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Episode 5 – Che Guevara

Che Guevara, the Argentinian revolutionary whose face adorns millions of t shirts around the world, was an ideological zealot that was prepared to pay any price to see the political status quo upended. He spent his whole life fighting to see his beloved South America freed from the shackles of foreign interference.

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    When I was a kid, I attended a Catholic primary school in the west of Melbourne. It was a unique place. It was the only school in the area where immigrants outnumbered Australian children because St.Margarets had a policy of taking in refugee kids. One time, one of our teachers brought in a world map, and asked the kids to put a pin on their home country. I was amazed. There was a huge world out there, but all the kids in my class seem to come from a handful of tiny countries. Countries like Vietnam. And El Salvador. And Guatemala. And Chile.

    All the kids were too young to remember their homelands, and couldn’t tell the class why they’d come to Australia. Their parents, in most cases, didn’t talk about it, except for one little girl that knew her father had been tortured in Vietnam. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that all of these children were connected by the United States of America.

    They were all refugees from crisis that had either been instigated or fuelled by the CIA. They were victims of US foreign policy. In nation after nation, particularly in South America, the United States spent the latter half of the 20th century installing friendly dictatorships at the expense of popular left wing governments to protect the interests of multinationals like Standard Oil and United Fruit. In Chile, when democratically elected left wingers tried to nationalize the mines and improve workers rights, the CIA backed General Pinochet took over. His reign of terror, which killed at least 10,000 people, was the darkest period in modern Chilean history. The widespread protests across Chile at the end of 2019 have their roots in the inequality and disenfranchisement Pinochet caused. The ramifications of the CIA backed coup have spread across whole oceans and decades. Chile is just one example of dozens of similar tales that saw short term US economic interests tear apart entire nations politically.

    US interventionism created refugee children, and grieving mothers, and inequality. It spread despotism at the expense of democracy, it generated division and instability. It created wars and warriors, and taught whole generations of young men to hate the United States. This is the story of one of those men.

    Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was probably born on the 13 th of May 1928, the eldest of 5 children. There’s confusion as to the exact date. He was a white Argentinian, his family descended from wealthy Irish and Spanish settlers. His mother Celia was a strong willed feminist intellectual. She would wear mens clothes and drive her own car, which upset her exceedingly rich and rather conservative family. His father, Ernesto Snr, was a failed businessman. He owned a yerba mate tea plantation when Ernesto was born, a shipyard a later on, and worked as an architect when Ernesto was in his teens. The family were never poor, but only because they had rich relatives. Money was always an issue, and the Guevaras often lived beyond their means trying to keep up with the other people in their social scene.

    Che’s parents had wildly different personalities and would get into terrible fights. His father was an angry, opinionated man that felt frustrated by his failings, and would become enraged at his wilful, headstrong wife that wouldn’t do as she was told. Guevara Snr cheated on Celia often, and they were seperated in Ernesto’s late teens. As an adult, he resented his father. He would complain to friends that “He had stolen all the old ladies money.”

    Ernesto was closest with the women in his family. He was very close to his grandmother, aunts, and he was very much his mothers son. Just like her he was determined, outspoken, opinionated, intelligent, and asthmatic. Terribly asthmatic. He would descend into wild coughing fits that would take hours to get under control, forcing him to remain bedridden, where he could only read. The Guevara household was progressive and educated, the house was filled with books. Young Ernesto had a particular love of Jack London and his tales of the wilderness.

    He had frequent life threatening asthma attacks. His parents had to move the family several times in search of a climate that would be tolerant to Ernesto’s allergies. First they moved out of their riverland tea plantation, then to Buenos Aires, and finally to Alta Gracia, with it’s cool, dry mountain air. Humidity didn’t agree with him at all.

    The alpine climate saw Ernesto free to be outdoors more often, and he started playing with the local kids. His best friends were usually from the poorer classes, even native Argentinians. They were rough kids who loved playing sport and committing petty crime. Ernesto began to see his asthma, not as a disability, but as a challenge. The severity of his condition forced him to confront his mortality, and his frailty, from a very young age. Rather than driving him away from physicality, it pushed him further into it. If he was going to die, he would do it standing on his feet, not lying in a bed. So he played with the poor kids, and got himself a reputation as a troublemaker. He would shoot out windows with slingshots and tossed firecrackers through peoples windows.

    Ernesto’s formative years were some of the most turbulent of the 20th century. The Spanish Civil War raged between his 8th and 11th birthdays. His father was a passionate republican, but as a member of the upper class, many of their family friends were facists. Long, angry debates would erupt, exposing Ernesto to complex political discourse – and the danger of facism – before he’d even reached high school. The Spanish Civil War was followed shortly by World War 2. Argentina was home to many Nazi sympathizers and the economy was reliant on exports to Europe. On top of the political troubles abroad, Argentina was beset by its own internal economic and political problems. The period from 1930-1943, known as the infamous decade, saw huge losses from the great depression and multiple political coups. Argentina was a bitterly divided, politicized nation.

    The troubles of Ernesto’s childhood forged a serious, opinionated, tough teenager with a keen mind for politics, a love of reading, and a fearlessness about death.

    When he was 15, he met Alberto Granado. Granado was 21 and the coach of a local rugby side. In spite of his age, slight stature, and asthma, he wanted to play contact sport with grown men. Granado relented, and much to his suprise, Enrnesto held his own on the rugby pitch. He was fearless and determined, with a poor regard for his own safety. In spite of the age difference, Alberto and he became good friends.

    On graduation, Ernesto went to medical school. He was lucky enough to avoid national service because of his asthma, “My shitty lungs have done something useful for a change” he said.

    Ernesto had begun to read Marxist works, having devoured all 3 volumes of Daas Kapital, but according to his friends he wasn’t all that much of a political person. He was best as a non committed progressive liberal. He would use all that political knowledge to make edgy, sometimes even cruel comments at other people’s thoughts and opinions. He could be amazingly rude. He dressed like a modern day hipster. He would go to parties with Beuons Aires rich kids, and there would be Ernesto wearing saggy, worn out jeans and shirts – intentionally sloppy and relaxed. He rarely bathed either. He enjoyed the offensive and notoriety that his appearance caused his rich friends.

