ERNESTO ESCOBAR ULLOA
translated by Luke Sandford
(see original Spanish version)
El País Semanal
You observed it all. I guess you never stopped smoking fat cigars,but kept on writing, shrouded in smoke.
“That Man,” Heberto Padilla
The demise of the South American dictator, Commander Ernesto “Che” Guevara, aged 83, brought to a close a transcendental chapter in Bolivia's history. Che's regime, solidly established until the time of his death, left behind a legacy of 43 years of totalitarianism. In a country about which little or nothing is known, the future remains highly uncertain.
The Argentine-born Bolivian leader founded a tailor-made system that, in its impenetrability, can be likened only to that of North Korea's Kim Il-sung. “Creating one, two, three or many Vietnams” was the slogan that not only failed in the Congo, but also almost cost Che his life in Bolivia. The dire conditions associated with the guerrilla cause would have led to certain death back in 1967; this episode was brought to light by TVE reporter Jon Sistiaga in the only interview Che granted to an international television network during his years in power: “One morning, we picked up Radio Balmaseda, a Chilean station, which reported that the enemy army had us surrounded. That day, more than 1,500 Imperial soldiers marched by right in front of our noses.” The subsequent course of events is common knowledge: Che's escape via the Río Grande, followed by life in hiding in Peru, where, unbeknownst to President Fernando Belaúnde Terry's government, he managed to regroup his forces and maintained strategic contacts with left-wing intellectuals and political figures in Bolivia. They soon convinced him to change his strategy: armed struggle across South America was a lost cause given the strength of Bolivia's military, which was much better prepared than Batista's troops. Truth be told, only someone like Che could pull off such a feat, that is, someone capable of fighting for power and winning it, only to abandon it all for the dust and hunger of the battlefield. The guerrilla fighters' tenaciousness, combined with their experience in the halls of government, formed the basis of a plan designed to take full advantage of a political crisis. In the wake of Bolivian President René Barrientos' death in 1969, Che and his men launched a wave of attacks that claimed the lives of generals and politicians who had played key roles in the country, including Adolfo Siles Salinas and Alfredo Ovando Candía, both of whom had overarching presidential ambitions. Che's National Liberation Army went on to seize power with the backing of a left-wing contingent, joined by some sectors of the Bolivian miners' union (FSTMB), but without the support of the peasantry, much less the industrialists, all of whom rushed to transfer their holdings to North American banks.
The Interim Government of National Reconstruction granted Che Bolivian citizenship and with it the authority to serve as protector of the country. Various left-wing revolutionary political groups (PCB, PRA, MNR) and their respective factions stalled for time in a bid to gain popularity in the potential run-up to new elections. The huascaristas (Incas) had entered into an identical alliance with the conquistador Francisco Pizarro five centuries before in the mistaken belief that the Spaniards would leave once Atahualpa's generals had been beaten and all the gold from the Incan palaces had been looted. In fact, the internecine fighting finally exhausted Che's patience: wary of the fact that Chile and Peru, followed by the USSR and the USA, had inundated Bolivia with spies, the process of purging elements deemed likely to be tempted by the evils of imperialism began. The Second Congress in Cochabamba provided the perfect opportunity to spring a trap that, in less than three days, finished off the leading figures of the various political groups. The summary proceedings were reminiscent of the trials at La Cabaña after the Cuban revolution. The so-called “Night of the Guns” shocked the world and brought sharp condemnation from the Organization of American States, the United Nations and the entire international community, with the exception of Libya, Vietnam, China and North Korea.
That same year, Bolivia broke off relations with all bordering countries. In the TVE interview, Che had declared: “We've never hidden the fact. We did it in Cuba and we acknowledged it then. Yes, there were firing squads. Other revolutions may not have called them by that name, but we did so because we won the war. That was the price paid by those who did not prevail. If their deaths served any worthwhile purpose, it was to protect what we had achieved at such great cost: freedom. In contrast, imperialism lays waste to the world without ever acknowledging the fact; its sole purpose is to amass wealth and build skyscrapers designed to perpetuate exploitation. That is nothing short of criminal. What we did was in legitimate self-defense.”
From then on, discordant voices (if there were any left) fell silent as a process of radical transformation began. The Agricultural Reform Act was adopted, modeled after Cuba's legislation. All privately held companies, whether national or international, were expropriated and placed under cooperative control. The concept of private property was abolished and political parties were banned. Media outlets were seized and recombined to form the RTP Bolivia conglomerate. The Bolivian Republic of the New Man came into being.
Tensions were exacerbated following Pinochet's coup d'état in 1971 amid threats of a new Pacific War coinciding with the Cold War. The next step involved the construction of the Andean Wall as war provided the pretext of stemming a massive exodus of Bolivians. In fact, the Andean Wall was more reminiscent of the Great Wall of China than it was of the Berlin Wall. Some 500 military command headquarters were created. The alternative would have been to extend the wall around Lake Titicaca, thus cutting off any potential escape route to Peru.
