This book is the result of the slow but eventual workings of the US Freedom of Information Act. In 1997, the authors made a request for documents on the US government’s monitoring of Che Guevara, and the material they received became their 1997 book, Che Guevara and the FBI: The US Political Police Dossier on the Latin American Revolutionary. Then in 2007, ten years after the initial request, another package of documents arrived. They are published here with an introduction which summarises Che’s life but which concentrates on the main question on which they shed new light; his death.
Che Guevara was Fidel Castro’s second-in-command in the successful Cuban revolution. He left Cuba in 1965 first for the Congo and then Bolivia, where he organised a guerrilla movement against the government army of US-trained officers, which had overthrown the previous government in a coup in 1964. The expedition to Bolivia was in many ways a test of the idea that Cuba could export its revolution to other countries in Latin America, and its importance was clearly appreciated not just by the Cubans but also by the US.
The documents here demonstrate just how concerned the US government was when they realised where Che had gone and what he was doing. When he disappeared from view in Cuban public affairs in 1964, some in the CIA had obviously indulged in wishful thinking, as shown by a May 1967 memo here from Walt Rostow, special assistant for national security affairs, to President Johnson. Rostow confirmed that Che was operating in Bolivia ‘and not dead, which the intelligence community, with the passage of time, has been more and more inclined to believe’ (document 23, p.126). The US government poured resources into Bolivia to ensure that the government could defeat the guerrillas. The CIA took on intelligence gathering and the US army was responsible for army training, clearly with some success. The US army’s efforts had so galvanised the demoralised Bolivian soldiers that a memo from August 1967 proudly reports that ‘for the first time, upon being fired at, they did not drop their weapons and run’ (document 27, pp.133-5). It paid off: on 9th October 1967, Che was killed.
The first version put out by the US government was that Che was killed in battle with the Bolivian army. In a way with which we have become familiar, the first official story of how Che died was eventually contradicted by a second official version, without anyone admitting that the first version had obviously been wrong. This second story, which remains the accepted course of events on Che’s death for most mainstream writers, was that Che was shot the next day on the orders of the Bolivian President, despite US determination to keep him alive.
These documents show that the US government knew all along that their first official version was not true. The Secretary of State was told by telegram on 8th October that Che had been wounded in battle with the Bolivian army, but that he had been captured alive. If the US government put out one false version of Che’s death, it is not that unlikely that they could have been less than truthful in their subsequent story, and Ratner and Smith indeed show that there are considerable holes in the second official version.
In the first place, the CIA had an operative, Felix Rodriguez, accompanying the division which captured Che, and it was he who passed on the instructions from the Bolivian high command that Che should be shot. Rodriguez had apparently received orders from his CIA masters that Che was to be kept alive at all costs; orders which he was mysteriously able to countermand at no cost to himself, as he went on to have a long career in the Agency. Secondly, there is the testimony, not included here but cited in the introduction, of the former CIA country head in Bolivia that he had previously sought and received a personal assurance from the Bolivian president that Che would be killed if caught.
The ‘semi-official Cuban version’ (so-called by writers who do not agree with it) is that the US ambassador to Bolivia, Douglas Henderson, visited the Bolivian president on 8th October, after Che had been captured, and instructed him that Che should immediately be killed. There is nothing here which directly substantiates this account, but there is an interesting circumstantial case. That the US was interested in assassinating Che is well-known: he was included in the famous plots to kill Castro in the early 1960s. These documents add to this background a suggestion that the attempts at assassination may not have ended when Che left Cuba. One of the documents is an odd request made by the FBI in 1964 for up-to-date copies of Che’s fingerprints (document 15, p.112). As the authors note, this raises many questions about why the FBI had discovered this burning need for new fingerprint copies. It may have been that they thought he might try to sneak into the US, but just as plausible is the possibility that they were aware of a new plan to assassinate him and needed fingerprints to confirm that they had got the right man. In 1967, Che’s identity was indeed confirmed posthumously by a comparison of his corpse’s fingerprints with the FBI’s records (document 34, p.148).
A key piece of evidence for those arguing that the USA did not have direct involvement in Che’s death is the memo written by Walt Rostow to President Johnson, confirming that Che had been shot and saying that he felt it was a stupid thing for the Bolivians to have done. This memo is included here, and Rostow did indeed express his feeling that Che should not have been killed. He then however went on to list the reasons why the death of Che was a decidedly good thing: it marked the passing of another of the ‘aggressive, romantic revolutionaries’ like Sukharno, Nkrumah or Ben Bella; it would discourage guerrillas elsewhere in Latin America; and it showed the effectiveness of the US’s ‘preventative medicine’ strategy to help countries facing insurgency (document 32, pp.142-3). A Department of State intelligence note from 12th October 1967 spelt out the further advantages of having the troublesome revolutionary dead: it would be a severe blow to Castro and to the idea of spreading revolution from Cuba to continental Latin America, and would prop up the pro-US Bolivian President.
The overwhelming impression from these documents is that for the US government, Che’s death was like Christmas come early. The material here may not include a definitive statement of US involvement but Rostow’s careful statement that it was stupid appears more as an attempt to provide plausible deniability than as a genuine expression of his feelings on the case. The least that can be said is that if the Bolivians did act on their own initiative, they did so in the knowledge that they were not defying the wishes of their US masters, but doing them an enormous favour.
It is more than forty years since Che Guevara was killed, but the questions surrounding his death are of more than historic interest. The assassination of opponents is a tactic with a long history in US foreign policy. The death of Osama Bin Laden is the most obvious recent example, but it was not an isolated case. Since the beginning of the ‘war on terror’ in 2001, the US has used drones to take out ‘terror suspects’ in at least Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, to list only the ones which are publicly known. While the drone attacks may be a post-9/11 tactic, the use of assassination is not. In this respect, the murderous war on terror is a continuation of the US government’s track record of assassinations going back to the end of the Second World War. Ratner and Smith list sixteen such assassinations attempted or committed by the US in the 1950s and 1960s alone.
This list is a demonstration of how successive US governments have failed to see the point of judicial proceedings, democracy or the rule of law if any of these get in their way. It is notable however that the Johnson administration felt it necessary to conceal their involvement in the death of Che Guevara. Che was, after all, a revolutionary engaged in armed struggle and would presumably, according to their ideology, have deserved the death penalty. However, in 1967, it was clearly still necessary for the government to conceal the extent to which they acted outside the law. The contrast between Rostow’s ‘it was stupid’ memo and the officially-released footage of Obama and Hilary Clinton watching the assassination of Bin Laden on live web-feed is not made explicit here, but it is part of the importance of this book. The story of how Che Guevara died, and how the US government felt it had to lie about it, is a reminder of how the war on terror is also a war on the rule of law.
To order a copy of Who Killed Che? How the CIA got away with murder, visit the OR Books website.
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