Of survival and betrayal

Print edition : September 20, 2013

In the book Ciro Bustos, who is widely believed to have betrayed Che Guevara, comes up with his version of the story. Here, Bustos (left) is seen with Che.

A recent photograph of Ciro Bustos, who now lives in Sweden.

October 8, 1957: Cuban leader Fidel Castro (left) with Che in the woods of Sierra Maestra, Cuba. Photo: AFP

Ciro Bustos’ memoir stands firmly located within the genre of the literature of resistance, giving voice to the voiceless and the wretched of the earth.

THE story begins in the early days of the triumph of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba and then goes on to a detailed and eye-opening account of the planning and failure of the revolutionary armed struggle in Argentina, followed by Che Guevara’s leading of the guerillas in Bolivia before his unfortunate and untimely end in Le Higuera in 1967. These three narratives, followed by long years spent in exile in Sweden, are written from the perspective of Ciro Bustos, the sole survivor from Che’s resistance movement in Bolivia. An Argentine artist-turned revolutionary, he played a substantial role in aiding Che in the last few years of his life. Inspired by Che’s revolutionary zeal and human compassion, Bustos joined him in Havana in 1962 where Che decided to send him to Argentina to spark off a revolution. But it all ended in smoke. Bustos was one of the few who were fortunate to escape alive. It was in 1964 that he received the message, “Che wants to see you.” Keyed up by the call, Bustos managed to cross the dangerous Bolivian border where Che was hiding with his forces. It was here that Bustos became Che’s close confidant.

Bustos was in close contact with Che in the jungles of Bolivia. The memoir is able to offer an analysis of Che’s plans for a continental revolution and of strategies of guerilla warfare, and the reasons for the failure of his plan. “They talked about a bit of everything: Argentina, the world, real, unreal and desired socialism, China and Stalinist, anti-Trotskyite, ideological paradox, the interpretative currents, the founders and forgers, Gramsci and Rosa Luxembourg, transparent socialism. Che spoke practically the whole time….” As rightly put, “the logic of any war, including a revolutionary war, is constructed on behalf of the victims, victims of exploitation, victims of hunger, victims of tyranny, victims of liberation struggles. Without victims, there is no reason for the struggle. Without the struggle, there are no victims, nor liberation.”

It is believed by many of Che’s followers that Bustos betrayed his hero through the portraits he had made of a number of revolutionaries (including Che) for his captors in Bolivia. The book apparently has been written to rebut the accusation. The tone and language is seemingly sincere and honest. Yet his authenticity will remain debatable until new research throws light on the execution and failure of the uprising.

The Argentine armed group consisted of five men, including Bustos, painstakingly trained in guerilla warfare. After months of training in Cuba and then in Algeria, the group reached the Argentina border in May 1963 only to face a formidable terrain covered by impenetrable forests and torrential rivers.

While deadly insects and mosquitoes left this small army almost incapacitated, most of the zealous guerilla volunteers remained imbued with the madness to imagine they would transform Latin America and its American-dominated right-wing politics. Though at the start many young, left-inclined students joined the group and for a moment the success of the dream seemed near, the adventure was bound to fail.

The utopian dream of brotherhood and fellow feeling had slowly turned into a Gestapo-like harshness, leading to summary trials and execution of all who either suffered from some illness or fatigue or had lost the initial passion so necessary for the success of a revolution.

Its leader, Jorge Jose Ricardo Masetti, who had once actively collaborated at Sierra Maestra with Che, virtually turned fascist in his handling of some of the soldiers who could not face the hardships of the morally and physically incapacitating exploratory missions and buckled under the gruelling mountainous conditions, unfamiliarity with the terrain, the cold weather, and insufficient supplies of food. “It was not the ideal place to digest the heavy stew we had just eaten. Legs soaked from the knees down, boots like compressed ice, and horseflies and mosquitoes acting like a fifth column, it was torture to remain in a crouching position. To cap it all, as soon as the sun goes down, it is freezing in the jungle.”

However, Che’s project had a transcendental simplicity that had become the motivating factor for volunteers to come forth: “…[F]orget any idea of glory, confront earthly perils without fear, stand up in this particular tropical region and say ‘here we are, here we want to build a new society, in which the fruits of our labours will not be taken away, where our rights will not be violated, where joy is not privatised, where culture is within everybody’s reach, where the smell of bread fills our homes, and dreams come with the sunrise to dislodge the terrors of the night. If you want to stop us, you will have to come and find us, and understand that we will fight.’”

Bustos says: “Looking back over the whole episode, the only saving grace was the humanity and dignity of the recruits who joined our project, ready to give their lives for revolutionary ideals that were more difficult to implement than to simply support.”

The protagonist of the story is obviously the writer who deems himself the voice of sanity trying unsuccessfully to argue with his leader Masetti and save his comrades-in-arms from execution. According to his account, it is he who was given the major task of recruitment as well as collecting ammunition, and he was among the very few who were not killed or rounded up in the police attack on the camp in Salta in northern Argentina. One begins to wonder at his sheer luck: he escaped first from the Argentine debacle and, then, after his arrest in Bolivia along with the French Professor Regis Debray, to Chile, and subsequently to Sweden, where he is now settled.

Histories and memoirs often posture as true accounts of the past. According to Bustos, the book is written with memory as witness, rather than the thousands of newspaper cuttings and other critical material that he had collected over decades, which, paradoxically, had become a hindrance in putting the truth to paper for a number of years. This brings to mind Saleem Sinai’s words in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: “I told you the Truth…. Memories’ truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events, and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.”

With no fixity or finality affixed to any writing, it is difficult to claim with certainty that Bustos was true to his inspiration, Che, an iconic figure in the revolutions around the world. As Bustos admits: “It is hard for me to accurately reproduce what I said then without inflating or diminishing. I only remember the ideas, not how they were expressed.”

Bustos’ work is full of meticulous detail, a deep political conviction, and engaging storytelling. He comes across as a committed follower of Che, standing at the forefront of revolutionary movements for the defence of human rights in opposition to brutal military dictatorship and repressive capitalism. Though a revolutionary with first-hand experience of Latin America and its dreams and disillusions, its sickness and health, its heaven and hell, he has lived the last 20 years safely ensconced in a refugee haven in Sweden facing an existential dilemma together with a constant inner turmoil.

It must be admitted, though, that Ciro Bustos has a compassionate heart and a robust sense of humour along with an ideological affiliation with a deeply human cause. His account, written in pain and solitude, is a cry to his fellowmen to understand his need to communicate his sense of loss of his homeland as well as his heart that still dreams and suffers. Nevertheless, his memoir leaves one with an ambiguous feeling about his role in the poignant end of Che Guevara and his suspected betrayal of a revolutionary ideology at once human and aggressively militant. It is felt by many that it might have been Fidel Castro who betrayed Che in order to appease the Soviet Union. Others think that it may have been the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which through its advanced surveillance technology, tracked him in the jungles of Bolivia. Whatever may be the case, and whether or not Bustos is exonerated from the charge of betrayal, his memoir stands firmly located within the genre of the literature of resistance, giving voice to the voiceless, the much abused and suffering wretched of the earth. It also gives a three-dimensional inside view of guerilla warfare and armed resistance to the forces of exploitative imperialism. Such literature of resistance is an undying bulwark against abuse and atrocities; it stands up for confrontation against the rich robbing the land of its natural and human resources.