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Part 2: “Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away with Murder”: New Book Ties Johnson Admin to Che Death

Web ExclusiveFebruary 07, 2012
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Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith are the co-authors of a new book about the U.S. role in the killing of Cuban revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Born in Argentina in 1928, Che rose to international prominence as one of the key leaders of the 1959 Cuban Revolution that overthrew U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. After a period in the new Cuban government leadership, Che aimed to spark revolutionary activity internationally. On October 8, 1967, he was captured by Bolivian troops working with the CIA. He was executed one day later. In their book, Who Killed Che?, Ratner and Smith draw on previously unpublished U.S. government documents to argue the CIA played a critical role in the killing. The authors also discuss the early life of the revolutionary hero, as documented by his own diaries.

Click here for Part 1 of this interview.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking with Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith. They are the co-authors of Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away with Murder.

Michael Ratner, we continue this conversation where you were talking about how we now know that the CIA was involved with Che Guevara’s murder in Bolivia. Explain exactly how it happened. Explain those last days of Che Guevara.

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, Che is captured on October 8th in a valley near a town called La Higuera. He is wounded, wounded—shot, actually. His gun is hot out of his hand. He is taken—he is taken to La Higuera, he’s put into a room, and he’s interrogated at various times or talked to by various agents, including, supposedly, the U.S. CIA guy on the ground, Félix Rodríguez. At some point in the next day—there’s different stories, of course.

AMY GOODMAN: And Félix Rodríguez is someone we come to know later in the Iran-Contra scandal.

MICHAEL RATNER: Iran-Contra scandal and against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He was a—he was a CIA operative.

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Not just “was,” is. He’s living in retirement on our tax dollars in Miami.

MICHAEL RATNER: Right. It’s true. So he’s in this room in La Higuera on October 9th. And there’s different stories, of course. And the stories that came out, until we came out with this book, was that—was the one that was mostly believed was Félix Rodríguez said, “I had orders not to have Che killed. I got a call from the Bolivian high command to kill him. And they gave me a code, and I couldn’t countermand the code. And the killing went ahead, and there was nothing I could do about it.” I mean, if you believe that story, if anybody believed that story—but they did, for 20-some years—you’ll buy their—or 30-some years—they’ll buy the Brooklyn Bridge from you. I mean, it’s crazy.

But what came out in the documents was that Félix Rodríguez very—I mean, it seems like he was not telling the truth about that, that he is not the one who got the order to kill Che, that he actually was most likely just a plausible deniability point, that he’s trying to say we tried to save him but we couldn’t, because the U.S. at that point—and I think that’s an important point—the U.S. at that point would have still been embarrassed by murdering a prisoner who they had in their custody or murdering—assassinating anybody, that was public. They were assassinating a lot of people at that point, I mean, from Lumumba to everybody else.

AMY GOODMAN: But explain where Che was in Bolivia, how he ended up in captivity.

MICHAEL RATNER: How he ended up—well, he was—he had gone to Bolivia to begin the revolution in Bolivia with other people in Bolivia and with other Cubans. He had fought almost—I mean, almost for a year, I think. He had lost a lot of men. It didn’t work out the way he expected. As Che said, you never know when you begin these; you either try and make a revolution, or you die, and so there’s no going back. He eventually, because the U.S.—that’s an important part. The U.S.—the Bolivians saw Che as an early threat. Once it was discovered that he was there, they went to the U.S., and they begged for support. The U.S. was obviously willing to give it. They entered a joint defense agreement with the—

AMY GOODMAN: I remember the part—I mean, very interesting, in reading your book—about Philip Agee, who became a dissident CIA agent. But he was in Uruguay, right? And he was charged with getting Che in Bolivia, preventing him from coming in. And yet, Che Guevara defied them and actually came in disguised as a businessman at the airport.

MICHAEL RATNER: There’s a great picture of Che coming into Bolivia. And Phil said—in his writings, Phil Agee said, “Well, I distributed leaflets of what Che looked like all over Uruguay, all over—you know, all over Bolivia.

AMY GOODMAN: Bolivia and the airport.

MICHAEL RATNER: And the airport, everywhere. And Che just walked through, on a—obviously not using his name. And—

AMY GOODMAN: With thick glasses.

MICHAEL RATNER: With thick glasses. You know, it looks like, I guess, an Argentinian businessman. And apparently, when he came to his house to say goodbye to his wife and his children, the children did not recognize him. So that’s how he got in.