    In spite of his best efforts to offend, people liked him. Ernesto had confidence, charm, and magnetism – he could hold the attention of a room when he spoke. It also didn’t hurt that he was very good looking with a piercing gaze. He was excellent with women, and he slept around as often as he could. Between his promiscuity, and his bathing habits, Ernesto’s friends gave him a nickname: “El Chacho” or in English “The Pig”.

    At age 23, he began setting out on major motorcycle trips. Up and over mountains, on poorly made dirt roads, with no money.. He made 3 of these journeys between 1951 and 1954, but the most important of these was the second one. It was during this journey of self discovery that solidified Ernesto’s political beliefs.

    He and Alberto, who had by now finished his degree, jumped on a 1939 Norton Bike they called La Ponderosa (or The Mighty One), and on January 4th, 1952, set off to see America. The story of this trip, and the formative influence it had on Ernersto, was made into a 2007 film called The Motorcycle Diaries.

    They began by trekking to Argentina’s Atlantic coast, where Alberto saw the ocean for the first time and Ernesto said goodbye to his teenage girlfriend. Then they rode across central Argentina, posing as leprosy experts so they could get work in clinics and tour rural medical facilities.

    The roads were terrible, and both Alberto and Ernesto were lousy riders. They crashed several times and had to conduct ad hoc repairs to the bike. La Poderosa broke down for good just outside of the mountain hamlet of LA.

    In Chile, he tried to treat a dying native american woman at the insistence of her family, but there wasn’t much he could do for her. He was disgusted that the society around him had simply forgotten her.

    “How long the present order, based on the absurd idea of caste, will last, is not within my means to answer. But it’s time that those who govern spend less time publicizing their own virtues and more money, much more money funding socially useful works.”

    They stowed away on a ship from Santiago to Antofagasta, making unlikely drinking buddies with the captain as they went, and then hitchhiked their way to see a copper mine called Chuquicamata, high in the Atacama desert. On the road, Alberto and he met a vagrant couple. They had been members of the communist party, but like many people of their political beliefs, had been forced from their jobs or quietly ‘disappeared’ by the right wing Chilean government. The mine itself was owned by Americans but run, and worked, by Chileans. There was a general strike for better pay by the workers, but the owners wouldn’t budge. “The gringos would rather lose thousands of pesos an hour then hand a few extra centavos to the workers” said one formeman. Ernesto idly wondered how many people had died working that primitive, remote mine.

    They headed north for Peru. Ernesto was very interested in seeing Incan ruins. They took a truck over the mountains, from Tacna to Lake Titicaca. The truck was filled with native americans in search of work.

    “A beaten race that watches us pass through the streets of the town. Their stares are tame, almost fearful, and completely indifferent to the outside world. Some give the impression that they live because it is a habit they can’t shake.”

    Their travels took them to the Temple of the Sun, Macchu Picchu, and the conquered ruins at Cuzco, where Incan temples had long since been altered into churches. Ernesto’s Peruvian diary is a eulogy for something uniquely American.

    They continued further north, touring more leper colonies as they went. They were invited into the home of Dr.Hugo Pesce, Peru’s foremost leprologist, and a prominent communist. The conditions for people living in leper colonies were far from humane. They were isolated and poorly resourced. Pesce’s experiences in dealing with the forgotten poor had driven him to the far left edge of politics. Though Ernesto argued with Pesce on some points, and wasn’t a fan of one of the books he had written, Pesce’s wisdom and experience had a real impact on him.

    The final leg of their journey took them all the way to Columbia, and finally into Venezuela. After 8 amazing months, Ernesto and Alberto parted ways in Caracas, where Alberto had found work in a leproseum.

    Ernesto flew on to Miami for a month, before returning home to Argentina to complete his studies.

    This trip gave Ernesto a strong look at what real rural poverty looked like for the vast majority of south americans, and how that poverty pervaded borders. Indigenous peoples everywhere were downtrodden, workers were exploited, and the sick and elderly had none of the great wealth that he knew to exist across the continent. He came away from his first major road trip believing two things. First off, that in order for South America to move beyond its colonial past, a pan americanism needed to be adopted. A kind of United States of South America. Secondly, that the current economic order was failing to provide for ordinary people, and a radical new approach, communism, was needed to address these concerns. Thirdly, us economic imperialism was robbing whole nations of their natural wealth.

    In 1953, he did another trip, this time with Carlos Calica Ferrara. First stop was La Paz, Bolivia, which was in the afterglow of the 1952 revolution. The working class had risen up against the army, and installed a new government. Native Bolivians roamed the town. The rich friend’s Ernesto stayed with weren’t happy with the new political atmosphere.

    From there, he followed much the same route as his previous journey, Puno to Cuzco, to Macchu Picchu, then on to Guyapil. After 6 months of travelling, he was broke. He’d found very little opportunity to work, in spite of his medical degree. He had begun to size up people up in terms of their political beliefs, describing the people he met along the journey as ‘politically undeveloped”, and his anti americanism, which had been a trait since his teenage years, was reaching fever pitch. He had begun to see it as a special mission of his rid to his America, South America, from foreign imperialists, be they the European powers of the old world, or the capitalist power of the new.

    Guatemala held special interest for Ernesto. Recently elected leftist president Jacobo Arbenz was embarking on an ambitious land reform program that saw vast tracks of land reappropriated to the poor, most of whom were indigenous. Ernesto was very interested in seeing that reform in action.

    The Arbenz government had a bit of a problem. Some of the lands that it reappropriated belonged to the United Fruit Company, the infamous US multinational that was responsible for violently meddling in the politics of South America whenever its profits were threatened. The company had a close relationship with the head of the CIA, Alan Dulles, who urged the Eisenhower administration that action needed to be taken in Guatemala to prevent the spread of socialism and protect American interests. The CIA began supplying arms and information to right wing rebels in the hopes of overthrowing the government and installing a right wing dictatorship that would be friendly to United Fruit.

    Guatemala had attracted lots of South American leftists, and Ernesto wasted no time in networking. The first and most important, was Hilda Gaeda. Hilda was well connected, had money, and was “political well developed”. Hilda and he starting dating.

    The more politically engaged Ernesto became, the more distant he was with his family, becoming increasingly self absorbed and stubbornly ignoring their pleas to take better care of himself and come home soon. Ernesto did recognize the danger of staying in Guetamala, but he kind of liked it. The rebel forces were cleary mustering for an attack soon. But he had a steady thing going with Hilda Gaeda, a promise of a job around the corner….and he was tempted to see what this war was going to look like, and if he could possibly lend a hand to the government.

