Monday, 2 March 2009

Che: Part Two - Guevara's Bolivian Campaign

by Kathryn Hadley

Che: Part Two, which tells the story of the last year of Guevara’s life in Bolivia, from November 1966 to October 1967, was released in cinemas on February 20th. Having been captivated by Che: Part One and filled with admiration for Guevara and his profound moral values of justice and equality, I was eager to discover his subsequent fate and whether or not his portrayal in the second part of the film would be more nuanced and uncover other more controversial aspects of his career.

Che: Part Two is also based on Guevara’s diary, entitled The Bolivian Diary of Ernesto Che Guevara, which begins on November 7th, 1966, after his arrival at the farm in the Nancahuazu region, to the south east of Bolivia, and ends on October 7th, 1967, the day before his capture. Again, possibly because the film is based once more on Guevara’s diary, he remains just as sympathetic and inspiring and the question of how far his character is idealised thus remains in the second part of the film. Guevara is depicted as an essentially tragic figure, who fights for his ideals until the very end, despite gradually losing support and being betrayed, notably by the local Bolivian peasants, for whom he desires merely justice, equality and improved living conditions.

At the end of March 1965, Guevara vanished from Cuba, leaving behind his wife and five children, to ensure the continuing fight for the worldwide implementation of the ideals of the Cuban Revolution. On October 3rd, 1965, Castro publically read an undated letter from Guevara in Havana, which he had allegedly written to him a few months earlier. The recording of Castro’s reading of the letter is incidentally available in the exhibition ‘The Sound and the Fury’ currently on show at the British Library. In his letter, Guevara reasserted his solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and stated his intention to leave Cuba to fight for the revolution abroad. He also announced his resignation from his positions in the Cuban government and renounced his honorary Cuban citizenship. Guevara initially travelled to Africa, where he participated in the conflict in the Congo. Following the failure of his campaign, however, Guevara left the Congo and reportedly lived as a clandestine in Dar es Salam and Prague. He then travelled to Western Europe to test his new forged identity papers for his subsequent travels to South America.

In November 1966, Guevara flew into La Paz, intent on starting another revolution. He travelled from the capital to an area in the jungle in the Nancahuazu region, purchased by the Bolivian communists for Guevara to use as a base camp and training ground. His force of approximately fifty revolutionaries was known as the ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional de Bolivia), the National Liberation Army of Bolivia. Despite initially successful campaigns, notably in the mountainous Camiri region, by the end of the summer of 1967, the tide was turning. The guerrilla groups were faced with unexpected and growing obstacles: the United States intervened on the side of the Bolivian Army with a team of the CIA’s Special Activities Division Commandos, local dissidents and the Bolivia Communist Party withdrew their support, and Guevara’s forces lost radio contact with Havana. In September, the regular Bolivian Army, trained and supplied by U.S. Army Special Forces, notably eliminated two guerrilla groups. On October 7th, Guevara was captured. On October 9th, the Bolivian president, Rene Barrientos, ordered his assassination. On October 15th, Castro acknowledged Guevara’s death and declared three days of public mourning. Guevara’s remains now lie in a mausoleum in the city of Santa Clara, where he had commanded a decisive victory during the Cuban Revolution.

Stephen Soderbergh’s film alone is testimony to the extent to which the myth of the ‘Che’ lives on, more than forty years after his death. Somewhat paradoxically in the light of his beliefs and ideals, Guevara’s iconic image has been merchandised throughout the world and he is depicted in popular culture as a hero. The questions raised by the film should not, however, remain unanswered and the more controversial aspects of his life should also be considered.

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