This was not a—you know, people talk about: was there a split between Fidel and Che, and is that why he went to Bolivia? But this was a planned operation for many years. The Cubans had—there had been people planted in La Paz, who had been training there and setting up the underground network for five years. Fidel followed Che’s goings-on in Bolivia every single day on the radio. When they didn’t—on their two-way radio they used to talk to Cuba. I actually had once heard about a guy who left—I met a guy who had fought with Che. He left Bolivia to get Che a new radio after the radio went down. He never came back, because Che had been killed. But the idea that there was a split is ridiculous.

I mean, in fact, vis-à-vis, I think, Mike, it was Kosygin, right? That the Russians wanted the Cubans to stop trying to foment revolutions in Latin America. And they visited Fidel, and they said, “Stop. This is not acceptable.” You know, the Russians, at that point, were much more interested in the Communist parties and cooperating with them in some way that was considered a non-revolutionary way. And Fidel stood up and said, “No, we support Che and what he does.” So it was clear that there was no split.

In any case, maybe Mike wants to take over where we left Che, somewhere in Bolivia.

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Well, the book documents how everything went awry. When he landed in Bolivia, they set up a training camp. The training camp was immediately discovered. In fact, his medicine was captured. Of the initial group they had there, they split up to do some training. They never got back together. A peasant turned half the group in, and they were all ambushed in a river. That’s where Tania was killed.

AMY GOODMAN: And who was Tania?

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Tania was an East German revolutionary. Parents were Communists. Che met her in East Berlin when he was there traveling on behalf of the government. And she agreed to go to Bolivia and begin setting up the underground network. And against Che’s wishes, she came to his camp in a jeep. And the Bolivian army found the jeep, found the documents in the jeep, and they began to figure out what was going on. And that’s when they got the United States Army and the CIA involved. The U.S.—and we published the memorandum of understanding where the U.S. said, “We’ll send you Green Berets with Vietnam experience to train the Bolivian Rangers, because we don’t want to be looking like we’re doing this.”

AMY GOODMAN: So this is Johnson. As they’re escalating Vietnam, they’re talking about Bolivia, as well?

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Absolutely. Not just Bolivia, but Bolivia was very vulnerable. The president of Bolivian, democratic president, was—like Michael had mentioned earlier, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina—any government that supported Cuba, all these democratic governments in Latin America, were overthrown. The only one that was able to withstand the pressure was Mexico. And Che thought, if we’re going to survive in Cuba against this tremendous pressure we’re under, the revolution has to extend. And they had thought that Bolivia, of all the countries, was the most promising venue. And that’s why Che went there. But like I said, nothing went right. And this book really catalogs, in a tragic way, how Che was ultimately surrounded, disarmed, captured and executed.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m just looking at your book, Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away with Murder. As you say, “As Rostow points out,” the point man in the White House for the killing of Che, “Che’s death can now be added to the list of deaths of other [quote] 'romantic revolutionaries,' and [that] it will discourage other guerrillas. In other words,” you write, “while there would have been some benefits to U.S. counterinsurgency policy just from Che’s capture, these were much stronger as a result of his death. There is simply no way that the United States government, including Rostow, wanted Che kept alive. It was against what they perceived as their best interests. They thought his death was a major blow to revolutionary movements and wanted the press to know it.”

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Well, the way they organized the press conference, Gustavo Villoldo—whose oil painting is here, but there’s a black-and-white photograph of Villoldo standing behind Che’s corpse. After Che was executed—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re pointing to the picture on the cover—


AMY GOODMAN: —of Who Killed Che?

MICHAEL RATNER: And Villoldo was the—

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Villoldo was the son of a very rich Cuban. They guy owned a GM processing plant and a farm of 100,000 acres. He lost everything in the revolution.

MICHAEL RATNER: But he was CIA, is the point.

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: And Villoldo went to work for the CIA. And Villoldo directed the CIA operation there, with his underling being Félix Rodríguez.

AMY GOODMAN: In Bolivia.