Since then, a slow trickle of reports describing a bleak regime that preached the virtues of austerity and the study of Marxism were received. The justice system, police and military were used as political weapons. Compulsory military service and forced labor on behalf of the regime were introduced, and harsh sentences and punishments were meted out at the first sign of insubordination (the so-called "crime of alienation" was punishable by death). This served to overcome the resistance of the terrified citizenry caught up in the throes of Communist paranoia. Such fears made it all too easy to bring an Orwellian nightmare into being, set against a backdrop of childlike naïveté. The only thing that set the regime apart from North Korea's dictatorship was the absence of a cult of personality or any monuments exalting Che and his family. Otherwise, there was only the Spartan-like rigidity of a government entrenched in its dedication to an obsolete military model, solely designed to frighten the populace. According to the few photos smuggled out, the precariousness of everything was stunning. The most striking thing was the names of certain government institutions, including the Ministry of Consciousness (i.e. Culture); the Ministry of Liberation (it is unclear whether this replaced the Ministry of Labor or the Ministry of the Economy, or both); the Ministry of Joy (i.e. Sports); and the Bank of Time, which issued a currency known as the inti, which was worth whatever the bearer said it was worth...
We recently had occasion to visit Che Guevara's former home, which still contains his deathbed. We were particularly moved by the distressing lack of resources. Due to our familiarity with dictatorships in Africa or other parts of Latin America, we typically associate a tyrant's crimes more with opulence than with scarcity. As Che lay dying as an old man, his days as a corpulent guerrilla chatting with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir without taking his boots off must have seemed long long ago.
Some attribute Che's excesses to the fall of Communism. They maintain that if it hadn't been for him, the Berlin Wall would have crumbled in the 1990s as a logical result of perestroika, rather than in 1985. Others would have preferred for Che to have been savaged and shot at point-blank range like Libya's strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2009 during the "Arab Spring". At least that would appear to be the hidden intention of the hash tag with which Twitter users around the world proclaimed the end of a shameful chapter in the country's history. In the end, a taciturn functionary closed the doors on the Bolivian Republic of the New Man and called on the world to join in an unprecedented democratic transition. There was no talk of ovations or applause, no celebrations in the streets or mass funeral services. Instead, a tomb-like silence swept over a country on which the whole world decided to turn its back one day.
Última Hora/breaking news:
John Lennon: “I'd like to sing in Bolivia.”
Former French president Dominique Strauss-Kahn faces new rape charges.
Pope Pius XIII: “Bolivia has always been a Catholic country.”
Nobel laureate Vargas Llosa recalls his childhood in Cochabamba.
The reporter is a well-known Peruvian neoliberal who has no idea what he's talking about. Anonymous
The UN is useless. For years now, we've been questioning its role in a world in which dictatorships operate unimpeded while nobody moves a finger. Juan Silva, A Coruña
My father managed to escape from Bolivia. He was in the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement and got out alive thanks to a tip-off. In effect, the international community turned its back on the Bolivians. Anonymous
He deserved to be hung from the main mast. Anonymous
At least the Bolivians weren't completely fed up with his government. Witness the fact that they didn't take to the streets to celebrate. But we are fed up, primarily because the left and the right wing are one and the same. Javier Peña Olivares, Granada
Che, that old motherfucker. Anonymous
The "liberal democracies" (actually a misnomer) are in thrall to a neo-liberal form of capitalism, whose effects include unemployment, social injustice, poverty and privatized education and healthcare. The international financial system is led by Wall Street and the big multinationals. Whenever I'm asked whether I agreed with him, I say it's a pity that we didn't have one, two, three or more Ches in the world, advocating an ethical, pluralistic, revolutionary and humanist form of Marxism. Ivan Madero, Madrid.
Very good article, very well written. Alicia, Barcelona
© Ernesto Escobar Ulloa
© original translation for TBR: Luke Sandford
(see original Spanish version)
“#BoLibia” is from the Spanish collection Salvo el poder by Ernesto Escobar Ulloa, published by editorial Comba, 2015. Book ordering available through Comba http://www.editorialcomba.com/catalogo/libros/narrativa/salvo-el-poder/#sthash.67C9nSOl.v.dpbs and amazon.es
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Ernesto Escobar Ulloa, born 1971 in Lima, Peru, is a Spanish teacher and cultural journalist. He collaborated with the literary/cultural journals Cuadernos Cervantes and Lateral, among others, before taking on the Spanish editorship of The Barcelona Review from 2004 to 2012. He has lived in Barcelona, Spain, for more than 13 years where in 2009 he founded Canal-L, a video channel devoted to interviewing the most relevant Spanish writers of the time. Salvo el poder is his literary debut.
Photo credit: Lisbeth Salas