Well, Soderbergh and Del Toro’s Che was just released on DVD-Blu-ray. As a bonus, the Criterion release contains a behind-the-scenes “Making Che” section, featuring interviews with Soderbergh, Del Toro, the screenwriters, along with audio narration by the film’s chief consultant (except Fidel Castro), author John Lee Anderson.
An obsession among all involved with this monstrosity (271 minutes), we learn, was “historical accuracy.” As a professional duty, last year I sat through this thing. For the sake of this review let’s forget the films’ “omissions,” namely the only success in Che’s life: the mass murder of defenseless men and boys. This being a shoot-em up war movie, we’ll instead focus on the battle scenes and the attendant dialogue.
For starters, the only “guerrilla war” fought in Cuba during the 20th Century was fought, not by Fidel and Che, but against Fidel and Che (more on this shortly.)
After the glorious victory over Batista some of the Castroite “guerrillas” explained the harrowing battlefield exploits (so “expertly” dramatized by Soderbergh) to Paul Bethel who served as U.S. press attaché in Cuba’s U.S. Embassy in 1959. “We had a helluva time, Paul!” laughed one guerrilla’s named William Morgan. “We used a short-wave radio to broadcast the so-called battle. We yelled fake battle commands into the mic while a few of the muchachos shot BARs and pistols into the air for the sound effects. We really whooped it up!”
Another U.S. citizen described to Bethel how he managed to duck the hail of bombs and bullets:
“Che Guevara’s column shuffled right into the U.S. agricultural experimental station in Camaguey where I worked. Guevara asked manager Joe McGuire to have a man take a package to Batista’s military commander in the city. The package contained $100,000 with a note. Guevara’s men moved through the province almost within sight of uninterested Batista troops.”
According to Paul Bethel, the U.S. embassy had been highly skeptical about all the battlefield bloodshed and heroics reported in the New York Times and investigated. They ran down every reliable lead and eyewitness account of what the New York Times called a “bloody civil war with thousands dead in single battles!”
They found that in the Cuban countryside, in those two years of “ferocious” battles, the total casualties on BOTH sides actually ran to 182. New Orleans has an annual murder rate DOUBLE that. The famous “Battle of Santa Clara,” that Soderbergh depicts as a Caribbean Stalingrad, claimed five casualties total–on BOTH sides.
In one scene, amidst the thunder of bombs and hail of bullets, Che laments how the U.S. is intervening on Batista’s side. In fact: at the very time of Che’s lament as depicted in this obsessionally historically ‘accurate” movie, the Batista regime was under a U.S. arms embargo! Batista was subsequently denied exile in the U.S. and banned from even setting foot in the country that “backed” him.
On a visit to Cuba in 2001 for a “scholarly summit” with Fidel and Raul Castro, Robert Reynolds — who served as the CIA’s Caribbean desk’s specialist on the Cuban revolution from 1957-60 — clarified the U.S. diplomatic stance of the time: “Me and my staff were all Fidelistas,” he boasted to his beaming hosts.
Reynolds’ colleague Robert Weicha, who served as CIA chief in Santiago, Cuba, (the city nearest the Iwo-Jima-esque exploits depicted in this movie) in the late 1950s, concurred. “Everyone in the CIA and everyone at State were pro-Castro, except ambassador Earl T. Smith.”
U.S. diplomat Weicha’s was a hands-on type of Fidelismo. In the fall of ‘57, Weicha and his subaltern, U.S. Consul Park Wollam, smuggled into Cuba the state-of-the-art transmitters that became Castro and Che’s “Radio Rebelde” From these mics (shown in the movie, right before Che’s “U.S. intervention for Batista” lament!) the Castroites broadcast their “guerrilla victories” island-wide, along with their plans to uplift Cuba into a Caribbean Shangri-La inspired by the principles of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Jefferson.
Now, on to Cuba’s genuine guerrilla war, fought from 1960-66 and–this cannot be repeated often enough– AGAINST the Fidel/Che regime. Farm collectivization was no more voluntary in Cuba than in the Ukraine. And Cuba’s Kulaks had guns, a few at first anyway. Had these rebels gotten a fraction of the aid the Afghan Mujahedeen got, the Viet Cong got – indeed that George Washington’s rebels got from the French – had these Cuban rebels gotten any help, my kids would speak Spanish and Miami’s jukeboxes today would carry Tanya Tucker rather than Gloria Estefan.
Be it known: Che Guevara had a very bloody (and typically cowardly) hand in one of the major anti-insurgency wars on this continent. Eighty percent of these anti-communist guerrillas were executed on the spot upon capture, a Che specialty. For my book I interviewed several of the lucky former rebels who managed to escape the slaughter. “We fought with the fury of cornered beasts,” I titled the chapter, using the phrase one used to describe their desperate freedom fight against the Soviet occupation of Cuba through their proxies Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
In 1956 when Che linked up with Fidel, Raul, and their Cuban chums in Mexico city, one of them (now in exile) recalls Che dutifully reciting the Stalinist script word for word, railing against the Hungarian freedom-fighters as “Fascists!” and cheering their extermination by Soviet tanks.
In 1962 Che got a chance to do more than cheer from the sidelines. He had a hand in the following: “Cuban militia units commanded by Russian officers employed flame-throwers to burn the palm-thatched cottages in the Escambray countryside. The peasant occupants were accused of feeding the counterrevolutionaries and bandits.” At one point in 1962, one of every 17 Cubans was a political prisoner. Fidel himself admits that they faced 179 bands of “counter-revolutionaries” and “bandits.”
Mass murder was the order in Cuba’s countryside. It was the only way to decimate so many rebels. These country folk went after the Reds with a ferocity that saw Fidel and Che running to their Soviet sugar daddies and tugging their pants in panic. That commie bit about how “a guerrilla swims in the sea which is the people, etc.” fit Cuba’s anti-Fidel and Che rebellion to a T. So in a relocation and concentration campaign that shamed anything the Brits did to the Boers, the gallant Communists ripped hundreds of thousands of Cubans from their ancestral homes and herded them into concentration camps on the opposite side of Cuba. I interview several of these “relocated” families too.
One of these Cuban redneck wives refused to be relocated. After her husband, sons, and a few nephews were murdered by the Gallant Che and his minions, she grabbed a tommy gun herself, rammed in a clip and took to the hills. She became a rebel herself. Cubans know her as La Niña Del Escambray.
For a year she ran rings around the Communist armies sweeping the hills in her pursuit. Finally she ran out of ammo and supplies and the reds rounded her up. Amazingly, she wasn’t executed (Che must have taken that day off.) For years La Niña suffered horribly in Castro’s dungeons, but she lives in Miami today. Seems to me her tragic story makes ideal fodder for Oprah, for all those women’s magazines, for all those butch professorettes of “Women’s Studies,” for a Susan Sarandon or Sandra Bullock role..
Think about it: here’s that favored theme for Hollywood producers – “the feisty woman.” Well, they don’t come much feistier than Zoila Aguila, her real name. Had she been fighting, say, Somoza or Pinochet, you can bet your last penny Hollywood and New York would be ALL OVER her story. Instead she fought the Left’s most picturesque poster boys. So, naturally, nobody’s heard of her.