Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Special Forces and Che Guevara's Death

U.S. Special Forces Mission contributed to Che Guevara’s Demise, a book review by Steve Paul of The Kansas City Star

By 1967, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, hero of the Cuban revolution, glamorous spirit of anti-imperial, anti-capitalist populism, had gone underground. Was he in hiding or dead? The U.S. had no idea.

When rumors emerged that Che might be operating in the mountainous forests of southeast Bolivia, red flags and fear rose in the halls of that U.S.-backed nation’s leadership.

Why Bolivia? It was the poorest of the poor countries of South America, and its landlocked terrain was surrounded by equally vulnerable regions of Peru, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Brazil. Twice that spring, Bolivian soldiers were ambushed by guerrillas while on patrol in wooded ravines. News and rumors of the casualties and of the pitiful performance of the Bolivian army was dispiriting to Bolivia’s president, René Barrientos Ortuno, a former general and coup leader who soon declared a state of siege.

And, of course, he needed help.

The U.S. military was already mired in Vietnam and wanted nothing more than a limited, advisory role in Bolivia. Cue Special Forces Maj. Ralph “Pappy” Shelton, who recruited a small team of soldiers and created a training mission in the Bolivian countryside.

In a remote village, Shelton found an abandoned sugar mill, which adequately served as a base of operations, and he proceeded to develop a program to transform hundreds of Bolivian campesinos into an elite force capable of addressing the new type of guerrilla warfare Che had so successfully engaged in 10 years earlier in the hills of Cuba.

In “Hunting Che,” two seasoned journalists, Mitch Weiss and Kevin Maurer, deliver a swift-reading narrative of Shelton’s high-pressure mission (he had a deadline of barely three months), of Che’s incipient rebellion and of the climactic collision that led to Che’s martyrdom and his legacy of pop-culture, souvenir-shelf superstardom.

Weiss and Maurer (author of a book on the Special Forces mission that killed Osama Bin Laden) note that few prior accounts of Che’s ill-fated last months spend more than a few paragraphs on the role of U.S. Special Forces. Their documentary research and interviews with numerous principals and witnesses gave them an enormous amount of detailed material with which to turn a slice of hidden history into a vivid, page-turning true tale.

Their portraits of Shelton, a 37-year-old guitar-toting Mississipian whose marriage was teetering in the face of his ongoing commitment to his military service; of Félix Rodríguez, a Cuban exile working for the CIA with a Che chip on his shoulder; and of Bolivians, such as an eager and bright young officer named Gary Prado Salmon, are convincing, emotionally complex and inspiring.

Shelton’s mission reverberates today as U.S. foreign policy is buffeted by popular and politically complex uprisings in the Middle East and as American troops are transitioning from combat to training roles in Afghanistan, a point affirmed in an afterword by an Army major.

The book’s portrait of Che undercuts his image as a brilliant guerrilla tactician. Near the end, his two squads of rebels had lost each other, and he emerged from the woods ragged and hungry. On the other hand, he faced his end with unwavering principle and courage. The U.S. wanted him captured alive; the Bolivians demanded his death. The book’s tension-filled focus on CIA agent Rodríguez during the last few hours of Che’s life is riveting.

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