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Friends of Che

By David Golding

In memory of the failed Cuban Revolution, 1956-2014

A look which always bears (like a wounded bird) tenderness—from Che’s last poem, written to his wife, Aleida, shortly before his death

Before he was “Comandante Segundo,” the raving and homicidal (also: suicidal, but all violence against others flows from a rerouting of the subterranean channels of violence against the self, supposedly) Captain Kirk of the jungles of Salta, he was Jorge Ricardo Masetti, a journalist from the industrial port city of Avellaneda with a background in an ultraright Peronist youth group, a group that reconciled its anti-imperialism with its fascist leanings by the usual means: machismo, chauvinism, and anti-Semitism. In 1958, he took a trip that changed his life, though it should be said that only fundamentally weak-willed men are subject to the life-changing extrinsic forces and extrinsic epiphanies associated with tourism. Which is to say that at the beginning of 1958 he went to the Sierra Maestra mountains, ostensibly in his capacity as a journalist, to meet with Ernesto Guevara (whose former friends knew him as “Chancho,” or Pig, but in the international media he’d begun to be referred to as “Che”), that middle-class Argentine upstart, greenhorn, and Marxist posturer, according to Masetti’s preconceived ideas, the ideas he’d brought with his luggage and class background. Why are you fighting in a foreign country?, Masetti asked Che, accusingly, and Che—with his characteristic charisma, his characteristic impersonality, a charisma and impersonality somehow fortified and not vitiated by the ironic smile that danced around his mouth, as if his words and his mouth complimented one another as living idols, as living philosophies of history, the words expressing the Logos, or Reason, or Humanity, the mouth expressing Violence, or Will, or the lurking inhuman animality, the saurian inhumanity, that peers out through the eyes of every man and every idea—spoke to him about the true America, about Yankees, about dreams (which were haunted, inevitably, by stone-like faces, proletarian faces twitching in the shadows of the Andean night, the mute faces of the dwarf daughters of the peasants who would betray him, copper mines whose depths held the ineffable face of intergenerational and philoprogenitive suffering, the cruel and obtuse faces of soldiers, the self-satisfied faces of the bourgeoisie: faces that may have had something to do with the influence of Mexican surrealism and Mexican neo-realism, but who was to say, certainly not Masetti, that revolution had to be immune from the fads and Zeitgeists of the day). Masetti came away from his encounter both awestruck and a committed disciple of the Cuban revolution. Though, truthfully, he’d seen nothing but Che.

Che’s reaction to Masetti was disappointment that he hadn’t brought him at least a tin of yerba mate and a kind of half-conscious filing away of Masetti’s character portrait, a photographic negative of all the strengths and weaknesses of the particular specimen in front of him. The weaknesses: a certain Italian stupidity that could be, with time, transformed into useful fanaticism. The strengths: devotion, literary inclination and aptitude, a strong jawline, a large brow, ideological anti-imperialism, an amorphous or non-existent soul in a body accustomed to discipline.

In Argentina, Masetti started to hang around the Guevara family in their Palermo apartment, infecting Che’s Chekovian father with revolutionary enthusiasm and giving dark comfort to Che’s mother, who accompanied Che throughout his quixotic and static journeys like the Beckettian echo-chamber or the Beckettian traveling circus-womb, the warm abyss (the false abyss, not the true one) to which all orphic and nihilistic poems are addressed.

A few months later Masetti returned to interview Fidel. He came at a bad time, because Che had been hoping to set up a meeting between Fidel and the old Cuban Communists, which had to be kept a secret, particularly from the anti-Communist Masetti. After Castro’s tank rolled into Havana, Masetti came to helm Prensa Latina, which attracted all the Popular Frontist intellectuals of the day, including García Márquez, Allen Ginsberg, and the infinitely meddling and opportunistic Sartre-Beauvoir couple, whose revolutionary Panglossianism quickly succumbed to bourgeois lassitude and depression. Eventually Masetti was forced out of Prensa Latina by the communists and he went to work for Che, the only fetish or the only agalma of the Cuban revolution that remained attractive to him.

Masetti went through officer’s training. He was sent to Prague. He was sent to Algiers, where he trained the FLN in the use of American weapons, this inaugurating the age when the Africans had to listen to the Cubans, as opposed to a few years earlier, when Che appeared before Nasser like a traveling salesman.

Che gave Masetti a mission: establish a guerilla base in the northwest of Argentina, the vanguard of Che/Fidel’s plans to turn the Cordillera of the Andes into Latin America’s Sierra Maestra. He was tasked with working with poor Tamara Bunke, the intensely idealistic German-Argentine communist (though in times of despair she was sloppy and wrote poetry), with the dissident communists, with the more adventurist and leftist Peronists. Che would join them when the time was right. Masetti eagerly accepted his mission. Presumably he was ready to kill and die for a revolution he didn’t understand or even care for. On Argentinian Independence Day, Che threw the exiled Peronists and sundry malcontents an asado, dressed up a bunch of Cuban peasants as gauchos, gave his stock speech about revolutionary conflagrations and revolutionary duty, and sent the drunk and well-fed guests off for guerilla training.

