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Marx and the Holy Cross
I acknowledge that my name is Ilich Ramirez Sanchez alias Carlos, born in 1949 in Caracas in Venezuela. I am an international revolutionary.
-- Carlos to French counter-intelligence
There was no argument over the surname of the boy born at the Razetti clinic in Caracas at five o'clock in the morning of 12 October 1949. He was given the surnames of both his Marxist father and his Catholic mother, Ramirez and Sanchez, as is common in Spanish-speaking nations. The sticking point was the first name.
Elba Maria Sanchez pleaded to be allowed to give her first child a Christian name, but her husband was adamant. `The biggest man in all humanity,' he would often insist, is Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, alias Lenin. Humanity before the bomb is divided into two periods. Before and after Lenin, not Christ who was an ordinary, run-of-the-mill man.'
So Jose Altagracia Ramirez Navas rode roughshod over his wife's objections and, ignoring the registrar's raised eyebrows, paid his personal tribute to the father of the Bolshevik Revolution with a few strokes of his pen. Years later, the nom de guerre under which his son became notorious infuriated him: `Why do they call him the Jackal? His name is Ilich. It is a proud name, the name of a revolutionary.' Within hours of his birth, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez embodied -- if' only by his name -- the revolutionary ideals of his father.
A land both Caribbean and South American, Venezuela had been dubbed the `land of grace' by Columbus who had discovered it on his third voyage to the New World in 1498. But his legacy failed to live up to that name, as Spanish conquerors massacred native Americans or traded them as slaves. In the early nineteenth century at least 150,000 Venezuelans died in the country's independence wars, and home-bred revolutionaries strayed further afield to spearhead liberation across much of South America. Devastated by the fighting, its economy in ruins, the young nation staggered through a mess of coups and civil wars. After years of bloody stagnation, the discovery of oil in the early twentieth century would in time transform the prospects of the country.
Like the four dictators who ruled Venezuela in the first half of the century, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez was born in the western state of Tachira. Aggressive pig-headedness, mixed with a strong religious streak, is popularly held to be common among its people. It is as if the Andes, piercing through the small province, serves as a rigid backbone to the local character. Natives of Tachira and other Andean provinces are also known for an odd physical characteristic: the tops of their heads slope rather than curve downwards at the back, something Venezuelans joke is due to mothers slapping their children across the head. The Tachira state capital San Cristobal nestles on a damp plateau 900 metres above sea level, a few hundred kilometres short of where the Andes sink into the Caribbean. The architecture of the cathedral and palaces bears witness to the Spanish colonialists who founded the city.
Ramirez Navas had the inflexible convictions of the disillusioned drawn to a new faith. In his youth he had felt a religious vocation and enrolled at the St Thomas Aquinas seminary run by the French Eudist order. But he abruptly turned his back on the Church to proclaim himself an atheist while still a teenager. `I studied to be a priest for three years and I swallowed 1800 hosts before realising when I was sixteen or seventeen years old that it was a lie,' recalled the adult Ramirez Navas, a slight, dapper figure with deep-set eyes and wiry hair. The seminary drop-out abandoned his theology textbooks, packed his bags and returned home to the small town of Michelena in Tachira in the early 1930s. Another clash with the powers that be awaited him, but this time with the secular authorities. He was expelled from Tachira for sheltering an outlaw in his study. The authorities labelled him a Communist, although he protests: `I didn't even know what the word meant.'
He found out soon enough. His spiritual vocation in shreds, the young Ramirez Navas crossed the nearby border into Colombia and started studying for a law degree at the Free University in Bogota. His discovery of the works of Marx and Lenin, allied with his personal experience of the harshness of the regime governing Venezuela, fanned his spirit of rebellion. He drifted into the circles of two prominent left-wingers living in Bogota, the Colombian Jorge Eliecer Gaitan who became his friend, and the exiled Gustavo Machado, a leading light of Venezuela's banned Communist Party. By the time he had completed his studies at the Central University in Caracas, and launched his career in Tachira where he had been allowed to return, the disoriented failed priest had become a diehard Marxist-Leninist.
The mid-1930s was a time of stimulating turmoil for the left in Venezuela. For the greater part of the previous three decades a suspicious cattle rancher who looked very much like Stalin, General Juan Vincente Gomez, had ruled like a tyrant. His dictatorship had nipped leftist and all other opposition in the bud with an efficient secret police and an ambitious programme to build new roads and improve communications. Both ensured that no rival, even those headstrong agitators from his native province of Tachira, could marshal a force large enough to challenge him without his finding out and quickly crushing any rebellion. A stereotypical Latin American despot with a splendid handlebar moustache, and the father of more than a hundred children (the general never married), Gomez trod so warily that he stopped the citizens of Caracas from creating a Rotary Club because he feared it might turn political. So efficient was his apparatus of repression that he lost power in 1935 only because he died a natural, peaceful death at the age of seventy-nine.
