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The Che Guevara of every day

Posted June 18, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Politics.
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[url=http://www.granma.cu]http://www.granma.cu[/url] | BY RAUL ROA KOURI

WHEN Orlando Borrego visited me to talk about his book “Che: Recuerdos en ráfaga (Che: Flashes of Memory) I could not imagine its objective. He mentioned that he had asked the charming and ingenious Enríque Núñez Rodríguez - who could never have left us without his provocative recollection - to write the foreword and that naturally, he was enthused with the idea. But Enrique was unable to complete it and then Orlando turned to Arnol Rodríguez who, in addition to being a outstanding combatant in the insurrectional struggle, writes with the polish of the simplicity that characterizes him and who, in the post of deputy minister of foreign affairs, had traveled with Che to various countries.

Like Borrego, I enjoyed the foreword of Arnol Rodríguez, who genuinely approached the complex personality of the heroic guerrilla and his singular style. Thus I learned that Recuerdos en ráfaga was to be launched on June 14, 2002 by its author, who invited us, along with other friends and comrades of Che, to be present for the occasion. And that, in addition, Havana’s public would have an opportunity to know about it beforehand, at a Book Saturday in which, another person beside himself was to speak.

On reaching this point of his detailed peroration - one has to recall that Barrego is usually dry - he told me that he had been thinking about another comrade who had known Che when he was young and could communicate some anecdotes and impressions of those years. And he observed me fixedly. “Like you,” he added, “when you knew him in Mexico.”

The choice came as a double surprise: first, because there are many other comrades more qualified than myself to talk of Che; second, because proposing me implied that the author included me in his friendship and confidence, which made me very happy, given that I have always held the revolutionary Orlando Borrego in high esteem.

And in this case, he won’t be able to tell me - as his chief used to do on occasions - that he had become a flatterer. I have never had any heart for bootlicking. As Arnol Rodríguez states in his excellent foreword; I also accepted the challenge because “things are said here in terms of their historical significance and utility for the younger generations that should be read,” by those who wish to know Che “and nourish themselves on his values and extolled human conditions.”

On the other hand, I confess that I am here thanks to a fortuitous event: having known Ernesto Guevara de la Serna after his arrival in Mexico, where we were exiled with my father in 1954. At that time, together with Manolito Hevia and Javier Pazos, we used to visit a group of comrades who had participated in the assault on the Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Garrison in Bayamo - a diversionary action, as it is known, planned by Fidel for the same date as the Moncada attack - and there we were introduced to Ñico Lopez, who had befriended Guevara in Guatemala.

We quickly become friends with the youthful Argentine. He was a good conversationalist, intelligent and cultured and liked to walk along the then leafy Paseo de la Reforma, with its French-style mansions; or through Chapultepec Forest, where we invariably remembered the “child heroes;” and even sailing on sunny days. Sometimes we’d go to Avenida de los Insurgentes or discuss various issues in a cafe close to the statue of Christopher Columbus, a locale also patronized by Leon Felipe, one of the strongest voices of Spain on his peregrination throughout the Americas.

In those days, he was Ernesto. It was later, after he began to work in the Institute of Cardiology (where he was not paid, of course), that we began to call him Che, as Argentines are known in Mexico. In those days Guevara went about with his camera on his back and earned his bread as a wandering photographer. He liked to read and knew passages from Pablo Neruda’s Canto General by heart. I remember that he smiled somewhat skeptically when - in one of those cafe sessions with milky coffee and rolls - I delivered my negative judgement on Las uvas y el viento and Las Odas elementales, comparing them unfavorably with the Residencias, the Canto and other earlier volumes of poetry by the Chilean, while affirming the superiority of Nicolás Guillen’s combat poetry. Perhaps he didn’t know them yet or simply considered them unworthy of the great writer.

