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Review of Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diaries | Chaman Lal

Friday 16 September 2022, by Chaman Lal

BOOK REVIEW

The Bolivian Diaries - Authorised edition
by Ernesto Che Guevara
Introduction by Fidel Castro, Preface by Camilo Guevara

Ocean Press, Melbourne-New York
1st ed. 2006,
Pages 303,
Indian price, Rs. 450/

This is one of most important book of world revolutionary movements. This is Che Guevara’ diary notes in his Bolivia mission. Beginning 7th November 1966, the diary has regular entries for exact eleven months, till 7th October 1967, one day before his capture by Bolivian army, propped up by US rulers. On 8th October 1967, Che Guevara was captured and no courtesy was shown to the world’s most respected revolutionary figure, a former minister in Cuban Government, known to all the world’s most powerful men—UNO, Mao Ze Dong, Khrushchev. Except for Cuba and Fidel Castro and world’s revolutionary people, having no influence over the events at that moment, no bourgeoisie politicians of the world, expressed any sorrow or condemnation at the brutal cruel treatment to a wounded Che and brutal murder of him next day at the behest of US imperialists and that US lackey in Bolivia dictator Barrientos. Che Guevara was at his marvellous best even during his one day custody, bearing all the pains heroically and challenging his killers to shoot him, as the killers had no courage to do that. Though diary is not important in terms of any theoretical foundations, but it is most important to know in a matter of fact manner, that how selflessly and heroically Che Guevara led this most difficult mission of makin revolution in Bolivia; despite his serious asthmatic problem, leaving Cuba at a time, when he was providing marvellous leadership in building socialism as Castro’s most trusted comrade; with most of the circumstances in Bolivia being hostile and conditions not favourable to advance the revolution. But Che was Che, he could not agree to Fidel’s assessment to wait for more favourable circumstances and ground preparation, before he could join the forces there. And equally great was Castro, who kept his word with Che, to allow him to leave the Cuban Government and let him organise Cuban like revolution in the rest of Latin American countries, a dream nurtured by Simon Bolivar to create a revolutionary United States of South America. Che wished to begin in his motherland Argentina first, but conditions were not yet ripe there to lead such movement. Bolivia was also not ripe yet, but taking inspiration from Cuban victory, the struggle started by just 82 men on Granma and left with only 15-16 people, yet within two years defeating the 80 thousand army of dictator Batista in Cuba and leading first successful socialist revolution in Cuba on 1st January 1959. Fidel Castro not only relieved his comrade and close friend Che to lead the revolution, he provided men and arms from his early Cuban revolutionary expedition, including many senior Communist party cadres, who sacrificed their lives in Bolivian mission like Che himself.

The Bolivian diary has been edited very meticulously. Apart from Diary entries of Che, it includes rare photographs of that period, editor’s brief note, Maps of the area, including guerrilla zones; glossary of people and terms/events, Preface and Introduction and five communiqués issued by National Liberation Army (ELN) of Bolivia, fighting under the leadership of Che. The actual diary entries are covered in about 220 pages. Life sketch of Che is also given in beginning.

Camilo Guevara, eldest son of Che Guevara has written brief but moving preface to the diary. Camilo rightly observes that 7th October 1967 last entry of Che in diary are-‘there is not the slightest tone of discouragement, pessimism, or defeatism; on the contrary, these words seems to be a beginning, a prologue... (page1) Camilo describes 8th October, Che’s wounded body in captivity as-‘Yet his body is still upright and armed with conviction, preparing for another battle’ (page 2). Camilo is sure that the enemies could have never capture Che, despite his wounded leg, broken rifle and no other weapon, but for he could not leave his other sick and wounded companeros. Camilo describes the scene on 9th October as well, when Che was murdered as the ‘order to murder him came from Washington’. Che never mistreated his captives, most of the times the prisoners of Bolivian army were released after warning them, no one was ever tortured or killed as he never believed in committing cruelties even on enemies. Camilo beautifully concludes that –‘Without a trial, without a thought, the new man Che Guevara represented is killed. But what is born is a yearning for the new human being, who is neither an illusion nor a fantasy. Xxx A dream, dormant for many centuries takes shape: an ethical, virtuous selfless human being. This time stripped of all myth and mysticism; this person must be fundamentally human. (Page 8)

