Frente a frente con el Che / Carlos Crespo

Face to Face with Che

On the 40th anniversary of the death of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the sociologist Oswaldo Barreto narrates his experience of three days alongside the polemical guerrilla fighter.

They were times of revolutionary effervescence. The movements of national liberation and the guerrilla armies were at their peak, while the Cuban revolution still wore a vigorous 7-year-old face. It was precisely in that context that Oswaldo Barreto met Ernesto “Che” Guevara the man, the one no one seems to want to remember 40 years after his death, in the distant land of Algeria.

Barreto attributes it to “chance” that he met the mythical Argentine guerrilla fighter. And yet, as he himself tells it, chance has a name and surname: the French language. Guevara was looking for a translator who could help him take his speech from Spanish to Balzac’s tongue, for the occasion of the Afro-Asiatic Economic Seminar that would take place in Algeria. When he heard about a short Venezuelan who – besides obtaining weapons for the guerrillas in his country – was fluent in French, he asked the Cuban ambassador in Algeria, Jorge Serguera, to invite him to the diplomatic headquarters so he could meet him.

This circumstance would provide the communist Venezuelan militant the chance to speak with Guevara for three days during the month of February 1965. The experience included a long 12-hour talk face to face with the most universal of Argentines, during which he got an in-depth glimpse of his ideas about revolution, as well as the idiosyncrasies of his personality.

“When I arrived, I saw a character over there (Che), playing a game of chess with Serguera. It was hard for me to identify him because beyond what had I thought, that he was a weakling like me, he was a corpulent guy, well-built, very serene, deeply concentrated on his game. I didn’t see an important figure, I saw a man who was taking a game of chess too seriously and was singing some nanas (French nursery rhymes). He was singing them in French and he pronounced it quite well.”

This is the description Barreto gives of his first encounter with the guerrilla fighter. Once the game was finished, Guevara spoke to the Venezuelan in a “solemn” tone to greet him and ask him for help in translating the speech, not before clarifying that his impeccable French pronunciation came from the lessons he received from a nanny, whom he had mostly forgotten.

Che’s speech was about the relationships between the communists who were in power with the emerging movements that aspired to it. And it was precisely the translation of its 15 pages that allowed the Venezuelan to get to know the thought of his fellow South American.

That conversation has left an indelible mark on Barreto’s memory. When he remembers his conversations with Guevara, his gestures become animated, he remembers almost every word the guerrilla fighter pronounced and even imitates the way he expressed himself and the gestures he made.

Regarding Ernesto Guevara’s personality, the Venezuelan highlights “his studied despotism. It was a chosen manner of being. He didn’t want to become complicit or empathetic with his interlocutor but instead every day was a permanent demand with anyone he met. (…) He wasn’t a friendly character at all. From the very beginning he assumed his authority – not authoritarianism – as ascendant over the other.”

Barreto eventually finished the translation of the speech that was given the title “The Anti-Imperialist Fight” and presented on February 27th, 1965. It was considered a success because of the polemic it unleashed within the international socialist movement.

Barreto’s time with Guevara not only served him as a chance to know his personality but also to get to the bottom of his thought, an element that has become entangled in the web of his myth.

When he was 25 years old, Guevara still hadn’t developed any social conscience or political interests, according to what he confessed to Barreto: “I was apathetic, lazy, adventurous. Reality only interested me as a subject for photography, but I didn’t give a shit about transforming it,” Che said to the Venezuelan revolutionary. But everything changed when he encountered Fidel Castro in Mexico and saw “for the first time that someone was proposing that he could make a revolution if he wanted to do it.”

Barreto says that at first he saw Che as one of the greatest humanists to ever live, for placing not God but man himself as a central force of creation, one capable of creating an ideal state and achieving it: “But little by little I realized what that meant: Che was willing to impose that. In the act of imposing a change in man, Che was much closer to the Nazis.”

The Venezuelan revolutionary warns, moreover, that the entire theory of creating the “new man” proposed a type of imposition of a superior race: “From that point on I thought about the terror that would be a revolutionary process led by people like Che.”

His famous “Letter to the Tri-Continental” is a good example of the contradictions in Che’s thought. This text includes a combination of libertarian ideals with authoritarian methods for achieving them. This is how in the document Guevara assures us that “a people without hatred cannot triumph over a brutal enemy.”

After Ernesto Guevara’s death the myth of “Che” was consolidated, a phenomenon that seems to have gone through various stages, beginning as a symbol of armed struggle until degenerating into a mere commercial logo. For Barreto, myths follow their own logic and continue to change with cultural changes. “Every era reinvents the myth, although the central nucleus maintains itself.”

Even though it defines itself as a “Bolivarian revolution,” the current national government didn’t openly use the Guevara rhetoric and myth until just recently, with the announced “radicalization of the process.” For Barreto, the use of the figure of Che doesn’t make any sense within the frame of an economy based on petrodollars: “The mythical trait that’s highlighted with Che Guevara is in complete opposition to the figure that Hugo Chávez works to forge for himself. Che never abandoned his absolute modesty or the austerity of his behavior.”

According to the sociologist, the Government only promotes one aspect of Guevara’s thought (the authoritarian conception of society’s transformation) because it coincides with its political interests. In that sense, Barreto concludes: “Anyone who decides to change by force the mentality and behavior of individuals and entire peoples can pretend to use Che, who also believed, seemingly in very good faith and with very “noble” reasons, that this was possible.” In the end, “each person fabricates his own Che Guevara depending on his needs and desires.”


Che’s ideology about the “new man” was a concept directed at eliminating any “individualist” vestige from the mind of the revolutionary, who should let go of feelings such as fear and personal worries. Even the cigar Che smoked wasn’t part of an individualistic vice, but rather a form of identifying himself with the Cuban collective: “He smoked the cigar. You could tell it had been hard for him to learn the habit. But why did he smoke the cigar? Because a Cuban smokes cigars. That’s the level his acquiescence to particular details reached,” Barreto points out. He concludes by saying that Che was “a frightening example” of the machine-like rigorousness of the new revolutionary.

{ Carlos Crespo, Tal Cual, 8 October 2007 }

No comments: