Review: Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away with Murder

by Helen Yaffe

A new book clarifies the CIA's role in the killing of Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara

First published: 24 February, 2012 | Category: 

Who Killed Che? How the CIA got away with murder, by Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith, OR Books, 2011

This book by two leading US civil rights lawyers provides both documentary evidence and a clear accessible narrative to clarify a number of disputed aspects about the life and death of Argentinian revolutionary, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, and the early years of the Cuban Revolution. The principal facts established are: 1) that Che did not leave Cuba in 1965 because of a split with Fidel Castro, leader of the Cuban Revolution of 1959; 2) ‘that the US government, particularly its Central Intelligence Agency, had Che murdered, having secured the participation of its Bolivian client state’; and 3) that the Cuban’s foreign policy was independent of, and even antipathetic to the interests of the USSR.

These facts may not be controversial to supporters of the Cuban Revolution and those knowledgeable about US imperialism’s modus operandi in Latin America. However, as the authors point out, the idea that ‘the United States, and particularly the CIA, was not implicated in Che’s murder, has been accepted by almost every writer on the subject’. This includes the authors of the major biographies of Che published around the 30th anniversary of his execution in Bolivia in 1997; ‘none of these writers consider the CIA’s own admission that it had tried to assassinate Che, as well as Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, on various occasions when they were in Cuba’. Likewise, the notion of a split between Che and Fidel, and the crude caricature of Cuban internationalism as an instrument of USSR’s foreign policy, continue to be repeated by bourgeois and left commentators.

Applying their professional rigour, Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith have located, analysed and interpreted dozens of internal US government documentation, much of it previously unpublished, and used it to tell the story about how the CIA got away with Che’s murder. Most important, rather than expecting us to take their word for it, they have reprinted these documents so the reader can themselves access and evaluate their contents. This forms the most substantial section of the book, covering 110 pages, and the material is fascinating. The foreword of the book is written by Ricardo Alarcon, President of Cuba’s National Assembly of Peoples’ Power who affirms that ‘among the many ways that the American empire has used to preserve its dominance, suppression and manipulation of information stands out’, and praises the authors for their ‘determination to defend truth, adherence to the law, and freedom’.

In April 1965, Che Guevara left Cuba to join a secret mission of Cuban military assistance to the guerrilla struggle in the Congo. Even his closest collaborators in Cuba’s Ministry of Industries, where Che was Minister from 1961 until his departure, had no knowledge of his whereabouts. While they lamented his absence, none of them were surprised when he left; they were clear that he had conditioned his involvement with the revolutionary struggle in Cuba on an agreement that he would move on following victory. Ratner and Smith cite this agreement through Fidel’s recollections. During my own research in Cuba, Che’s closest compañeros testified that this remained his objective  after  January 1959. Tirso Saenz, a vice minister under Che told me: ‘Che set a personal example in everything – can you imagine him encouraging the guerrillas in Latin America but sitting back as a minister in Cuba smoking a cigar? He couldn’t do it. I personally heard Che several times saying “I will not die as a bureaucrat. I will die fighting on a mountain”.’  Guevara’s decision to renounce his position in the Cuban government and return to armed struggle, first in Africa and then in Latin America, is perhaps less striking than the fact that he stayed so long as part of the Revolution’s leadership in Cuba.

This did not stop the CIA from exploiting Che’s lack of public appearance by launching a campaign of misinformation; fostering speculation that Che had been imprisoned or even killed by Fidel Castro or the Soviets due to political differences or rivalry. ‘The truth is that there was no split’ assert Ratner and Smith. They back up their claim with reference to a CIA Intelligence Information Cable, ‘a document of historic significance’, summarising the content of discussions between Fidel Castro and the Soviet leadership in which the latter made clear the USSR’s strong objection to the Cuban support for guerrilla movements in Latin America and to not being informed of Che’s mission in Bolivia. Castro’s response was to affirm the right of every Latin American to contribute to the liberation of the continent and to accuse the USSR of:

‘having turned its back upon its own revolutionary tradition and of having moved to a point where it would refuse to support any revolutionary movement unless the actions of the latter contributed to the achievement of Soviet objectives, as contrasted to international communist objectives… Castro concluded by stating that regardless of the attitudes of the Soviet Union, Cuba would support any revolutionary movement which it considered as contributing to this objective [the liberation of mankind throughout the world]’.

