Saturday, 2:15 PM
Soft, 'feminine' side of 'Che' Guevara described in Kennedy documents
(Globe file photo)
Ernesto "Che" Guevara in 1964.
By Andrew Ryan, Globe Staff
The covert meeting took place at 2 a.m.on an August night in 1961 in the backroom of a seaside resort city in Uruguay.
Taking place just months after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the sit-down was dangerous for both sides. The American was Richard Goodwin, a speechwriter and aide to President Kennedy who now lives in Concord. For Cuba, the emissary was Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the legendary guerrilla and revolutionary icon. The two men met at a birthday party for a Brazilian official, each brought to the meeting through quiet, back-channel diplomacy.
Guevara wore green fatigues and his trademark "overgrown and scraggly beard," Goodwin wrote in a five-page memorandum that is on public display for the first time today at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
"Behind the beard his features are quite soft, almost feminine, and his manner is intense," Goodwin wrote. "He has a good sense of humor, and there was considerable joking back and forth during the meeting … [he] soon became relaxed and spoke freely. Although he left no doubt of his personal and intense devotion to communism, his conversation was free of propaganda and bombast."
Guevara spoke so freely, in fact, he wanted Goodwin to convey his thanks to the Kennedy administration for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, the failed attempt by US-backed Cuban exiles to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro.
"He then went on to say that he wanted to thank us very much for the invasion -- that it had been a great political victory for them -- enabled them to consolidate -- and transformed them from an aggrieved little country to an equal," Goodwin wrote.
The release this weekend of the film "Che" by director Steven Soderbergh prompted the Kennedy Library to dig the five-page summary and another document written by Goodwin out of its archives, which includes 48 million items. The two memorandums for the president were declassified in the early 1990s, but have never before been put on public display.
On the surface, the documents offer a rare, human glimpse of Guevara, a figure who has developed mythical stature since his death in October 1967.
"Sometimes the history books give us a one-sided view of this revolutionary," said Thomas J. Putnam, director of the Kennedy Library. "These two documents give some historical context."
At the same time, the memorandums demonstrate that both governments were at least open to quieting the rhetoric after the Bay of Pigs and before the Cuban missile crisis.
"The two countries had stared one another down publicly, but this was a chance using back channels to explore the possibility of another way," Putnam said. "Of course, it didn't come to pass. But at least both sides were willing to consider it, based on this exchange."
The Globe first wrote about the clandestine meeting with Guevara in 2002, when Goodwin described it at a gathering in Havana that marked the 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. Goodwin, the husband of author Doris Kearns Goodwin, could not be reached today for comment. In 2002, his tale of the meeting earned "gasps and guffaws from listeners," according to an account by Globe staff writer Marcella Bombardieri.
"Of course my first response was to flee into the streets," the wild-haired and bushy-eyebrowed Goodwin said, according to Bombardieri. Instead, he followed Guevara into another room. When Guevara sat on the floor, so did Goodwin, thinking, "He's not going to out-proletarianize me!"
Guevara told Goodwin that he spoke for the Cuban government and suggested that the two countries negotiate a "live and let live" agreement. But when Goodwin later relayed the message to Kennedy, along with a gift of cigars, the president dismissed any possibility of striking such a deal. Kennedy also joked that he should make Goodwin light up one of the cigars first, Bombardieri wrote, a reference to a CIA plot to assassinate Castro with an exploding stogie.