Fidel Castro wrote –A necessary Introduction to the dairy in 1968, when the diary was first time published in original Spanish in Havana, of which two lakh copies were circulated free to Cubans; and is part of diary in this edition, which has been included in his memoir on Che as well. In this introduction Fidel narrates the story iof acquiring diary of Che from interior minister of Bolivia, who lost his job for this and establishing its authenticity. Introduction underlines the intense human character of Che and his immense bravery, it also exposes the brutalities of Bolivian regime, which was lackey of US imperialism and was playing a puppet’s role. Castro also exposes the treachery of Mario Monje, secretary of Bolivian Communist party at that time, who ditched Che. Even the other group led by Oscar Zamora became venomous critic of Che Guevara. Moises Guevara, miners leader joined the movement and sacrificed his life. Other comrades of Monje like Inti and Coco Perado also joined and proved their bravery, but Monje went to the extent of sabotaging the movement. Che knew many peasant sin Bolivia but was suspicious and cautious of their character. Despite so many difficulties Che and his comrades performed marvellous feats and Bolivian army could succeed only on 26th September 1967 against Che’s detachment and Che’s group could never overcome that damage. Despite heavy risk Che kept on helping the Doctor Moro, who was in very poor physical health.Castro opines that never in history has so small a number of men set out such a gigantic task. Castro has also highlighted the bravery of Che in fighting his last battle on 8th October, trying to save his poor health two comrades and fighting even he was wounded. In La Paz, dictator Barrientos and defence chief Ovando decided to murder Che, that was done in most cruel and brutal manner. It was Che, who said firmly to his killer—‘Shoot! Don’t be afraid’, still the drunk killer could shoot him in side, Che’s agony for last few hours of his life was very bitter and Fidel puts it aptly-No person was better prepared than Che to be put to such a test’. Castro reveals that diary of Che was obtained without any financial payment and was published simultaneously in France, Italy, Germany, US; and in Chile, Mexico in Spanish.Fidel concludes by famous slogan of Che-Hasta la victoria siempre!-Ever onwards to Victory.

25 pages spread Glossary gives details of almost all people involved in this epic struggle on both sides. In Appendices the first Appendix refers to Instructions to Urban cadres, which is mentioned as Document III, it is dated 22nd January 1967. This document was written by Che and was Loyola Guzman, when she visited Che on 26th January. According to this document’s reference National Liberation Army (ELN) was established in March 1967.Che has given detailed instructions in this document regarding all organisational aspects for the army like supplies, finances, transport, and contact with sympathisers etc. Appendix II, refers to Document XVII of ELN and is issued as Communiqué no.1 to the Bolivian people, it is dated 27th March 1967. The general title of the regular communiqués is given as ‘Revolutionary truth against Reactionary Lies’, under this very title there is Communiqué no. 2, issued on 14th April 1967, and given the document no. as XXI. Communiques no. 3, 4 and five issued as Documents no. XXII, XXIV and XXV are also included in Appendices, issued on May 1967 and two in June 1967. In the communiqués it is made clear that ELN is the only responsible party for the armed struggle. In one of these communiqués, Che Guevara makes an impassioned plea to join ELN, as ‘we are restructuring the worker-peasant alliance that was broken by an anti plebeian demagoguery.’ Che is confident at this moment that ‘we are converting defeat into triumph.’

The Bolivian dairy of Che begins on 7th November with the inspiring first sentence-‘Today begins a new phase... The diary gives brief description of the day and makes an interesting entry on 12th November-‘My hair is growing, although very sparsely, and the grey hair are turning blond, and beginning to disappear; my beard is returning. In a few months i will be myself again.’(Page 38). How much revolutionaries like Che and Fidel love their beard that they feel lost without it!Che entered Bolivia with fake passport and with clean shaven shape, which could not be recognised even by Fidel castro and Che’s comrades in Havana, when Castro gave him a farewell lunch! Manila is fictitious word for Cuba and Che refers to the existence of 12 insurgents on 27th November. Che made it a point to write review of the each month’s diary at the end of every month and November’s anaylysis records Che’s opinion –Everything has gone well; my arrival was without incident and half of the troops have arrived , also without incident...

In diary for December, on 7th December Che notes that ‘I will give the summaries at the end of each month’. In 12th December’s entry, Che made certain appointments in the group, giving charges to various people. 19th December’s diary tells us about almost whole night discussion in the group without sleeping a bit. 24th December was celebrated as Christmas Eve. On 31st December, all important meeting with Monje takes place. There was discussion on each point and some understanding was reached, which was not followed by Monje later. In the analysis of the month, Che notes with satisfaction that Cuban team has been successfully completed, but Bolivians are few in numbers. Che is satisfied at the morale of the group.