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: In Bolivia. When Che was executed, they took his body, and they strapped it onto a strut of a helicopter, and they flew it to the bigger town of Vallegrande. And they put his body in the basement of a hospital on a cement slab. And they organized the press—and this is what this photo is—to come take photographs of dead Che. That was a big mistake. But Villoldo stood behind Che kind of triumphantly. Then, after the photographs were taken and the press release was made, they cut Che’s hands off, and they sent his hands to Langley, Virginia, to the CIA headquarters. We’ve got the documents in here about—get his fingerprints, when the hands were received, how they positively identified Che. And what happened, though, was that this operation of publicizing Che’s death utterly backfired. To this day, he remains a hero of people who are for radical social change.

MICHAEL RATNER: But when you go to Bolivia today, if you go up to El Alto, which is the main place where the indigenous people live, above La Paz, a million people—

AMY GOODMAN: Near the airport is.

MICHAEL RATNER: It’s near—it’s right where the airport. And I was there maybe a year ago. And you go up to El Alto, very tip—there’s one road—and there’s this nine-foot statue of Che, nine feet, because when you look at—and when Evo Morales gave his talk when he became president of Bolivia, he cited Che as a key influence of the Bolivarian revolution.

AMY GOODMAN: Where was Che Guevara buried?

MICHAEL RATNER: He was buried—well, this is an interesting question. I’ve actually been to where he is now. But they took his body, and they buried it somewhere that they wouldn’t tell anybody. They wouldn’t say where it was. And ultimately, it was paved over by a runway. And—

AMY GOODMAN: The airport.

MICHAEL RATNER: The air—not the airport in La Paz, but some runway, you know, in the heart of Bolivia.

AMY GOODMAN: Near where he was killed.

MICHAEL RATNER: Where he—right, oh, yeah, very close to where he was killed. And many years later, they found out—I guess they got some people—I don’t know. Maybe Michael recalls. But they got someone to tell them roughly where he was killed. And when the Bolivian government started getting a little more amenable to dealing with Cuba, they went back and they dug up Che’s bones. And they’re now buried under—there’s a huge statue in a town in Cuba called Santa Clara. Santa Clara, of course, is the place where really the Cuban Revolution was won, when Che and his forces, with Camilo Cienfuegos, cut the island in half, destroyed Batista’s troop train, and that was it. And actually, I was there, and you go into the monument underneath. It’s like a mausoleum with about—the remains of many of the people who fought with Che in Bolivia are in—are underneath that statue. It’s quite moving to go into Santa Clara to see that.

AMY GOODMAN: What surprised you most in doing research for this book, Michael Smith?

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: How utterly conscious counter-revolutionary this government is, how extremely well organized they are. They know exactly what their interests are. And they talk to each other, you know, very clearly about what they need to do. The documents are chilling, if you read them. Half the book are the documents. And I just want—

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have a favorite document?

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Well, I have a—I have a favorite—

AMY GOODMAN: Part of the book.

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: I have a—yeah, my favorite part of the book is actually the last piece of it, which is a poem by Victor Hugo about another revolutionary doctor called Jean-Paul Marat. And if you wouldn’t mind—it’s very short—could I read it?

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, yes, definitely.

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Jean-Paul Marat was a leader of and spokesman for the Parisian poor during the French Revolution. And like Che, he was a doctor.

“They said Marat is dead. No. Marat is not dead. Put him in the Pantheon or throw him in the sewer; it doesn’t matter—he’s back the next day. He’s reborn in the man who has no job, in the woman who has no bread, in the girl who has to sell her body, in the child who hasn’t learned to read; he’s reborn in the unheated tenement, in the wretched mattress without blankets, in the unemployed, in the proletariat, in the brothel, in the jailhouse, in your laws that show no pity, in your schools that give no future, and he appears in all that is ignorance and he recreates himself from all that is darkness. Oh, beware, human society: you cannot kill Marat until you have killed the misery of poverty.”

MICHAEL RATNER: You know, Amy, you asked about what was most surprising to me. And of course, I think, since I’ve been young, is never trusting my own government. I mean, I think what this shows me, every—almost every writer writing about Che accepted the Rodríguez story, that the U.S. wanted him kept alive, or at least said, “We’re not sure,” or whatever. And, of course, they should have never accepted that, just like as your show today said, they shouldn’t accept the U.S. excuses for Syria or anywhere else. What it really gives you—what this book really gives you is that you have to be utterly skeptical of everything this government says around what it’s doing in the world and its reasons for it, whether it’s Syria, whether it’s Libya, or whether it was Allende in 1973, whether it’s the embargo that you played the clip from—Obama today saying here’s why we still need the embargo. I mean, and what we don’t have here, but we have here with you, is a media that unfortunately hasn’t learned that lesson yet. They just roll out—I mean, you talk to people on the street, they’ll think, “Syria, we got to go in.”

