The Guardian 26 January, 2005
Book Review by Bob Briton
Undercover with Che Guevara in Bolivia
The story of an unforgettable guerrilla, internationalist, Communist
The publication of Ulises Estrada’s biography of Tania by Ocean Press has not come a moment too soon. For quite a while the historical record of Che Guevara’s life and times and of those who fought alongside him has been written (or rather, re-written) in the most part by plainly hostile "researchers".
The list of these detractors is long but the author of the latest Tania bio mentions one that sticks in my memory, too. Jorge Castañeda, the "socialist" academic and Vincente Fox appointee to the post of Foreign Minister of Mexico had his volume Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara published in 1997. It was quickly translated and featured prominently on the shelves of bookshops worldwide. It is a collection of undisputed data mixed with the most diverse assembly of gossip and speculation imaginable.
Among the notions advanced by Castañeda in his effort to "demythologise" Che and his revolutionary contribution were assertions that:
Che’s struggle with asthma made him indifferent to or even attracted to death — hence his tendency to embark on reckless adventures.
He made such a mess of the work of the finance ministry that he left for his ill-fated revolutionary campaign in Bolivia largely out of embarrassment.
His criticism of the relative paucity of aid from the socialist countries to developing nations at the Afro-Asian Conference in Algiers in 1965 had led to such a bitter split with Fidel and Raúl Castro that he was told to get out of town.
He harboured deep resentment at the lack of organisation of the African forces involved in the Congo expedition — giving Castañeda’s Che a slight odour of racism.
He never fully resolved his love/hate attitude to Peronism — the populist authoritarian movement of Juan and Evita Peron who dominated politics in Guevara’s native Argentina for decades from the 1940s onwards. This, we are told, was the source of a lot of confusion in Che’s allegedly troubled personality.
In this spray of contradictory old and new calumny, Castañeda took time out to take a swipe at the memory of another internationally respected martyr to the cause of human liberation: Haydée Tamara Bunke Bíder, more commonly known by one of her aliases, Tania. The name was taken in honour of a hero of the Soviet partisan resistance to the Nazi invaders. She came to Cuba from the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR — East Germany) where she lived with her parents so, as you could easily predict, the revisionist historian advances the theories that:
She escaped to vibrant Latin America because the GDR was such an awful society to live in.
She believed the Cuban revolution, which Che was trying to transplant to the rest of Latin America, was true to its socialist principles while in the GDR they had been betrayed.
She was sent to Cuba by the Stasi (GDR security service) and/or the KGB to infiltrate and possibly even sabotage Che’s Bolivian expedition.
It was the flood of this type of character assassination that motivated Ulises Estrada to put down a more accurate account of her adult life; one that has been updated from recently released documents from security services, notably those of Cuba. What gives Estrada’s account particular authority about the activities and motivations of Tania is the now openly-conceded fact that he broke one of the cardinal rules of the Cuban intelligences services he worked for by forming a relationship with Tania prior to her departure for Bolivia. He was part of the team that provided the training she would need to infiltrate ruling military and government circles in Bolivia, set up an urban support network and take up arms herself should she be discovered. Tania and Estrada planned to marry when she returned and have a family with lots of Afro-Cuban/German mulato children. By the way, among Estrada’s many other distinctions and qualifications, he worked in support of Che’s mission to the Congo in 1965.
In this battle against the well-financed distorters of history, Estrada had a staunch ally in Tania’s mother, Nadia Bunke. Before she died in 2003, she had managed to have the scurrilous libel written by Uruguayan author José A Friedl under the title Tania, the Woman Che Guevara Loved removed from sale in Germany and penalties set for anyone pedalling the defamatory allegations contained in it. These included the fabrication first circulated in the 1970s by Günter Männel, a deserter from the East German security services, that Che and Tania had started an extra-marital affair while training together in the Czech capital of Prague. It so happened that, while Tania and Che both received instruction and other assistance in Prague, they were never in the city at the same time. Nevertheless, the slur was picked up by the CIA, the Bolivian secret service and every reactionary ever since to paint Tania as a latter-day Mata Hari.
Estrada dedicates his book to Nadia Bunke and it is clear as his account unfolds that Tania’s heroic contribution to the liberation of Latin America had its origins in the commitment of both her parents. Father Erich had joined the German Communist Party in 1928 and fled with Nadia to Argentina when the Nazis came to power in 1933. There was insufficient time to arrange to seek refuge in the Soviet Union. Nadia had an additional good reason to leave in a hurry; she was of Russian Jewish origin.
In Argentina Erich found bits and pieces of teaching work. He and Nadia threw themselves into the work of the Argentine Communist Party. Their children, Olaf and Haydée (the future Tania) grew up in a highly charged political atmosphere with meetings, helping refugees, hiding publications and sometimes even weapons in the family home in Buenos Aires. Tania was a keen athlete and an excellent student with a particular fondness for the folk music of the family’s new homeland and the rest of South America.