In the euphoria that followed the general's passing, Ramirez Navas was involved in the setting up of Democratic Action, a new party led by the outspoken idealist Romulo Betancourt. But the lawyer suffered yet further disillusionment: after the party wrested power in a broad-based revolution in 1945, he became convinced that as far as political honesty went there was little to choose between his friends now in power and their predecessors. He said so, and was detained for a brief period because of his out-spokenness. On his release, he swung towards the pro-Soviet Communist Party, which, dogged by persecution under successive regimes, had operated underground until the early 1940s. For all his ideological commitment, Ramirez Navas disapproved of the party's apparatchiks. In his own view they were too conservative and he never signed up as a member -- yet another example of the strong streak of independence in his character.
His chosen dogma did not stop him upholding a legal system that gave pride of place to private property and capitalism. He was successful in his profession, and became well established in the provincial capital San Cristobal. Opposites attract, it is said, and the woman ten years his junior with whom Ramirez Navas fell in love, and whom he married in 1948, was as determinedly Catholic as he was atheist. Born in San Cristobal, the attractive, dark-haired and sociable Elba had been more lastingly marked by the local religious streak and never did reconcile herself to her husband's intolerance of her faith, nor to his infidelity. She too was strong-minded, but she lost the battle over the name of her first-born.
From Ramirez Navas's own account, his eldest son also paid quite a price for his father's revolutionary fervour and for the Leninist incarnation imposed on him at birth, a year after another coup d'etat ushered in a new period of military rule. There was no question of Ilich reliving his father's wasted years sitting on hard church benches or dissecting the Holy Bible. The Marxist doctrine that Ramirez Navas had discovered as an undergraduate was drummed into Ilich long before he reached puberty. The demolition of Stalin's personality cult by Khrushchev in 1956, when Ilich was seven years old, did nothing to sway his father. By the age of ten, the father trumpeted, Ilich had read Trotsky's Life of Lenin not once, but twice. (There is no such work: perhaps Ramirez Navas was referring to Trotsky's Lenin: Notes for a Biographer, or to the same author's Stalin.)
The boy met his parents' high expectations. `Although the father was rigid, he was also loving and very worried about his family,' remembered Mireya Gonzalez de Ruiz, a childhood friend of Ilich and his two younger brothers, Lenin and Vladimir (they were born in Caracas in 1951 and 1958), who like several other children feared the strict disciplinarian. `The one Ramirez Navas liked best was Ilich. Everything he did his father would praise. He was definitely the favourite.' Neither Lenin nor Vladimir lived up to their names, and their father's hopes of spawning `valiant Communists' proved forlorn, although Ramirez Navas once confusedly described his second son Lenin as `a Marxist-Leninist but not interested in politics'.
Ramirez Navas made sure that his first-born's childhood, although inevitably bourgeois by virtue of his own legal profession, included the legends of South American revolution. Again and again Ilich heard from his father that God does not exist and that a man must fight to be strong. There was no lack of gun-wielding, revolution-preaching ancestors for the young Ilich to live up to in what was, after all, the homeland of the most revered of all South American independence heroes, the great Libertador Simon Bolivar whose statue graces virtually every Venezuelan city, town and village.
An uncle of Ilich had taken part in the coup which overthrew President Isaias Medina in 1945. But the family hero was Elba's grandfather, a doctor who transformed a sixty-strong band of followers into an army big enough to help overthrow the government in Caracas in 1899, only to lose power a few years later. Unbowed, the doctor repeatedly tried to assassinate the Tachira state governor, resisting the forces sent after him in a courageous last and lone stand to give his comrades time to flee into the Andes. Ilich delighted in the tales of how the doctor, after he was caught, refused to betray his companions under torture. `Physically, he was slender, powerful. A handsome man who emerged from torture with a stoop,' Ilich recalled. `He revealed no names. He remained in jail for seven years, in heavy iron chains which were never removed, even during torture. His wife loved him for his virility and his good looks. He was released, but his family had lost everything.'
