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  • Published in Book Reviews

Guevara’s diary during his time as a guerrilla in Cuba gives an unfiltered impression of both the man and of war during the Cuban revolution

Ernesto Che Guevara, Diary of a Combatant (Ocean Press 2013), ed. Maria del Carmen Ariet, 358pp.

This book is a transcription of Che Guevara’s diary during the time he was a guerrilla fighting with Fidel Castro against the Batista regime in Cuba. It starts with the landing of a very small (82 person) invasion force from the yacht Granma on the 2 December 1956 and, with a gap from August 1957 to April 1958 due to lost diaries, covers up to the 3 December 1958, a few weeks before Batista fled and the regime collapsed.

Guevara’s account of the period covered by these diaries has already been published as his Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, so the questions are whether the diaries themselves are valuable as a primary source for researchers and whether they add something for the general reader in addition to the Reminiscences.

The book appears to be a useful primary source. Although the diary has not been edited by a neutral source, as the editor is from the Che Guevara Studies Centre in Havana, the main text appears to be shown unaltered. Corrections and clarifications appear in footnotes, not the main text, and include Guevara’s criticisms of now revered figures such as Fidel Castro and Armando Hart, future Cuban Minister of Culture. The volume also contains biographic details of over two hundred people who appear in the diaries, and an excellent selection of photos.

The real interest in this book for the general reader is in the early diary section from December 1956 to August 1957, which provides an insight into the raw, un-reflected, daily life of a guerrilla from an individual perspective. It describes the experiences of a small group of guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra mountains in south-eastern Cuba, in constant fear of being betrayed, having to move all the time to avoid attack by Batista’s Rural Guard (state police force), short of food, weapons and ammunition. The style is not literary, it is brief and to the point. There is little wider context, politics or strategy. It is very much a soldier’s eye view of long marches, poor food and accommodation, uncertainty, petty betrayals and waiting.

Supplies are due but do not arrive, ambushes are set for Rural Guards who never appear. The landscape is populated with snitches, peasants, Rural Guards, and deserters. Locals and adventurers arrive to join the group; sometimes they are welcomed, sometimes turned away unless they bring their own weapons. Some recruits fight hard, others desert after a few days of guerrilla life; occasionally they are informers for the regime. Guevara does not have complete information, and records the daily rumours about people killed, captured or turned traitor, reflecting the limited intelligence available. The central importance of food, accommodation and waiting stand out in the diary compared to Guevara’s Reminiscences, which jumps from one significant event to the next.

The diary is revealing about relations with the local peasantry. Many locals are clearly sympathetic to the guerrillas, and act as a logistics network, selling food to the guerrillas, providing information and shelter. However, the locals are clearly under pressure from Rural Guards to inform on the guerrillas, and the group often has to make inconvenient marches as they believe their position has been betrayed. Locals join the group, but just as frequently desert, which is an endemic problem only resolved by the introduction of a recruits’ school.

The guerrillas do help the locals - for example by executing a hated overseer - but also impose upon them. The guerrillas commandeer peasant huts and Guevara frequently describes ‘imprisoning’ locals for no crime other than having seen the guerrillas. Castro pretends to be a Rural Guard commander and then unreasonably harangues a peasant who offers help. Guevara records rumours that Rural Guards are pretending to be guerrillas and arresting those who offer assistance. Overall, the impression is that many of the peasants would rather just be left alone, but the impositions of the guerrillas do appear to be less onerous than atrocities committed by Rural Guards.

Guevara writes briefly, recording events and his opinions but rarely his feelings. However, he does reveal elements of his character. Guevara appears to be a determined, driven individual. He is sometimes incapacitated by his asthma, and almost runs out of life-preserving medication. He records shame at any sign of his own fear, for example, after not retrieving his backpack when under fire, or later when ambushed by Rural Guards and nearly killed. He shows clemency and ruthlessness when dealing with enemies; arguing for snitches to be executed in some cases, at other times urging their release. Guevara does record performing medical treatments, but this is as aside rather than his main preoccupation.

Guevara is open in his comments about Fidel Castro, whom Guevara clearly admires but sometimes finds exasperating. Castro appears as a determined leader, frequently making speeches to the troops and personally calibrating all the weapons before an attack on La Plata barracks. Guevara refers to Castro’s ‘tirades’ (e.g. p.79) and records Castro refusing to be photographed by a reporter and instead lying in a hammock ‘reading Bohemia with an air of offended majesty’ (p.132).

There is a huge difference between the early diary sections covering December 1956 to August 1957, and the later section for April to December 1958. By April 1958 the guerrillas have a recruit school, radio station and an air strip. But the problem of being poorly armed still remains. In the early period, they frequently turn away potential recruits who have not brought their own weapons, chase deserters if they take their weapons with them, and even include muskets - presumably at least one hundred years old - in their armoury at one point. The equipment they do have is frequently faulty. Guevara spends a lot of time trying to get a heavy machine gun to work, their grenades fail to explode at the La Plata attack, and even in late 1958, when Guevara’s column is driving on Santa Clara in central Cuba, the column is dependent on a single bazooka; an entire attack is called off because the bazooka keeps misfiring.

The context in the book is limited to a map and a brief chronology of events in the Cuban Revolution, and the reader gains a much more rounded picture from Guevera’s Reminiscences. Overall, the real value of the diaries is as a ground-level view of the life of a guerrilla, and for the brief unfiltered insights it provides into Guevara’s character and the nature of war in the Sierra Maestra.

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