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Fidel and Che, reconsidered

Creative tension, not conflict and betrayal, marked the last years of their relationship.

A Revolutionary Friendship

By Simon Reid-Henry

Walker. 448 pp. $28

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Reviewed by Juan O. Tamayo

You know that too many books have been written about Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara when a young British geographer writes a revisionist version of the relationship between the two icons of Latin American revolution.

The "unrevised" version is that Fidel perceived that the Argentine-born Che was getting too big for his britches in the early 1960s and got rid of him by encouraging his efforts to promote revolution in the Congo and later in Bolivia. Fidel then pulled the logistical rug out from under the Bolivia operation, condemning it to failure. U.S.-trained Bolivian troops then captured and executed Che.

That's the version most comprehensively laid out in two hefty biographies of Che, Jorge Castaneda's Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara and John Lee Anderson's Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. It's also the version recounted in the book Vida y Muerte de la Revolucion Cubana, by Daniel Alarcon, one of the three Cubans who survived Che's fatal incursion into Bolivia, and who powerfully accuses Fidel Castro of out-and-out betrayal.

Now comes Simon Reid-Henry, a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, who argues in Fidel and Che: A Revolutionary Friendship that what others call confrontation and betrayal was a sort of creative tension between revolutionary soulmates.

Reid-Henry does not always gloss over the negatives. He casts Che as an intolerant and insensitive dreamer - he did away with salary incentives and replaced them with "moral" incentives - and a harsh disciplinarian who coolly wrote in his diary how he executed a suspected traitor during the war against the Batista dictatorship: "I ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 pistol in the right side of the brain."

Reid-Henry also notes that after Batista's ouster, Guevara supervised some 550 executions in Havana. Castro comes off much better in this account, as a "pragmatist" who sought and kept power to promote his vision of a "humanistic" and "anti-imperialist" revolution.

Give the author credit for his massive research with primary sources, and for writing that is generally elegant despite occasional plunges into revolutionary/psychoanalytical babble. And there is indeed something attractive about this tale of two men who have dominated so much of Latin American history.

But Reid-Henry spends the first 100 pages linking the stories of Fidel and Che when they meet in Mexico, which makes 100 pages all but wasted on stale recountings of the two men's childhoods and youths, and some of his central conclusions appear pretty odd in light of history.

He argues that while Che, during his five years in charge of the Cuban economy, tried to "drive people forward" with his policy of moral incentives, "Fidel, who sparked people into action all around him without effort, believed the solution lay more in letting them go."

Really? Perhaps the author could have pointed out some instances of Fidel's "letting go," to counter the general impression that Castro has been an in-the-weeds micromanager all his life, a man who almost never allowed private initiative to take hold in Cuba. Perhaps Reid-Henry was referring to the Mariel and balsero crises, when he did "let go" some 160,000 Cubans. And they went, to the United States.

Finally, his efforts to recast the confrontation and bitterness that virtually all other authors say marked the last few years of the relationship between Castro and Che seem less like a new version of history, based on fresh facts, than a rewriting of old history.

Sometimes, revisionism is little more than rehashing tired old tales.