In the early 1950s the family left for the GDR and settled in Stalinstadt (later named Eisenhüttenstadt). Tania thrived in her new environment and was an energetic member of the ruling Socialist Unity Party’s youth organisation, the Free German Youth (FGY). Her interest in Latin America and her linguistic abilities soon saw her translating on behalf of the FGY’s International Department for the stream of visitors from the promising revolutionary movement in Cuba. Work for the World Federation of Democratic Youth, the International Student Union and the World Festival of Youth and Students took her to Vienna, Prague, Moscow and finally Havana, Cuba.
Her mother recalls a comment by a leading GDR party official to Tania about her foreign travels: "We know you well; we trust you completely, and we know that wherever you go, whether it be to a socialist or capitalist country, you will continue with the struggle in the ranks of the working class in the revolutionary movement."
These were not hollow words and soon her Cuban hosts began to notice the efficiency, discipline and good-natured sense of service of the young party worker from the GDR. Tania was working for the Federation of Cuban Women and the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples when she was selected for training to take part in Che’s ill-fated Operation Fantasma. This was the guerrilla expedition to Bolivia which was to spark a continent-wide revolutionary uprising and deliver "two, three, many Vietnams" to challenge imperialism.
From her first day of training Tania impressed with her intelligence and stamina. She was discreet but, at the same time, a very sociable person who could strike up friendships easily — an asset she called on often during her work in Bolivia. After her training with the author Estrada in Cuba and another agent from the Ministry of the Interior’s Technical Vice Ministry, José Gómez Abad (alias Diosdado), in Prague, she set off for Bolivia with the carefully constructed new identity of Laura Gutiérrez Bauer.
"Laura" was a right-wing folklore expert of Argentine background. She quickly found herself rubbing shoulders with the glitterati of Bolivia’s academic and official circles. There exists a photo of Laura at a dinner with a group which includes the brutal dictator Barrientos. In order to maintain her cover, she busied herself part-time with her explorations of folk music (producing one of the most valuable collections of Bolivian music in the process) and entered into a marriage of convenience with a young Bolivian.
In the end, the unreliability of many comrades in the urban network set up to support Che’s guerrillas forced her to travel to their rural camp at Nacaguazu on a number of occasions. On one of these trips, her jeep was discovered and her cover was blown. She had nothing left to do but to throw herself into the guerrilla campaign. Again Tania impressed everybody with her energy and stoicism. She took several additional duties — like rationing food and monitoring radio broadcasts — while battling the painful effects of the flee-like parasite, the chigoe.
Eventually, the column led by Joaquín, which had separated from Che’s and had lost contact with the main force, was ambushed while crossing the Río Grande. Tania was shot through the arm and the lung. Her body was carried downstream and only recovered by the Bolivian army several days later. The corpse was shown to Barrientos like some grim trophy. However, her enemies’ plan to dump her body in unmarked graves with the rest of the guerrillas came undone when local peasant women demanded she be given a "Christian" burial. They made items for a humble funeral and were able to lead Cuban experts to the site over 30 years later when they went to Bolivia to retrieve the remains of the brave internationalist expedition. Tania’s mother insisted her bones be returned for burial in Cuba, where a huge commemoration was held in the city of Santa Clara.
Estrada’s book is full of these moving episodes. There’s one where Tania burst into joyful tears when a Cuban agent brought her news that she had been admitted to the Communist Party of Cuba. She was in the thick of her undercover work in the Bolivian capital of La Paz and was overwhelmed by the honour. The agent recalls: "… ‘I thought that they had forgotten me.’ I told her ‘You mustn’t think that way. The revolution will never forget you or anyone who serves it as you do’. She replied with emotion, ‘It was a joke. I know that they haven’t forgotten me…’."
Nadia Bunke’s description of the life of her little "Ita" (the diminutive name for Tania used by her family) is another very touching recollection. It is sad and maddeningly unjust that in an interview that is reproduced among the fascinating appendices to the book that she is obliged to say that of the hundreds of schools, child and healthcare facilities on the territory of the former GDR once named after her daughter, only one continues that recognition.
Of course, there are many institutions carrying her name on the island of Cuba, but reading Estrada’s book gives you the strong feeling that her name will one day be restored to its proper place in a remade Germany. It is not ridiculous to believe this. The wheel of history has not stopped and it is beginning to move once more in the direction foreseen by Che and Tania. The struggles of the people in Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and elsewhere attest to this.
Tania Undercover with Che Guevara in Bolivia
Ocean Press, Melbourne, 2005
RRP AUD$35.00, 331pp (illust.)