“Under the laws that govern warfare, including guerrilla war, the killing of a prisoner is murder and constitutes a war crime. It is not just the actual shooter who is guilty of a war crime. Those higher up that ordered, acquiesced or failed to prevent the murder are guilty of a war crime as well. There is no statute of limitation for this crime.” (Ratner and Smith, 2011)
In ‘Who Killed Che? How the CIA got away with Murder?’(OR Books, 2011) Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith discuss historical narratives from various sources while providing the contrast between the narratives of various authors against a selection of published declassified documents from the White House, the CIA, as well as the US State and Defense Departments. Che’s murder is replete with conflicting testimonies embroiled in a major inconsistency – the evidence of US guilt against dissemination of the opposite information. However, a careful reading and examination of the documents portray the CIA’s involvement and sheds light on the erroneous information supplied by agent Felix Rodriguez, demonstrating the use of plausible deniability.
Former secretary of state George Marshall declared that the CIA’s status as a paramilitary organization granted the agency unlimited power and impunity to violate international law, authorised by the National Security Act of 1947. International law violations required a cover up for the CIA, thus an official policy of lying about paramilitary operations in a manner which shielded the White House was practiced. According to Ratner and Smith, through the practice of plausible deniability, the CIA was allowed the freedom to interpret and act upon the president’s words without any consultation, thus shielding government officials from responsibility. Referring to assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, former head of the CIA Richard Helms stated that he “never informed either the president or his newly appointed CIA director John Mc Cone of the assassination plots ... nobody wants to embarrass a President of the United States by discussing the assassination of foreign leaders in his presence.”
The book discusses the various accounts of Che’s death in popular biographical accounts. Ratner and Smith observe that the versions either deny or vaguely imply CIA involvement. In his book ‘Shadow Warrior: The CIA Hero of a Hundred Unknown Battles’, Rodriguez insists that despite the CIA wanting Che alive, he did nothing to oppose the execution order allegedly given from generals in La Paz. Echoing Rodriguez, Richard Harris completely exonerates the CIA from any responsibility in his book ‘Death of a Revolutionary’. Rodriguez’s version is unquestioned and the author states that US involvement in Che’s death was minimal.
Both Jorge Castaneda and Jon Lee Anderson discuss Rodriguez’s account of Che’s murder in their respective biographies. However Castaneda implies an agreement between the US and Bolivia to have Che executed if captured, while Anderson discusses Colonel Andre Selich’s version, stating that Rodriguez never received direct orders to have Che murdered. Paco Ignacio Taibo’s version omits any reference to Rodriguez in the orders leading to Che’s death, suggesting instead that President Barrientos ordered Che’s assassination. Fox Butterfield Ryan’s biography states that the CIA “knew for thirty-six hours before Che’s execution that he was captured,” however he describes the CIA as having “done nothing”.
Close scrutiny of the declassified documents, which make up the major part of this book, reveal that the US was heavily involved in documenting Che’s movements, speeches and subsequent plans to spread revolutionary struggle. Che was being tracked as early as 1954 upon his arrival in Guatemala – a fact echoed in the book’s preface by Rolando Alarcon, who asserts “Ernesto Guevara was an object of interest for the American secret services before he entered our history, long before he became Che.”
A CIA cable in 1958 states that while Fidel is considered the dominating revolutionary influence, Che is capable of ensuring the continuity of the Bolivarian Revolution. Other CIA cables describe Che as an idealist wanting to fight against the political situation in Latin America. A CIA biographical fact sheet about Che states that he is highly unlikely to remain in Cuba if the revolution triumphs. Following the Cuban revolutionary triumph, Che’s views on US foreign policy were documented in another CIA cable, quoting him as saying, “The Castro government has letters and documentary proof showing improper collaboration between the former US Ambassador and the BATISTA regime.” The cable also takes into account Che’s opinion that, “The United States has achieved social justice and liberty for its own people, but it objects when small Latin American countries struggle for the same things for themselves.”
The cables, memos and documents concerning Che’s activities in Bolivia are explicit with regard to US intentions to eliminate him. CIA documents (1966) reported Che’s intention to lead an armed struggle in the Andes, extending through Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. Documents from the White House and the Department of State indicate clearly that President Barrientos asked for US aid in order to fight the guerrilla insurgency. Upon assessing Bolivian counterinsurgency capabilities, the US decided to aid Barrientos by fulfilling his request for “a hunter-killer team” which would effectively eliminate the guerrilla movement. The CIA agent responsible for training the Bolivian military was Felix Rodriguez, who arrived in Bolivia on August 2, 1967.
The conflicting documents regarding Che’s capture and death serve to facilitate US denial of any involvement in the actual murder. Reports sent to Washington on October 9, 1967 claim that Che had been captured and “reliably reported still alive”, contradicting a memorandum sent by counterinsurgency head Walter Rostow to President Johnson stating that Che was dead and the responsible squad had been trained by the US. Yet another document sent on October 10 – a day after Che’s murder, refutes the notion that Che was ‘among the casualties’. This was a major incongruence, considering that Rodriguez was in La Higuera on the day of Che’s death.
According to the authors, a lack of cohesive structure in the documents indicate the possibility that higher officials may have been intentionally misled through memorandums in order to achieve plausible deniability for US government officials. CIA documents have sought to portray Che’s murder as a Bolivian government action, notwithstanding the paramilitary training provided by the US. However, Ratner and Smith expound upon the inconsistencies with regard to Rodriguez’s testimony, which led to CIA exoneration from the war crime. Primarily, he stated that orders from the US were to keep Che alive if captured. While in his first report Rodriguez claimed that the secret code 700 indicated the order to kill Che, in a debriefing ten years later he declared that the order to dispose of Che was given directly to him, under the code 600. In his first testimony the code 600 indicated an order to keep Che alive. During the debriefing Rodriguez also stated that he was unable to spare Che’s life and that the order came directly from Bolivian generals. Apart from confusing the secret codes, which, according to the authors, indicate the possibility that he was not the person who received the order to kill Che, Rodriguez had previously stated that, as CIA agents, they had never accepted any orders from the Bolivian Army.
On October 11, a document by Rostow sent to President Johnson affirms Che’s death, however the killing is deemed ‘stupid’, implying that Washington was not involved in the assassination. The order to execute Che, according to the document, came from the Chief of Bolivian Armed Forces. Ratner and Smith argue that this is improbable, given that other documents clearly indicate US responsibility for the training of ‘killer groups’, apart from having a CIA agent in La Higuera. Che’s death is also regarded as strategic for US interests in Latin America. Additionally, Rostow claims that the murder reinforces the trend of eliminating ‘romantic revolutionaries’, discourages guerrillas in Latin America to pursue armed struggle and portrays the efficiency of US ‘preventive medicine’ with regard to counterinsurgency.
The book facilitates a rather intimidating task of sifting through evidence, allowing the reader to both perceive divergences in the various narrations in order to discern the reality behind Che’s murder. While the CIA’s analysis of Che’s Bolivian diary concludes that “the Guevara legend will only be dulled by this account of the pathetic struggle in Bolivia”, it is clear that such a statement is derived from relief that the intention to spread the revolution was unsuccessful. Ratner and Smith do not commit the error of isolating Che from the Cuban revolution. Che had stated that the best defence of the revolution was its extension within the continent; however the US was equally as adamant that a successful struggle within Latin America would lessen its prospects of imperialism and regional interests. It remains to be seen how much more would have been revealed had the documents not been subjected to official censorship, omitting valuable information which would weaken the coveted strategy of plausible deniability.