    On June 14th, 1954, the CIA backed rebels invaded. Ernesto was holed up in the capital, and as people fled explosions and gunfire, Ernesto wrote in his diary that he was:

    “Feeling a little ashamed for having as much fun as a monkey….a magic feeling of invulnerability”

    The Arbenz government was defeated in just 11 days. Morale within the army was very low, because they were certain that even if they succeeded in defeating the rebels, they would then have to face the United States. They put up only a meek resistance.

    The new government, headed by dictator Carlos Castillo, rolled back progressive reforms and gave itself absolute power. Then it purged the country of left wingers, murdering and exiling nearly 20,0000 people. The United Fruit Company got all its land back, and was exempt from taxation. The entire operation was a complete victory for an American fruit company.

    The coup and subsequent purges did not result in a peaceful, stable Guatemala. The latter half of the 20th century was dominated by a terrible civil war that lasted from 1960 through to 1996. Approximately 200,000 people were killed, and millions more displaced.

    The Guatemalan coup galvanized Ernesto’s political opinions. Watching the US intervene and destroy a democratically elected government for no reason other than to protect the interests of staggeringly rich foreigners at the expense of rural peasants – people who had nothing – was the final straw. He was now committed to armed resistance to US imperialism.

    Feeling that his time in Guatemala was at an end, Ernesto headed for Mexico. He tried to break it off with Hilda, but she insisted on coming with him. She was very much in love, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

    One of the leftists he’d met in Guatemala had fled to Mexico too. He was a Cuban named Nico Lopez, part of a group of exiles that were meeting in Mexico to discuss armed resistance against the Cuban government.

    Cuba had been an economically healthy, relatively functional democracy, until 1952 when the dictator Fulgenico Batista led a military coup and installed himself as head of state. He then turned the country over to unscrupulous American investors. The vast majority of Cubas natural resources were in foreign hands. Batista made prostitution and gambling legal, and allowed organized crime bosses such as Meyer Lansky a free hand to run their rackets – which primarily involved narcotics and sex trafficking. Cuba gained a reputation as the quote unquote “whorehouse of the Caribbean”. The gap in wealth between white urbanite Cubans and rural native or African Cubans was immense. Couple that with an incredibly brutal secret police force and regular purges that saw as many as 20,0000 people a year disappear, and you had a perfect recipe for a violent uprising.

    The two most prominent of these Cuban exiles were two brothers – Fidel and Raul Castro. Fidel, one of the leaders of the July 26th movement, had been a lawyer and student activist that ran newspapers criticizing the government. He’d been imprisoned, but was well connected enough that Batista had let him go after only a month. He fled the island for the mainland, and was now in Mexico with the rest of the exiles, plotting the next move. Fidel was an extremely intelligent, well read, charming man that liked to hold court. He would boastfully expound for hours once he had an audience. He was politically gifted too, with an innate knack of knowing what people wanted to hear. Ernesto and Fidel hit it off right away, and before long Ernesto was training with the Cubans in preparation for their revolution.

    The Cubans noticed Ernesto had the curious habit of using the word Che a lot. Che is an Argentinian slang term. It means buddy, pal or mate. So in the same way an Australian would use the word ‘mate’ frequently, an Argentinian would call someone ‘Che’. The Cubans decided it was a good nickname, and it stuck.

    The newly christened Che Guevara got some unexpected news from Hilda. She was pregnant. Though not religious, or socially conservative, Che still felt obligated to marry her. He didn’t love Hilda, and even if he had, he was so absorbed in his politics and thirst for adventure that marriage wouldn’t have suited him anyway. But there was a little girl on the way, and he couldn’t stand the idea of leaving her to be a shamed single mother in a conservative society. Many years later, after their divorce, a friend asked him why he was ever with such an average looking woman to begin with. Che replied angrily:

    “Looks aren’t everything. She was a wonderful companion. And she was great in bed.”

    Che became a father to a little girl named Hildita on the 15/2/1956

    As always, he struggled to find work. “If it werent for the charity of friends I would have gone on a police blotter as death from starvation” he wrote in a letter home to his mother. These letters took on an increasingly politicized tone. He was now sure that a global war between the US and leftwing forces was about to break out, and he had to be ready for it.

    “Throughout life I have looked for my truth by trial and error, and now, on the right road, and with a daughter who will survive me, I have closed the cycle. From now on, I wouldn’t consider my death a frustration. “I will take to the grave only the sorrow of an unfinished song.”

    Che may have been a father now, but the opportunity the Cubans offered him – a chance to strike out at the imperialist forces he saw dogging his homeland – was irresistable. Che became very focused. He set up a gruelling gym routine, was reading communist literature non stop, and threw himself into the training the Cubans had set up for their fight against Batista. One shooting range instructor described Che as follows:

    “Ernesto Guevara attended 20 regular shooting lessons, an excellent shooter with approximately 650 bullets fired. Excellent discipline, excellent leadership capabilities. Physical endurance excellent. Some disciplinary push ups required for interpreting orders incorrectly, and smirking.”

    Fidel loved Che’s work ethic, and made him a squad leader. The other Cubans weren’t sure about him yet. It was so odd that this rogue, travelling Argentinian was prepared to fully immerse himself in their conflict.

    After months of training, Fidel acquired an old US navy training boat, the “Granma”. It was designed to house 8 people at sea. Shortly after midnight on the 25th of November 1956, 82 guerillas along with all their provisions, arms and equipment, somehow crammed aboard this tiny boat, and took a 3 day voyage to the southern coast of Cuba.

    The early days of the revolution were a mess. The Granma was supposed to coordinate its landing with an attack by another revolutionary named Frank Paiz, but his attack had failed, the Granma’s trip had taken two extra days, and then they were wrecked ashore.

    They lost most of their equipment, were spotted quickly by the cuban military, and two days later, they were caught in an ambush in a sugar cane field. The army cut the guerillas to shreds, leaving just 22 survivors.

    Che got caught out without his rifle, and looking down, he could see a medical kit and an ammo box. Realizing he could only carry one while running to safety, he chose the ammo. He would later see it as a metaphor for his changing path in life, from healer to warrior. As he ran towards the trees, he felt a bullet clip his neck. He lay down against the stalks of cane, waiting to die, before realizing it was only a graze and resuming his sprint to the woods.

