Diplomats seduced by Guevara's 'Irish charm'

By early 1967, Che Guevara was already the pin-up boy of a generation of revolutionaries intent on uprooting capitalism. But for British diplomats, the Marxist hero was merely a "bearded Argentinian with Irish charm" who had a liking for military fatigues - and was probably dead.

By early 1967, Che Guevara was already the pin-up boy of a generation of revolutionaries intent on uprooting capitalism. But for British diplomats, the Marxist hero was merely a "bearded Argentinian with Irish charm" who had a liking for military fatigues - and was probably dead.

The waspish assessment of Fidel Castro's once most-trusted aide formed the centrepiece of a secret report on the senior figures in the Cuban leader's regime gathered at the height of the Cold War by the British embassy in Havana for the Foreign Office, which then passed it to Washington.

Such is the sensitivity of the document, released yesterday at the National Archives in Kew, west London, that the file on Castro himself has been withheld by Whitehall officials, perhaps for fear of upsetting the cigar-smoking demagogue.

But the thoughts of our man in Havana on Guevara reveal that the British government believed it had little to fear from the one-time Cuban minister of industry, assessing that his importance was more as an icon than as an enemy of Britain or its American allies.

The report stated: "He can show himself cultured and soft-spoken, as well as cold and contemptuous. This bearded Argentinian with his Irish charm and inevitable military fatigue uniform has exercised considerable fascination over many men and women. He is regarded as one of the regime's leaders most opposed to the old-style Communists and to taking orders from Russia. His thought has developed more and more on Marxist lines."

The document was written in April 1967, some six months before Guevara, who befriended Castro in Mexico City and joined his invasion force in 1956, was captured and shot in the Bolivian town of Vallegrande while training a guerrilla force to oppose the country's right-wing military regime.

But the British believed it was likely that Guevara, who had left Cuba in 1965 after writing a letter to Castro saying he wanted to "pursue the revolutionary cause elsewhere", was already dead. The assessment said a message had been sent from Bolivia earlier in 1967 purporting to come from the guerrilla leader and showing photographs of him.

Diplomats wrote: "Since then [1965] Guevara has been integrated into the revolutionary hagiography, but nothing definite has been heard of him. There have been rumours that he is dead, though Castro has assured the world that he is alive and active. Although the message was accompanied by photographs, it cannot be regarded as conclusive proof that Guevara is still alive."

The document shows that despite their doubts about his political judgement, the British regarded his disappearance as a significant loss to Castro. The report, which also described him as speaking "fluent but not always accurate French", said: "He is an able and hardworking man, who was perhaps the most competent and the clearest-headed of the inner circle." The file was sent to the Labour Foreign Secretary George Brown for distribution to No 10 and the British embassy in Washington. But the file refuses to reveal what diplomats thought of Castro himself. In place of the four pages relating to Castro is a sheet of paper stating: "Review not completed."

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