Born in Argentina in 1928, and killed in Bolivia on October 9, 1967, Che rose to international prominence as one of the key leaders of the 1959 Cuban revolution that overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista. But after a period in the new Cuban government leadership, Che aimed to spark revolutionary activity internationally, believing that the only way to preserve social, economic and political rights on a local level was through global action. He traveled to Congo in Africa and to Bolivia, where he was subsequently captured, interrogated and executed. His hands were cut off so the finger prints would prove he was dead.
Che was buried in a secret mass grave. But just this past year researchers recovered his remains. On Saturday, Che’s casket will be publicly displayed in Havana and he will then be taken to the central city of Santa Clara, the scene of a famous victory during the Cuban Revolution. His casket will be shown for two days before a funeral ceremony on October 17.
October 9, 1997 Che Thirty Years Later
AMY GOODMAN: Joining us right now to talk about what the US knew about Che Guevara during the years that he was alive are two lawyers who got his FBI files. After we speak with them, we’ll hear his well-known address at the United Nations in October of 1964. Then we’ll hear a very revealing round table interview done with a group of reporters with him in December of 1964 in New York. Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith join us now.
They’re authors of the book, “Che Guevara and the FBI: The US Political Police Dossier on the Latin American Revolutionary”. Welcome to Democracy Now .
MICHAEL RATNER: Good morning Amy.
MICHAEL SMITH: Hi Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t we start with Michael Ratner, you’re an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-author of this book. How did you get these files?
MICHAEL RATNER: A number of years ago, when I was doing a lot of work on the Freedom of Information Act, I applied to the FBI for their files on Che Guevara.
Surprise of surprise, I got two huge boxes of documents back a couple of years ago, many of which were extremely interesting because a lot of them were recorded speeches of Che’s that were live that no one else had and a number of them were actual FBI and CIA documents that demonstrated that the CIA spying and the FBI spying went back all the way till 1954 when Che was a 25-year-old in Guatemala .
We got them from the Freedom of Information Act, many of them are blacked out so we can’t read everything that the FBI and CIA knew and we didn’t get many documents. We don’t have the precise documents on assassination plots against Che but we have a great deal that extremely interesting, extremely amusing in certain ways and extremely serious in other ways demonstrating how the CIA and the FBI went after Che.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about the first document that the US saw, the CIA in Guatemala.
Let me put that question to Michael Steven Smith who co-wrote the book, “Che Guevara and the FBI”. He’s author of also “Notebook of a 60s Lawyer” , and is on the Editorial Board of Guild Notes, the journal of the National Lawyers’ Guild. What about this awareness the US had of Che Guevara?
MICHAEL SMITH: In 1954 in Guatemala, there had been elected a man named Arbenz who was running a really dramatic Democratic reform government. The city served as a magnet to attract radicals from all over Latin America including Che. Che was there. He was a doctor. He was looking for work. He was there for 11 months, never found a job but worked very hard struggling to support Arbenz when the CIA hired an ex-furniture salesman, armed him
in neighboring Nicaragua and overthrew him. That was a real political education for Che. It was also the first time that Che came to the attention of the CIA and the FBI. That’s when they opened up what was to become one of the largest files they ever put together on anybody .
AMY GOODMAN: They found a document on Che in what? The Guatemalan military files?
MICHAEL SMITH: The Guatemalan Police were watching him. The CIA had agents down there. We read about in [inaudible 00:03: 16] a guy named Philips, ex-CIA agent wrote a memoir. In it, he recalls the moment that he saw Che’s name came up and he turned to his boss, he says, “This guys is interesting. He’s a doctor. He’s 25 years old. He’s down here working for Arbenz. You think we should open up a file on him? The other guy says, “Yeah, I think we should start one.”
MICHAEL RATNER: I think one of the important points about that is, that Che was no different than probably 10,00 other people living in Guatemala at that moment who are opposed to the US overthrow of Arbenz. They kept a file on him. What it really indicates is that the US CIA and the FBI basically keep files on anybody who opposed their policy throughout Central or Latin America, thousands of files.
MICHAEL SMITH: The question is, the FBI is supposed to be a domestic organization that fights things like international car theft and taking women across state lines for immoral purposes and bank robberies. What are they doing keeping track of a 25-year-old Argentinian physician in Guatemala? This is supposed to be a domestic organization.
AMY GOODMAN: What are they doing?