The indoctrination of her eldest son rested to a significant extent on her own family tree, but Elba reacted to it with growing resentment. Physically, Ilich took after her rather than Ramirez Navas: the round face and full lips, the pale complexion that flushes easily and even the soft, high-pitched voice are all Elba's legacy. The aquiline nose, however, marked him out as his father's son. Frustrated that her resistance had proved so fruitless, she complained bitterly to her friends about the outlandish names given to her three children. Defying her dogmatic spouse and aided by a local priest, she managed, according to friends of the family, to have Ilich baptised in secret. When Ramirez Navas was busy receiving clients or away at the law courts, she would furtively shepherd the brothers to mass. This clandestine struggle waged by Elba did not, however, have a lasting result. Reminiscing about his childhood, Ilich dismisses the Roman Catholic faith much as his father had: `Marxism was my religion for a long time, not Catholicism. For hereditary reasons really. It was in the atmosphere of my home, in my parents' blood.'
Ilich is unwilling to talk about Elba. `I have very strong ties with my mother. She is a very courageous and honest woman,' is all he would say in his judicial testimony. He refuses to describe her or go into the disputes that rocked the household, but the courage he admires in his mother was as much a tribute to her refusal to be browbeaten by her domineering husband as to the way she came to terms with her eldest son's career. Ilich was more expansive with his friends, telling one that Elba was beautiful, gentle, sensitive and unpretentious, and that she loved nature and socialising. According to one friend, Elba was `the only thing he really loved'. He would have done anything for his cultured mother and always spoke of her with great tenderness.
Ilich describes the father who spoon-fed him Communist ideology as a `man of conviction, with an almost religious concept of his commitment'. Any suggestion that the lawyer was a millionaire angered Ilich: `You know, there are a lot of fibs about that. There are people in our family who are much richer. My uncle, for example, who owns a coffee plantation. He lives in San Cristobal. As for my father, he's comfortably off. That's all.' In fact, his father owns several agricultural properties, and Ilich labelled the family's social origins as `petit bourgeois'. However Ilich did not think much of the names that his father had dreamed up for his offspring: `It was bloody stupid of my father to give his children such weird names. That kind of thing weighs on the children. In my case it was fortunate, but things were different for my brothers. They are not ashamed of their names, but it did cause them problems later in life.'
Childhood friends of the family, who played with Ilich and his brothers in San Cristobal during the holidays, could not help noticing the uneasy nature of the parents' marriage, fuelled by the father's extra-marital affairs and the incompatible convictions of the two partners. Whenever the father was present the brothers would be stiff and cold as they did their best to live up to the instructions codified in a pamphlet on ethical behaviour which he wrote for them, Social, Moral and Civic Formation. `I tell anybody the truth to his face,' was one of the father's mottoes. In Elba's company, the brothers softened and became more gentle.
Ilich was tall for his age, handsome but heavily built. The nickname `El Gordo' (Fatso) would bring him near to tears and prompt him to shout back furiously and shrilly, his face flushed scarlet: `The whole world will hear of me.' But for a time Ilich was sheltered from such taunts. His father's successful career meant that he could afford to hire Communist teachers to give Ilich lessons in the privacy and comfort of the family home. Not that the son had sought out such seclusion; indeed he came to resent it because he had less opportunity to play with other children: `We studied at home, we had a private instructor. That's not normal.'
Ilich was a natural figure of authority for his playmates. `When there was a game to be organised, Ilich was always the one who would do it. He was the leader. He would decide, but not in an authoritarian manner. He was the most organised, the one who took the initiative and made the rules,' according to Emir Ruiz, a boyhood friend. His favourite game was hide-and-seek, a pastime that loomed large later in life. `Ilich liked to play at goodies and baddies with plastic weapons. In our group he was the strongest and the most aggressive.' It was from Ilich that his friends learned how to tip their arrows with metal to avoid making a mess of the small birds they hunted. Whenever a game ended, he and Lenin would rush to the bathroom to clean up, Ilich emerging with his generous head of hair neatly combed and his nails scrubbed. Organising afternoon snacks for the children was also his domain.
Partly because the marriage was under particular strain, Elba took the three sons on an extended tour from late 1958 which disrupted Ilich's education and affected his academic record. The first school he attended was a Protestant establishment in Kingston, Jamaica, before moving on shortly afterwards to Mexico, then back to Jamaica and later to Caracas. When Elba went to live in Bogota for a period with the sickly baby Vladimir, Ilich stayed on in Caracas with his father and Lenin. Ilich learned the hard way how to adjust to constantly changing countries, schools and classmates, although this was cushioned by his aptitude for languages, a skill inherited from his father.
The years of travel ended in early 1961, giving husband and wife pause for thought. For years Elba, faithful to her Catholic beliefs, had resisted the idea of divorce advocated relentlessly by her husband. She had agreed to marry a failed seminarist and a Marxist, but she drew the line at divorcing him. Elba finally relented, however, and the marriage ended when Ilich was barely a teenager, although the couple, unusually, decided to continue living together in Caracas. Ramirez Navas bluntly explained: `I got divorced because in my house I thought that I was the only one who did anything right.'