As Ratner and Smith conclude on this issue ‘This document effectively puts to rest any questions regarding a split with Fidel or claims that Fidel did not support Che in Bolivia’.

The main focus of the book is Che’s guerrilla activity in Bolivia and the reaction of the Bolivian military and the US establishment, especially the CIA, to the guerrilla presence. The detailed narrative establishes the facts which led up to Che’s execution and confront the question of responsibility. ‘The history of who is responsible for his murder has heretofore not been understood accurately, especially in America, where it is commonly believed that the Bolivian military dictatorship had him killed. Documents which have recently been obtained from the US government lead to a different conclusion’. The authors attest to the US establishment’s moral and legal responsibility, despite the smokescreen of ‘plausible deniability’ provided by the CIA for Che’s murder.

Usefully, the book contextualises the assassination of Che within the framework of US ‘national security interets’ and the emergence of counterinsurgency as ‘a wholly new kind of strategy’ (President Kennedy, 1962) by US imperialism. President Kennedy, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, adviser Walt Rostow and Chief of Staff Maxwell Taylor, understood the threat implied by Che’s call to create ‘two, three, many Vietnams’, which would stretch US manpower and resources beyond its capabilities. Shifting from a policy of ‘massive retaliation’, they developed a strategy of ‘flexible response’ and ‘rapid deployment’ to destroy guerrilla groups before they were able to establish themselves. One year before Che arrived in Bolivia, McNamara testified before the US Senate that ‘the ability to concentrate our military power in a matter of days rather than weeks can make an enormous difference in the total force ultimately required and in some cases serves to halt aggression before it really gets started’.

The emergence of counterinsurgency strategy was the flip side of Alliance for Progress, a programme set up by the US government in 1961 officially to improve the economic and social conditions in Latin America. Recognising the poverty, exploitation and oppression which created the conditions for rebellion in Latin America, as in Cuba, the idea was to undermine the root causes of the emerging guerrilla movements. However: ‘Within ten years the US began reducing the loans, relying instead on overt military repression. The escalating violence included covert CIA activity, attempted assassinations, and the training of Latin American police and military for counterinsurgency. The murder of Che, who was the embodiment of revolutionary change, was a critical part of this’. US officials stated at that time ‘Che Guevara’s death was a crippling – perhaps fatal – blow to the Bolivian guerrilla movement and may prove a serious setback for Fidel Castro’s hopes to foment violent revolution in all or almost all Latin American countries’. The culmination of this policy was Operation Condor and active support for military dictatorships throughout the Americas which decimated the left and opposition of any kind and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans who were detained, tortured, killed and disappeared.

The implications of the evidence provided by Ratner and Smith are important and should be politically pursued. ‘Under the laws that govern warfare, including guerrilla war, the killing of a prisoner is murder and constitutes a war crime. It is not the actual shooter who is guilty of a war crime. Those higher up that ordered, acquiesced or failed to prevent the murder are guilty of a war crime as well’. The CIA got away with Che’s murder and continues to pursue a policy of assassinating political opponents. Today the US government has invented the status of ‘enemy combatants’ to avoid international obligations in the treatment of prisoners and President Obama utilises US special forces and unmanned drones to assassinate enemies in foreign territories, violating domestic and international laws and trampling on the sovereignty of other nations. It is the responsibility of us all to make use of the evidence provided by Ratner and Smith and demand from the US establishment accountability for the murder of Che and other war crimes past and present.

Helen Yaffe is the author of "Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution". She is a Research Associate in the Department of Georgraphy at the University of Leicester

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