MICHAEL SMITH: The answer to that is, when the FBI got off the ground under Hoover’s direction, Hoover was the guy who originally put the files together back in 1920. By 1921 they had 400,000 files on Americans. The head of this whole operation was a guy named Mel Palmer, Hoover’s boss. Palmer was really happy with Hoover’s work. He said to him, “You did great work Edgar,” he said. “Because we want these people to know that we’re watching them.” Ifthey had 400,000 files back in 1920, you can imagine how many they got now.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that the files that you got, that you applied for through the Freedom Of Information act to the FBI were mainly CIA files.
MICHAEL RATNER: Right. What it indicates is the amount of sharing of information among US agencies. Ifyou actually look at some of these documents, there’s probably 20 different agencies that are following Che in some way or another. Every branch of the Army, Navy, Military, every branch of the White House, they all… these files are distributed to everybody, they’re all watching Che. It’s an extensive, extensive file about Che Guevara.
MICHAEL SMITH: In our book, Che Guevara and the FBI, we re-print four different biographies that the secret police put together on Che. The amazing thing is is that they’re so accurate. These people really know what they’re talking about. They may be cynical but they are sophisticated. One of them is 5 pages long. It’s so detailed about Che and Che’s family that you got to wonder, they must have terrific relations with all the other police forces in Latin America. Che had covered all of Latin America. By the time he was 25, he had been to almost every country I think except Jamaica. They knew it. They knew all about it. That’s the kind of outfit that we’re dealing with. It’s really international.
MICHAEL RATNER: They’re accurate but on the other hand there’s something very interesting about the documents. Is they demonstrate the prejudices the United States has toward Latin Americans and toward Che. The fact that, they can’t see past those prejudices a lot.
When one of the documents that is quite extraordinary , they basically realized that Che is quite a bright guy. What does the document say? Che is fairly intellectual for a Latino. In other words, all Latinos are dumb but Che happens to be a smart one. That’s the same attitude really that allowed them to intervene and Guatemala, and allowed to intervene Granada and everywhere else. That’s the attitude that they have toward Latin Americans in these documents.
MICHAEL SMITH: The story behind that is the CIA sent an agent into Che’s camp when he was fighting the Sierra Maestras in 1957.
AMY GOODMAN: This is when he had come to Cuba with Fidel Castro.
MICHAEL SMITH: He went to Cuba with Fidel. When they landed, there was 80 of them . They were on a motor yacht called The Grandma. Batista knew they were coming.
AMY GOODMAN: The Cuban dictator.
MICHAEL SMITH: When they landed, the Cuban dictator .had organized troops to attack him, only 12 were left. It was miraculous. The 12 got into the hills and from there they made history . When they were up there in the Sierras, the CIA sent in an agent posing as a journalist to find out about what’s Che like. Is he a communist, etc? This guys actually slept in Che’s tent with Che for a week. He writes a report back that we got and we published in our book. It’s really interesting. They talk about, he smoked long cigars at night, what he wore, his teeth, when he bathe. Then the agent winds up reporting that at night, Che would read to his troops. Every night he would read to his troops. This week, he happened to be reading, [inaudible 00:07:48]. That’s when this guy comments, “He seems pretty intellectual for a Latino”.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Michael Steven Smith and Michael Ratner. They’re two attorneys who got access under the Freedom of Information Act to the files of Che Guevara. They’ve put this book together, “Che Guevara and the FBI: the US Political Police Dossier on the Latin American Revolutionary”.
Let’s talk a little more about what is in these files because you just point to that Michael that it was a journalist that was actually sent by the US intelligence agencies to sleep in that tent. Is that right?
MICHAEL SMITH: That’s unethical Amy isn’t it, for a journalist to do that? Isn’t that unethical ?
MICHAEL RATNER: They’re still authorized to do that. I remember a few years ago when there was a big debate over whether the CIA and FBI. It was the FBI guidelines on internal security as well as overseas, whether they could use journalists . Apparently, they still can.
AMY GOODMAN: But another point that you make Michael is his use of an inhalant because he was severely asthmatic and what the US wanted to do about that.
MICHAEL RATNER: The US was aware, when he was in the Sierra Maestra, which in 1957 and 1958 fighting for the liberation of Cuba, that he was an asthmatic and that he had very, very serious asthma. The US documents point out that his survival is depending completely on this inhaler and without this inhaler basically that he would die. What are they thinking about? They’re obviously thinking about an assassination attempt. Some of your listeners may recall, they did try and poison Fidel Castro’s cigars. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a document in here that we don’t have yet that says, “Let’s poison his inhaler and let’s try and kill him that way.” That’s what these documents lead to, that they were trying to assassinate Che, probably as early as the 1957 and 1958, of course, ending with the CIA assassination in 1967.
