“My Life With Che” (Palgrave Macmillian, 223 pages, $21.95), by Hilda Gadea
Ernesto “Che” Guevara's transformation from adventurer to revolutionary is chronicled by his first wife in the intimate portrait, “My Life With Che,” picking up where his own book, “The Motorcycle Diaries” left off.
This revised and updated version of Hilda Gadea's 1972 book tells of the pair meeting in December 1953 when she was a Peruvian political exile living in Guatemala and he was wrapping up his motorcycle travels across Latin America.
Although later smitten by the dark-eyed Argentine, Gadea initially was not impressed. “He seemed superficial, egotistical and conceited,” she recalled.
But the pair's friendship deepened as they discussed books on philosophy, politics and poetry. They also both supported the Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz, and were enraged when Arbenz was forced out of power by a U.S.-backed invasion.
The events in Guatemala, and the people Guevara met there, changed him from wandering romantic into committed rebel, Gadea writes.
Gadea introduced Guevara to other exiles, including four Cubans who participated with Fidel and Raul Castro in an unsuccessful 1953 armed attack that launched the Cuban revolution. The other attackers were arrested along with the Castros, or killed.
“In theory he was already a partisan, but it was not until Guatemala that he adopted the role,” Gadea writes of Guevara. “It was there that he came to know other exiles and to learn about men who either had died or been taken prisoner as a result of real struggles.”
The prose is often dull and politically militant, and those unfamiliar with Cuba's political history may quickly lose interest.
But there are several touching sections that demonstrate Gadea's insecurities and infatuation with Guevara, detailing their lover's quarrels and her jealousies as their relationship grows — first in Guatemala and later when both seek political exile in Mexico.
At one point, Gadea momentarily plans to break with Guevara after finding a photographic negative of a bathing suit-clad girl in a book he loaned. When Guevara leaves her alone one New Year's Eve, she basks in the flirtations of a fellow Peruvian with whom she dances at a party and considers — again, just briefly — going out with him.
Raul Castro, now Cuba's president, was present when they married in Mexico in September 1955. The couple met him and his older brother Fidel while training their rebel army in Mexico after released from Cuban prison. Guevara signed up for training and returned with the rebels to Cuba in December 1956 to launch their uprising. He was soon a rebel commander, and later a top leader in the revolutionary government.
Gadea stayed behind with their small child, Hildita, but traveled immediately to Cuba upon learning of the rebels' victory on Jan. 1, 1959. Guevara greeted her with the unexpected news that he had met another woman and wanted a divorce.
The divorce was final on May 22, 1959, and Guevara remarried days later to the woman Gadea does not bother to name — Aleida March, mother to Guevara's four other children.
Despite the divorce, Gadea stayed in Cuba, where Hildita saw her father frequently before he launched efforts to spread revolution abroad. And Gadea remained loyal to Guevara as a revolutionary leader, lionizing him after he was killed in October 1967 trying to foment an uprising in Bolivia. She died in Havana in 1974.
“You are no longer here in body, Ernesto Che Guevara,” Gadea wrote several days after the death of the wanderer who captured her heart in Central America. “But your example is, so is your work, and the principles for which you fell.”