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ANNIVERSARY ESSAY: REGIS DEBRAY ON CHE GUEVARA

PUBLISHED IN THE NOV/DEC 1997 NACLA REPORT

" NACLA is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary with a series of "anniversary essays. We have asked a number of prominent NACLA-affiliated intellectuals and activists to reflect on the past 30 years of Latin American history and politics through the prism of the ideas, concepts and events that have been central to our understanding of the region. Here, by way of a sharp critique of the political thought and practice of the French intellectual Regis Debray, Carlos Was reconsiders the meaning of Che Guevara’s death in Bolivia, 30 years ago next October. NACLA hopes these essays will stimulate debate about our understanding of the past and our struggles to remake the future."

By Carlos Vilas

We are approaching the 30th anniversary of the October 1967 death of Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Bolivia–an event one would think of as favorable for the appearance of remembrances, homages, business deals and, hopefully, serious reflections. In fact, a number of serious books and films on Che are in the works, and a few–Paco Ignacio Taibo's sensitive account of Che's ill-fated African campaign, and a Swiss documentary on Che's last days in Bolivia–are already out and in circulation.

Also among the authors of forthcoming books, we find the mercurial Regis Debray, the French intellectual who did more than anyone else to popularize the idea that "Guevarism" was the one true road to the revolution. In a widely circulated essay which will surely boost the sales of his soon-to-be-published book, Debray paints a personally and politically damning portrait of the famed guerrilla of whom he was once so fond. It is a portrait that conflicts with the memories of many people who knew Che personally, and with the image that arises from countless testimonials-–those of individuals who shared particularly difficult moments with Che, as well as those of his political enemies. "Che believed in the people," says one of his compa�eros of the African guerrilla movement. "Che was authoritarian and sectarian," the once-adulatory French intellectual now tells us. According to Debray, Che was hard, implacable, and excessively demanding of the people with whom he worked-an authoritarian leader who overstepped the bounds of severity.

Che undoubtedly had a strong character. ("He could be so Argentine his ex-wife, the his-torian Aleida March once told me). The guerrilla army, more than any other kind of army, is hard. Discipline becomes a fundamental factor for survival and victory. But all the first-hand testimony coin-cides in identifying Che as a firm, responsible and enormously human leader. To what, then, can we attribute Debray's new attitude? Is it simply a cheap recourse to sell expensive books?

Alcida Guevara, Che's daughter and a doctor like her father, offers a hypothesis: Debray is responsible for the Bolivian army finding Che's column, and finally, although indirectly, for his death. In statements made this August to the Buenos Aires daily Clarin, Aleida suggests that Debray's statements upon being captured in April, 1967 made the army's work easier. To facilitate Debray's exit from the jungle, she suggests, Che's column changed its original plans, lost time, and all this was taken advantage of by the military. Is this the clue to the sudden change in Debray's long and supposedly deeply held allegiances? It is quite conceivably part of it.

Upon the publication of Aleida's comments, Debray counterattacked, attempting to discredit Che's daughter: she was only a child at the time; how could she know what was happening; she is repeating what others have told her; she is obeying the orders of the Stalinist Cuban government to discredit him; these orders simply prove the dictatorial character of the Cuban regime.

Over the past 30 years, Debray has always adopted a more or less progressive stance, in contrast to his current attitude. But his present criticism is not that of someone who demands more or another type of socialism. Rather, it is Mas Canosa-style invective–the invective of those who condemn socialism under its difficult Cuban conditions. What had led Che's one-time popularizer to draw this caricature and to spew invectives against his daughter and the besieged Cuban regime?

The outbursts of Regis Debray oblige us to ask ourselves just who Debray is, and in particular, what role he played in Che's Bolivian guerrilla movement. In the publicity campaign for the sale of Debray's book, some news sources–ike the progressive Mexican daily La Jornada–have elevated the figure of Debray to "comrade in arms" of Che in Bolivia, and even to "Che's advisor." This is not the reality that emerges from the pages of Guevara's own diary. Regis Debray spent less than a month with Che in Bolivia, and it isn't certain that he was involved in any military confrontations or decision making. But better yet, let's allow Che to speak through his di ary.