One day, in Havana, Masetti was introduced to a young, balding Argentine painter, Ciro Bustos. Bustos recognized Masetti as the author of (the pretentiously named, in Bustos’ opinion) Those Who Fight and Those Who Weep, a book that had been published in Argentina about the Cuban revolution. For Bustos, there shouldn’t be a schism (a gendered schism) between fighting and weeping, and it was precisely this sensitivity that doomed him, in the eyes of leftist bien-pensant opinion and even certain leftist bien-pensant terrorists. Masetti repeated the line he’d learned from Che, a line that reeks of shit in the mouths of hypocrites: Are you ready to leave everything, to consider yourself dead, for the revolution? Bustos, believing in Che, who wasn’t a hypocrite (or at least he was less of a hypocrite than most), said that he was. Bustos, the painter, was ushered to a safehouse in one of the now military-occupied wealthy villas in the east of Havana, where he was joined by a Jewish doctor known as Werthein and two men recruited by Che’s old friend (of Motorcycle Diaries fame) Alberto Granado, a mechanic named Federico Méndez and a barrel-chested Jew who went by the name of Miguel. The history of the Cuban revolution, or rather the postmortem history of the Cuban revolution, is littered with these sad villas (in Cuba, in Czechoslovakia, in Tanzania, in Bolivia) where good and brave men, including Che, hid out for months at a time, forced to endure unimaginable boredom for the sake of a paltry and imaginary goal, reading books on Soviet economy or Neruda, writing in their diaries (in the field no one, generally, except Che, was allowed to keep a diary, though that rule was frequently broken, especially by the men whom Che taught to write, though that was the fatal inequality that the famously austere and egalitarian Che introduced into his ranks), and it was ultimately this claustral paranoia, this love of sadomasochistic secrecy, that doomed it, the revolution. They were visited, frequently, by Masetti, by Cuban apparatchiks, by grim Soviet military personnel, by a midget Russian general and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, alias Angelito, capable of superhuman gymnastic feats in spite of his short stature. They were conscripted into reenacting Sierra Maestra battles. From time to time, Che would come by to remind them that they were already dead and that he would join them soon.

The Cuban Missile Crisis came and went, and Che was furious, seething at the failure of the Soviets to launch an anti-imperialist, apocalyptic thermonuclear war (it’s still too soon to say whether he was right or wrong, though in the strictest sense he was right). He sent the inhabitants of the safehouse, along with Masetti and two Cubans, to Prague, where a Cuban military attaché took them to a hotel on a frozen lake outside of the city, where, pretending to be scholarship students, once again they had nothing to do but hike in the dead of winter, until they were told that they’d been seen by locals and were forced to stay inside. Finally Masetti, exhibiting the tyrannical impatience that he would become known for, decided to fly to Algeria on his own initiative. First they stopped in Paris, where the group marched around manically, touring the Louvre and the entire city, and Ciro Bustos was forced to dye his hair blond with peroxide, to match his false passport photo, later claiming that he looked like a cabaret transvestite. They arrived in revolutionary Algiers, which looked a lot like revolutionary Havana of a few years earlier, with its parades and firing squads, and were taken to yet another villa surrounded by the military. At the villa, they practiced calisthenics and tunnel-building and had yet another asado, this time with the future traitor Boumédienne, the colonel, who was undoubtedly a traitor, though in the end one has to admit that, in the fullness of time, everyone becomes a traitor, in some way. In the intervening months, Miguel, whose real name has been lost to history, as have all real names, though everyone remembered him as a well-educated Argentine Jew, began to feud with Masetti, the group’s leader, mailing a letter to his mother against Masetti’s orders and besting Masetti in increasingly competitive athletic competitions, competitions that left Masetti with a pinched sciatic nerve that would later come to torment him. Finally, as they were about to leave Algeria, Miguel said that he wouldn’t come along as long as Masetti was the leader. The two prepared for a fight, but the others intervened. Masetti, plagiarizing Che (the fatal flaw of all revolutions, as Marx diagnosed, being its tendency towards plagiarism), demanded a revolutionary tribunal, in which the group unanimously voted for the insubordinate Jew’s death. The Algerian military took Miguel away. Later, Bustos remembered Miguel’s absolute equanimity, his absolute lack of cowardice, as he was being escorted to his execution. Later, the group only referred to him as El Fusilado, the man who was shot.