In January diary, Che plans Tania’s trip to Argentina, On 6th January, Che notes-‘importance of study is indispensable for the future...On 26th January Che noted—Loyola made a very good impression on me, she is very young and softly spoken but one can tell she is very determined. In the analysis of the month, Che notes with anguish—‘As I expected, Monje’s position was at first evasive and then treacherous; Che notes with concern that party (Communist party) has taken up arms against us...Che concludes ironically-‘Of everythins that was envisioned, the slowest has been the incorporation of Bolivian Combatants.’ (Page 78)

In February diary, 13th February entry is father’s birthday date. 18th February diary notes wife Josefina’s birthday, 24th February is Che’s youngest son Ernesto’s birthday. February was not a very conducive month for the group. Group is divided into two. They had been walking miles and miles. Che has also noted the death of Comrade Benjamin.

In March diary Che notes on 14th March, ‘we heard parts of Fidel’s speech in which he makes blunt criticism of Venezuelan communists and harshly attacks the position of Soviet Union on Latin American puppets. (Page 102).’ Inthe same month on 16th, Che mentions about eating horse. On 17th, Che notes another loss for revolutionaries, lot many crucial weapons on backpacks were lost in crossing river. On March 23&24, they make gains, they capture many weapons from enemy and kill and arrest many. There is mention of French leftist Regis Debary visiting ELN. In March 25th meeting of the group, liberation army is given the name as National Liberation Army of the Boloivia, ELN in short. Che made a detailed analysis of March month activities and notes that ‘The phase of consolidation and purging of the guerrilla force-fully completed’.(Page 118) Che also notes that there is slow development in incorporation of some Cuban elements, als0 as initial phase of struggle precise and spectacular blow, but gross indecision. Che notes that enemy is totally ineffective so far and is trying to moblise peasants to isolate us. Che organises guerrilla force into vanguard, Rear guard and Centre group, keeping himself in centre.

In April, Che notes of ‘total disaster’ on 4th, ‘great tension’ on 6th, on April 10th Rubio’s death is noted, April 11th records radio news of ‘new and bloody encounter’ with mention of nine dead from army and four guerrillas. On 12th April Che notes with some pride that first blood spilled was ‘Cuban’. April 22nd is noted for ‘making mistakes’, 25th as ‘Bad day’ with the best guerrilla Rolando dyeing in ambush. Summary of the month confirms death of Rubio and Rolando as a ‘severe blow’. April analysis opines the certainty of North America’s heavy intervention, already sent helicopters and Green Berets; but Che notes the morale of combatants as good.

May Day is celebrated by clearing vegetation in guerrilla camps, 8th May ambush by guerrillas got them three army men dead and ten prisoners. The dead include Second lieutenant Henry Larado, whose wife had asked to bring ‘a guerrilla fighter’s scalp’ to adorn in their living room. On 16th May, Che suffers intense abdominal pain with vomiting and diarrhea. They walk some 15 kilometers on 17th may. 20th May is noted for Che’s son Camilo Guevara’s birth day. The day also mentions Debray’s status as journalist being rejected by dictator Barrientos, Debary is facing trial now. Summary of the month is worrisome- Che notes total loss of contact with Manila (Cuba), La Paz and Joaquin (Other guerrilla group) of ELN, reducing the strength of group to 25; complete failure to recruit peasants, though they now admire ELN, Che notes that it is slow and patient task. Che is happy at clamour on Debary’s case, which has given momentum to ‘our movement than 10 victories in battle’; Che is also happy that ‘ morale of the guerrilla movement is growing stronger.’(Page 164)

In June diary 14th is mentioned as birthday of Che’s youngest daughter Celia Guevara, but which is his own birthday as well, which he notes simply as-‘I turned 39 (today) and am inevitably approaching the age when I need to consider my future as guerrilla, but for now I am still “in one piece”. (Page 171). June 17th is noted for 15 kilometers walk in five and half hours. June 21st is birthday of Che’s mother Celia de la Serna, referred as ‘The old lady’. Che notes on 23rd June that ‘asthma is becoming a serious problem for me and there is very little medicine left’, 24th is noted for worsening of asthma, 25th-asthma continues to grow worse and now it will not let me sleep well. 26th June brings the sad death of Tuma, who was bodyguard to Che and Che felt about him ‘as if he were my own son’. Tuma is painfully buried on 27th June. On 29th, Che notes that they are now 24 men and counts Chino to be among ‘examplary men’. On 30th June, Che notes that ‘Debary apparently talked more than was necessary’. Bolivian army commander in chief Ovando made official announcement about Che being in Bolivia is also noted. In analysis of the month, Che notes the total lack of contact, continued lack of peasant recruitment, lack of contact with Bolivian communist party, Debary’s case and Che’s recognition as ‘the leader of the movement’. Che again notes about the morale of guerrilla force being strong and their commitment of the struggle increasing, emphasising that ‘all the Cubans are exemplary in combat. Che notes the urgent task of recruiting at least 50 to 100 men in the movement.

