Mike Tyson's mighty rib cage boasts a sizeable tattoo of the late Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a testament to Guevara's status as the marker of subversive cool. It's a safe bet that Tyson hasn't read The African Dream, Guevara's recently released "diaries of the revolutionary war in the Congo." Indeed, Che's comments on his African brothers might just send Iron Mike to the nearest laser specialist. "Given the prevailing lack of discipline, it would have been impossible to use Congolese machine-gunners to defend the base from air attack: they did not know how to handle their weapons and did not want to learn," noted Guevara in a typical moment of condescension.
Thirty-four years after Guevara was killed by a drunken Bolivian sergeant, Grove Press has finally brought out the legendary journal he kept during the time he spent with Congolese rebels in 1965. Grove knows how to play to the fantasies of baby boomers who remember when they fit trimly into their Che T-shirts. The cover of The African Dream includes a glam photograph of Guevara, cigar cocked, eyes slyly assessing the potential for victory. "This fascinating secret history at last illuminates the missing chapter of a revolutionary icon," promises a blurb from the Sunday Times of London.
As radical icons go, Guevara surely takes the beauty prize, with eyes that are sometimes dashingly romantic, sometimes starkly idealistic, but always captivating. The ever-present cigar and trademark commando beret complete the image, the ultimate in revolutionary chic. As evidenced by everything from Mike Tyson's torso to the placards waved by World Treaty Organization protesters in Seattle and beyond, Guevara's stock has hardly slipped in the years since his death.
But can his reputation survive the publication of his own words?
Back in the early '70s, while I was European acquisitions editor for Ballantine Books, I tried to get the U. S. rights to the Congo diaries, then one of publishing's holy grails. I managed to get a meeting with Régis Debray, the famous French celebrator of the Castro regime and one of the few people at the time who had some notion of their content. Debray had spent four years in a Bolivian slammer for having visited Guevara in the South American back country.
Debray's thinking about Castro and Cuba would undergo a major shift in the decades ahead. But when he and I met, he still claimed to be on the best of terms with Castro. He acknowledged the Congo diaries would certainly make for some very interesting reading, but, shaking his head sadly, said, "The Cubans will never let them out. They'll keep them in their archives forever." Debray was convinced that the diaries revealed too openly the great difficulty in fomenting insurrection among native populations, a grim reality which Che's Bolivian diaries also underscored.
Reading The African Dream, it's easy to understand Debray's conviction. Guevara casts serious doubts on the possibility of anything like world revolution. Everything went wrong, and the racial politics were hardly progressive. The Congolese had decided that Guevara should not be viewed as the leader of the Cuban-Congolese forces, but rather as a Cuban "councilor," so it would not appear that a white man was giving them orders. After discovering that so many of the African fighters were incompetent, Guevara took charge anyway, breeding bad blood. He had ongoing problems, too, with his black Cubans acting superior to and contemptuous of the native Congolese.
As for igniting revolutionary fervor among people he believed would lie -- and lie preposterously -- at the least provocation, Guevara found it just impossible. The beloved revolutionary icon sounds pretty much like an old-fashioned racist when it comes to evaluating his black brothers in arms.
And then there is the counterrevolutionary, existentialist angst: As Guevara and a small number of Cubans finally pulled out of the Congo, aware that their mission was a dismal failure, he noted, "During those last hours of our time in the Congo, I felt more alone than I had done even in Cuba or on any of my wanderings around the globe. I might say: 'Never have I found myself so alone again as I do today after all my travels.'"
Perhaps the most interesting question raised by the diaries is one of timing. Castro kept the diaries under lock and key for years. Why did he decide to release them now? Could it be that in his old age, he is getting envious of Guevara's lasting fame? Can the sight of those glorious Che posters appearing wherever in the world there is a demonstration be getting to the old dictator?
One might have supposed that Guevara's memory would be undermined by Cuban refugees such as Armando Valladares, whose terrifying prison memoir Against All Hope was also reissued last year by Encounter Books. Who would have ever guessed that Che's demythologizer might turn out to be his oldest ally?