The divorce was a relief for Ilich. Years afterwards, he recalled: `my father would bring his mistresses home. My mother suffered because of this. We lived together, but it was unbearable ... I was very pleased about the divorce. My brothers took it less well.' In his judicial deposition, his single and brief reference to the painful episode is in sharp contrast to the rest of his testimony: `My parents divorced in 1962 or 1963 but they continued to cohabit until 1966.' He was always surprisingly precise about dates, but of his parents' separation he could not remember even the exact year. Rather than a failing of his prodigious memory, this was perhaps an unconscious attempt to avoid recalling a painful event.
In 1962, just as she had lost the battle over her children's first names, so Elba failed to stop her husband sending Ilich to the sprawling Fermin Toro lycee in Caracas, which was nursery to budding radicals at a time when the capital's streets often resounded with violent left-wing demonstrations. The more enterprising students skipped classes to march in protest at the liberal government's ban on the Communist Party. `This school was renowned. All the revolutionaries had studied there,' Ilich recalled. `It was my father's decision. As for my mother, she was hardly enthusiastic about the choice. Did my father choose this school on purpose to annoy my mother?'
By his own testimony it was in January 1964, when he was fourteen, that Ilich defied authority for the first time. He joined an organisation banned by the authorities, the Venezuelan Communist Youth: `That's where I made my debut in the revolutionary movement. I was one of those in charge of the organisation in a lycee in Caracas.' In 1965-6, that young flock counted some 200 members and Ilich claims that he helped to organise anti-government street marches which scared the President, Raul Leoni. The protests also taught Ilich how to make Molotov cocktails and set cars on fire, while visits to the shanty towns on the outskirts of Caracas, he later claimed, revealed to him the plight of the poor. But Ilich did not impress his contemporaries, and it is likely that he depicts his exploits in excessively glowing terms. The president of the Venezuelan Communist Party, Pedro Ortega Diaz, testified in a letter to judicial authorities in Caracas: `His activity was normal and we can find no outstanding event.'
`Revolution is my supreme euphoria,' Ilich once declared. That his first taste of such euphoria came courtesy of both Cuba's Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union's State Security Committee, better known as the KGB, was for long considered an unassailable truth by the media.
His father is said to have sent Ilich to Cuba, probably late in 1966, to complete his education at a political indoctrination camp which also ran courses in sabotage techniques. Camp Mantanzas, not far from Havana, was run by Fidel Castro's secret service, the Direccion General de Inteligencia (DGI), and the local KGB boss, General Viktor Semenov. According to two writers, Ilich was the DGI's prize alumnus'. His instructors are said to have included an Ecuadorian guerrilla expert and senior KGB official, Antonio Dagues-Bouvier, who reportedly took him in hand from then on. Ilich is also said to have met Father Camillo Torres, a Colombian priest turned guerrilla chief who fought alongside Che Guevara. Many years later a French Interior Minister gave credence to these reports, writing that Ilich underwent `terrorist training in Cuba (automatic arms, explosives, bombs, mines, destruction of pipelines, cryptography, photography, falsification of documents, etc.)'.
Rather than confirm or deny that he was given this guerrilla training, Ilich today prefers to hide behind the rules of the first revolutionary movement he joined. Asked during his judicial testimony whether he went to Cuba, perhaps in 1966, Ilich invokes his duty as a party member: `There is a discipline in the Venezuelan Communist Youth to which I belonged at the time. I don't have the right to speak in its name. And you should ask the Venezuelan Communist Party which still exists whether I went to Cuba at that time. And the Cuban authorities too.'
But when pressed, he dismissed what he called `outrageous stories about this supposed Cuban episode which border on the soap opera. I read that I went to the Mantanzas camp and was trained in terrorist methods. All that is fable.' He also denied ever meeting Father Torres. It is highly unlikely that Ilich did meet Father Torres in Cuba, as the priest was killed in action against the Colombian army in February 1966. There is another date that does not tally. General Semenov was in fact appointed to head the KGB operation in Havana in 1968, two years after Ilich is said to have passed through.
The reports that Ilich's rite of passage took place in Fidel Castro's shadow are CIA propaganda. When the report was first circulated, the CIA let it be known that it was based on revelations from Orlando Castro Hidalgo, a DGI defector from the Cuban embassy in Paris who had supposedly told the agency that Ilich was among as many as 1500 Latin Americans trained in Cuba every year, adding that Venezuelans tended to focus on guerrilla operations and sabotage techniques. Today a former head of the counter-terrorism division at the CIA, who has consulted the agency's file on Ilich, admits that the CIA had no evidence whatsoever that he had trained in Cuba.