What most impressed me about Che in Mexico was his lucid speech at a roundtable on the Argentine situation, organized by my father via the Humanismo magazine, which he edited alongside other Venezuelan exiles. It was organized at the prompting of eminent editor Arnando Orfila to take advantage of the visit of socialists Americo Ghioldi and Jose L. Romero, who contributed their perception of the populist regime of Juan D. Peron. To the surprise of his contemporaries - but an agreeable one at least for Orfila, who from then on regarded him with affection and esteem - Guevara gave a more profound and wide-ranging analysis, given its radical content, than those non-revolutionary leftist intellectuals. Without a profound social transformation, he noted, there was no remedy for Argentina’s ills.

The years went by; one morning in 1959 there was a knock on the door of our apartment on 36th Street in Miramar (Havana). I opened it, and before me stood the unmistakable figure of Che, smiling, in his threadbare khaki uniform. “Come in, Comandante,” I said to him. “What’s all this about comandante, didn’t you always call me Che?” “Ah,” I responded, “but that was before…” “Well, you’re out of order, and I’m still Che and ‘you’ (informal),” he sentenced. And that’s how it was from then on, each time we saw each other.

At this distance, you will be wondering what Borrego’s book has to do with all this. Well, a lot; because, although he didn’t include mine among the testimonies it compiles, he advised me that those anecdotes would make me remember the figure of Che in his diverse facets and, finally, would facilitate my task this morning. Given that it would not be licit to repeat Arnol, whose introductory work is an essential element, I suppose that it would be appropriate to contribute a recollection of my own.

According to the author Recuerdos en ráfaga is the last book he intends to publish on Ernesto Che Guevara. He had given himself the task of divulging Che’s thought, profoundly revolutionary and humanist, as payment for the debt incurred by those who were the collaborators and comrades in struggle of the hero of the Battle of Santa Clara. That was why he decided on a limited edition of Che’s works, some written, others recorded in the Ministry of Industry, so that his penetrating judgements on the building of socialism and its social practice in Cuba and the countries of the so-called “socialist camp” - above all on the new man - would not be lost.

Other projects followed, culminating in the substantial Che: El Camino de fuego (Che: the Path of Fire), which made its appearance in 2001. As Borrego himself affirms, readers from different countries who learned about this book suggested to him that he publish other events in Che’s short and luminous life that would allow them to assess his person as a whole, beyond his actions in the war of liberation and as the builder of a new society; the Che of every day: enjoying the company of his family, laughing at the jokes certain enemies made about him or the Revolution, acidly commenting on errors made, always educating by his example.

The first virtue, in my opinion, of this book of Borrego’s is that it allows outsiders to understand our history; not to see it as something monolithic, or in a triumphalistic or Manichaean way, but rather with the necessary nuances, with its good and bad points, but with an unbreakable will to move forward, to conquer all obstacles, objective and subjective, in a process that is not and cannot be linear and ascendant all the time. It translates, in an efficient manner, how a revolution is made every day, and how in the potential for the new human being exists within every revolutionary.

In its pages - some of which reproduce texts by Che - we find what being “valiant” or “cowardly” meant to him, in what real courage is located, and how one day he would feel like a “coward” only to later feel “brave,” overcoming the instinctive fear of death. We are also witnesses of his austerity, which was never faked, and which he practiced just as much in his official doings as he in his private life. For example, there was the time he rejected certain food items for his young daughter who was sick because they weren’t available to every citizen equally. An allergy to privilege was as marked in him as his asthma.

Likewise, the book reveals his anti-dogmatic thought, relating an incident with some workers in the nickel plant in Moa where an engineer named Presilles had the habit of having his fill of rum and then going to church. The extremists thought that Che would tear into him; on the contrary, he expressed that while excess drinking was not healthy, Presilles wasn’t drinking much, and always drank after finishing work, and that, effectively, it was dangerous to drive over those roads to the church, which is why some sort of air transportation should be sought for the engineers who were making such an important contribution to our mining industry.

Borrego recalls that it was Che who initiated voluntary work among us. He was minister of industries when he took the entire Leadership Council to work with their hands in the Jose Martí neighborhood. As of November 23, 1959, the date of that historic event, this activity began to be known by that name, and Che conceded it a particular importance among the elements that forge socialist and communist consciousness.