    Che and 5 other men decided to head for the Sierra Maestra Mountain range in the hope of regrouping with other guerillas. They had no idea who else survived the assault. The next week was hell. They had little food or water and had to dodge enemy spotter planes until they came across a priest’s house. The priest was a July 26th member as well, and put them up for the night.

    At the rendezvous, they found Fidel and Raul had somehow survived, but their revolutionary army had taken a pounding. Just 9 men had made it to the Sierra Maestra, 9 men left to wage war against a nation.

    The rebels were relying on the peasant farmers, known as guajiros. Cuba was a dreadfully unequal country, and disaffected, marginalized Guajiros – many of whom were black or indigenous – had no love for the whites in Havana. Local guajiro leaders helped rearm, feed and house the guerillas. Some guajiros even signed up themselves, but the rebels had to be careful. Many would turn out to be spies for Batista.

    Once they had recuperated, Fidel ordered the men to march high into the mountains where it would be difficult for the army to track them. The plan was to attack a remote army depot and kill three local plantation owners that the guarjiros hated.

    The attack on the depot went well. They captured a number of soldiers, killed another, and stole weapons and ammunition. Even with just 9 men, the equipment problem was so bad that not everyone was given a gun for the attack.

    They retreated back into a small valley in the jungle they felt they could defend, and waited for the army to come. On Janurary 22nd, the first scouts entered the area, and the rebels killed them. Che fired two shots at a man taking cover in a nearby hut, and in doing so, killed a man for the first time.

    “He had a bullet under the heart, with an exit on the right side. He was dead.”

    Rather than stand and fight, they decamped and moved through the jungle, moving again and again as the army closed in. The Cuban military pursued a scorched earth policy, murdering locals and burning goods and equipment.

    The fearlessness Che had shown in playing rugby, and on his motorcycle journey showed in combat. He was extremely reckless. His rudeness and intolerance for the shortcomings of others showed up as well. He was a rigid disciplinarian, and expected everyone to live up to his standards. He felt that men showing signs of desertion should be shot as an example to the others. He termed the death of one of their deserters at the hands of the army as “sad, but instructive to the rest.”

    The July 26th movement wasn’t the only organization committed to a Cuban revolution. There were half a dozen disparate organizations with their own leadership and agendas. There was the populist communist party, the National Front, and various urban based cells. Once they became aware of the guerillas in the mountains, acts of sabotage in urban areas began to be carried out.

    The various groups all had political differences. Most of them were democratic liberals, hoping to install a western style democratic government in Cuba. Those groups even had the support of the CIA, who recognized that the brutality of the Batista regime had completely destabilized the country.

    Fidel was a committed communist, and those close to him recognized that he displayed clear strongman tendencies. He was an astute politician, and successfully managed to convince the rest of the rebel groups and the Americans that he was a political moderate. He was in regular talks with the communist party, but refused to openly acknowledge their relationship – until the time was right.

    Che had no issue with Fidel’s strongman tendencies and saw no value in representative government. He believed democracy “would deliver the working class bound hand and foot over to the imperialists”

    Besides, there would be no need for elections after the revolution, for the people would already be in charge. His revolution, the people’s revolution, would have to be uncompromising and absolutist – lest it fall prey to the US in the way Guetemala had. There would be no room for the division of democratic debate.

    Che got into frequent, sometimes public, arguments with the heads of the more democratically minded members of other revolutionary groups. He would call them right wing imperialists with American backing, and they would call him a wannabe tyrant that would see Cuba under the yoke of defacto Soviet rule.

    In February, the guerillas met with Herbert Matthews from the New York Times. It was a propaganda coup for the group, who still numbered no more than 30 men. It prevented Batista from claiming that he led a united Cuba, and the rebels were all but defeated. It also turned Che into something of a celebrity – a dashing young Argentine with movie star good looks fighting for his beliefs in a foreign war.

    Guerilla warfare suited Che. He liked living off the land and the camaraderie of his unit. But he also discovered he had a terrible capacity for violence when the situation called for it. In March of 1957, one of the guajiro recruits was caught spying. Fidel ordered the man executed, but the command was met with silence. No one had the stomach to kill a man they’d worked so closely with. Except for the uncompromising Che.

    “The situation was uncomfortable for the people and for him, so i ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 calibre pistol in the right side of the brain, with an exit orifice in the right temporal lobe. He gasped a little while, and then he was dead.” This was Che’s first execution, but it was far from his last. He would order the deaths of dozens of his men over the next few years for espionage, desertion, and criminal behaviour.

    Fidel, fearing further spies and military encirclement, order a retreat higher into the hills. He also ordered Che out of the mountains. His asthma had been so bad in recent weeks that he had to be carried on some of their marches. He was to go to the house of a fellow revolutionary and meet with new recruits. After a few frustrating weeks recuperating, a rebel leader from Santa Anna arrived with an additional 70 men.

    Fidel came down out of the mountains to meet them. He had ambushed several army columns, and now had grenades and heavy machine guns in his arsenal. With the new men and arms, they march on an isolated garrison in the south east. It was a 60 man barracks, but with the element of surprise, and a significant numerical advantage, the rebels won easily. They killed 19 men and captured valuable arms and supplies, including some trucks. Morale surged.

    “It was an assault by men who had advanced bare chested against an enemy protected by very poor defenses. Great courage was shown on both sides. For us, this was a victory that marked our coming of age.”

    Fidel quickly retreated back into the hills before the army had time to respond, but Che stayed behind to care for those too hurt to march. He spent several weeks nursing them, moving from house to house so as to avoid detection. His esteem grew greatly among the men, both as a field commander and doctor. New recruits began to arrive, having heard word of the rebels prowess and the quality of their leadership.

    Che was not impressed with his new recruits. In his diary, he notes that his little band consisted of “36 terrible soldiers” and that he could not wait to arrive back in the mountains. The new recruits were unreliable at best, with many swearing undying fealty at the beginning of the week, only to desert by the end of it. The moral character of many recruits was poor as well. Criminals saw the rebel army as a good chance to operate as a gang member up in the hills. Rapes against against civilians were common. Che was forced to execute many of these new recruits for the crimes they committed.

    The next few months saw Fidel and Che’s rebels establish themselves as biggest threat to Batistas regime. While the July 26th guerillas successfully carried out ambushes and raids on rural garrisons, the urban revolutionary groups flounded. Assasinations and bombings were botched, and the most competant and important leader of the urban resistance, Frank Paiz, was killed by the police.

