Archive for the ‘Guerrillas’ Category

A Winner’s View

October 3, 2007

Gen. Gary Prado Salmon remembers vividly the day in late August when he was entering the Bolivian university where he teaches International Relations and saw a student holding a red notebook with a black spot showing the face of Ernesto Che Guevara stamped on the cover. It is a universal icon among leftists you may see stamped on T-shirts worn by anti-globalization and anti-U.S. protesters, or at souvenir shops everywhere. Stung by curiosity, he said, he asked the young student: “What do you have there?” “It is a notebook with the image of Che Guevara,” the girl replied matter-of-factly.

The student realized who was she speaking with and blushed. “Don´t worry,” said reassuringly the retired Bolivian Army general, whose regiment fought and defeated Che´s guerrilla. “It doesn´t bother me at all. But let me ask you, Who was Che Guevara? “He was a revolutionary who came to Bolivia from Cuba,” she said. “Oh yes… he came to meddle in our affairs,” said Prado. And what have you been told about Che?, the general pushed on. “That he was an idealist…”

“And you think those fighting Che were not idealists too, since we were defending our country, your country? Idealist is too vague a definition. Idealist doesn´t tell you much…”

There was nothing else to say and both entered the classroom.

It wasn´t like this 40 years ago, when the government, then headed by a democratically elected Air Force general, jubilantly announced that the guerrilla expedition commanded by Che had been defeated and its leader was dead reportedly as a result of multiple wounds sustained in combat. That official version turned out a blatant lie. Guevara had been summarily executed Oct 9, after being captured alive, injured only slightly, the day before.

But militarily speaking, it was an undeniable victory over a legendary guerrilla champion by an army considered among the weakest in Latin America. And, overall, by a country Che and others, including Fidel Castro, considered ripe for a popular uprising that the Cuban-sponsored guerilla movement was supposed to set off. But defeat marked only the birth of Che Guevara´s myth. It has been growing exponentially whereas the Bolivian army´s victory has been dimming.

I tried to get an explanation for this turnabout from Gen. Prado, to whose soldiers on Oct 8, 1967 the Argentine-Cuban guerrilla surrendered shouting: “Don´t fire. I am Che.”

“Two elements converged to create the myth,” he told me in his home in Santa Cruz recently. He was sitting in the wheel chair, legs paralyzed after an obscure episode 1981 when he was shot in the back after restoring order in a convulsed area in the country´s east.

“There was a joint international effort to create the myth,” he went on. “Why? Just to compensate a political and military disaster. For it was a sweeping political and military setback for Castro’s followers. The myth was created as compensation.

“But another element came in, riding on the Bolivian government´s poor handling of the information about what really happened. Look, first they issued a release out of the blue, without asking for details to the captain who had commanded the operation that led to his capture. They briefly said, ´there was a combat yesterday, a number of guerrillas died, among them Che Guevara.´ But there was no way for the Bolivian government to hide the truth. A major factor they did not considered was that the country enjoyed freedom of the press. Journalists moved around freely. And they arrived to the gates of Pucara (a few kilometers from La Higuera) the next day. Journalists could not go further because still there was fighting in the area. But peasants the day before had helped us with the dead and the injured (I had a total of only 70 soldiers and help was needed). It took four people to carry a single body. Che was slightly injured, and walked helped by a soldier, soldier Montenegro. There were 300 or 400 people. In Pucara journalists began questioning peasants. Soon they found that Che had been seen walking. And the first question to the military authorities was: How come he died in combat if people saw him walking? Lacking a convincing answer to clear the embarrassing contradiction, a new version was issued: Che died as a consequence of injuries sustained in combat.

“This new version endured for two or three days. However, the government wanted to complete all legal procedures: there was an autopsy and its results were made public__ one bullet here, another one there, and also there too, etc. And one wonders: Was he still walking with all those bullets in his body? Give me a break!”

“Then the most disparaged versions began circulating, including one saying that Che had stood up and shouted at the lieutenant who broke into his room: “Aim well and shoot, you are going to kill a man!”

“This is absolutely false,” Prado said. “He was not given time to say hello. Lt. Mario Teran and Sgt. Bernardino Huanca entered and shot a barrage each. Che and Willy – another guerilla – were in contiguous rooms. Teran entered Che´s. Huanca entered Willy´s. It was simultaneous. Ra-ta-ta-ta-ta. No talk at all. Imagine, what are you going to say… Excuse, we are here to kill you?”