Western security forces had not waited to hear any such admissions to pour cold water over these reports. A profile drawn up by France's homicide squad, the Brigade Criminelle, struck a dubious note: `US intelligence gives it to be understood that Ilich may have been sent to Cuba by his father in 1966.' The recruitment of Ilich by the DGI, it concludes, is at best difficult and at worst impossible to establish.
Had Ilich studied at university in his homeland, perhaps he would have emerged in the same mould as his rebellious ancestors: a revolutionary in the best local Zapatista tradition, marching down from the heights of Tachira state to overthrow Venezuelan dictatorships. Venezuelans are notoriously reluctant to emigrate, loath to leave the white Caribbean beaches, snowy Andean peaks and steamy jungles about which the tourist guidebooks enthuse. But his father Ramirez Navas was unhappy with Ilich's new activism, and worried that his eldest son might come to some harm in the violent street protests rocking Caracas. In 1966 Ramirez Navas resolved to send Ilich and his brothers to study an ocean away, in London, accompanied by Elba. Under their mother's protective wing, the boys stood to benefit from learning a new language and experiencing European culture at first hand.
The tail end of the swinging 1960s, London's nightlife and above all its liberated young women were a revelation to Ilich. Years later he recalled that he had no difficulty adapting to life on a different continent, nor did he feel homesick in London where he arrived in August 1966. Often sharing a bedroom, the three brothers lived with their mother in a series of rented flats in west London, the first of which was in Earls Court.
Ilich studied initially at Stafford House Tutorial College, a sixth-form crammer in Kensington where he took O-levels in English, physics, chemistry and mathematics. His teachers at the select institution did not take kindly to the seventeen-year-old, complaining of his laziness and irritating verbosity. `He was a snide little blighter,' was his English teacher Hilary King's unflattering appraisal. `He was quite convinced he was God's gift to everyone. He was podgy and pasty but he was always incredibly elegantly and expensively dressed. He was a cheat and would avoid doing work whenever he could.' Indolence did not prevent the clever Ilich, who had mastered English before he came to London, successfully passing his O-level exams, and he moved on to study A-levels at the Earls Court Tutorial College.
In the absence of Ramirez Navas, Ilich took on a paternal role in the eyes of the youngest of his two brothers, Vladimir. `My brother was a father-figure to me,' Vladimir recalled. `He told me how to behave, as a family member and as an exemplary citizen. He always seemed to me a very correct, very good and very moral person. He was not violent, he had an affable manner and he was an affectionate brother.'
British newspapers have made much of one violent hobby in which the two older brothers Ilich and Lenin supposedly indulged. They are both said to have learned to handle firearms at the Royal Kensington Rifle and Pistol Club. Former members of the club have been quoted anonymously as remembering two smartly dressed young Venezuelans. The club's records, however, carry no trace of the two brothers, nor did they sign up for the three-month probationary period usual for prospective members. According to the results of an investigation by Scotland Yard's S013 anti-terrorism branch, Ilich and Lenin never went near the club.
Rather than gunfire, it was the sound of champagne corks popping that interested Ilich during this period. Dressed to look older than his teenage years in a navy blue blazer or a smart suit complete with waistcoat, he escorted his gregarious mother to the receptions that Latin American embassies laid on for the expatriate community. Judging by a rare photograph of him at one cocktail party, filial duty was not his only motivation for attending such gatherings. Hair parted immaculately, eyes shining greedily and a crooked smile on his face, Ilich stands behind his bejewelled mother, his left hand clutching the arm of an attractive, dark-haired girl who stands stiffly beside him. `The society life of a Latin American playboy,' scoffed French police years later.
Ilich had no qualms about admitting his love of luxury, and professed his admiration for the way of life advocated by the Greek philosopher Epicurus based on simple pleasure and friendship. `I like good food, I like to drink and I like good cigars,' Ilich confessed. I like to sleep in a comfortable bed which has just been made. I like to wear good shoes. I like to play cards, poker and blackjack. I also like parties and dances. But I am against "possessions". What I possess belongs to others as much as to me.' The pleasures he was fond of, Ilich proclaimed, could all be renounced for `life, duty, revolution'.