    On September 5th, 1957, 300 to 400 of these urban rebels, took the navy base at Cienfuegos. This event was supposed to have been co-ordinated with other rebel attacks across Cuba, but due to poor planning those had either failed or simply not gone ahead. Batista ordered bombers and tanks to crush the uprising, and they were forced to surrender. Batista slaughtered them all anyway.

    This event was important for two reasons. First, the death toll was unusually high. Cuba was a small nation of just 6 million, and as such the revolution was a small scale conflict. 400 dead was a huge death toll. Secondly, there were widespread political ramifications. Batista had used US provided arms to slaughter the rebels, and the CIA and state departments were outraged that the weapons they had provided had been used in such a public massacre. This turned them further against the current regime. Secondly, the failure of the urban rebel groups left a power vacuum that Castro, through his highly competent leadership, naturally filled. This saw a power shift inside the rebellion away from the democratic liberals, and towards the communists.

    The July 26th movement continued their attacks On sep 10, che and fidel laid an ambush against the army. They killed a few dozen men and captured trucks and arms. On the 12th, Che lead another small ambush, raiding a small depot and killing several more soldiers. Their guerilla army had grown in size and stature. There were now several columns of fighters under different commanders, including the much venerated Camilo Cinefuegos, who was arguably the most capable of them all in pure military terms.

    Che set up a forward base he called El Hombrito. There, in the dense jungle, he set up a clinic, an armory, a cobbler, a newspaper, a radio station, and even produced some cuban cigars for himself to smoke. He insisted that the men make themselves productive during the long idle periods between combat. He saw providing services to the guajiros as essential to the long term health of the revolution. There was no effective government left in the Sierra Maestra anymore, with the rebels controlling or influencing much of the territory, so it was up to the revolution to provide basic services for the people.

    Not everything went totally the rebels way. The army found the base, and pushed Che and his column back up into the hills. Che was shot in the foot in the skirmish and had to have the bullet removed with a razor and no anesthetic at the hands of an unqualified bush doctor. El Hombrito was destroyed, but the rebels were well resourced now, and Che was able to rebuild his little operating base with ease.

    The war stepped up a notch. Urban rebels began assassinations, there were mass executions by the fascists, and Fidel began expanded his operations by engaging in economic warfare. He destroyed roads, utilities, and burned sugar cane fields – Cuba’s biggest cash crop.

    By late 1957, Fidel had started openly associating himself with Cuba’s communist party, and the CIA had figured out that he was a full blown communist. They began to push Batista for fresh, fair elections. Batista agreed, but secretly rigged the outcome.

    On February 16, 1958, all rebel columns came down from the hills and attacked a logging town with an army base. They surrounded the garrison, tore apart the army re enforcements sent to break the blockade, but could not break the main garrison defences. Fidel, happy with the damage he had inflicted, ordered a withdrawal, but Che wanted to go back in personally. He almost had to be physically restrained.

    Fidel Castro would later say of Che “In a way, he even violated the rules of combat – that is, the ideal norms, the most perfect methods- risking his life in battle because of that character, tenacity, spirit of his. We had to lay down certain rules for him to follow.”

    This aggressive streak earned Che a ferocious reputation among enemy troops. In early 1958 a young army officer, named Lafferte, who would go on to desert the army and join the revolution, had this to say:

    “The army propaganda against him was massive – he was a murderer for hire, a pathological criminal, a mercenary who lent his services to international communism, that he used terrorist methods and he socialized (in the political sense) women and took away their sons. Any soldiers he captured he would tie to a tree, and open them up with a bayonet.”

    Internationally, Che was regarded with intrigue. He was both a handsome young idealist and a meddling communist foreigner causing trouble abroad. Che responded to the criticism by pointing out that the us military, who gave tanks and bombs to the fascists, were never accused of foreign interference – but he, a 20 something doctor with a pistol, oh no, he the was a real troublemaker.

    Che spent his down time teaching. Most of the guajiros were illiterate and in his words ‘not politically developed”. He was certain that for the revolution to succeed, the people would need to understand the communist ideology they were fighting for, and that meant they would need a basic education. After all, how can the exploited rise up against their oppressors if they don’t understand the nature of that exploitation? As the guerillas moved from place to place, Che would set up clinics and schools, and would do his best to train the locals in the brief time he had.

    By April 1958, visitors to the camps saw that the brutality they had witnessed in the early days of the war was gone. The rebels were much stronger now, and the men were meeting the disciplinary standards expected of them. Harsh punishments like summary execution was no longer part of the rebel way of life. Instead, visitors would note a very high sense of morale. The rebels were growing stronger by the day, and they had total faith in their commanders.

    On April the 6th, a general strike set up by the urban rebels failed miserably because they didn’t involve the Communist Party due to a growing rift between the moderates and the extremists. Dozens of rebels were arrested and executed, and a planeload of arms coming from the Dominican republic was captured by the army.

    Buoyed by this rare success, Batista announced a summer offensive against Fidel and his Sierra Maestra rebels. On the 20th of May, 10 thousand men split between 14 infantry battalions, a tank division, naval frigates and napalm armed B-26 bombers moved in against the rebels. The rebels, though a growing fighting force, numbered not much more than 400 men.

    Che was in charge of the defence of the Sierra Maestra. He darted between the front, their training facilities near the coast, organizing the defences and meting out discipline for deserters and criminals under his command.

    Quote: “In the night there were three escapes. Rosabal, condemned to death for being an informer, Pedro Guerra and two military prisoners. Guerra was captured, he had stolen a revolver for the escape. He was executed immediately.”

    Quote: “A little combat broke out in which we retreated very quickly. The position was bad and they were encircling us, and we put up little resistance. Personally, I felt something that I have never felt before: The need to live. That had better be corrected at the next opportunity.”

    That should give you some idea of the tremendous discipline of Che. He regarded a single thought of self preservation as a terrible weakness that needed to be rooted out.

    For all their firepower, the Cuban army made little advance on the rebels. Fidel would get on the radio and brag about the fighting spirit of his men, and I’m sure that had something to do with their gallant defense, but the real enemy facing Batista’s army wasn’t the rebels – it was the mountains themselves. Every inch the army tried to gain was through thick, steep, unfamiliar jungle, jungle the guerillas knew like the backs of their hands. The terrain perfectly suited their kind of warfare. The casualties quickly mounted for the Cuban army. At one point, Fidel used the fascists own radio frequency to tell the air force the rebels had captured an army base. They proceeded to bomb their own men.