The decision to execute Che was taken by President Rene Barrientos, Armed Forces Commander Gen. Alfredo Ovando and Army commander Gen. Juan José Torres. Gen. Prado quotes Ovando as explaining to him the reasons for the decision as they met in Madrid, where both were living several years later. Ovando was Ambassador and Prado was attending an academic course.

“What shall we do?” This was the question biting all three (after they learned Che had been captured)”, Prado told me.

“The first idea was put him on trial,” Prado said, recalling what Ovando said. “But the trial of (Regis) Debray __the French writer who came to Bolivia along with Che and had been captured months earlier__ had already been a mess… Trying Che would prove ten times worse. But let´s assume we could have withstood the circus. He had to be convicted. He would not come innocent from it. What was the maximum penalty? Thirty years, since Bolivia has no capital punishment. And where would we have placed him, if there was no security prison in the whole country? Having him in a prison would have generated permanent trouble and street protests on his favor all over. Then we decided he had to be eliminated.”

Prado said he asked: “But why you didn´t you ask for our opinion, on how the news should be released?”

There was no answer from Ovando, Prado recalled.

In truth, Prado told me, nothing was clear those days. If the army had ordered, “no survivors,” even that would have been hard to hold. Prado himself had captured two guerillas and sent them away alive for trial. “There were no clear orders for anything. Hence Che asked me, as I wrote in my book (The Immolated Guerrilla), “what are you going to do with me?” to which I replied: “You will be tried in Santa Cruz.”

Prado said that a few years ago while digging in declassified documents he found a message from the US Ambassador to Bolivia stating that Che had been executed by a decision of the Bolivian government. There was also a report from President Johnson´s Security Assistant telling that Bolivians had captured and executed Che on their own. “There was no interference from the United States. It was a direct decision of our own commanders,” Prado said.

“The first time I met him in his room at the little school in La Higuera Che looked devastated. He told me, ‘it is over.’ Before leaving the room I replied: It is over for you, but not for me. I still have to fight. Then, when I came to see him again in the evening his spirits were much higher and he even showed concern about his future, about his trial. All this because we had treated him well. Nobody harmed him. We gave him food and cigarettes all the time. He felt more tranquil”, Prado said.

He said ever since Che was executed, he has been haunted by the question of why the Cuban-Argentine guerrilla had come to Bolivia in what turned out to be a military fiasco and a doubtful political achievement, at least in Bolivia. (President Evo Morales reportedly said this week he admires Che, but disagrees with his violent method.)

“After his failure in Congo he went to Prague, where during three months was a guest at the Cuban Embassy. He tried many times to contact Fidel, to no avail. In the end he was authorized to secretly return to Havana. Che was a man with power in Cuba. And his outspoken manners, typical of some Argentines, resented many. But above all, he was against the pacific coexistence Cuba had adopted under pressure from the Soviet Union. But Che wanted to keep trying to set the world on fire. He was inconvenient to Cuba, willing to preserve its relationship with the Soviets. Sending him to fight in Bolivia was a smart way of getting rid of him. If every thing went OK, Fidel would still be the great Comandante and revolutionary leader. If not, nothing would change.”

The Bolivian warfare was based on three information sources, Prado said. “Manuel Piñeiro, Cuba´s chief intelligence official, presented Che with a set of documents supposed to prove the viability of a guerrilla warfare. He was under direct orders of Castro. The second source was Debray, who had come to Bolivia for a short time. And the third source was made up of students in Cuba. There was a boy named Maymura, another one named Vaca, and also a Gutierrez. They were all from Beni who went to Havana directly without even knowing Cochabamba (then Bolivia´s second largest city). You can imagine what kind of precise information they could provide about Bolivia. But they came along with Che anyway, and also died. That was all the intelligence that made up Che´s the decision to come to Bolivia” Prado said.

Intelligence was neglected on crucial moments of the campaign, according to Prado. One of the biggest failures was the inability of contacting urban cadres. “Before going into the jungle, Che told his main contacts , ´don´t do anything till I tell you.´ So they sat waiting for instructions, which never came. Che had no means to contact his people in the cities, and vice versa. There was a Cuban contact under the name of Ariel in La Paz, but this contact vanished. Maybe he went back to Cuba. The guerrillas only listened to Radio Habana, which sent them messages the same way our people send radio messages: I will arrive tomorrow to such place. Wait for me with horses, pigs or food. There are three or four messages they received this way. Che recorded in his diary a message saying men were coming from Czechoslovakia. And he comments: “Where are they going to meet us…?”