The very first day of July diary mentions Bolivian dictator Barrientos’s press conference calling guerrillas as ‘rats and snakes’ and wiping out Che Guevara and punishing Debary. On July 3rd Che notes in irony that ‘my asthma continues to wage war’, again on 7th, my asthma is getting worse. On July 14th Che notes with concern that Bolivian ‘government is disintegrating rapidly. Such a pity that we do not have 100 more men right now.’ (Page 191). From 15th to 17th, Che is relieved as asthma is much better, but on 27th, he mentions-My asthma hit me hard and those measly few sedatives are just about gone. July 30th comes with the death of Ricardo. On 31st, mention is made of loss of a book by Trotsky, Debrays’s book with Che notes on it and finally ‘We are 22 men with two wounded, and me with full blown asthma.’ Analaysis of the month focuses upon continuous negative points, three encounters causing army 7 dead, taking of Samaipata, lost two men. Important features- Total loss of contact continuoing, lack of peasant recruitment continuing, guerrilla force is becoming legendry, morale and combat experience of guerrilla force increasing with each battle. The most urgent tasks noted as-‘To re-establish contact, to recruit combatants, and to obtain medicines.’ (Page 204)

Month of August starts with asthma worries, on 2nd, Che notes-my asthma is hitting me very hard and I have used up my last anti asthmatic injection, all I have left are tablets for about ten days.’ August 3 is as bad, but on 4th it improves a bit. On 6th August Che speaks on Bolivia’s Independence Day and on 7th he notes-‘Today marks exactly nine months since I arrived and we established the guerrilla force. Of the initial six, two are dead, one has disappeared, two are wounded and I am suffering from asthma with no idea how to overcome it.’(Page 207). On August 8th, Che makes a speech to his comrades and mentions the difficult situation of them, Che admits that ‘I am a complete wreck and the incident with the little mare shows that I am beginning to loose control....but Che speaks further-‘This is one of those moments when great decisions have to be made, this type of struggle gives us the opportunity to become revolutionaries, the highest form of human species, and it also allows us to emerge fully as men.....(page 208). On 9th, Che is down with fever and painful heel with abscess. On 10th, mention is made of Fidel’s speech attacking the traditional communist parties, Che still not well. On August 12, another guerrilla lost-Antonio Fernandez. Che foot recovers by 13th, but asthma is mentioned on 14th as ‘condemned to suffer from asthma indefinitely, the news of cave being found out and seizure of all photos and documents makes it bad day with worst blow. August 28th mentioned as ‘distressing day’, so are 29th and 30th. Summary of the month mentios blow of loss of all he documents, medicines, loss of two men, one desertion(first one) Other features of the month remain same, but morale factor changes to ‘decline’, though Che hopes it to be ‘temporary’. Che underlines about guerrillas being at ‘low point in our morale and in our revolutionary legend’, but concludes with recognition of ‘inti and Coco becoming ‘more and more outstanding as revolutionary and military cadres’.(Page 222)

