Steve Wilkinson reviews a new book on Che
GIVEN the recent mass arrests by the FBI of ten alleged Cuban agents who it is claimed had infiltrated the anti-Cuban mafia network of Miami, perhaps it is timely to recall the way in which the ‘Feds’ kept a tail on Che for over 15 years.
This book reminds us of that operation in the most reliable way, by reproducing the FBI’s files on Che for the first time. The editors have managed to prise out of the Bureau a whole swathe of documents under the Freedom of Information Act which make for entertaining (and disturbing) reading despite the efforts of a dutiful agent who blacked out whole sections and many names, presumably to protect the guilty, before handing them over. Even so, what is left is really quite astonishing, at once comical and often grave.
The book, the work of civil liberties lawyers Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith, brings together a morass of evidence which explains not only the manically obsessive nature of the US state apparatus’s attitude towards the Cuban Revolution but also the illusory nature of much of their so-called ‘intelligence.’
To put it bluntly, if these documents are anything to go by, unless the FBI has improved its performance the ten Cubans recently arrested in Miami are as likely to be spies for Castro as I am a pixie. For despite the evident thoroughness of their work, this book shows the FBI to be also thoroughly incompetent.
What is interesting is that the documents are only from the FBI which, as the authors point out, is only supposed to involve itself with internal subversion. Nevertheless, after the Bureau started its surveillance of Che in 1952 when he visited Miami, it followed him everywhere he went. In 1954, agents followed him to Guatemala and watched as he took part in the struggle against the coup organised by their comrades-in-arms in the CIA. By 1956, when he was arrested in Mexico, the FBI already had bundles of reports on him. However, just how accurate they might be is very much open to question. In 1958 for example, there is one report which has Che arrested in Miami when we all know he was in the Sierra fighting the Revolution with Fidel.
The book reveals the following ‘howlers’: Che “never studied medicine,” Che “hates to wash and will never do so,” Che “is fairly intellectual for a Latino” and the most surreal: “Che was killed in a yellow submarine trying to enter the Dominican Republic.” There are plenty more.
Perhaps the most useful element in the book for the historian is the new angle it provides on the aftermath to the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. A memorandum included here sent by Kennedy’s adviser, Richard Goodwin, reveals that Che wanted to arrive at a modus vivendi with the United States. In a meeting with Goodwin during the Organisation of American States conference in Punta del Este, Uruguay, Che apparently offered to sever Cuba’s ties with the USSR if the US would come to an agreement with Cuba. But these documents show that Goodwin advised the President to do exactly the opposite: increase the blockade, exclude Cuba from international fora and “eliminate the peaceful co-existence that Castro is trying to create.”
There has been much speculation in recent times about the possibility that Kennedy was moving towards the “peaceful co-existence” option shortly before his death. If he were, then it certainly was not on the advice of FBI informants like Goodwin, whose obsessive nature is revealed in the way that after Che’s death, he got together with the New York Times editor Ben Wells, to write an exposé of the revolutionary which tried to equate Che’s Bolivian adventure with Trotskyism in the hope that this would exacerbate problems between Cuba and the Soviets.
It is interesting to ponder on the fact that, after so much has been written negating the influence of Che or the importance of his ideas, the FBI should do him the honor of trying to destroy his reputation in this way. This book is a primary source which proves the very real threat Washington saw in Che.