    By July 20, after just two months, the summer offensive had been repelled. Quevado, one of the fascist commanders defected along with 147 of his men. The guerillas had won an overwhelming victory. Che used the disarray to advance his own troops and besiege the town of Las Vegas, whilst Fidel routed an enemy column and captured an additional 160 men . The fleeing fascists left behind scores of supplies in their wake. For the first time the guerillas had access to heavy arms, like rocket propelled grenades.

    Fidel released of all his military prisoners, some 400+ men. The rebels rarely executed prisoners unless they were caught committing crimes they could not tolerate – such as rape. These prisoners were Cubans, and they were a part of the future society Fidel hoped to create. Compared with Batista, who would have had every last one of the rebels executed if he could have, Fidel and Che were outright humane.

    Quote: “The enemy soldier in the Cuban example which at present concerns us, is the junior partner of the dictator; he is the man who gets the last crumb left by a long line of profiteers that begins in Wall Street and ends with him. He is disposed to defend his privileges, but he is disposed to defend them only to the degree that they are important to him. His salary and his pension are worth some suffering and some dangers, but they are never worth his life.”

    In August, they were emboldened enough to come down out of the mountains. Che’s column, along with two others, slogged their way up to central cuba. 600 kilometers by foot through very heavy weather. For the first time, the July 26th guerillas were meeting up with broader rebel forces, but Che, ever the extremist, did not get along with them. He called the local leader of the July 26th movement a worthless shiteater when he disagreed with him about the extent of agrarian reform through land redistribution, and clashed with the rebel leader of a different group over Che’s plan to rob banks and hand the money out to the peasants. They even refused to assist him in assaults on nearby army positions, refusing to recognize the authority of an avowed communist. Che, in turn, did not consider these men to be true revolutionaries.

    Quote: “I intend to sweep away, with the authority invested in me, all the weaklings in the villages surrounding the mountains.”

    Fidel ordered major acts of sabotage to be carried out in Havana, including setting fire to the airport. The July 26th army was now 800 men, and supplies were plentiful. Fidel spent a good chunk of his time playing politics, shouting at the US government and trying to get the head of the Cuban army, General Cantillo, to defect. Fidel had even begun to govern the area under his control. Taxes were collected on nearby farms, and he began redistributing lands to the lower class.

    On November 3rd, Batista held the sham elections the US had forced him into. But they were a failure. The rebels disrupted every effort to collect votes.Through strikes and sabotage, only 30% of the voters managed to cast a ballot.

    Che set up a proper base in central Cuba, with fortifications and buildings, a field hospital, an armory, and a mess. The new recruits were pouring in, and he needed to train, feed and shelter them. One of them was Aleida March. She was 24 years old with a scar on her cheek and a prominent birthmark across her shoulder. A pretty, lightly built girl from a previously wealthy family that had fallen on hard times. Aleida was what Che would have called ‘politically undeveloped”. She was a white cuban and looked down on other races, and was a member of the anti communist moderates that made up the majority of urban rebels. But she was a tough, determined spy and smuggler who had evaded capture by Batistas forces for over a year.

    By November, the army was smashing Che’s new base with bombers, and had set up a major offensive to crush the rebels stronghold. But Che’s defences were excellent and in a few short weeks, and with the help of a nearby squad manned by his friend Carillo, the army was beaten back and routed.

    Army units all over Cuba were pushed back by the various revolutionary factions. Che’s brigade took Fomento, Guayos and Cabaiguan and Placento. On Christmans Day they took Remedios and Caibariren. By New Years Eve, the army had withdrawn completely from the province.

    Raul, Fidel and Cinefuegos were running riot all over Cuba. They had pinned down or captured vast swathes of the army. It was now a matter of time before the fall of Batista. The CIA was scrambling to get another, more acceptable military strongman in power. Fidel was jockeying with the other rebel leaders, positioning himself so that any military surrender was to the July 26th movement only. He wanted to be certain that the cuban army would fall under his exclusive control.

    The final, decisive engagement was the Battle of Santa Clara. It had a well supplied army of 3500 men with tanks defending it, and an armored train for resupplies. The various rebel factions officially numbered around 400 fighters, but they were supported by innumerate civilians, and large numbers of enemy soldiers surrendered. They were tired of shooting at their own people. Che lost some of his best friends in a daring assault on an entrenched position on a hill, and when he watched Aleida March dash across a street under a hail of gunfire, he realized he was in love with her.

    The train station was conquered and the defenders attempted to flee on the armored train, but Che, with the help of university students, had torn up the tracks prior to the assault. The retreating train derailed, and the men onboard meekly surrendered.

    WIth the new armaments from the train and entire units simply surrendering, Che was unstoppable. Bar a few desperate snipers holding the police station, they conquered the city easily. Further east, Fidel had conquered all resistance against him and was about to move into Santiago, the last stop before Havana itself.

    Fidel came to an agreement with General Castillo. Castillo would return to Havana, stage a military coup, and arrest Batista. Castillo used the extra time to help get Batista out of the country instead, speeding him away to Portugal.

    Batista fled with his 300 million dollar personal fortune, acquired through grafts and kickbacks, and an additional 400 million in public money he simply stole from the treasury. He died in exile of a heart attack in 1973, just a few days before Cuban assassins were to catch up with him.

    What was left of the army began surrendering. General Castillo tried to flee the country, but he was captured wearing a straw hat and a communist arm band. He tried to bribe his captors into releasing him, but instead, they handed him over to Che.

    Che’s only known comment to Castillo was “So you’re the one that killed Jesus Menendez” referring to a popular unionist killed by the military back in 1948. It is not known how General Castillo died.

    The transition was peaceful at first. There were some reprisals against corrupt public officials, and the occasional attack on Casinos and other Batista regime facilities, but for the most part the Cuba was stable. Foreign journalists interviewed Fidel, who insisted that he had no interest in seizing power for himself.

    Fidel put together a bi partisan cabinet. The new government, headed by Manuel Urrutia Lleó, was headed by a pro business groups, rival revolutionaries, even members of the old regime. But the military was under complete control of July 26th men. Real power lay with Fidel Castro.

