miguel urbano rodrigues (*)
the hidden objective of a considerable number of slander campaigns against the heroic guerrilla. regis debray. history of a metamorphosis.
some exceptional individuals who have left deep imprints on history project an image that would be different if they had not left the scene so young, but their lives never had the chance to run their full course. i offer as examples four super-gifted men, very different from one another: alexander the great, saint-juste, jose marti, and mariategui.
i would be entering into a never-ending debate to suggest that a longer life would have placed any of these men higher or lower in the pantheon of humanity.
but that is not the point. i only wish to underscore that the part of their lives that was stolen by premature death would have undoubtedly contributed to accentuate the evolution of, or perhaps, distance them from the image that remained in our collective memory. every exceptional man walks for eternity. do we perhaps still see fidel as we saw him when he disembarked the granma?
che seems to me to be a profound product of two decades of the history of this century, during which the idea and practice of revolution has strongly influenced the course of many of the peoples of the third world, especially in latin america. with the peculiarity that the meaning of his thought and his actions, his humanistic example, the ambition and clarity of his purpose, and the urgency and tenacity in combat – with arms and without them – has made che not only a paradigm of contemporary revolutionary ethic, but also a model of the new man.
so it happens, given that becoming the new man is a goal that is abstract and ill defined, that che was made into a myth. it was inevitable.
we know what che did, what he believed in, and what he thought was possible. we don’t know what the full value of his legacy might have been had the crime of la higuera not cut his life short. but we do know that the mythologizing of che distorts him. during the thirty years after his death, a crushing media system created, through its global transmission belt, not only an unreal che, but also many ghosts of che. and these false symbols serve a purpose.
because of this it is natural that cuba is devoting special attention to this historic date [the 30th anniversary of che’s death] that, for a variety of reasons, is stirring up so much interest around the world. the renewal of the cuban debate over che meets a twofold need based on respect for history and admiration of the individual.
che is not the goal
it would be impossible in this space to offer a comprehensive view of the enormous number of television programs, books and essays about che that have flooded the market-. from the good ones to the worst, from the serious and useful texts to the slanderous, just about everything can be found among the harvest of works on this theme. this torrential outpouring is uneven and contradictory.
from the impoverished schoolhouse of la higuera – which has practically become a tourist attraction, from the rocky ground of chuquisaca, from the misty forest of acahuaz, streams a parade of writers, journalists, television and film crews. some have a foggy, blurred view of what bolivia is; they have great difficulty making sense of what they hear, understanding what their eyes see and their cameras record. almost all of them are driven by the illusory hope of describing some new deed likely to have an impact in the marketplace. they don’t go looking to find che; with few exceptions, they seek a product with commercial value. reality is rarely broached. the scene merely serves to give credibility to the message that many already carry in their heads. the majority have invented ahead of time the che that their means of distribution will offer as merchandise. the portrait must adapt to the objective. it is missing only the finishing touches.
the wave of the 30th anniversary also attracted people to havana. i have met a half dozen different people with disparate projects and intentions.
the trip to the largest of the antilles can be explained, although argentine by birth, che was a cuban revolutionary. it was on the island that he produced the best of his reflections on life – in the broadest and most comprehensive sense of the word – and contemporary history.
a considerable portion of the information and analytical material that is being prepared and disseminated and which owes its existence to the anniversary of the crime, has only an indirect and superficial relationship with che. its true motivation is the intent, the desire, to attack the cuban revolution.
the evoking of che in some countries, above all in europe and the united states, serves the key purpose of seeding a poisoned earth with an amalgam of eulogies, intrigues, and slanders.
it is no surprise that, in the era of globalization, the priests of neoliberalism and the sanctification of the market would try to stain the image of the heroic guerrilla. his ethical sense of human deeds and his loyalty to the project of social revolution, the confidence he placed in the creativity of marxism, still make the bourgeoisie and imperialism uncomfortable.
the case of debray
what happened in france clarifies the methods and disguises of the forces and agents who are at war with the cuban revolution. in the homeland of victor hugo, the campaign against che was not led by the right. its principle lieutenant is a french intellectual who is very well known in cuba and who for a brief time was at the camp in nacahuazo, in bolivia, as a collaborator of the guerrilla nucleus: regis debray.
through the argentine press i learned of his latest book, [“praised be our lords”], in its spanish version. apparently, the author is now taken with the ambition of desanctifying che. he cloaks himself in morality to attack che, pretending to do something else. he attempts to present himself as motivated by a desire to combat the myths.
