SURPLUS ORDNANCE Episode 23: CHE Part 1&2

Che Part One and Two research by Bill Fischer
PhD in Modern Latin American History from the University of Florida
Associate Professor of History, Missouri Southern State University

Incident(s) the film touches on

Che Part One illustrates the guerrilla insurgency in Cuba from 1956-1959 that would ultimately overthrow the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. As the film portrays, Che Guevara was one of the principal guerrilla leaders, eventually directing a "column" of insurgents during the climax of the war. Fidel Castro was the overall guerrilla commander of the 26th of July Movement, which became the most important force in the effort to bring down Batista. Importantly, however, the M-26-J was not always the ONLY group opposing Batista-- its success in the rural-based guerrilla operations while more urban-based movements were less effective against Batista helped ensure that Castro and M26J would seize power in Cuba after the fighting ended.

Che Part One also occasionally flashes back to Mexico City earlier in the 1950s when Che Guevara and Fidel Castro first met. At this time, Castro was in exile from Cuba after being released from prison. Guevara had recently been in Guatemala... more on that later.

Che Part Two portrays Che Guevara's efforts to lead a guerilla insurgency in Bolivia in 1967. This effort was unsuccessful for a variety of reasons that the film illustrates quite well, and Guevara ended up dead at the hands of the CIA-backed Bolivian military.

It is very interesting for me to reflect on these movies as having been made by Steven Soderbergh, who is perhaps best known for his heist movies (Oceans 11, 12, and 13). Though they are very different in most ways-- Che Part One and Two are ALSO heist movies! One of them is a successful heist, one of them is a failed heist. Except in this case the goal is not to knock off a casino, but topple a government. I think the best way to think about these movies as two case studies-- why did Part One succeed? Why did Part Two fail? Why couldn't Che and the boys re-do in Bolivia what they had done in Cuba? I think taken together these films are most interested in PROCESS-- they examine the high degree of difficulty involved in guerilla insurgency and how it can break down, like the components of a watch not fitting together correctly.

I think that this procedural puzzle was really what Soderbergh was trying to do with these films, more than making an Ernesto Guevara biopic. If that's what you want, look at The Motorcycle Diaries.

Historical Context

The Cuban Revolution of 1956-1959 came out of a long line of revolutions in Cuba, but each of the previous ones ended up failing or being unsatisfying in some way.

From 1868-78, Cuba fought for independence from Spain, only to sue for peace after ten years. In 1879, another war for independence broke out, but only lasted one year.

From 1895-98, Cuban rebels fought against the Spanish and had them very close to defeat when the United States intervened and seized military control over the island, ignoring the rebel army and government and establishing Jim-Crow style segregation in Cuba when it hadn't existed before.

The US left in 1901 but not before sticking a clause in the Cuban Constitution, the Platt Amendment, that gave the U.S. the right to take Cuba back over again when it felt like doing so (which it did from 1906-09).

In 1933 a group of Cuban university students and junior army officers overthrew a dictator named Gerardo Machado, and the 100-day administration of Ramón Grau (a professor at the University of Havana) instituted a number of progressive, pro-worker reforms. They also got rid of the Platt Amendment, but these social reforms were nipped in the bud by a military coup led by young officer Fulgencio Batista, who acted with the encouragement of U.S. diplomat Sumner Welles.

Batista held power until 1944, when free and fair elections delivered civilian governments in 1944 and 1948 (technically, Batista himself had been elected as a civilian in 1940). However, both of these civilian administrations were very corrupt and disappointing to idealistic young Cubans.

Then in 1952, a reformer from the "Orthodox" Party looked poised to win election as president, when Fulgencio Batista, who still held huge amounts of sway in the Cuban military and was looked to by many upper-class Cubans as a strong figure who could keep order, stepped in and canceled the elections, once again seizing dictatorial power.

A young lawyer by the name of Fidel Castro was a congressional candidate for the Orthodox Party in 1952, and likely would have been elected to Congress if the elections weren't canceled.

Castro decided that the peaceful, electoral path to reform in Cuba was impossible, and decided to begin an armed revolution. On July 26, 1953, Castro and several dozen others attempted to begin the revolution by seizing an army barracks in Santiago in eastern Cuba. They failed, and most were killed or arrested. (He would later name his guerrilla insurgency the M26J-- 26th of July Movement.) Fidel Castro chose to defend himself in court, and in his defense outlined a manifesto for the political and social reform of Cuba-- the manifesto concluded with him saying, "Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me." This "History Will Absolve Me" speech was written down and smuggled out of the courthouse and circulated in Cuba among opponents of Fulgencio Batista's regime.

Castro was let out of prison due to international pressure on Batista to release political prisoners. Upon his release, Castro soon realized he was under constant surveillance, so chose to go into exile in order to be able to plan another armed insurgency in Cuba. He made his way to Mexico City, where he met Che Guevara.