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at your book, as you talk about Che being “wounded, captured [and,] soon after, executed. Bound and helpless, Che’s last words to his killer, a soldier in the Bolivian Army, are 'Remember, you are killing a man.'”

MICHAEL RATNER: I think what I—it’s hard to—you know, I wasn’t there, obviously. I don’t know what he exactly meant. But I think he said, “I am a human being like every other human being. And you are—and that’s what you are doing: you are killing a man.” I think—that’s what I would say. “I’m human.”

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: The Bolivian army sergeant who drew straws and got the tallest one and had the privilege of killing Che, of course, he couldn’t do it the first time. He went in, and he backed down. He was just too nervous. And—

AMY GOODMAN: He was—Che was laid out?

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Che was—Che was sitting down. And the sergeant comes in, and Che stands up. And the guy says, “Sit down.” And Che said, “I will remain standing for this,” because he knew what was happening. And the sergeant lost his will and couldn’t do it and went back out and had some alcohol and came back in again. And Che, wanting to get it over with, said—to calm this guy, he said, “Remember: you’re killing a man.” And the guy was so nervous—he was instructed not to shoot Che in the face, but he was so nervous, he shot him, and he kind of sprayed the bullets, and the bullets shot Che in the lungs. His lungs filled up with blood, and he died.

There’s an interesting story about this sergeant. He later developed cataracts and was blind and living in La Paz. And the Cubans had sent doctors to Bolivia. And they sent a team of eye surgeons. And they actually found this guy who was blind, and they performed surgery on him, and now he can see again.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s alive today?


MICHAEL RATNER: And Teran is his name. He’s alive. He went to the Cuban eye clinic in El Alto above La Paz, and they treated him, and they fixed his eyes. Amazing, right? I mean—

AMY GOODMAN: And his thoughts today?

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, I don’t know what Teran said about it. What did he say?

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Well, I think he drinks too much. I think he really regrets what happened.


MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: And he’s really living in ignominy.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask, Michael Ratner and Michael Smith, the reaction of Fidel Castro to the assassination of Che Guevara? Michael Smith?

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Well, it was devastating. They were very close, starting from Mexico. When Castro got out of prison, there was an amnesty, and Batista made the mistake of not killing Castro. And he was in prison, and they let him out, and he went to Mexico to regather his forces. And the third person to sign up for the team that became the movement that overthrew the Batista dictatorship was Che. Che had known somebody in Guatemala who had been with Castro at Moncada. And Nico López said, “I want you to meet Fidel Castro.” So, he arranged a dinner, and Che came over for dinner with Fidel. And there was an instant sympathy between them. Che writes about this, and we write about it in the book. And they stayed up all night talking. And Che said, “I was ready to take on any dictator.” And he signed on as the third man to go. He was supposed to be the group doctor, of course.

And there’s an apocryphal story about how, when the Granma, the little boat—and it’s really little; it would fit in this studio—the little boat crossed over to Cuba, and they landed. And they got to where they were supposed to be landing, and they got there a day late, and they landed in the wrong place. They landed in a mangrove swamp, which was almost impenetrable. And they got in there. And Batista had been forewarned, so they were ambushed. Of the 82 people on the Granma, all but 20 were killed or captured. And the 20 scrambled through the mangrove swamp into the hills, and that became the Cuban Revolution. Che, when he was under machine gunfire in that mangrove swamp, had a choice of either grabbing his machine gun bullets or grabbing his medical bag. And the story is that he grabbed the bullets.

They went up into the hills. Che proved to be such a competent soldier that Fidel appointed him as head of the Fourth Battalion. The truth is, there were not four; there were only two battalions, but they called it the fourth. And it was Che and Camilo Cienfuegos, as Michael said, fought the battle at Santa Clara, which caused Batista to get on the airplane and fly to Miami. So he was a hero of the revolutionary wars.

One of the first laws that was passed after the guerrillas in the Revolution came to power—the first law was to make Fidel—lower the age so he could prime minister, because he was only 33. And Che was even younger. And then the second law was to make Che a citizen. And then—

AMY GOODMAN: Because he was Argentine.