The first mention of Debray (identified as "Danton" and "the Frenchman" until his capture by the army was confirmed) was in reference to his arrival at the guerrilla camp on March 20, 1967. On March 21, Che wrote: "The Frenchman ... comes to stay, but I asked that he return to organize a support network in France, and that on the way he stop in Cuba, something that coincides with his desire to marry and have a child with his compa�era." [My emphasis.] In other words, Che locates Debray in external solidarity; he understands his desire to marry and be a father, and he offers him the opportunity to satisfy this desire at the same time that he continues his support work. Where is the arbitrary leader who Debray now paints?

The next mention of "Danton" is on April 19 in an entry concerning an English reporter who arrives at camp. Che and others suspect that the reporter is a spy or an infiltrator. Debray proposes instead that the reporter may be useful in allowing him (Debray) and Bustos (refer-red to as "Carlos" or "EI Pelado" ("Baldy")) to leave the guerrilla zone. Bustos accepted "unwillingly and I washed my hands of the matter," writes Che. Debray, Bustos and the Englishman leave. Four days later, the 23rd, Che notes: "The unknown hangs over Damton and EI Pelado and the English journalist; it is not known what has happened to them." April 27: "It is confirmed that Danton is a prisoner near Camiri."

April 30, in his "Summary of the Month," Che writes: "Danton and Carlos fell victim to their haste, almost desperation, to leave, and also to my lack of energy to deter them, so that the lines of communication with Cuba have been cut (Danton), and the plan of action in Argentina has been lost (Carlos)." [My emphasis.] We have to emphasize the soberness with which Che refers to the mat-ter, above all because he is writ-ing for himself. The reference to Debray and Bustos' "almost des-peration" to leave suggests that if Debray had in fact come to stay with the guerrilla forces (note of March 21), the desperation to leave would have been due to a decision made by someone else, though it is possible that the man was very interested in getting married. In any case, Che recognizes his own "lack of energy" in the face of the decision of Debray and Bustos to leave, consistent with the principle that participation in a guerrilla organi-zation is voluntary.

On May 5, Guevara notes that according to the radio, "Debray is to be judged by a military court in Canviri as the alleged leader and organizer of the guerrillas." This is possibly the first instance of the inflation of the figure of Debray. By presenting him as the guerrilla "leader," the Bolivian army inflates its own importance.

On June 29, Guevara makes a serious notation: "On the political
level, the most serious thing is the official statement of Ovando [the army's commander in-chief] that I am here. Furthermore, he said that the army is confronting well- trained guerrillas among whose ranks are Vietcong commandos who have defeated the best U.S. regiments. This is based on the dec-larations qf Debray who, it seems, spoke more than necessary, although we can't know what implications this has, nor the cir-cumstances under which he said what he did." [My emphasis.] July 10 "The declarations of Debray and EI Pelado are not good, above all, they have confessed the international intentions of the guerrilla, something they didnt have to do." [My emphasis.] There are neither epithets nor outbursts nor anger in Che's notation. But the careful choice of words clarifies his assess-ment of the conduct of Bustos and Debray.

From that point onwards, Debray is presented by the Bolivian government as the principal protagonist of the matter. August 19: "The news is full of Debray. There is not a word of the other accused. October 3: "An interview with Debray was broadcast, rery courageous before a student provacateur." [My emphasis.] Five days later, Che is captured and assassinated.

It is undeniable that Che died convinced that Debray confessed to more than he had to, but in fairness he ventures no judgements regarding the circumstances (torture? complicity? simple fear?) under which he did so. The final reference to Debray is positive: a recognition of his valor in a public confrontation with a provacateur. with the same soberness with which he earlier noted that Debray had talked too much with his captors. The image of Che that arises from all this is not the obsessive authoritarian that Debray now wishes to sell us; on the contrary, it reveals the deep humanism of Che. In these difficult circumstances, his capacity for human sympathy allows him not to rush any judgements against the failings of individuals.

