Che Wants To See You: The Untold Story of Che in Bolivia

By | 13 September, 2013

Che Wants to See You, subtitled The Untold Story of Che in Bolivia, was written by Ciro Bustos and is published by Verso. Ciro Bustos, at turns known by his noms de guerre, ‘Laureano’ or ‘Mauricio’ or random names on false documents (e.g Carlos Alberto Frutos), came from that generation of the Argentine student intelligentsia who were enthrall to the dream-catching qualities of Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution. His story is redolent of the age, when some people rejected comfortable lives (his as an artist) and careers for risk, hardship and, more often than not, death.

Che said to recruits, among them Bustos: “Remember, as from now, you are dead men. From now on, you’re living on borrowed time.” Bustos, to his credit, was equally candid with young volunteers he recruited from Argentina’s university medical and humanities faculties. If there was romance in it, it was all theirs.

Death or glory

For many volunteers, like Bustos, it was a project that was always bigger than the self. They thought they could change the world. Of course, they were right, they did change the world, but not in the manner they hoped for or anticipated.

It isn’t difficult to see why the young were politically galvanised in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a US fief with many of the same problems of poverty, exploitation, foreign interference and underdevelopment that has plagued it to this day. Bustos reflects this in his acerbic view of his own country: “If the national heroes of Argentina were flattened through a sieve, only glittering nuggets like Moreno, Castelli, Belgrano and San Martín [historical figures from the era of independence] would be left at the bottom.”

The Cuban Revolution was to the period and that generation what the Spanish Civil War had been to the 1930s, a point of collision from which dire consequences could and did unfold.

Was it worth it? Well, as Goethe once said: “If you do nothing, nothing happens.”

Che, sera, sera

Bustos’ tale takes us through all stages of this process, from his early activism in late 1950s Argentina to following Che’s example to Cuba; his first meetings with Che, and thence via Algeria to Salta, Argentina (1963-1964), to help set up the ill-fated EPG (Ejército Guerrillero del Pueblo); his return to Bolivia as part of Che’s Ejército de Liberación Nacional de Bolivia (ELN), culminating in his flight and arrest in Muyupampa, Bolivia. But for a fortuitous photograph taken by a member of the Bolivian press at the time of his arrest, the story might have ended there.

Instead, Bustos underwent due process and was jailed for 30 years in Camiri, Bolivia in 1967. Three years later, amnestied by left-leaning General Juan José Torres, he was out. He then went first to Chile, leaving seven days before the overthrowing of Allende in 1973, and thence to Argentina until 1976, when the Triple A (Alianza Anticomunista Argentina) made it plain they were after his blood. Thereafter, he sought and got asylum in Sweden and has remained there ever since.

Revolutionary tableau

The book conjures up the period admirably. This is the time of the Cuban Revolution, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the FLN-inspired fight for Algerian independence from France under Ahmed Ben Bella and Houari Boumedienne, the Congo Crisis and the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the intellectual Left’s prompting for political change (whom Bustos describes as “smelling the perfume of their own intellect), the cancerous tentacles of the Soviet Union and Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress (Alianza Para El Progreso), which put the Latin American military into “overthrow” mode.

There are also interesting asides on the political machinations of Peronism, including an impressive bit of prescience from the man himself speaking on the 4th June 1943, when he said: “Gentleman, the Russians will win the war. Social reform is on its way. Either we make our own revolution and lead it, or we’ll be swept away by history.”

Action and reaction

Revolution was in the air and nowhere more potent – or so it seemed – than in Latin America. But the CIA was on the case. Flights into and out of Cuba or into and out of Europe and Asia, were under surveillance and security hotspots were to be avoided. All this seemed to apply everywhere but France, where Bustos/Pelado/Baldy could get through customs on a false passport with dyed yellow horse-shoe patterning and eyebrows, without anyone turning a hair. Well, it was the 60s. Forged documents and identities were everywhere and no one was what they seemed, especially when they only existed as a figment of a fertile imagination, or ‘died’ only to come back to life years later. That’s the thing here, you never really knew whom you could trust.

Out of foco

The various groups, Guevara’s Ejército de Liberación Nacional de Bolivia (ELN), and its predecessor, EPG (Ejército Guerrillero del Pueblo), led in the Salta region of Argentina’s Chaco by noted journalist Jorge Ricardo Masetti (“Comandante Segundo”), had their organisational settings fixed resolutely to Boy Scout. They simply had no way of concealing their activities in an isolated region where even the slightest movement drew attention to them.

Of course, in Che’s case, it wasn’t helped by “Marcos” breaking cover in full view of oil workers or similar security indiscretions, such as returning to the Casa Calamina, when the police had already got wind that something suspicious was in the air. Similarly, three foreigners, Régis Debray, Tania (Tamara Bunke, a supposed Stasi agent with a strange take on going incognito) and Bustos, bribing a taxi driver to get to from Sucre to Monteagudo, Bolivia, was hardly likely to go unremarked, nor was the subsequent hire of a jeep (by Tania) at Monteagudo to take them on to Camiri. Insurgency or not, the obvious questions to any local would be: Who are they and what are they doing here? No doubt the military thought the same.