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: And then there was, of course, the great agrarian reform laws started happening, and that’s what stepped on America’s toes, because they nationalized the property of United Fruit. Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA, was a big stockholder in United Fruit, as was John Foster Dulles—

AMY GOODMAN: His brother.

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: —who was the Secretary of State, his brother. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And he had, in a—as a corporate lawyer, had represented United Fruit.


MICHAEL RATNER: And think about that. Five years before, Che had gone to Guatemala on his way up from Argentina, had fought against the overthrow of the Árbenz government, which was of course overthrown, in large part because of United Fruit owning large plantations, and the excess land had been taken by a democratically elected government, Árbenz. So you see the link. '54, he goes to Guatemala. Then, when he gets to Mexico and meets Fidel, another amazing link is, in ’56, he joins with Fidel, they're going to go to Cuba, and they get trained in military tactics. And who trains them? I don’t recall his name, but he’s a general, an older general, and he was a general in the Spanish Civil War.

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Alberto Bayo. Alberto Bayo.

MICHAEL RATNER: Alberto Bayo, on the side of the republicans. And it goes even back deeper in history than that.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, right before 1954, the overthrow of Guatemala, of Árbenz, the Dulles brothers key in this, was 1953, when the Dulles brothers and the U.S. government sent the grandson of Teddy Roosevelt to Iran—


AMY GOODMAN: —to overthrow the democratically elected leader there.

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Yeah, that’s right.

MICHAEL RATNER: Overthrow Mosaddegh.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammad Mosaddegh.


MICHAEL RATNER: So when we look at Iran today—

AMY GOODMAN: They overthrew him, and because it was so easy and so successful, in their eyes, they decided that they would then move in on Guatemala. They wanted Kermit Roosevelt to do that revolution. I mean, he just brought in a bag of money, and in the end he did this. And he said, “Uh, uh, I’m not doing this.”

MICHAEL RATNER: I’m so glad you recalled that, because when you talk about anything today—Guatemala, Iran—that history is critical. I mean, those governments are what they are, and their view toward the United States is because of what happened in 1953 and 1954. And it’s really important.

AMY GOODMAN: The Middle East and Latin America.


AMY GOODMAN: I know you have to leave, Michael Smith.

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Let me make one more connection before I rush off to a Brooklyn court.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you need me to give you an excuse for the judge? I’ll just write it out right now.

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: I don’t think it will float.

AMY GOODMAN: I’ll write it on the back of Who Killed Che? Or should I write it on the back of Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in Twenty-First-Century America?

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: Thanks, Amy. Che came from a very unusual aristocratic Argentinian family that had more blue blood than money. His parents eloped when his mother was three-months pregnant. They had been very active in supporting the republican government in Spain. Che grew up in a political household. Absolutely chaos in the house. The children would ride their bikes in the front door and out the back door. People would come over at all hours to drink red wine and smoke and hang out. There were stacks of magazines and books everywhere. There were no regular meal hours. Che had asthma, so he was kind of homeschooled. And even though he had asthma, he was on a soccer team. And he eventually organized a soccer team in his neighborhood. The team was made up entirely of atheists, and they would play against religious teams. And invariably, they would lose, because the religious teams were larger. And he started—

AMY GOODMAN: Some might say they were divine, but—

MICHAEL STEVEN SMITH: He started then keeping a journal, as a young man. And he cataloged everything he read. He wrote a long piece about Marx. He wrote about Lenin, saying that the man lived, breathed and slept Socialist revolution. He wanted to go to medical school. But before that, he traveled around Latin America on a motorcycle. And the diaries that he kept, he kept that—that’s The Motorcycle Diaries, was just an extension of the diaries he always kept. He saw the tin mines in Bolivia. He saw the copper mines in Chile. He wrote in his diaries that the imperialists have taken everything and left the people only an ox. So, when he graduated medical school, he came back to Argentina. He had 10 weeks to study for 10 exams in 10 different courses. And he did it, and he passed all 10, and he became a doctor. And he wanted to do some kind of research that would benefit humanity. So he went to Guatemala to get a job as a doctor. He was there for 11 months. He never got a job as a doctor. He was a photographer in Guatemala. And then, when the Árbenz reform government was overthrown, he hid out in the Argentinian embassy, after trying to fight, but, you know, it was futile. And then he fled to Mexico. And that was the beginning of what we now have as the legend of Che Guevara.

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StoryFeb 07, 2012“Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away with Murder”: New Book Ties Johnson Admin to Guevara’s Death
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