It is often recalled that Che was demanding with everyone when it came to doing one’s duty, but it is also true that he did not ask others to do what he himself was not capable of doing. He was severe with himself, perhaps even more than with his own subordinates. Those closest to him, those he most appreciated, were almost always treated the “worst” and were the most harshly criticized, when they weren’t the objects of “Argentine-style” irony and derisive comments, generally not assimilable into Cuban humor.

In that respect, and without any attempt to include myself among Che’s closest associates, I will mention the day that I called him to pass on the wish of Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy to see him and, in the first place, to congratulate him for his speech in Algeria, in which he condemned the unequal terms of trade in which the socialist countries - just like the capitalist ones - were engaging with the underdeveloped nations. Bitingly, Guevara responded: “You’re one of the few idiots who liked it.” (I should clarify, in parentheses, that my father, who was heading up MINREX at the time, had preceded me in congratulating him, sending a coded message to Algeria as soon as he read it. It’s not for nothing that our people called him the “Foreign Minister of Dignity!”)

Also memorable for me is the day when I opened the door of our residence in Prague, and found him encased in a thick coat and scarf, at lunchtime. Pleasantly surprised I told my life: “Look who’s here!” And Che, with a kind of extravagant reverence, announced to us both: “Che, a tremendous cachet!” Later, when we were drinking coffee and he was savoring a cigar, me asked me if I knew why there was no soap in Cuba. A little doubtful, but anxious to seem intelligent, I responded that it must be because of a lack of dodecyl benzine, His explanation was quickly forthcoming, followed by a guffaw: “No, because of a Czech-Chinese treaty!

Another example of Che’s sense of humor was the dedication that he wrote on the photo that he gave to a Soviet technician who was advising us on bituminous materials. “To Olenin, the king of peat, from Cuba’s economic czar” (Che) - the nickname used to refer to Guevara in the bourgeois press, and the sculpture of a mixed-race woman that he gave to another Soviet advisor, Eugenio Kozarev, apparently another admirer of the fabulous Hispanic-Cuban creation!

Something that Comandante Guevara never tolerated was the abuse of power in obtaining favors, advantages or privileges. In Recuerdos, there are some examples of the severe measures applied to those who committed such errors, but the most interesting - actually, the most instructive - is that, to the extent that the transgressors maintained a sterling attitude throughout the punishment, they were completely rehabilitated afterwards, and could once again occupy their posts.

It should be mentioned here the importance that Che assigned to working with cadres and to the cadres themselves. The MININD was one of the first state agencies to design and apply an efficient cadre policy oriented to educating them in the pursuance of the lofty goals the revolution charted for that sector and society in general. Borrego tells the story of an Electric Company personnel director during those years who applied to the letter a ministerial instruction without taking the specifics of the case into account. The person affected by this action appealed to the minister, who was obliged to remind the director that “cadres are to discern and justly apply instructions received from the higher authorities.”

As the author recalls, “In his short but intense life, Che went through the most diverse personal experiences: doctor, motorcyclist, photographer, mountain-climber, guerrilla, airplane pilot, journalist, writer, banker, minister and diplomat.” And it should be added, as a volunteer worker, he also worked as a “sugar-cane harvesting machine operator, cane-cutter, lathe operator, miner, dock worker, bookbinder, construction laborer, mill worker,” and many other things.

As a result, the memories collected in this volume embrace many aspects of the life and personality of the unforgettable Argentine. Borrego, who worked alongside him for a good part of his years in Cuba - during the struggle against Batista and until his departure for the Congo and later for Bolivia - defines him as an “educated person, observant, analytic and with a great facility for communication, who knew how to blend into the Cuban character without any difficulty,” although “certain habits and customs from his native Argentina and the family background where he was educated from childhood on” continued to crop up in him.”