i have not had access to the book. it was enough for me, however, to have read vargas llosa’s review of it, published in many countries, to foresee that in this work debray lowers himself to the level of the most vile of moliere’s characters. vargas llosa enthused that in his opinion debray has written a primordial work.
such joy is natural: treachery and hypocrisy, are practically virtues for the author of “in praise of the stepmother.”
it wouldn’t be worth discussing regis debray in an article about che if debray – lending continuity to his metamorphosis – had not consciously assumed the role of protagonist in the campaign against the cuban revolution in france.
everything became clearer last year when che’s daughter, aleida guevara, unleashed an unanticipated storm during an interview in buenos aires by recalling that regis debray had talked too much when he was captured in bolivia.
the news agencies broadcast this declaration. in paris, debray didn’t lose anytime. “this”, he declared, “is a cuban security operation against me”.
his slanderous nonsense was a fuse that immediately launched a campaign against che and the cuban revolution. it was so well organized that even l’humanite, the newspaper of the french communist party, opened up its columns to the defense of the one who had really committed the offense: debray.
it’s useful to remember that in his bolivian diary che noted that the frenchman had talked too much. so aleida guevara didn’t reveal anything new; she only repeated what her father had pointed out. che was very discreet, after being detained in muyupampa on april 20, 1967, regis debray and the argentine ciro bustos, who had left nacahuazu because they couldn’t make the adjustment – although the pretext was something else – made detailed statements to the bolivian military and the cia. debray tried later to justify his actions by arguing that when he was subjected to interrogation, he already knew that the encampment at nacahuazu had been occupied by the armed forces: a very flimsy excuse.
regis debray is a player who for a number of years, during his youth, disguised himself as a revolutionary – it was the fashion for some in the decade of the ’60s – and, thanks to that, won international notoriety. i dedicated several dozen pages to him in a book that led to legal problems and provoked inevitable suspicion in brazil where, at the time, i found myself in exile.
years later, while brazil was-under a full military dictatorship with general garrastaz medici in power, debray identified me in a book of his as a member of the brazilian communist party. he proved that he had so little concern about anyone else’s security that he chose to ignore the fact that i was portuguese and transform me into a militant of a latin american party, which was at that time the target of fierce persecution.
in the mid ’60s, when he wrote his ridiculous manual for guerrillas, “revolution in the revolution?”, debray did not yet exhibit the arrogance he shows today. he presented himself as a 20th century caricature of saint-juste, an infallible interpreter of marxism, and a pure and intransigent militant in the battle for the victory of the revolution.
his little book, however – later edited clandestinely in brazil -was never more than an irresponsible and dogmatic theory about ” foquismo”, presented with a6ademic trappings by a young bourgeois, proud as a peacock, who had not learned his lessons.
among other outrageous statements, debray claimed at the time that only the members of the’ rural guerrilla were authentic revolutionaries, and that the city dwellers, isolated from the combat in the mountains, were all bourgeois. in those days, he spoke of che with a tone of reverence, he saw che as a professor, although the theories about the guerrilla movement disturbed him.
despite my profound admiration for the figure of che, i didn’t believe that an undertaking like the one intended for bolivia could meet with success. the andes could not become the sierra maestra of latin america. although the rural guerrilla is a valiant form of struggle and very important as a complement to others this was confirmed by the sandinista revolution – it should not be considered, by itself, as the nucleus and motor of a strategy to take power.
history will not repeat itself on a broader plane than that of cuba.
a frenetic debray in those days insulted anyone who dissented from his maximalist theory about “foquismo”.
after reading the beautiful and powerful book pombo: a man of che’s guerrilla, i am even more convinced that the great revolutionary objective of comandante guevara could not have been achieved.
has this conviction ever, for a moment, affected the admiration that che inspired in me?
no. the idea that fidel’s legendary companion was moving inexorably toward a tragic end doesn’t change a bit the opinion i have about the hero, his character, and his universality. he shouldn’t be seen as – and isn’t – a resurrected rival of quijote, but as a character in a modern “iliad”, an original synthesis of hector for his grandeur, his generosity, and his sense of responsibility for the whole people- and of achilles – for his superhuman courage.
consequently, my contempt is all the greater for beings like debray, twirling noisily in a carnival of pirouettes against the backdrop of the campaigns orchestrated against che and the cuban revolution.
metamorphosis toward reaction
his development has been out of the ordinary. on returning to france, he began a metamorphosis. restored to the status of a great bourgeois, in the first years of the decade of the ’70s he began attacking lenin. after that, he distanced himself from marx and from socialism in general. i remember an article of his, published in paris, in which he described in a blase style that to study the battles between the pope and the empire in the middle ages was much more important and useful than to read the works of karl marx.
from a fascination inspired by pope gregory vii, he then jumped to admiration for french president francois mitterrand, for whom he was a reverent advisor.
what began as a timid, anti-cuban trot, quickly accelerated to a gallop. he didn’t hesitate to support the campaign that was carried out in france on behalf of cuban counterrevolutionary prisoner armando valladares, the feigned “paralytic” and phony “writer” imprisoned for his terrorist activities.
overtime, as debray supported traitors of the cuban revolution, he behaved somewhat like an imitator of the rightwing intellectual vargas llosa, but without the peruvian novelist’s talent. he even collaborated, according to something i read in the cuban daily granma, in the desertion of dariel alarcon, known as “benigno” in che’s guerrilla and one of only three survivors.
benigno, months before beginning his journey toward treason, still spoke of che with reverence. in the weekly habanero he told a journalist that he owed his discovery of the world and of revolutionary ideals to che. he was nearly in tears as he remembered that it was che who taught him to read and write.
nevertheless, bought for three coins, masquerading as a writer, in france he now plays the roles that are handed to him as part of the offensive against the cuban revolution.
not without strong motivation, the late cuban journalist felix pita underscored in a lucid article published in granma just before his death, that the bolivian military would perhaps be able to enlighten us more about regis debray’s behavior.
i have never met the members of the bolivian military tribunal that debray appeared before, but i did have the chance to meet on several occasions with the bolivian officer who released debray from camiri prison when general juan jose torres granted him amnesty. i met major ruben sanchez, then commander of the los colorados regiment, in la paz in october 1970, after torres became president and initiated a progressive regime.
sanchez had been taken prisoner by the guerrillas on april 10, 1967, when the army patrol that he commanded was ambushed. this skirmish, following the battle of march 23, led to the abandonment of the nacahuazo encampment and the beginning of the dramatic odyssey that ended in quebrada del yuro, where che, wounded and without the use of his gun, fell into the hands of the bolivian army.
ruben sanchez was so impressed with che and his companions that when he was freed – to serve as the courier for the guerrilla army’s “communiqué no. 1” – he never forgot those days and finally decided to become a soldier in the people’s service. later he supported juan jose torres and in august 1971 fought against the coup by hugo banzer.
it was this patriotic official who, in december 1971, while exiled in santiago de chile, spoke to me at length about debray’s negative behavior while he was in prison. he didn’t say anything about the frenchman’s statements, nor about what he did or didn’t say to the cia. but he did speak about the bad impression that debray made on him when he went to free him under juan jose torres’ order. even the jailers had formed a negative opinion about the foreign gentleman who was without strength of character, permanently depressed.
years later, speaking about the same issue, i was struck by something i heard from a man who was a friend of debray’s ex-wife, the venezuelan elisabeth bustos, and who, as a journalist, covered the trial and prison sentence of the author of “la critique des armes”; i’m speaking of bolivian augusto montesinos hurtado, who was cultural consul of his country’s embassy in havana. through him i learned that elisabeth, in order-to better organize solidarity for regis, and arrived in la paz shortly after his arrest, while they were still engaged. she moved into the sucre palace hotel. she traveled to camiri under a special authorization from general luis reque teran, the commander of that military region.
augusto montesinos describes as fantasy debray’s version of his difficult prison stay. “his mother”, montesinos told me, “a city council woman in paris and a woman of the french upper class with high-level influence in the vatican, was able to exert pressure through rome to ensure that regis debray had the advantage of an absolutely exceptional prison life. his meals came from the best restaurant in the-city. and that is not all. he was permitted the unprecedented privilege of being authorized to marry in prison, and elisabeth was allowed to spend a short honeymoon with him in jail…”
regis debray is an unimportant creature. a pygmy. we are taking the trouble to refute his assertions in this edition of tricontinental, dedicated to che, because the truth about the life, struggle, and work of the heroic guerrilla, as a coherent whole, belong to all those who consider the revolutionary transformation of life as their supreme goal, the pursuit of which brings meaning and beauty to the extraordinary adventure of human existence.
(*) portuguese writer and journalist. he headed the newspaper “o diario” in lisbon and was appointed deputy to the portuguese parliament and to the assembly of the european council.