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With Che in Cambridge



THE AUTUMN IS dying hard in Cambridge; already there is January in the air. But for now, the Yard fills up with students walking back and forth in an endless minuet of form to library to class, stopping perhaps to sail back an errant frisbee. It is hard to get very concerned about anything in such an idyllic setting; contradictions are not so apparent. There are other streets in Cambridge that are not so pretty, and they are only blocks away. But then, Cambridge is a town full of contradictions. It is a city that contains a colony of the most affluent young people in the world. Later they leave Cambridge; some of them get rich and buy expensive homes and things like boats, and some of them send money to Harvard every year. If they send in enough, sometimes, they get buildings put up in the Yard with their names gracing the facades.

People who come from the not-so-pretty streets of Cambridge must sometimes wander into the Yard, and read the names; they must sometimes wonder at the strange incongruity of it all. In another life, Ernesto "Che" Cuevara might have wandered into the Yard, cigar in mouth, and wondered. Or he may have been a student here, performing the strange dance, and then maybe he wouldn't have. Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia ten years ago today. He was trying to start a revolution.

Bolivia was a curious place for Ernesto Guevara to end up. The son of upper-class Argentine parents who encouraged him in his medical studies, a strikingly handsome young man who suffered all his life from acute attacks of asthma, by all rights he should have ended his life a wealthy doctor ensconced in Buenos Aires, idly composing poetry in his spare time, leading a reflective, unremarkable life. Instead, eight years after he and Fidel Castro had taken Cuba, he would write to his parents:

About ten years ago I wrote you another letter of farewell. As I remember, I lamented not being a better soldier and a better doctor. That no longer interests me; I am not such a bad soldier.

He would go on to tell them in this, his last letter to them, that his Marxism had led him to a firm conviction in armed struggle as the only solution for people who fight to liberate themselves, and that he would be consistent with these beliefs. Two years later, he would be captured in a lonely canyon in the Bolivian jungle, his legs shot away, firing his rifle until it was shot out of his hands. Denied medical treatment and tortured, he died, mercifully, the next night. He would be buried in an unmarked grave. In the end, he would not even be such a good soldier--Che was tracked down and killed by 650 Bolivian rangers, especially trained over some four months for the task by United States Green Berets. The manual of guerrilla warfare they used was Che's, written from notes compiled during the Cuban campaigns.

Che's great fault, and strength, lay in his anger, a young man's outrage at the contradictions between the way things are and the way they are supposed to be. As a student, he fought his asthma and walked the length of the South American continent, working for a time as a doctor in a Peruvian leper colony, and then as a sort of itinerant medic in the northern countries of the continent. What he saw made him angry, and soon he left for Guatemala, to join in the revolution there. It was soon put down by CIA-backed counter-revolutionaries, and Che would barely escape with his skin, to Mexico. His awareness now awakened, the young physician studied political theory there, and met a man named Fidel Castro.

HE NUMBERED among the 87 men who sailed for Cuba in 1956. At first, his primary duty was to attend to the wounded among the group; when the original force was whittled down to ten men, he had to take up the gun. Che would recount later that he had been carrying two packs when his column came under ambush. He had a decision to make, as his asthma would allow him to run with only one. He laid down the pack full of medicines and surgical supplies to run with the one filled with vital ammunition. From then on he was a revolutionary.

Castro was forced to recognize his sill; Che became the twin commander of the revolutionary army. Later he would become Minister for Economics and a commandant, the Cuban army's highest rank. He was not suited for the former; the vagaries of international finance are not readily grasped by a young man, particularly an angry young man. The Cuban revolution now finished, Che abandoned the work of a government official, and prepared for the Bolivian expedition, with Fidel's help.

It was not an unlikely choice, although Che was woefully ignorant of the Andean country's internal politics and character. This lack of familiarity later proved disastrous when the revolutionaries found themselves cut off, alienated from the Bolivian peasants who feared them, and isolated from the leftist students and workers in the cities who might have helped if they could. Bolivia is bordered by five countries, and Che hoped it would be the spark that would ignite the tinderboxes of its neighbors: Chile, Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, and most important, Che's Argentine homeland. He also hoped to tie up the United States, at the time busily murdering Vietnamese. U.S. intervention in Bolivia would almost have certainly brought down U.S-supported dictatorships in other South American countries. Che wrote:

What a luminous, near future would be visible to us if two, three or many Vietnams appeared throughout the world with their share of death and immense tragedies, their everyday heroism and repeated blows against imperialism, obliging it to disperse its forces under the attack and the increasing hatred of all the peoples of the earth!

This was the reason for creating a "revolutionary focus" in Bolivia. Che was an agrarian revolutionary; he didn't believe that revolution would come about when the time was right, led by workers in the cities. A revolution could come about anytime the population was oppressed, if only their resentment could be channeled into a revolutionary force. In Bolivia, they could not be. Organized in the fall of 1966, the group blundered about for eleven months. Che made many tactical errors. Instead of expanding, as the poor rushed to join them, the group suffered steady losses in skirmishes and from disease, and finally became isolated without the peasant support it needed and had counted on so heavily. Che's Bolivian diaries, smuggled out and published, spells out the frustration he felt all through the summer of 1967. They tell a story of lost comrades, sickness, errors, missed opportunities, and finally, a tightening circle. Through September there are almost daily comments on the radio broadcasts which report him dead. The entry for September 28 begins, "A day of anguish. At times it seemed as if it would be our last." But beginning in October, the tone of the story suggests the calm before the final storm. Che confines himself to military reports, but the agitation evident before is gone. The diary has become an exercise necessary for sanity, as his health deteriorates steadily. For most of the Bolivian campaign Che had to ride a horse or mule rather than walk; these beasts of burden were continually sacrificed when there was no food.

WHY THE IMPORTANCE of Che? Because Che was angry. He was angry when he saw children starving, old men and women without adequate medical care, people who had to work all their lives at back-breaking, mind-numbing jobs they hated because they had been denied the chance to make decent lives for themselves. He grew angry when he heard of Vietnamese peasants blinded, maimed and killed by Americans, not because they were Vietnamese or American, but because they were people. He would write, in his last letter home to his own children:

Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone anywhere in the world. That is the most beautiful quality of a revolutionary.

It is the most beautiful quality of a human being.

The contradictions inherent in living in the womb that is Harvard are too easy to overlook. Anger may be inefficient, but complacency comes too easily. In the blood of the martyrs grow the seedlings that become the oaken beams of the church; if we remember Che even here in Cambridge, then maybe we can remember the injustices and contradictions that thread our country and the world. Perhaps in our righteous anger we will do something for the hungry, sick and numbed people of the world that extends beyond Currier and past Mather, the people who never join in the dance that begins each day in front of the steps of Widener.

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