MICHAEL SMITH: There’s no smoking gun but there’s a pistol with a warm handle. That’s the request in 1964 that the FBI made for a set of Che’s fingerprints. We know then in ’67, after they had succeeded in murdering him, that one of the Bolivian ministers, I believe it was the Foreign Minister , flew from Bolivia to Washington with a set of fingerprints so they can compare the two to make sure they got the right guy.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about your trip recently. You actually had a book release party in Cuba. You’ve met with Che’s daughter. Tell us what this was about and what the reaction of the Cubans was to these FBI files. Didn’t you also meet with the head of Cuban intelligence for many years?
MICHAEL RATNER: Yes. We had a extraordinary week in Cuba. We met with Che’s daughter. It was at the conference we were at. She spoke. Then we sat around in the afternoon or evening, discussing reminiscings of Che. People asked her, what was her most important memory of her father and what was the things she thought most about with her father.
She said, “That was that her father stood for love, that he stood for the fact of love of his children, love of humanity and love of making sure that people did not feel pain anywhere in the world . Tomas Borge, the former Commandante in Nicaragua was in the audience. He said the other thing that he stood for was hate, hate of imperialism , and that was the thing he hated the most. But in many way, hat is the highest for of love because hating imperialism is the highest form of love you can have. It was an extraordinary day, week actually in Cuba. The other person we met who you mentioned the head of the Cuban operations during this period when Che was undertaking revolutionary activities as with the Cubans. That’s Manuel Pinero, who had never before made a public statement. He did make a public statement to us about Che’s activities, Che’s death. He put to rest forever, I think if you needed to put it to rest, the fact that some people like an author named Jorge Castaneda, are claiming that Fidel purposely failed to rescue Che in Bolivia. It’s just a made up story.
What he said was, “Look, if they were going to…” Che never had a plan to be rescued. It was either revolution or death. To rescue him, Cuba would have had to declare war on Bolivia, send in 10,000 paratroopers , and even that, they probably would have failed. It was not an issue and people like that are saying that Fidel somehow purposely wanted to martyr Che, it’s just complete garbage. That’s what I, I agree with that.
MICHAEL SMITH: He also said, “What went wrong? ” Because there’s been a lot of criticism of Che, particularly on the left, it was a fool’s errand. He should have never done it.
AMY GOODMAN: Got into Bolivia.
MICHAEL SMITH: Go on to Bolivia. Pinero said, “You have to take a chance.” The problem was that Che’s base camp was upended immediately after he set it up. Che and his troops were caught off balance immediately. The second thing that happened to him was they got split up from half their troop. Che spent the 11 months remaining to him looking for the other half of the troop because he didn’t want to abandon them. Then they got stuck fighting in a terrain that they didn’t want to be on amongst Indians who spoke [Katchewan 00: 12:43] so they had a communication problem and the population was too thin to support the guerrilla activity. They took a chance, it didn’t work. I think the thing you have to say is, that’s the kind of chance that revolutionaries take.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back with Michael Smith and Michael Ratner in just a minute. Then we’re going to hear a speech that Che Guevara gave at the UN in 1964. Then a far-ranging, rather personally revealing interview done with a bunch of reporters in New York in December of 1964. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now. We’ll be back in 60 seconds.
You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now, I’m Amy Goodman, still joined by Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith. They are co-authors of “Che Guevara and the FBI: The US Political Police Dossier on the Latin American Revolutionary published by Ocean Press.
You’re talking about your trip to Cuba. Just to re-trace Che Guevara’s itinerary, after the Cuban revolution , he was a government official in Cuba. You can tell us why he got tired of that and left. He went to the Congo and then went on to Bolivia.
MICHAEL SMITH: The fact is that he wanted to leave from the very beginning . One of the conditions that he told Fidel when he signed up to go on with Fidel from Mexico city to Cuba was that he wanted to go on. He was an Argentinian after all and that’s really where his heart lay, in Argentina. Fidel said, by all means, we need your support, you’ll come with us, when you’re ready to move on, you move on.
MICHAEL RATNER: He also understood that the Cuban revolution could not survive on its own. Without widespread revolutionary movements in Latin America, the Cuban revolution would become isolated . He always understood that the Cuban revolution was the first episode in what he hope was a wider revolutionary war. Which is why his diary in the Congo is called An Episode in the war in the Congo.
MICHAEL SMITH: The other thing was he wanted to show solidarity with Vietnam. You remember his famous call? Create 2, 3, many Vietnams. He thought that if they opened up a second front, it would take some pressure off the Vietnamese. It was an act of solidarity with the Vietnamese revolution .