Among those were his taste for mate, which he received regularly, sent by his relatives, and at times, I think, by his friend Granados. For this gaucho ritual, he preserved his bombilla (straw through which mate is drunk), which I once saw in his MININD office. However, he didn’t have any trace of a Buenos Aires accent. This was explainable by his relatively long absence abroad and his exposure to the dissimilar accents of Guatemalans, Mexicans and Cubans, as well as other Latin Americans, but was really due to his being somewhat bothered by “Bueno Aires-ness.” He preferred Argentines from the countryside, what the French would call “deep Argentina,” who represented for Guevara the true national identity of his homeland.

And, evidently, we could not forget the revolutionary Marxist, who also become a follower of Jose Martí, for whom “the homeland is humanity.” This is something confirmed - if need be - by his decision to come to Cuba to fight for the Latin American revolution, and previous to that, his desire to take up arms to defend the government of Jacobo Arbenz, and later, the war in the Congo and his heroic fall in Bolivia, the precursor of what he expected to be the struggle for the genuine independence of his native land.

Among his deep convictions was a deep-rooted anti-racism, which even made itself evident in his criticisms of some compañeros who made jokes belittling Black people or making fun of certain people’s ignorance. In those situations, Che would expose the racist nature of such expressions by explaining their classist and racist nature, the by-products of a past of slavery to which millions of Africans were subjected after being forcibly torn from their lands by the English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese between the 16th and 19th centuries, the source of racial discrimination in our days, combated but not totally eradicated.

For Comandante Guevara, it was a matter of introducing a new ethic to the peoples, based not only the just distribution of material goods and social justice, but also on the complete spiritual fulfillment of each individual, inconceivable without a love of work, study, culture, nature and humanity. That is why he “trembled with indignation” - Borrego says—“against any injustice in world, he loved his family and his friends, and he took care of them.” That is also why he loved poetry and had a human sense of existence. What else, if not a profound love of life, can explain to us his story of the “murdered” puppy, or the fact that he didn’t fire at the Bolivian soldiers who were in his gun sights, or even the order he gave for a militia soldier to return to a mercenary prisoner in Giron the crucifix that he had taken?

“That Che” - the author comments - “who a few hours before dying conserved his optimism and made grammatical corrections on a blackboard in La Higuera schoolhouse so that the Bolivian children in that isolated area could appreciate the words without missing the beauty of writing and of life.”

Recuerdos en ráfaga shows us this dimension, not so well known either inside or outside of Cuba, except to those who were close to the vital and jovial Ernesto Guevara de la Serna. Proof of that: the day that Arnol Rodríguez, during a Cubana Airline stopover in Shannon, spilled a beer on him. Che tried to dry his pants with a napkin and, in all seriousness, assured the embarrassed deputy foreign minister, “I thought you were a more decent compañero; now everyone’s going to think that I pissed myself.” Rodríguez went mute and didn’t think of ordering another beer. But Che signaled the waiter to bring another mug and, turning toward the stiff native of Guantánamo, with the greatest courtesy said “That’s for you, so you’ll see that I bear no ill-will for the beer bath you just gave me.”

At the beginning of the 1960s, the debate emerged in our country between those who defended josraschot - a Russian term that roughly means “economic accounting” - and those, including Che, who were supporters of the so-called “budgetary finance system.” The first clustered around Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, and the magazine Cuba Socialista was one of the vehicles for the debate’s development on the theoretical level. I followed it at a distance, because I was ambassador to Brazil at the time, but I remember some of the articles by Albertico Mora - minister of foreign trade at the time - and other compañeros.

And one night in 1963, on my way from Prague to Rio de Janeiro, I was talking with Che in MININD and he was explaining some of the achievements made in industry based on the budgetary finance system. I asked if he was referring to the national economy or just to the sector under his leadership. Answer: the national economy is falling flat on its face; I’m referring to the industry!

Borrego brings a delicious anecdote to the table. During that time, Carlos Rafael was occupying the post of president of INRA, a government agency that applied the economic accounting system, while the MININD was applying the budgetary finance system. On one occasion, Carlos Rafael invited Che to tour Pinar del Rio province to learn of some of the achievements resulting from the economic accounting system in agriculture.