Shortly after arriving in London he met a group of young British activists who wanted to set up an international Communist students' organisation. Ilich has been widely credited with helping to create this, but in fact he dropped out after attending only one gathering `because I realised that we had the police on our backs day and night'. Ilich cut his political teeth in a more discreet fashion. A mission entrusted to him by an emissary of Lieutenant-Colonel Juan De Dios Moncada Vidal, leader of the revolutionary Armed Forces of National Liberation, the main Venezuelan guerrilla group active in the 1960s and 1970s, provided his first introduction to the Communist East bloc: `I was asked to organise young Venezuelan Communists in Eastern Europe. I said that I was ready to carry out this mission.'
Ilich's efforts were cut short when his father flew in from Venezuela in late 1967. Ramirez Navas's plan was for Ilich and Lenin to move on from London to take a university degree at the Sorbonne in Paris, and he took them across the Channel on an exploratory trip to find out about courses and student accommodation. It was the brothers' first taste of the French capital. Father and sons paced the ornate lecture halls and never-ending corridors of the venerable Sorbonne as the equally venerable French bureaucracy slowly revealed the secrets of the Byzantine entrance procedure.
But their efforts were wasted because of the May 1968 riots, when the Latin Quarter erupted with students manning barricades, hoisting the red flag and hurling stones at the hated CRS police. Despite the fact that the biggest student and worker revolt in recent French history was to a large extent inspired by kindred Marxists, Ilich's father had no intention of seeing his offspring take to the barricades -- and perhaps be counted among the 800 people injured during that upheaval. France was judged too unsettled an environment, and the Sorbonne plan was abandoned.
Instead Ramirez Navas decided to send the brothers to Moscow, which only the previous year had celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The father's lobbying of the cultural attache at the Soviet embassy in London paid off, although the diplomat cannot have appreciated his theatrical assurance that `we have not been, are not and never would be' members of Venezuela's Communist Party. Ilich and Lenin won places at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, starting in September 1968.
Again the shadow of the KGB falls across Ilich's path. Did his university entrance mark his recruitment by the Soviet secret service, as many have speculated? Ilich is eager to fuel the mystery. `Even before I arrived in Moscow, I got in touch with the KGB in London through the resident at the Soviet embassy. Thanks to this contact I was able to get a visa for Moscow and a plane ticket, despite the fact that I hadn't been granted a scholarship that year because it had gone to my brother Lenin. This gave me a certain weight in Moscow,' he said in his testimony to French investigators.
But at his next deposition Ilich backtracked: `During my previous questioning, I had told you that the KGB resident in London had offered me a plane ticket for Moscow. In fact, this is untrue. The ticket was offered to me, but I refused it. I paid it out of my own pocket with the money my father had given me. I had to take a British airline flight.' And before another French judge some time later, he confessed that his contradictory statements were part of a plot to draw attention to his plight. `I had to do something that would come out in the newspapers. "Carlos and the KGB" -- I was sure that would come out. In the summer of 1968 I was eighteen and a half. Do you really think that a young man of that age would know the KGB resident in London? Come on, that's ridiculous!'
Had he lied the first time, or was he worried that he had gone too far in speaking about a `Kremlin connection'? The records of the Venezuelan Communist Party show that Ilich obtained a study grant from the Soviet-Venezuelan House of Friendship, a fact confirmed by the party's president in a letter to investigators and which reflected some form of Soviet endorsement.
The Patrice Lumumba University, which was also known as the University of Friendship Between Peoples, served as a training ground for the ruling classes of the Soviet Union's Third World client states. The very name was a denunciation of its Cold War foe: in the autumn of 1960 it was with the CIA's blessing that a young colonel in the Congolese army, Joseph Mobutu, had arrested Prime Minister Lumumba. A vital asset for Moscow's African ambitions, Lumumba was then tortured and assassinated. Mobutu had had no need of the dozen or so poisons concocted by the CIA, ready to mix with the Prime Minister's food or toothpaste.
`Going to Moscow was a dream for us,' Ilich said years later. He and his younger brother started the course within weeks of Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia to crush the heady `Prague Spring'. But they soon found that discipline at the cosmopolitan university, whose 6000 students were all selected through the Communist Party of their country of origin, was as stifling as its modernist architecture. Drab grey concrete blocks squatted around a charmless artificial pond. The only dash of colour was a map of the world painted on to the facade of one block in a valiant attempt to symbolise the ideals of the university: from an open book, symbol of learning, a torch emerges, issuing multicoloured flames that spread like waves across the planisphere. Perhaps Ilich drew some comfort from glancing up at the mural as, huddled against the rigours of the Russian winter and wearing a black beret in tribute to Che Guevara who had died riddled by bullets in October of the previous year, he trudged across the bleak square on his way to lectures. Coincidentally, the base of the flame is very close to Venezuela.