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting because I just heard his economic advisors speak and he said, “When Che came to give his UN speech, he kept asking him, He was an American , he was a US citizen. He kept asking him, “Do you think that the war in Vietnam would spread the troops too thin if we were to do something else somewhere else?”
MICHAEL RATNER: Right. It wasn’t just to take the pressure off Vietnam . It was his understanding that with the US tied up in Vietnam , it might be a time for revolutionary activity in Latin America because the US couldn’t do everything.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael , also in the book, Che Guevara and the FBI, you have these documents, CIA documents, that talk about the political leanings as you were saying. Was Che an ardent communist? Raising questions about where he was coming from and talking about him being a Latin American like a child. It was more about that than his politics.
MICHAEL RATNER: Right. In fact, there’s a very interesting part of the documents that demonstrate the prejudice of the United States. United States officials, the CIA, cannot believe that Che can have a serious problem with the United States, in the sense that the US is economically exploiting Latin Americans or in any other way harming them. They put it all on Che’s emotional attitudes. What they say is, that Che’s hostility to the United States has no real basis, but is an attitude which is fairly common among young Latin Americans . Then they say, his emotional hostility is typical of a national inhabitant of a small and backward and weak country towards the big and rich and strong country.
What are you getting from that? Just that the US is a fine country, it says that we’re bigger and richer then the Latin American countries and therefore, Che’s emotionally upset about that. Not that there might be millions and millions of people in poverty in Latin America and Democratic governments over thrown by the United States, that might give Che a objective basis for disliking the Unites states.
MICHAEL SMITH: Then they figured out that not only was Che a communist, but he wasn’t the communist of your garden variety Russian leadership type that was pretty content of leaving things for the status quo and not rock the boat. He was a communist that wanted to spread worldwide revolution and challenge American Economic, and Political power across the globe. That’s the worst kind of communist. There’s a lot of information in our book about documenting that and being alarmed about that. In fact, there is one document where John F. Kennedy’s advisor Richard Goodwin, who went to work for Johnson after Kennedy got killed.
AMY GOODMAN: Doris [inaudible 00:18:19] Goodwin’s husband .
MICHAEL SMITH: Yeah. Goodwin took a couple of aides up in 1968 to brief the New York Times on the difference between the Russian Communist and the Fidelista Cuban Communist who wanted to spread the revolution worldwide. Those are the really bad ones and he wanted to make sure The Times understood the line and got it right. We re-print that document.
AMY GOODMAN: How did Che fit in to the Cuban Missile Crisis?
MICHAEL RATNER: He did put in to the Cuban Missiles Crisis in a very, very particular way. There were two ways in the book. At least one major way, after the missile crisis is over, there’s going to be this so-called [inaudible 00: 19:00] with the United States and with the Soviet Union and things that’ supposedly be okay. The US is then going to try and get back in this [inaudible 00: 19:09] with the Soviet Union. Che gives a speech in London basically saying, “The need for worldwide revolution is still crucial and important.” He gives it to the London Daily Worker. That speech then comes back to the United Nations and Adlai Stevenson, who is the US person at the United Nations , and they say, “Look, how can we now get along with Cuba and even the Soviet Union when Che is still saying, even after the Soviet Union pulled out its missiles, that we need worldwide revolution .They used that, they used Che’s speech in London at that point as our documents show, as an excuse for continuing a cold war, a hot war against Cuba really , and against the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re just now going to go to a speech of Che Guevara at the UN in October of 1964. He’s very angry at the United States but he also, when he left for the Congo, was very angry also at the Soviet Union. Would you say that’s the case?
MICHAEL RATNER: I think that’s an exaggeration actually. I think that his speech are now geared towards what everybody cites when he says, the Socialist country shouldn’t exploit the poor souls. The rich souls of this country should sell on better terms with the poor socialist countries. I think that’s a more complicated speech. It says two things. At first, thanks the Soviet Union for actually having good trade terms with Cuba and says the Soviet Union , more than other countries has been willing to do this.
It then goes in to their critique of the Soviet Union and other Socialist countries who have unequal trade terms. I think it’s a mixed speech. There’s some criticism , but there’s also a recognition of the support the Soviet Union was giving to Cuba and other countries.
MICHAEL SMITH: He never lost sight that the United States was the main enemy, not the Soviet Union.
AMY GOODMAN: I think we’re going to clearly hear that in a speech that he gives right now. I want to thank you both for being with us. Michael Ratner and Michael Stephen Smith, both attorneys who got their hands on the FBI files on Che Guevara, and they have published them in a book called, “Che Guevara and the FBI: The US Political Police Dossier on the Latin American Revolutionary. It is published by Ocean Press.