Masetti’s group made its way to La Paz, whereupon, posing as start-up cattle farmers, they went on to a small tract of land on the Argentine-Bolivian border. They were met by a member of the later-infamous Bolivian Communist Party, who did nothing but cook soup and provide them with shoddy supplies. In June, 1963, the five-man Ejército Guerrillero del Pueblo (People’s Guerilla Army) crossed the border into Argentina.

The rest is a catastrophe, leavened by black humor. A Peruvian delegation was detained at the border, perhaps betrayed by the Bolivian communists, and a promising Peruvian poet was killed. As Masetti’s group beat its way into Argentina, a surprise election gave power to a respected centrist, Illia, whereupon Masetti thought about suspending the campaign, until he came up with the idea of writing a letter to the new President, avowing respect but demanding his resignation, but the letter was only published in poorly read leftist journals. He sent Bustos off to be his emissary in Argentine cities. Bustos went around talking furiously to Argentine professors, telling them of Che’s backing for their guerrilla plans. The Bolivian police caught on. Some new recruits showed up and Masetti began propaganda lessons with the Salta peasantry, who, according to Bustos, were even worse off than Indians, their misery having made them half-retarded. The rainy season came and the soldiers became flea-bitten. Some middle-class urban kids showed up. Masetti began to show disturbing symptoms of psychosis and megalomania, choosing favorites and scrutinizing others as potential deserters. A twenty year-old Jewish boy named Adolfo Roblat, nicknamed Pupi, came in for extra attention. Like Che, he suffered from asthma. But unlike Che, he wasn’t cut out for guerilla war. He wept constantly, couldn’t keep up, had to be dragged by his fellow soldiers, who were disgusted by him, and even the humanitarian-minded in the group started to despise him. He begged Bustos to kill him. Instead, Bustos kept a pistol to his head, in order to keep him moving, though at times, at night, in secret, he hugged Pupi, tried to whisper to him, tried to tell him he was loved. Pupi began to masturbate incessantly, dragging himself on the ground, hurling himself down hills, animalizing himself, according to his fellow guerillas. Masetti ordered a new recruit, whom he thought was soft and middle-class, to kill Pupi, the moment the recruit arrived. When the recruit’s bullet failed to kill Pupi, Bustos had to finish him off. Meanwhile, Che’s mother was imprisoned in Argentina and ill-treated, less by her jailors than by a vengeful group of communist women fellow-prisoners. In Cuba, Che was bitterly doubting the Soviet system, and some in the Kremlin began to compare him to Trotsky or accuse him of outright Maoism (a high-up Soviet diplomat who doubled as a KGB operative arrived in Havana to interrogate Che about his crypto-Maoism but found himself by a swimming pool with Che, half-naked, and suddenly romantically in love, unable to resist Che’s beauty, his magnificent eyes, his Marxist eyes, he confessed this all in official memoranda, in the spirit of Marxist criticism and self-criticism). The Kremlin was sick of Che’s adventurism, the Latin American communist parties were complaining bitterly, but most of the Kremlin officials, in one way or another, had succumbed to the homosexual mania of the KGB operative, and they couldn’t quite cut Che off (that would be a few years later). And then Kennedy was assassinated, and truthfully neither Fidel nor Che knew what happened, they assumed (probably correctly) that the U.S. military-industrial establishment had been behind it, but was it an omen of war or of delayed war?, secretly they’d both succumbed to Kennedy’s youth, at least there was a man who could be talked to, as opposed to the old phallo-psychotic Johnson, and for years they listened to news reports and read books about the affair, as if it contained a kabalistic truth about themselves, though they knew it had nothing to do with them. And finally a Cuban emissary came to Masetti’s camp to tell them to become active (Pupi the Jew’s death was not active, it was a passive epiphenomenon, like Miguel the Jew’s death). It was time to fuck with your dick, said the Cuban emissary. By that point Masetti had become outright paranoiac, outright pathological. He’d taken a hatred to a young Jewish doctor from Córdoba, a Jew who couldn’t have been more different than Pupi, being tough and having been born from an old Communist family, a fucking Stalinist, unlike the fascist opportunist Masetti, but at this point Masetti was far gone, linking up the primeval struggle of his youth, which was against Jews, with the secondary struggle of his manhood, which was for Che. Capturing him in his moments of melancholic longing, Masetti started to torture the young Jewish doctor, denying him food rations, reminding him of the fate of El Fusilado, the executed Jew, of Pupi, the pathetic Jew. Bustos asked Masetti to give the Jewish doctor a chance, whereupon Masetti relented, agreeing as long as the doctor monitored the progress of another Jew, a recent arrival who was the teenage son of a Jewish bank clerk from Córdoba, whom the doctor guarded for a week, the son of the Jewish bank clerk being gradually humiliated, shitting himself, condemned to the hardest jobs, walking on all fours, whereupon the son of a wealthy porteño showed up, a photographer, and Masetti told the young Jewish doctor to take both the son of the Jewish bank clerk and the rich kid to a camp in the mountains and observe them for a week and discover who deserved to be executed. Then Masetti sent the recruit who’d been forced to kill Pupi on a mission in Buenos Aires, and there he got in touch with Bustos and told him to meet at the Belgrano train station, where the recruit told Bustos that he was going to Europe, that he still believed in the revolution but he didn’t believe in Segundo, that is in Masetti, whom he considered a psychopath, he said that he was going to Europe with his girlfriend, whom he loved, deeply, in a way that provided the ground for the revolution and, he feared, in a way that disproved the revolution (he was talking about love), and Bustos realized that they were meeting at the train station to avoid an execution, but Bustos was only capable of killing someone in the jungle, someone who’d already been shot, and would never have carried out an execution in Buenos Aires, let alone in a Buenos Aires train station. While Bustos was away, Masetti ordered the young Jewish doctor to kill other Jew in the company, the one who had succumbed to complete despair, defecating on himself and howling. First there was a trial, in which the accused’s eyes begged for his own death. As usual, Masetti ordered the newest volunteers to serve at the firing squad, in order to toughen them up. According to the young Jewish doctor, the Jew died with a certain bravery and grace.