Rules and regulations governed virtually every aspect of Ilich's life from the moment he started the first year's induction course, which was designed to flesh out his knowledge of the Russian language and introduce him to the delights of Marxist society before he launched into his chosen subjects, languages and chemistry. Like father, like son. Ilich rebelled against the rules, preferring to spend his time chasing girls. He would often crawl back to his room drunk. His professors at the university, some of them children of Spanish Civil War veterans who had sought refuge in Moscow, were unimpressed by his academic performance.
`His name alone, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, was so strange that people were curious about him,' relates Kirill Privalov, a journalist on the newspaper Druzhba (Friendship) which was printed at the small university press, and an acquaintance of Ilich. The Venezuelan's escapades, wildly excessive by the standards of the university, only fanned people's interest. `Ilich was not at all the typical student sent by his country's Communist Party, nothing to do with the good little soldier of Mao who laboured in the fields every summer. He was a handsome young man although his cheeks looked swollen, and he was a great bon viveur.' Flush with cash sent by his parents, Ilich could afford to spend lavishly on whisky and champagne in the special stores that only accepted payment in hard currencies and which were off-limits to most people. More Russian than the Russians, the privileged student and his friends would throw over their shoulders not only empty glasses but bottles as well.
The university authorities, frustrated in their attempts to impose discipline on Ilich, reasoned that his freedom of action would be drastically limited if the allowance that his father sent him were reduced. But when they asked Ramirez Navas to be less generous, the father, piqued, retorted that his son had never wanted for anything. `The university had a sort of vice squad, and at night students were supposed either to study or sleep,' recounts Privalov.
One night the patrol entered Ilich's room and saw empty bottles of alcohol and glasses on the table, but he was apparently alone. The squad opened the cupboard door and a girl who was completely drunk fell out. She was naked and was clutching her clothes in her hands. They asked her what she was doing there and she answered `I feel pity for the oppressed.' She was obviously a prostitute. Another time, and with another girl, Ilich didn't bother to hide her in the cupboard. He threw her out of the window. This one was fully dressed and landed in two metres of snow a floor or two below. She got up unhurt and shouted abuse at him.
These were not just the high jinks of a turbulent student but symptomatic of what Ilich himself considered his inability, at least until his late twenties, to forge a lasting love affair: `I love women, I mean the good life! But not only sex. In the end, I love friendship a great deal ... I haven't lived many love stories in my life. At the same time, I can fall in love easily, like any old schoolboy. I can love several women at the same time.'
Sonia Marine Oriola was an early exception. A Cuban woman whose marriage had failed, she was the young Ilich's only `great love story ... I like girls very much, but I like to be "in control". With Sonia, I wasn't a ruler. We were one.' Two Latin Americans unhappy with Moscow, they had much in common. Years later Ilich recounted that she had taught him to smoke cigars. But the relationship came to an end and Sonia returned to Havana where she gave birth to his daughter in 1970, when Ilich was twenty years old. Ilich wrote to Sonia several times, asking that at the very least she let him know his daughter's name -- he had suggested `Sonia', like her mother -- but his letters went unanswered. When a French judge asked him, fifteen years and two weddings later, whether he had married Sonia, Ilich would not be drawn. But the judge had got the woman's name wrong, asking him whether he knew someone called Sonia Maria Oriola (Maria instead of Marine), and Ilich's answer sounds more than a little tongue in cheek: `I know no one of that name. I know several Sonias including my cousin. From my point of view this person does not exist.'
Ilich's academic syllabus motivated him much less than far-left politics, as he readily recognised: `I acquired a personal culture by travelling in Russia and other countries. I learned to use Marx's dialectic method. It's an experience which is useful to all revolutionaries.' Fellow students describe him as passionate about Marxism, but as a romantic rather than an ideologue. An envoy of the Venezuelan Communist Party came to the conclusion that this young man had potential. But the offer of a post as its representative in Bucharest which Dr Eduardo Gallegos Mancera, a member of the party's politburo, made to Ilich when they met in Moscow did not tempt him. As his father had done, Ilich decided to keep the party at arm's length and turned Mancera down.
His snubbing of the appointment did not endear him to the Venezuelan Communist Party, and he further blackened his name by supporting a rebel faction. Since 1964 a storm had been brewing back home following the refusal of the young Commander Douglas Bravo, in charge of the party's military affairs and loyal to Che Guevara's doctrine, to toe the official line. Party policy dictated that armed struggle as a means to revolution should be abandoned in favour of a `broad popular movement for progressive democratic change'. The storm broke in the late 1960s when Bravo left the party. Ilich, still at Lumumba University, wholeheartedly supported him as a true revolutionary, and this led to his expulsion in the early summer of 1969 from the Venezuelan Communist Youth, the first political movement he had joined.
