2nd Jul 2005

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Blog :: What I've been reading...

I want to keep track of the (worthwhile) books that I'm reading. Lately I've been pursuing my further education by reading history and biographies. In the last 6-12 months I've read (the now late and much lamented) Shelby Foote trilogy on the Civil War, a history of the Scramble by the European Colonial powers to divvy up Africa, and biographies of Churchill, Frederick Douglas (autobio), an impressive two volume bio of Hitler, and most recently a biography of Che Guevara called Compañero.

I've got to confess, after Hitler and Che, I'm starting to feel the need to read books about good people. Guevara is an icon today: the photograph by Korda (view Che's wikipedia entry for an example) has become a staple on college kids T-shirts. I've seen anti-death penalty advocates wearing Che shirts despite the fact that he was ultimately a deluded (more on that in a moment) revolutionist willing to personally execute political prisoners in pursuit of power. An excellent example of this sort of bitter irony is related by Humberto Fontova in an interview on FrontpageMag. Fontova relates that at a recent Academy Awards reception Carlos Santana proudly displayed an embroidered Che portrait on his shirt. Fontova found that flabbergasting, given that in Castro and Che's revolution one of the classes of people who came under state state oppression were "roqueros". Roqueros were young Cubans who persisted in listening to anti-revolutionary yankee music (rock and roll). Santana then is ignorantly flaunting the likeness of someone who would put people in concentration camps for listening to music Santana might play!

Ah well. On to the book itself. Jorge Casteñada does a creditable job of being a Che fan while still dealing with the deep flaws of character and perception that lead to Che's tragic (Casteñada's opinion) and all too predictable (my view) death. The book essentially has 3 parts: Che's upbringing and life before the Cuban revolution, His economic and administrative leadership upon the sucess of the Revolution, and his misadventures in the Congo and Bolivia culminating in his eventual death. The first part of the book I found somewhat boring. Too my surprise, Che was not all that ideological in his youth. I would say that his dominant ideology was probably anti-americanism even through college. While he embraced the label of revolutionary and communist, Che mostly seems to be a reactionary to the society around him in predictable and trite ways. More interesting to me was the middle section of the book which dealt with Che's leadership in the new Cuban state. Here there is a sympathetic portrait of the Che who worked weekends digging ditches and unloading ships and sparked a volunteerist trend in the new Cuban society (parenthetically it is ironic to note that the end of the this trend was that not volunteering became a potential crime (insufficient revolutionary fervor, you know) so that under the communist rule the worker immediately was exploited in ways he was not under the crony-capitalist system in place before). At the same time Casteñada mostly glosses over Che's participation in the exectution and concentration camp regime implimented under Castro's regime.

This doesn't mean that there is nothing to criticise about Che's performance in Casteñada's telling. Che is essentially put in charge of economic affairs and proceeds to make all sorts of terrible mistakes. I mentioned above that Che was deluded: nowhere is that more clear than in his (mis)understanding of economics. Che apparently saw currency and trade as inherently oppressive and capitalistic institutions and initially took steps to eliminate them as forces in Cuban national life. He also spoke against making decisions based on economic considerations as "anti-socialist". Politically, however, he saw an industrialized society as necessary both for reasons of prestige and power and attempted initially to move Cuba away from an agrarian sugar producing economy to an industrial manufacturing basis. These attempts resulted in considerable hardship for Cuba and eventually the pro-soviet wing of Cuban politics eliminated Che as a dominant influence in economic decision making. This lead to his return to revolutionary adventurism (also marked by misunderstanding and dogmatic inflexibility) and eventually his death.

The last third of the book deals with the controversies surrounding Che's death. This section once again proved less interesting to me (was he killed in battle or executed afterwards? (definitely executed), was he abandoned/betrayed by Cuba/Castro or was his death his own fault? (definitely his fault), etc etc). I could not, by this time, summon sufficient empathy for his character to feel much interest in the particular circumstances surrounding his death. Despite my lack of interest in the book as a whole, however, I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in a scholarly treatment of Che.

My own reasons for reading it are partly polemical (I'd like to be informed enough to tell people how dumb their Che icons are) and partly educational. I find it a tragedy that a small island, so close to the US should continue for decades to be under an oppressive regime. The official US policy has mostly been counterproductive (does it strike anyone else that Cuba is uniquely situated for policies of engagement to be successful?) and I'm not very enchanted with the embargo. I intend to visit Cuba some day (in fact, "Free Cuba" is on my list of things to do... More on that later) and want to become familiar with its recent political history. As an aid to that goal, Compañero was certainly a worthwhile read.

Posted on Jul 2nd 2005, 10:14 PM