The Jewish doctor was freed of suspicion. Only years later did he realize that all of the victims of Masetti’s executions had been Jews. He thought of the anti-Semitic slogan, the only good Jew is a dead Jew, and wondered if there wasn’t a degree of truth to it, a kernel of truth, since it was true that by that time (the 1990s) all the good men he knew, all the good Jews, too, were dead.

Masetti’s group was surrounded, infiltrated, detected. The group’s supplier, who’d posed as a bookstore owner in Salta, was too handsome and too migratory to go unnoticed. Spies showed up in the ranks. They were ambushed: a dead philosophy student, a dead Cuban agent, a dead peasant. Some missing persons. The rest of the party climbed to 10,000 feet in the Cordillera. Some died of starvation. Masetti sent two of his men back to find the others. One of them fell off a cliff, the other tried to catch him and also fell. The first died of a broken spine and the second injected him with morphine, ministering to his death. More were captured. The urban underground, too. The diary of one of the Cuban agents was discovered, along with Soviet arms, revealing that Castro was involved. Masetti was never found, nor was his last surviving comrade, Atilio. It’s believed that they either starved to death in the mountains or that they killed themselves or that they were picked off by rogue soldiers who stole their money.

The surviving guerilla members were arrested and given long prison sentences, in spite of the best efforts of their liberal Argentine lawyers. Many years later, El Fusilado, the Jew they thought they’d had shot outside of Algiers, showed up at their prison, bearing them no ill will, and revealing that the FLN had kept him alive and that Che, probably, had intervened on his behalf. Their shock quickly turned to joy. By then Che was dead. Bustos, who’d escaped through Uruguay, later got caught up in Che’s failed Bolivian adventure, along with the French journalist/future Mitterand lackey/coward Régis Debray. Both were arrested. Debray betrayed Che first, more readily, but Bustos was never forgiven by the Argentine left for the sketches he drew or was tortured into drawing, one of which portrayed Che. Later in life he lived in Malmö, in Sweden, maintaining his innocence and, to atone, painting portraits of emaciated figures with blank faces, or without faces.

And then, ultimately, who was a loyal friend of Che?

His exiled Mexican-Cuban grandson, who died of punk-anarchist sadness and heart problems before his fortieth birthday (believing to the end, with the noble willfulness of conscious illusion, that Fidel had been the infidel and his grandfather the pure Bakunin of the revolution)? Pathetic CIA-agent Félix Rodriguez, who witnessed Che’s death, fell on his sword after Iran-Contra, and operates a Bay of Pigs Museum in Miami? Fidel, who sent him to die in Bolivia? The ethnic Cuban Dionisio González, loyal alcoholic reader of leftist Latin American poets, fanatical anti-Castroite, right-wing Nietzschean from Dorchester who used to go back to his family’s village in Holguín to fuck prostitutes with his grandfather, prostitutes who Castro first said he’d abolished and later claimed were the healthiest in the world? The Argentine student Francisco Cerruti who went on a pilgrimage to visit Vallegrande, where Che died, out of loyalty and a need to know, know what exactly it’s impossible to say? The illiterate peasants who ended up economic ministers in Chavez’s government? The Sierra Maestra loyalists who wanted to go to Bolivia with him and were denied? The ones who died beside him in battle, whom he called the martyrs? The ultraleftist homosexuals who glorify him not in spite of nor because of his hatred of homosexuals? Pupi, the debased bourgeois kid who wanted to join his revolution, but couldn’t cut it? El Fusilado, the tough Jew who wanted to join the revolution, wasn’t allowed, was shot, and came back anyway?

From April, 2015

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