Guevara had been living in Guatemala during the administration of Jacobo Arbenz, a former military officer who was committed to agrarian reform. Arbenz's plan for agrarian reform was to remove unused land from large landholders, such as the American United Fruit Company, and redistribute it to peasants in order to create something of an agricultural middle class (Guatemalan society was extremely unequal). The reform would come with compensation to the landholders (but not at the level United Fruit Company hoped for). The agrarian reform project was prevented by the United States-backed coup d'etat in Guatemala known as Operation PB Success, which took place in 1954. The CIA recruited Guatemalan dissidents to lead an attack on Arbenz's government, and then supported that attack with attacks on the Guatemalan infrastructure and a widespread disinformation campaign, including the dropping of leaflets that stated that Arbenz had already resigned when he hadn't, and radio broadcasts with fake sounds of chaos in the background. The Guatemalan armed forces could defeat the US-backed rebels, but they became convinced that further resistance would provoke direct US military intervention in Guatemala, so they stood down and Arbenz fled the country. The regime that took over, led by Carlos Castillo Armas, immediately carried out a campaign of summary executions against Communists and labor leaders in Guatemala.

Che Guevara saw all this go down-- and for him it was evidence that the United States would not tolerate ANY meaningful reform in Latin America, not even the relatively modest agrarian reform proposed by Arbenz. (There's a LOT more to this story, including myriad connections between the Eisenhower Administration and United Fruit, but I won't go into it here!).

So when Guevara and Castro meet in Mexico City, you've got one guy who's become convinced that the US Empire is so pernicious that it must be violently resisted throughout the region, and that its allies must be overthrown; and another guy who's become convinced that his country's political system is too far gone for peaceful reform, guerrilla insurgency being the only way forward.

Guevara and Castro traveled back to Cuba on a yacht they purchased called the Granma, which they overloaded with too many men and supplies, which meant that they arrived in eastern Cuba much later than they meant to in 1956. They were supposed to land in coordination with the uprising in various cities by M26-J allies, but this failed. Many of those who were on the Granma were soon killed in clashes with Batista's forces.

So the nucleus of guerrilla fighters that began the insurgency in 1956 was really quite small -- only about 18 individuals.

Che Guevara as guerilla commander had a very holistic program for revolution which he put into practice in Cuba. The film Che Part One does a good job portraying many aspects of this. Guevara was a Marxist, which had developed over the course of his youth in the 1950s. However, he was not a doctrinaire Communist on the question of strategy. Neither Castro nor Guevara were members of the Cuban Communist Party at this time. The Communist mothership in Moscow did not encourage these kinds of guerrilla adventures-- and in fact the Cuban Communist Party had condemned Fidel Castro's 1953 attempt to begin a revolution in Santiago de Cuba.

The idea that a small, committed band of rural-based revolutionaries could successfully overthrow a U.S. backed government was contrary to the Communist Party's line at the time-- so Guevara's articulation of this goal is perhaps his most important contribution to history at this time.

After the Cuban insurgency succeeded, Guevara wrote a book called Guerrilla Warfare and a shortened version called "Guerrilla Warfare: A Method." These were, frankly, how-to guides. They were a manual that theoretically anyone in rural Latin America could use to overthrow THEIR government. One of the most important principles that Guevara lays out is the idea that you don't have to wait for all the conditions favorable to revolution to exist before you begin. Rather, the guerilla insurgency itself can bring about the conditions favorable for revolution. The goal is to destabilize society and the economy to create the belief among the people that "something MUST change." At the same time, the guerrilla was to be a social reformer-- a real Robin Hood type of figure that was always pushing agrarian reform as the centerpiece of the program. The guerrillas should, to the extent possible, carry out their social and economic program while the insurgency is going on, in the territory controlled by insurgents. In practice this means providing education to the people, redistributing land, livestock, and food, etc. Furthermore Guevara believed that the insurgents should be like "priests" or "guardian angels," holding themselves to (perhaps unrealistically) high standards of behavior. The film portrays Guevara's summary execution of two guerrillas that had broken these rules. The film also accurately portrays the fact that rural Cubans flocked to the guerrilla forces spontaneously and swelled their ranks. By the end of the insurgency, about 50,000 fighters were under Castro, split between several columns, one commanded by Guevara, others commanded by Raul Castro, Juan Almeida, Camilo Cienfuegos and others.

This "foco" (focus or nucleus) model for guerrilla insurgency as laid out in Guevara's writings also describes when it is appropriate to sabotage the economy, the difference in strategy to be used in rural vs. suburban vs. urban environments, the correct composition of a guerrilla unit in terms of weapons, how to collect ammo and weapons from the enemy, etc.