    The guevara family came to visit Che. They had a teary reunion on the tarmac. They were exceptionally proud of their revolutionary son. Hilda Gaeda also came with their then 3 year old daughter, Hildita. Che could barely look at her, feeling awkward and ashamed of the position he was now in. He had barely contacted her in the previous two years, and was now in love with someone else. He explained his feelings and the situation, and Hilda agreed to a divorce. She would stay on in Cuba to help set up the new government.

    Fidel gave Che the grim task of conducting the La Cabana hearings. These were post revolutionary purges. The Batista regime had slaughtered some 20,000 people during the revolution, and those that hadn’t fled needed to be dealt with.

    Che sat on a panel as a head judge. Some critics accuse him of taking part in executions as well, and though there’s little firm evidence of that, well….we know Che didn’t shy away from the odd execution.

    The trials were speedy and the quality of the jurisprudence poor. Somewhere between 50 to 100 people died under Che’s trials, with the total being 400-550 across all Cuba (the worst of all being Raul Castro lining up a group of men in front of a mass grave and gunning them all down). Che maintained he gave every consideration to letting people off with jail time, but in a lot of cases, he felt they had to answer for those 20,000 dead under Batista.

    The La Cabana trials provide the most pointed criticism against the legacy Che Guevara. However I’d like to play Devil’s Advocate here and argue a few things in his defence. First off, a good portion of the men he executed had actually committed war crimes. They had spent the Batista years not only propping up a vile autocrat, but actively murdering political dissidents. Any country on earth would have sought justice for the victims of the previous regime. Do I agree with the death penalty? No, personally I don’t. But at the time, 93% of Cubans did. Many of them lost family and friends to the men who were tried at La Cabana. So it wasn’t just Che who wanted to see the thugs of the previous regime punished. The drive across Cuba for retribution against the criminals of the former regime made reprisal killings politically inevitable.

    Could the trials have been arranged better? Absolutely. Innocent people were surely shot as well. Did Fidel Castro use the trials to score political points? He certainly did, intervening in some trials, and holding others in a sports stadium so that the public could watch. The justice carried out at La Cabana was hastily cobbled together, much like the guerilla forces that won the war. It was, as both Che and Fidel would later put it, revolutionary justice.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, La Cabana allowed the new government to purge the army of right wingers. Che had seen in Guatemala what the CIA would do with disgruntled former soldiers. Arm them, supply them, train them, let them install a friendly dictator, and then look the other way when they start murdering people wholesale. In this sense, killing these men was a matter of national security for the new government, because the heads of the revolution knew that it was only a matter of time before the CIA tried to install another friendly dictator.

    Alberto Granado, Che’s travel buddy, once asked Che how he could involve himself in these sorts of massacres (something Alberto couldn’t agree with). Che replied: “Look, in this thing, you have to kill or be killed.”

    Che’s family didn’t know what to make of him now. His parents in particular had a hard time squaring the callous and disciplined soldier, with their asthmatic little Ernestito. On the 3rd of March, 1959, Che married Aleida March in a non religious civil ceremony, attended by close family and friends.

    I’m going to keep this next section rather brief, because this is not a podcast about revolutions. That’s Mike Duncan’s job. This is not a podcast about Fidel Castro either, and what comes next is more his legacy than Che Guevaras. But it would be remiss of me not to discuss what came next for Cuba.

    The United States spent the next decade trying to violently unseat Fidel Castro with no success. They funded guerilla insurrections in the Sierra Maestra that Fidel quickly destroyed by moving all the guajiros out of the area. They tried to assassinate him many times, including the infamous exploding cigar plan. They isolated Cuba politically at Pan-American trading conferences. They covertly firebombed Cuban sugar plantations. They ran misinformation campaigns that Cuban children were going to be abducted from their parents, causing a huge exile of Cuban children to Miami. But most importantly, there was the CIA plan to train and fund right wing Cuban exiles to invade the island, called The Bay of Pigs invasion. Fidel crushed it easily.

    The aggression of the United States and the political affiliation with other communist nations, meant that Cuba turned more and more towards them for trade and political influence. They sold most of their sugar crops to China and purchased arms off the Soviets. From 1962 and continuing at the time of this podcast, the US has a trade embargo imposed that prohibits the export of anything to Cuba except for food and medicines.

    Che was put in charge of many important industrial reforms in Cuba. When it came to schools and hospitals, he was incredibly successful. Education and healthcare operate best with broad social goals in mind, rather than a profit motive, and as a committed communist Che demanded a campaign for full literacy across the island and greater access to primary schools. Literacy shot from 60-70% of the population to nearly 100% within 18 months of the revolution, and primary school access rose from just 53% of children before the revolution to nearly 100% by 1986.

    Cuban healthcare is exemplary for such a poor country. They have an infant mortality rate equal to Canada and the United Kingdom, and substantially better than that of the United States. They have an overall life expectancy of 77 years, which again, is much better than the US. Modern Cuban healthcare runs on crumbling hospitals and underpaid doctors, you will not find world class cancer treatment facilities or IVF clinics. But what you will find is a broad preventative health care program that allows citizens access to free regular checkups that prevent serious problems before they arise. Dollar for dollar, its a far more effective method of healthcare than one you could find under a for profit system.

    Now onto the bad. Fidel put Che in charge of a range of economic reforms. It was an unmitigated disaster. The uncompromising, hard headed Che thought he could simply bully the economy into doing what he wanted, through sheer willpower, just like he’d been able to do with everything else in life. Asthma, unemployment, the Cuban military, all things he’d defeated through sheer determination. Che and the rest of the administration rushed through communist economic reforms, and the consequences were catastrophic.

    Firstly, the new cabinet banned prostitution and gambling. They did so with no forewarning or a plan in place to transition to a new economic model. This turned Havana from a cash cow tourist destination to a ghost town overnight. Tens of thousands of hotel workers and prostitutes became unemployed, and tax revenues plummeted.

    Che’s agrarian program was successful in its primary goal of bringing lower class Cubans out of poverty, but the implementation was rushed, and along with other programs of wealth redistribution and nationalization, had unintended consequences. In 1960, Che met with Julian Lobo, the richest man in Cuba. Lobo owned some 10-15% of the sugar plantations. He was an anti-batista democrat, who had agitated for years against the regime, and he stood against the kind of nepotism and corruption that saw many of his peers flourish. He wasn’t a perfect person, he was still essentially a wealthy feudal lord in a backwards underdeveloped country, but he was a decent man with an outstanding work ethic and a brilliant mind for business and logistics.