“In truth, Prado said, our main problem was not to fight the guerrillas. It was to find them! They lost their camp base at the onset of their campaign, when the army, helped by peasants, seized it. Also, Che incurred a serious mistake when he split his group in two, never specifying a rendezvous point. They parted and never came together again. It was unconceivable for a guerrilla like Che. If you go to the stadium with your son, you will tell him, listen, just in case we lose each other, we will meet here. Actually, Che and his men wandered aimlessly in the forest.”

Prado´s Ranger Regiment, one of Bolivia´s best trained, moved into action Sep 26. The day he captured Che he had 70 men under his command. But the Che´s guerrilla was in agony since long before. Prado says some guerrillas suggested they dissolve the movement. “The problem was, he told me, he had no where to go. Put yourself in his shoes. I get out of here and where I would go? Back to Cuba he couldn´t, since he had resigned all his prerogatives, even to the Cuban citizenship. To Argentina even less. But overall, how to get out of Bolivia? He had no way out but sacrifice himself, and his men. It was an “inmolation.”

Prado has written a detailed account of his anti-guerrilla role: “The Guerrilla Inmolada” (literarily The Sacrificed Guerilla). The book, originally in Spanish, is on its third edition.


Whispering and hiding

September 27, 2007

The Bolivian Armed Forces will commemorate this Oct 8 the 40th anniversary of the biggest military operation undertaken since the Chaco War (1932-35) with Paraguay. But there will be no victory speeches like in Oct 1967, when they erratically announced the defeat of a Cuban-led guerrilla movement and the death of its commander, Ernesto Che Guevara.

The anniversary will go on without any fanfare and almost in whispers.  The official commemoration, if any, will be carried out just in the barracks and strictly among soldiers, according to sources consulted by this blog.

Che´s guerrilla was the most serious challenge faced by the Bolivian army in the second half of the 20th century.  Hundreds of soldiers were mobilized and in the end managed to crush it after over six months campaigning in the country´s eastern tropical jungle.

Some key actors in the victorious campaign don´t feel happy about the quiet way the Armed Forces want to commemorate it. Or rather its unwillingness to commemorate anything at all.

The country´s Armed Forces command “have authorized only private ceremonies within the barracks. To this, I say, “go to hell. I am not interested in ceremonies in the barracks, as though we were ashamed of our victory. It would look like a clandestine ceremony”, told me Gen. (r)  Gary Prado Salmon, whose regiment fought Che´s guerrilla column capturing the Argentine-Cuban guerrilla in El Churo battle.

He said Cuba and Venezuela, Bolivian President Evo Morales´ closest allies, coupled with Bolivian leftist parties, want to pay homage to Guevara in Vallegrande, a few miles off La Higuera, the little, humble village where Che was executed.  “Hundreds, probably as many as thousands of Cubans and Venezuelans would  go to Vallegrande to participate in ceremonies Oct. 8.”

Those homage ceremonies, he said, would be possible because of “the political process under which Bolivia is living these times.”

Mr. Morales, the first Bolivian Indian president, sees Cuba´s leader Fidel Castro as his main mentor. Since swearing in the country´s presidency in January 2006 he has traveled to Cuba several times looking for advice. And he often meets with Venezuela´s Hugo Chavez. Officially sponsoring commemoration of he 1967 military victory would be at least embarassing for him. But for the Armed Forces not commemorating the 40th anniversary would be embarassing too.  

“We would have liked to hold ceremonies commemorating the most important events of the campaign, including the decisive battles (that led) up to El Churo,” where Che as captured, Gen. (r) Lucio Anez Ribera. “But orders from above say the commemoration should have a very low profile.”

Gen. Prado told me that a few days ago he received a call from a lieutenant former colleague, also retired, wondering what to they should do on Oct. 8. “We have to do something”, he said he was told.

Gen. Prado said he replied, “It ´s not up to us.  It is up to the Armed Forces. We are not supposed to pay homage to ourselves.”

Prado has written in a book about the guerrilla and his role fighting it. The third edition of the original Spanish version of La Guerrilla Inmolada, is sold at all major bookstores in Bolivia. It is rich in details of the anti-guerrilla campaign and its epilogue. I strongly recommend it.