“Among the main achievements that Carlos Rafael decided to show Che” - Borrego notes - “was a large pepper crop, several hectares in size. Che toured the plantation together with his friend, demonstrating his evident admiration for the results achieved in the leafy crop of green peppers. At the end of the visit, Carlos Rafael asked Che to give his opinion on what he had seen. The Minister of Industry put on his skeptical face and responded:

‘The truth is, your pepper plantation is quite lovely, but as a defender of the Budgetary Finance System and its only representative on earth, I should tell you that when you harvest the crop, you will only obtain a large tonnage of air. Peppers aren’t worth much unless they’re stuffed with meat. If, instead of applying the Economic Accounting System in agriculture, you had applied the Budgetary Finance System, you surely would have showed me a cattle ranch with a large production of meat with which to stuff your peppers.’ “

The sharp Cienfuegos native laughed at the minister’s irony, but agilely responded, “My devotion to the Economic Accounting System has earthly foundations far superior to your budgetary system, and not only produces peppers in abundance, but will produce enough meat for the future.” And, certainly, he said it seriously, and we were almost at the point of doing it, as we increased the production of milk several times over, but then the Special Period came upon us, with all of its consequences.

Salvador Vilaseca, “the great firefighter of the ‘30s generation,” according to Raúl Roa’s dictum, began as Che’s professor of higher mathematics and ended up studying other more recent developments, along with his outstanding pupil, in that science so abstruse but so essential, with countless applications in industry and the new technologies. Apart from that experience, the minister of industry took up some scholarly readings of Marx’s works; he studied Capital from cover to cover and wrote comments in the page margins of those books. His ideas on the subject, which should be published -the sooner, the better - are essential references for everyone attempting to build socialism.

In another section of his memoirs, Borrego talks to us of the revolutionary’s love. “When Che left Cuba for the Congo, his children Celia and Ernesto were very young, the first was two years old and the second a newborn. When the campaign in the Congo was over, he returned to Cuba. A year had gone by since he had seen his children. One can assume what that meant for a loving father like Che, to come back to the place where his children were and not be able to share as much time with them as he would like. The two older ones, Aleidita and Camilo, could were able to recognize him,” Borrego recalls.

“This is where the indivisible nature of his love for humanity becomes apparent. He adores his children, but cannot put his love for them before that for which he will struggle until the final days of his life (...) Near the end of his stay in Cuba, he spent some hours with all of his children, less with Hildita, who was much older. By then, his appearance had completely changed, but he couldn’t change his condition of father, or his immense love for his children. His great love for living humanity had been transformed into concrete events.”

The book includes Che’s emotional farewell to Fidel, to which Borrego was surprisingly called, being in his house at the time, reading and dressed in casual clothes - unusual for him, since he usually wore his FAR uniform. He thought that, having visited him in Pinar del Rio, he wouldn’t see the heroic guerrilla again, until the latter called him to his side later on, as he had promised. It was - I think - a singular encounter, unique, tremendous, indelible.

Finally, the author speaks of Che’s Argentine family: his brothers, sisters and nephews and nieces. Of Celia - intelligent, pretty and with very firm ideas. Of Roberto and his children. Of Juan Martin, who suffered prison and torture during the days of the military dictatorship. And of his trips to Buenos Aires and to other places, where he saw his venerated leader. All of it is conveniently illustrated with photos, some unpublished, of Che and his compañeros, doing different tasks and with his family, with his secretary Jose Manuel Manresa, in a television appearance together with the “king of peat,” and with Arnol Rodríguez, Hildita and the two boys, Canek and Camilo, with his wife Aleida March and with Orlando Borrego, of course, who regales us this intimate piece of our hero’s life.

El Che: Recuerdos en ráfaga closes by always remaining open, like Ernesto Che Guevara’s work and thought, for the edification and example of coming generations.

(Speech given at the book launch for El Che: Recuerdos en ráfaga. Havana June 11, 2004

Member Comments

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On June 18, 2004, publisher wrote:

Wow. They don’t have short speeches in Cuba grin

Great look at Che’ life and thoughts.