Michael Sex­ton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

How did a young Ar­gen­tinian doc­tor be­come the image of world rev­o­lu­tion — and the face that launched a mil­lion T-shirts? I must say I ap­proached a book about Che Gue­vara by his brother Juan Martin, as­sisted by French jour­nal­ist Armelle Vin­cent, with some scep­ti­cism, fear­ing ha­giog­ra­phy. It is a eu­logy but also an in­ter­est­ing fam­ily his­tory and an ac­count of the brother’s own po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties in Ar­gentina in the stormy pe­riod of the 1970s.

Che Gue­vara’s ca­reer is, of course, the stuff of leg­end. Born in 1928 into an Ar­gen­tinian fam­ily of chiefly Span­ish de­scent and, as his brother makes clear, part of the haute bour­geoisie, Ernesto — not yet Che — stud­ied medicine at the Univer­sity of Buenos Aires.

He seems to have had no need to earn an in­come and in 1951 took a nine-month mo­tor­cy­cle jour­ney through South Amer­ica that re­sulted in the later fa­mous book and movie, The Mo­tor­cy­cle Diaries. Soon af­ter­wards Che set­tled in Gu­atemala, but his sup­port of the ex­ist­ing regime meant he had to flee the coun­try for Mex­ico when that gov­ern­ment was over­thrown by a coup in May 1954.

In 1955 he met Fidel Cas­tro in Mex­ico City and joined Cas­tro’s long-range plan to de­stroy the Batista gov­ern­ment of Cuba. When they landed in Cuba in Novem­ber 1956 al­most all the mem­bers of their small force were killed but the oth­ers, in­clud­ing Cas­tro and Che, re­treated into the moun­tains.

Che no doubt agreed with Mao Ze­dong that a rev­o­lu­tion is not a din­ner party. Af­ter per­son­ally ex­e­cut­ing an in­former in the group, he made the note, clin­i­cal as be­fits a med­i­cal prac­ti­tioner, that he had given him “a shot with a .32 pis­tol in the right side of the brain, with exit ori­fice in the right tem­po­ral lobe”.

Batista fled Havana on New Year’s Day 1959 and Che be­came a key fig­ure in the new regime. Ini­tially he was in charge of the main prison and re­spon­si­ble for the ex­e­cu­tion of for­mer of­fi­cials con­victed by a rev­o­lu­tion­ary tri­bunal. At var­i­ous times he held the po­si­tions of fi­nance min­is­ter, pres­i­dent of the na­tional bank, min­is­ter of in­dus­tries and am­bas­sador at large.

The regime com­pre­hen­sively de­feated the Amer­i­can-sup­ported in­va­sion at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 but felt be­trayed by the Soviet Union when it with­drew its nu­clear-armed bal­lis­tic mis­siles from Cuba in Oc­to­ber 1962 af­ter a tense con­fronta­tion with the US. Like Cas­tro, Che was not averse to world nu­clear war and ar­gued that re­sis­tance to im­pe­ri­al­ist ag­gres­sion Che, My Brother By Juan Martin Gue­vara and Armelle Vin­cent Trans­lated by An­drew Brown Polity, 264pp, $44.95 (HB) Close But No Cigar: A True Story of Prison Life in Cas­tro’s Cuba By Stephen Purvis Ha­chette, 257pp, $32.99

Che Gue­vara dur­ing a 1964 TV in­ter­view; Stephen Purvis’s mem­oir of his de­ten­tion in Cuba

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