Loss of foco

From any practical standpoint given the contingencies, Guevara’s escapade in Ñancahuazú, Bolivia, to establish a foco from which he could set up “two, three, many Vietnams” simultaneously to overwhelm the US’ ability to suppress them, sounds more like the onset of cabin fever than a strategy. After the fact, Abimael Guzmán’s Maoist Sendero Luminoso showed them how it could but shouldn’t be done.

The problems were many: the area was a geographical nightmare, a corrugated collection of mountains rising to 4000m interspersed with fast flowing rivers and jungle; there was insufficient hinterland to sustain a guerrilla army in terms of recruits, support and sustenance and the supply chain for recruits and food was hugely over-extended and only too observable to the curious. The problems were compounded by the absence of functioning radios, compasses or decent maps.

History repeats itself

The same failures which did for Guevara in Ñancahuazú, were those not learned from the Masetti EPG experience of 1963-1964. In that instance, they established themselves in the Chaco to the north of Salta, in an area that was largely gameless, waterless and on the mountain sides, almost impenetrable forest cut with steep valleys and ravines. Movement was slow and difficult. If the model for both Che and Masetti was Cuba’s Sierra Maestra, which was relatively small and where food was plentiful, Salta province at 60,034sq miles was larger than the whole of Cuba. It brought a problem of scale with which they failed to come to terms. Similarly, there was no prospect of growing the insurgency organically. Who could they recruit? Where was the disaffected population base that could sustain them and provide them with recruits?

History repeated itself as any student of the Chaco War (fought between Bolivia and Paraguay, 1932–1935) could attest. The place was and is a graveyard for ill-conceived military adventures.

Prior to the Salta debacle Bustos noted: “I was acting from my own free will, nobody was forcing me to do anything, although the idea of a small group, divorced from any political context, seemed an irrational adventure.” He wasn’t wrong.

Of cats and canaries

During his arrest and interrogation with Debray under the auspices of Bolivian Major Quintanilla (Bolivian Fourth Army Division) and Cuban CIA agent Dr Eduardo González, Bustos claimed to be a human rights researcher/journalist. He held out for 20 days before his real identity was revealed when his finger prints arrived courtesy of the Argentine Interior Ministry. During this period he’d been asked to sketch the guerrillas from memory. Che’s last words to him as he left the camp were: “If you’re arrested, the most important thing is to conceal the presence of the Cubans, and my presence, too.” He did that.

Those drawings of bearded men have been taken by some as complicity (which Bustos strongly refutes) but since then he’s been framed as the man who “betrayed” Guevara, notably in Pierre Kalfon’s biography, Che. Blame and counter-blame go back and forth with some claiming that Bustos’ sketches did for Guevara, whilst others, notably the journalist Jon Lee Anderson (who wrote an introduction to the book), claim that according to the CIA, it was Debray who “sang like a canary”.

In light of the book’s revelations, it seems evident that no one needed to sketch or say anything. The guerrillas’ presence was known from independent sightings, serial bungling and military intelligence. After all, it’s difficult to be ambushed and not to surmise that their might be a problem. Their days were numbered. Also, it is widely known that under threat, duress or torture everyone says, a la Tweety Pie, “I tawt I taw a puddy tat.”

Bustos comes across as being judicious in supporting his network and ambivalent about settling scores, but he makes an exception in the case of French philosopher, author and academic, Régis Debray, whom it is obvious he considers a privileged, swaggeringly self-important and entitled individual, who presents an opportunity that’s just too irresistible to miss. This, though, gives the book a certain frisson it might otherwise lack.

Illusion, delusion and subversion

The dream of Guevara’s “new man” was subverted in the Cuban example into an exotic fob hanging on a chain from a Soviet-issue waistcoat. The Soviet Communist Party,- and its satellites/acolytes, couldn’t be trusted not to put their own corrupting imprint on everything. Guevara realised this early on. Bustos, too, had his doubts, when a female Argentine doctor working in Cuba alerted him to the reality: “I see you’re very excited about the Revolution, Ciro [Bustos]. Your disillusionment will be very painful, I’m afraid. Communists are coming out of the woodwork like mice, taking over everything, to get at the cheese.”

The South American adventure was Che’s recompense from Castro for his role in Cuba Libre but that is as far as it went. In the Bolivian escapade, he was on his own.

By the early 1960s many were viewing the Cuban Revolution as sullied, particularly when the 26th July Movement became subsumed into the doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Cuba. Indeed, on a trip to China in the mid 60s even the Chinese, according to Bustos, who met Beijing mayor, Pen Cheng and vice-premier, Kuo-Mo-Jo, reckoned that Fidel Castro had betrayed the revolution. This was a far cry from 1958, when Che asked about Fidel’s communism said: “Fidel isn’t a communist. Politically, you could call him a revolutionary nationalist.”

It’s an interesting memoir which creates a feeling for the politics and atmosphere of the time. It is is also a book that illustrates that the truth is still a very large, far away country of which we know and care little. “Truth is only what memory remembers,” said Gabriel García Márquez.

With the evidence to hand, it is difficult not to conclude that communism, capitalism and religion are but promissory notes to some convenient, illusory and ill-defined afterlife. Whatever it is they’re supposed to offer, it’s difficult to see but a minority that benefits from their presence in the here and now. A desire for justice and equity, though, is not time limited.

Oh, well, back to the drawing board.

Che Wants To See You is available from Amazon


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