One thing that Che Part One is a bit confusing about is the politics of the various forces trying to take down Batista's government. Castro's M26J was allied to other organizations based more in Cuba's cities, including worker's organizations and student organizations. Frank País was the urban coordinator of M26J who was extremely influential and perhaps as widely known as Castro. However, in 1957 he was killed in the streets of Santiago de Cuba by police, thereby removing someone who could have been a main rival to Castro for control over a post-Batista Cuba. País had always preferred to take down Batista via general strike, not guerilla warfare. His death helped ensure that the rural guerrillas would play the leading role.

Another general strike was attempted in April of 1958, but that one failed, too. In the summer of '58 leaders of various anti-Batista organizations met in Caracas, Venezuela, and the result of this meeting was a general coalescing behind the leadership of Castro and the rural guerrillas. This included the Cuban Communist Party, which only at this point decided to support M26J and Castro.

By this time the rebels were attacking the choke points of the Cuban economy like sugar mills and transportation, causing the middle classes to grow increasingly exasperated with Batista's government and its inability to defeat the rebels or maintain normalcy.

Toward the end of the summer of 1958, Batista's armed forces launched one big push in eastern Cuba to defeat the rebels, but they failed and left a lot of their arms and equipment in rebel hands. By this point eastern Cuba was largely in the hands of the M26J forces, giving them wide latitude to interact with the people along the lines of education and social reform that Che Guevara emphasized.

By the end of 1958, it was becoming clear to the United States that Batista's regime was doomed, and the decision was made in Washington to pull the rug out from under Batista. He fled the country on New Year's Eve, taking lots of cash with him. The US had decided, essentially, that it was better to try to work with the rebels and "manage" the outcome rather than continue to prop up Batista. On January 1st, 1959, one of Batista's subordinates seized control of the rickety remains of the regime and called for a provisional government; Castro rejected this and called for total capitulation to the M26J, and also called for a general strike throughout Cuba. This succeeded in getting the reins of power totally in his hands by a week later.

After this, Guevara wrote his guerrilla warfare manuals and hoped they would inspire similar types of insurgencies all over Latin America, and to some extent, they did.

Che Part Two takes place in 1967 after Guevara spent several years in the new Cuban revolutionary government as economic minister, and also traveled widely around the world both as diplomat and as guerrilla commander in Africa.

A fundamental difference between Cuba and Bolivia stemmed from their distinct colonial histories. Cuba was a Spanish colony that overwhelmingly relied on African slave labor; slavery ended in the 1860s and Cuban society evolved to be overwhelmingly white, Black, and mixed-race (with some very small numbers of Chinese immigrants and other groups). There was little to no indigenous presence in Cuba in the 1950s; this meant that the Cuban revolutionaries would have encountered no linguistic barriers between themselves and the peasants of rural Cuba. In Bolivia, on the other hand, African slavery was a relatively unimportant feature of the colonial period. Instead, Bolivia's large indigenous population was exploited by the colonial upper classes in a sort of feudalistic fashion. Very stark linguistic and cultural divides between the urban elites and the rural, indigenous majority persisted in Bolivia into the 1960s. Guevara and his guerrillas were not operating among a population they could communicate with easily, in many instances.

A political party called the MNR (National Revolutionary Movement) took over Bolivia in 1952 and had a sweeping program of reforms, including many aimed at reducing the exploitation and poverty of rural indigenous people and incorporating them more fully into national political life. Indians gained the right to vote and organized themselves into militias. The large landholdings of the upper-class land barons were broken up and redistributed to indigenous communities and "syndicates," who then very tenaciously held on to the land they had won. According to the historian Herbert Klein, this victory made Bolivia's Indians laser-focused on protecting their lands, but somewhat indifferent to other political questions, and even "conservative" in a sense. They continued to support the MNR and president Victor Paz Estenssoro even as the MNR lost the support of miners and some middle-class types. Paz was re-elected in 1964 with lots of rural indigenous support, but then was overthrown by the military, who deemed that he couldn't keep control over the restive miners and deteriorating economy.

This is the military regime that controlled Bolivia when Che came to the country. BUT, and it's a big but, the circumstances on the ground in Bolivia actually did not fit Che's own model for revolution in various ways.

For one thing, Bolivia had a pretty robust recent tradition of electoral democracy, and rural Bolivians had actually seen their political and economic rights increasing lately, and also their access to land. So it didn't really make sense for the guerrillas to make agrarian reform the centerpiece of their program, as they had in Cuba, because agrarian reform had been successfully carried out already.

The military dictator, General Barrientos, spoke Quechua, one of Bolivia's major indigenous languages, which meant he had a good relationship with some sectors of Bolivia's rural people. And while the military dictatorship was undemocratic, there were several strong political parties in Bolivia. So while Castro and Guevara might have reasonably concluded that the democratic path to power was totally shut off in Cuba, it was a stretch to see Bolivia that way.