    Che coldly told him that his lands would be seized and redistributed, but he was willing to offer Lobo a salary of 2000 pesos a month to stay on and help manage the sugar crop. Lobo at this time, was worth several hundred million us dollars. Che didn’t see the issue with the paltry sum he offered Lobo, because to Che, wealth meant nothing. He insisted that the state of Cuba only pay him a tiny salary for all his work, not much more than a peasant, because he did what he did for love of his ideals, not wealth. And just like when he was a guerilla commander in the field, he accepted nothing less than complete dedication and discipline from everyone around him. Everyone had to be totally dedicated to Cuba and the revolution.

    Lobo packed and left for Miami the following day. His story of exile was not an isolated one. It became the story of an entire nation of Cuban diaspora spread the world over. Immediately following the revolution scores of wealthy Cubans fled their homes, taking much of their wealth with them. And it wasn’t just right wing supporters of the previous regime that were fleeing either, remember those liberal democratic revolutionaries that had helped topple Batista? Well, they were quickly finding out that there was no place in Cuba for them either. There would be no elections. There would be no free speech. Fidel shut down the radio stations and newspapers that dared criticize him. It became very apparent to the people that fought for individual liberty above all else that you were either with the communists, or against them. So they too, fled the island.

    The people that fled were typically Cubans of means. Wealthier, EDUCATED Cubans. This exodus created a brain drain that Cuba never really recovered from. When Fidel nationalized US owned oil refineries, he discovered that there was no one left on the island that knew how to operate them. He turned to the Soviets, who provided engineers, but the Russian used the metric system, and had no idea how to run the more advanced, better refined, equipment the Americans used. The effect of nationalization was to cripple Cuban oil production.

    This scenario played out across the broader economy, as anyone with expertise or talent fled to Miami, where the United States welcomed them with open arms. They were both useful, educated citizens, and a valuable propaganda coup against Fidel Castro. For once in its history, the United States was actually happy to accept Latin American refugees. In time, it wouldn’t just be wealthier Cubans leaving. As economic and political problems flared in the coming decades, many more hundreds of thousands of poorer peoples would depart the island. I’m having a hard time finding a good estimate for just how many refugees fled between the revolution and today, but there are over 1.1 million Cubans living in the United States, making them the 3rd largest latin American ethnic group. All from a small island of just 6 million people.

    Fidel also made Che the head of the national bank.

    To quote Fidel Castro: “Why I ever did that, I don’t know, because obviously Che Guevara knew nothing about finance and banking. I put him in there because I guess I trusted him. But it was a mistake.”

    Che was the worst person in the world to pick to run a central bank. He was so far left that he even criticized the Soviet Union for implementing minor concessions to marketplace policies, such as increased wages for workers that were more productive. He approached the entire exercise with disdain. First off, he kicked all the American banks out of Cuba. They promptly packed up and left, taking all of their lending power with them. Then he refused to join the World Bank, citing American influence, and in 1960, Castro kicked out the IMF as well for much the same reason. Cuba had announced it was closed for business, which entrenched its political isolation. Che didn’t even allow for the already half finished national bank building to go ahead, such as was his attitude towards high finance.

    I’m not going to get into the Cuban missile crisis. It’s a subject of such depth and complexity that a week of podcasts couldn’t do justice to. However it’s worth noting that Fidel Castro didn’t really like the idea of nuclear weapons on his island, he saw it as a necessary deterrent against US aggression. He felt that without them, it would only be a matter of time until Cuba was invaded by the full force of the US military. Just like the modern day Iranian nuclear program, the Cuban missile crisis was an horrific, yet understandable reaction, to American interventionism.

    Observers of Fidel during the crisis say he was terrified both for himself and for his nation. A billion people would have died within days of a full nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. Thankfully for Cuba, and the planet at large, most of the major players in that story had the good sense to step back from the edge. But not Che Guevara. At the conclusion of the crisis, he lamented that the Soviets should have used their missiles.

    Just to make sure there’s no confusion as to how Che felt, In a later speech, he said:

    Quote: “Thousands of people will die everywhere, but the responsibility will be theirs. Their people will also suffer, but that should not worry us. We as a nation know we can depend on the great strength of all countries of the world that make up the socialist bloc and of the peoples who fight for their liberation, and on the strength and cohesion of our people on the decision to fight to the last man, to the last woman, to the last human being capable of holding a gun.”

    There is a bloodlust about Che Guevara that I will never be able to make sense of. He was a young father that built hospitals and schools in his spare time, that would have happily sacrificed the lives of everyone he cared about if it meant fucking over the gringos to the north.

    Che’s private life in the mid 1960s was incredibly busy. In between running the banks, the industrial reform, the medical and education reform programs, he was also being sent on diplomatic errands. He went on several major diplomatic tours between 1959 and 1966.

    He fathered 4 more children. His ex wife Hilda, stayed on in Cuba after their divorce to help get the revolution up and running. She wound up working in the same building as Aleida, and the two would gossip and snipe at each other so much that their co workers started quitting just to get out of that toxic environment.

    Che was kept so busy with everything that he started keeping very strange hours, and would often call meetings together well after midnight. People indulged his strange habits out of both fear and respect. He was the amazing Che Guevara, guerilla revolutionary hero, but he was also Che Guevara, uncompromising zealot that would have you exiled if you demonstrated dissent.

    Che was deeply worried about being perceived as benefitting from the revolution. He insisted that his parents paid their own way when they visited, and he went to great pains to live modestly. He also refused photographs and signatures. He wanted neither the wealth, nor the celebrity his position offered, unless he could use those things to further the interests of the revolution. On one occasion, he chastised a bodyguard for living beyond his means, to which the guard replied that Che couldn’t talk, because his family was getting extra food rations. Che had no idea that this had been the case, and organized the extra allotment to be cancelled immediately. Aleida who was trying to raise 4 children while Che worked around the clock, didn’t appreciate Che’s unwillingness to accept a greater salary and the couple fought often.

    Another of Che’s most heartfelt beliefs was that Cuba was only the beginning of the revolution. The revolution needed to spread across all of latin America to form a powerful communist bloc that could stand against US imperialism.

    From the desk of US emissary Daniel Braddock

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