Guevara's diary entries also reveal a different image of Debray than the one currently being sold–a Debray who is less central than his reputation would suggest. A look at Debray's theoretical background gives more hints as to who he is and the basis for his ideological position.

In the 1960s, Debray studied at the University of Paris with the Marxist theoretician Louis Althusser, and was greatly influenced by his professor's abstract conception of the capitalist economy. According to Althusserian Structuralism, capitalism, upon the appropriation of traditional peasant lands and the conversion of peasants into wage laborers, creates the conditions for its own negation-–the proletarian revolution. Once the objective conditions mature, that is, once the capitalist mode of production consolidates itself and the historical subject of its destruction–the proletariat–arises, the conditions for liquidating capitalism and, by way of a proletarian revolution, of constructing socialism are at hand. The fundamental tasks of a proletarian party, according to this conception of the world, are to make the masses aware of their exploitation and convince them of the historical-structural role that history calls upon them to play. If the situation is "ripe for revolution," the role of the vanguard consists simply of shaking the tree.

Carried to Latin America by Debray, this perspective saw in the rural guerrillas the equivalent of the "vanguard party" rising out of advanced capitalism, The guerrilla enlightened the rural proletarianized masses (peasants without land, agricultural wage laborers, the poor of the countryside ... ) as to the road to follow and their own role along that road. At the same time, the guerrilla organi zation constituted the objective realization of the Leninist theory of "dual powers'." Contrary to tht urban and legal strategies of the traditional Communist and socialist parties, Debray affirmed that only "from outside" of the state would it be possible to effectively smash and destroy it.

In two books which achieved a wide circulation, Castroism, the Long March of Latin America, and Revolution in the Revolution?, Debray affirmed that the only possible and authentic revolutionary path was the guerrilla foco. The vulgar image of Che's thought (volunteerism, Guevarism, foquismo) comes from these books. The reputation of the young French intellectual was built up by the pro-Cuba solidarity networks and perhaps by the ideological apparatus of the Cuban Communist Party as well. This was a moment in which Cuba was isolated in the Western Hemisphere, and in which many Communist parties had rejected the armed struggle. In this context, Debray's arguments were debated and rejected by many organizations which, without denying their solidarity with and/or political debt to Cuba, had other designs more appropriate to their countries.

The abstract and hyperrationalist character of Debray's Structuralist approach prevented him from taking note of the sociological, historical, anthropological and cultural characteristics of rural Latin American capitalism and of its working masses. Debray's about-face, in which he goes from being an absolute ideological follower of the Cuban revolution to a swom enemy of all it represents, suggests that the man never held a well-considered position with respect to Cuba's revolution and socialist experience. When was Debray honest? When he followed the line of the left, or now that he follows the line of the right?

In the face of these spectacular turnabouts, it is impossible for me not to recall the similarly volatile behavior of General Augusto Pinochet in regard to the Popular Unity government of Chile. The testimony of ex-foreign minister Orlando LeLelier just before his assassination at the hands of the Pinochct regime reveals a genuflecting and opportunist military officer who surprisingly turns to the extreme right and heads the fascist coup of 1973.

The attitude of Debray towards Che Guevara and the Cuban political system shows similar, if more slowly moving pirouettes. Don't get me wrong, I am not comparing individuals, but rather, styles of political behavior. Pinochet betrayed a live man. Debray betrays a dead one.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carlos Vilas is a sociologist and historian at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and a member of NACLA's editorial board. His most recent book is Between Earthquakes and Volcanoes: Market, State, and the Revolutions in Central America (Monthly Review Press, 1995).

Translated from the Spanish by NACLA.

Vol. 30, No. 3 November/December 1996 NACLA Report on the Americas

 
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