Month of September begins with much worse news, 2nd September mentions the radio broadcast of ‘annihilation of 10 guerrillas led by Cuban Joaquin in Camiri area’, this includes the killing of Tania as well. Che does not feel like believing it as local radio did anot announce, but Castro in Cuba could believe it. On 3rd Che thinks it to be a ‘trick’. Again on 7th September, Che is not inclined to believe the news of radio Cruz that body of guerrilla Tania recovered from Rio Granade bank, even as 8th entry mentions the attendance by Barrientos at the internment of remains of Tania the guerrilla, given as ‘Christian burial’. Mentioning 10th as bad day, Che makes interesting and funny entry-‘I forgot to mark an event: Today I took a bath after more than six months. This constitutes a record that several others are already approaching.’(Page 232)11th entry mentions of Barrientos claim of Che being ‘already dead’.13th entry mentions a shot fired on Debary’s father’s head, his documents for defence being confiscated. 15th and 17th entries mention about Lyola’s arrest and protest over it. It seems Che reconciles with Joaquin’s group’s annihilation around 22nd, when he mentions Barrientos-Ovando press conference announcing their ‘wiping out’. 26th entry begins with word ‘Defeat’, 28th begins with the words’Day of anguish’, perhaps Coco is annihilated, 29th is ‘another tense day’, so is 30th. This month’s summary is sad- loss of Miguel, Coco and Julio in ambush, ruined everything and left us in ‘perilous position’, losing Leon as well, losing Camba is a net gain. Che now accepts –‘we must consider Jouquins group wiped out, still hoping the report to be ‘exaggerated’ and ‘small group wandering around’. Che mentions the bitter fact that army is now more effective and peasants are becoming ‘informers’. Che underlines most important task as ‘to escape and seek more favourable areas; then focus on contacts, despite the fact that our urban network in La Paz is in shambles, where we also have been hit hard. Che still mentions the morale of rest of the troops as ‘fairly high’.

October 2nd mentions the birthday of another guerrilla Antonio Pantoja Tomao.3rd entry is ironic, capture of two ‘guerrillas-Antonio (Leo) and Orlando (Camba), both betray and give information. Debary is praised for his courageous stand in the trial.5th entry shows Che taking care of Benigno and El Medico given an injection. The last entry of diary on 7th October begins as-‘The 11 month anniversary of our establishment as guerrilla force passed in bucolic mood with no complications. Che mentions that ‘the 17 of us set out under a slither of a moon, the march was exhausting, no nearby houses...Last lines—The army issued an odd report about the presence of 250 men in Serrano to block the escape of the 37(guerrillas) that are said to be surrounded. Our refuge is supposeddely between the Acero and Oro rivers. The report seems to be diversionary. Altitude=2000 meters.

These were the last words penned by Che Guevara before his capture next day 8th October and subsequent brutal murder on 9th October.

The Bolivian Diary of Che Guevara records the eleven month glorious struggle to liberate Bolivia from the crutches of dictator Barrientos and its brutal army working directly under US imperialists as its lackey. I took look at The Motorcycle diaries and The Bolivian diary of Che Guevara together, though two diaries entirely different in content and style, one can understand Che Guevara’s marvellous and heroic character, which made him the best icon of international revolutionary in each part of the world. Wherever the resistance movements have erupted in any part of the world after 1967 murder of Che Guevara, everywhere Che’s photographs/posters/souvenirs have been the most visible part of demonstrations/processions etc. Che has become an icon, most ideal for the youth. One can see it from the conduct of Che’s life. Even from The Bolivian diary, it is amply clear that how selfless and caring Che’s personality has been towards his comrades. How despite his horrible asthmatic conditions suffered all the hardships of guerrilla life, walking 15-20 kilometers a day, performing all the duties of a guerrilla, like giving guard duty etc. and never complained, always remained full of optimism, even when things were going completely beyond control. Though Che has realistically analysed the weaknesses of the movement through his diary. Che was an idealist, despite being a Marxist, conditions were not ripe for him to go to Bolivia, this was the opinion of Fidel Castro also, but Che was restless to go. Che Guevara and Bhagat Singh like personalities create role models for youth or struggling people by their complete selfless conduct. Che was probably hoping to create another Cuba by his 25 men or so, as in Cuba just 15 or 16 of them mobilised whole of Cuba and defeated 80 thousand army of Batista. But Che underestimated US role after Cuban revolution. It would not allow another Cuba in Latin America at any cost and that is what it did in Bolivia by killing Che and many more senior Cuban revolutionaries in Bolivia in 1967. Yet the saga of Che Guevara’s bravery and struggle became a legend for long term inspiration for liberation of human kind from all kinds of oppression. Che could be impulsive in Bolivia, but by his sacrifice, he created a much more powerful Che for US imperialism, to which it can never kill with bullets as it has become idea personified and you can kill persons, people, but not an idea, that is what Che is today, to live forever and as a burning shot in the eyes of imperialism! Same is the icon of Bhagat Singh is South Asia, with similar characteristics of the character.

*(Author: Chaman Lal is retired Professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and Honorary Advisor to Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre New Delhi. He can be contacted at prof.chaman[at]gmail.com )

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