Also, most of Bolivia's indigenous population lived in the high elevation region of the country where there was little cover for guerrilla operations. The tropical forests in the east offered plenty of cover for the guerrillas, but there weren't very many people there to work with. So you couldn't really carry out the program of simultaneous revolution and social services/reform in cover that Che calls for in his book.

Moreover, there weren't many linkages between rural Bolivia and urban Bolivia, or between indigenous farmers and the mining sector. While the M26J movement in Cuba had a lot of contacts with workers' and student organizations in Cuba's cities, no similar framework existed in Bolivia for Che's guerrillas to draw on.

When Che formed the foco in Bolivia, only 29 out of 50 fighters were Bolivian-- and all of the positions of authority were held by Cubans. They did recruit some Bolivians to join them after that point, but couldn't rely on any alliance with Bolivian parties or organizations to help them do this.

Che and the guerrillas never had the support of the Bolivian Communist Party. They totally disagreed on leadership and broader strategy. (You see this in the disagreements with Mario Monje, portrayed by Lou Diamond Phillips.) The Communist Party in Bolivia wanted to focus on building power from urban bases and was very skeptical of the whole guerrillas-in-the-forest thing (as the Communist Party in Cuba initially had been, too!). The Sino-Soviet split of 1967 also guaranteed that different factions of the left would be divided on these kinds of questions. The USSR had adopted the stance of avoiding conflict with the US and its allies; Cuba was very dependent on the USSR for trade, and so even Cuba couldn't really help Che and the guerrillas in Bolivia all that much, lest they anger the USSR.

The site they chose for their guerrilla operations was too remote and difficult. Though it may have helped them evade capture at first, it was so difficult to navigate that it was probably more of a burden than an advantage.

They also located their base in a place where the government of Barrientos had recently carried out agrarian reform, delivering 10-hectare plots to 16,000 families. So far from flocking to join the guerrillas, the people living nearby likely viewed them as an untrustworthy group that might screw up the tangible benefits they had just gotten from the government's agrarian reform. Logically, they often reported on the guerrillas' activities to the authorities.

Che's foco started attacking the Bolivian armed forces too early, before they were really well situated in their base and before they had the opportunity to grow their ranks. This alerted the USA in March of 1967 and they sent 20 special forces soldiers to Bolivia who started training up a Bolivian ranger unit.

Che then decided to divide the small foco in April of 1967 and it was never put back together again, because the column led by the Cuban alias Joaquín was wiped out at the end of August.

By mid-September, 600 Bolivian rangers were ready to go-- they determined where Guevara's couple dozen remaining guerrillas were and surrounded them. The movie portrays this sense of a vise closing in very effectively.

Interesting Facts? A space to provide info that isn't historical in context, such as trivia about the making of the film. This should be related to the film or the topic it's covering. (Optional)

On his appearance with Marc Maron on the WTF Podcast, Steven Soderbergh stated that Che was his last "film"; everything he's made since have been "movies." Make of that what you will!

Total budget for both films was $60 million, with 39 days of filming allocated for each.

Steven Soderbergh stated that he was attracted to the story of Guevara because of "his will." Moreover, "His ability to sustain outrage is what is remarkable to me. We all get outraged about stuff, but to sustain it to the point of putting your ass on the line to change what outrages you, to do it consistently year after year, and to twice walk away from everything and everybody to do it -- it's not normal."

Part One and Part Two were deliberately designed to be mirror images of each other, in the opposite fashion. Many scenes in Part One have their direct analogue in Part Two; something succeeding in the former, something failing in the latter.

Part One always frames Che as part of a group while in Cuba-- there are no close ups of Che during the guerrilla struggle in the Sierra Maestra. The close ups come in the 1964 scenes in black and white.

Part Two, however, often includes close-ups of Che, indicating that he was growing increasingly isolated and was not part of a well-functioning ensemble.

Part One was shot more like an action movie, with wide panoramas, while Part Two was shot more like a horror movie, with a lot of hand-held, claustrophobic shots.

Works Cited

Antoni Kapcia, Cuba in Revolution, Reaktion Books 2008
Marifeli Pérez-Stable, The Cuban Revolution: Origins, Course, and Legacy, 2nd ed, Oxford University Press 1999
Leslie Bethell, ed., Cuba: A Short History, Cambridge University Press, 1993
Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare, 3rd edition, SR Books 1997
Brian Loveman and Thomas M. Davies, Jr., "Case Studies of Guerrilla Movements and Political Change," in Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare, 3rd edition, SR Books 1997
Amy Taubin, "Why Che?" from the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray set of Che Part One and Che Part Two