clarion call to his compatriots to choose the path of civilized man over the brutality of the archetypal Argentine frontiersman, the gaucho. Yet even Sarmiento had wielded a dictator's authority to lead the country, and with his death the Argentine cult of the strongman, or caudillo, had not disappeared. Caudillismo would remain a feature of politics well into the next century as government swung back and forth between caudillos and democrats in a bewildering, cyclical dance. Indeed, as if reflecting the sharp contrasts of the great land they had conquered, there was an unreconciled duality in the Argentine temperament, seemingly balanced in a state of perpetual tension between savagery and enlightenment. At once passionate, volatile, and racist, Argentines were also expansive, humorous, and hospitable. The paradox had produced a flourishing culture and found expression in classic works of literature such as Ricardo Guiraldes's Don Segundo Sombra and the gaucho epic poem Martin Fierro by Jose Hernandez. Since the 1870s, the country had become more stable. And, when the conquest of the southern pampas was finally secured after an officially sponsored campaign to exterminate the native Indian population, vast new lands had opened up for colonization. The pampas were fenced in as grazing and farming lands; new towns and industries sprang up; railroads, ports, and roads were built. By the turn of the century, its population had tripled, swollen by the influx of over a million immigrants from Italy, Spain, Germany, Britain, Russia, and the Middle East who had poured into the rich southern land of opportunity-and still they came. A dismal colonial garrison on the vast Rio de la Plata estuary only a century before, the city of Buenos Aires now had a melting pot's combustive quality, epitomized by the sensuous new culture of tango, its dark-eyed crooner Carlos Gardel giving redolent voice to a burgeoning national pride. Its population spoke their own creole street dialect called lunfardo, an Argentine cockney rich in double entendres, cribbed from Quechua, Italian, and local gaucho Spanish. The city's docks were bustling: Ships carried Argentina's meat, grains, and hides off to Europe while others docked bringing American Studebakers, gramophones, and the latest Paris fashions. The city boasted an opera house, a stock exchange, and a fine university; rows of imposing neoclassical public buildings and private mansions; landscaped green parks with shade trees and polo fields, as well as ample boulevards graced with heroic statues and sparkling fountains. Electric streetcars rattled and zinged along cobbled streets past elegant, bronzed-doored confiterias and wiskerias with gold lettering on etched glass windows. In their mirrored and marble interiors, haughty white-jacketed waiters with slicked-down hair posed and swooped like vigilant, gleaming eagles. But while Buenos Aires's portenos, as they called themselves, looked to Europe for their cultural comparisons, much of the interior still languished in nineteenth-century neglect. In the north, despotic provincial caudillos held sway over vast expanses of cotton- and sugar-growing lands. Among their workers, diseases such as leprosy, malaria, and even bubonic plague were still common. In the Andean provinces, the indigenous Quechua- and Aymara-speaking Indians known as coyas lived in conditions of extreme poverty. Women would not be given the vote for another two decades, and legal divorce would take even longer. Vigilante justice and indentured servitude were features of life in much of the hinterland. Argentina's political system had not kept pace with its changing society and had stagnated. For decades, two parties, the Radical and the Conservative, had ruled the country's destiny. The current Radical president, Hipolito Yrigoyen, was aging and eccentric, a sphinxlike figure who rarely spoke or appeared in public. Workers had few rights, and strikes were often suppressed by gunfire and police batons. Criminals were transported by ship to serve terms of imprisonment in the cold southern wastes of Patagonia. But, with immigration and the twentieth century, new political ideas had also arrived. Feminists, socialists, anarchists, and now Fascists began making their voices heard. In the Argentina of 1927, political and social change was inevitable, but had not yet come.

IV With Celia's money, Guevara Lynch bought two hundred hectares (about five hundred acres) of jungle along the banks of the Rio Parana. On a bluff overlooking the coffee-colored water and the dense green forest of the Paraguayan shore, they erected a roomy wooden house on stilts, with an outdoor kitchen and outhouse. They were a long way from the comforts of Buenos Aires, but Guevara Lynch was enraptured. With an entrepreneur's eager eye, he looked into the jungle around him, and he saw the future. Perhaps he believed he could, as his grandfathers had done before him, "restore" the family fortunes by intrepidly striking out into new and unexplored lands. Whether or not he was consciously emulating his forefathers' experiences, it is clear that for Guevara Lynch, Misiones was his own "Wild West" adventure. To him, it was not just another backward Argentine province, but a thrilling place full of "ferocious beasts, dangerous work, robbery and murders, jungle cyclones, interminable rains and tropical diseases." He wrote: "There, in mysterious Misiones ... everything attracts and entraps. It attracts like all that is dangerous, and entraps like all that is passionate. There, nothing was familiar, not its soil, its climate, its vegetation, nor its jungle full of wild animals, and even less its inhabitants.... From the moment one stepped on its shores, one felt that the safety of one's life lay in the machete or revolver...." Their homestead was in a place named Puerto Caraguatai, named in Guarani after a beautiful native red flower, but its puerto was just a small wooden jetty. Caraguatai was reached by a two-day river journey up from the old trading port of Posadas on the Ibera, a venerable Victorian paddle-wheel steamer that had done prior service carrying British colonials up the Nile. The nearest outpost was the small German settlers' community of Montecarlo, five miles away, but the Guevaras found they had a friendly neighbor who lived a few minutes' walk through the forest.


Excerpted from Che Guevara by Jon Lee Anderson Copyright © 1997 by Jon Lee Anderson . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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