Robbed of the backing of a Soviet-endorsed party, Ilich was an easy target for the university authorities, whom he had again angered earlier in 1969 when he joined a demonstration by Arab students. Moscow had no time for Bravo's followers: one Pravda editorial condemned Cuban-backed revolutionary movements in Latin America like Bravo's as anti-Marxist' and declared that only orthodox parties held the key to the future. When he recalls this period, Ilich blames Gustavo Machado, one of the leaders of the Venezuelan Communist Party, for his troubles. It was Machado who had helped Ilich get into Lumumba University in the first place, an indispensable prop given the fact that neither Ilich nor his father were card-carrying party members. `I saw Ilich in Moscow and he was not studying,' said a disheartened Machado. `There was no control over him. He received a lot of money, he played the guitar, and he ran after young women. He was a ladies' man.' The rector of the university, Machado added, did not take kindly to Ilich posing for a photograph in Russian folkloric costume while strumming a balalaika.
Ilich gave Machado as short shrift as he had given the university authorities, who determined to rid themselves of this turbulent student on the grounds of `antisoviet provocation and indiscipline', and to expel his brother at the same time. Ilich was among thirteen members of the Venezuelan Communist Youth, and seven other Venezuelan students whose studies had not been satisfactory, expelled in 1970. Ilich himself insists that the university had nothing against his academic performance, but this is flatly contradicted by those who knew him as a student. Few missed him. Most people thought that he had returned to his apparently rich mother in London, and quickly forgot about him.
Countless newspaper stories have reported that this expulsion was a cover dreamed up by the KGB to hide the fact that it had recruited Ilich. Such smokescreens were standard practice in Soviet intelligence, and the KGB did use the university as a talent pool for Third World agents, as it did a host of other institutions where students could be easily observed and approached. With a Slavic first name that the Soviets could not have bettered, a Marxist upbringing and early membership of a Communist youth movement, Ilich may have appeared a potential candidate on paper. But no evidence has ever been published to back the idea that Ilich joined the KGB payroll at university. Officers of both the CIA and MI6 admit they have no such proof. According to one MI6 spy: `The Eastern European secret services were interested in dealing with known quantities and people who could be kept under control. They would have been wary of someone who was a loose cannon. But that doesn't mean they couldn't use him as a pawn.'
There were plenty of reasons for the KGB to avoid any dealings with Ilich: he was a heavy drinker, a braggart who had become a notorious figure on campus because of a string of scandals, and, as his behaviour amply demonstrated, he had no liking for the Soviet way of life. As his later cool relationship with Moscow was to show, he was far too independent-minded to take orders from the doctrinaire Soviets. Even if they did try to recruit him, the attempt was doomed to fail. `They are full of self-importance and convinced that only they hold the truth. There is no truth other than theirs,' he fumed bitterly in front of one of his lawyers years later. To the same lawyer he also said that he hated the Russian Communists. He made a point of reaffirming his independence from Moscow, a matter of national pride in his eyes. `Unlike other parties, the Venezuelan Communist Party is not pledged to Moscow, although it does have privileged relations with the Soviet Union. Venezuelans are a proud people. There is a strong libertarian tradition in the country.'
Hans-Joachim Klein, Ilich's fellow traveller for almost six months in the mid-1970s, recalled his antipathy towards the Russian Communists: `He didn't like them. He thought they were corrupt. He did not define himself as a Marxist, but rather as an international revolutionary, a bit like Che Guevara.' Klein dismissed out of hand the story that Ilich was a KGB agent: `That's a joke. He was expelled from Lumumba University after he took part in a demonstration. They don't really like that over there.'
Ilich's banner was not the hammer and sickle. Before his expulsion from Lumumba University the bright, high-spirited and well-travelled Venezuelan who once described himself as `an orthodox in politics, and an adventurer in life' had started looking for adventure beyond its uninspiring campus.
|List of Illustrations|
|1||Marx and the Holy Cross||1|
|2||Training for Terror||19|
|3||The Drugstore Saint-Germain||37|
|4||Secrets and Lies||56|
|5||An Awful Party||77|
|6||The Renegade Revolutionary||99|
|7||A Match Made in Hell||117|
|8||A Dirty, Private War||137|
|9||Licensed to Kill||158|
|10||Forced Out of the Cold||176|
|11||Exorcising the Ghost||195|
|12||Betrayal and Revenge||216|
|13||The Jackal Caged||229|