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Tania: the revolutionary warrior

 

 

By Doug Enaa Greene

 

June 27, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- "Yes, this is really a very serious situation ... But I can tell you, once again, that there is nothing more beautiful than to be in the middle of a critical situation, where the revolutionary struggle is the most difficult. How many would like to be here in Cuba to participate in defense of the Cuban revolution! I'm lucky enough to be able to do so. This is why I returned to Latin America. If I were interested in living well, surrounded by all the comforts, I would have stayed in Berlin, where I had everything. The Latin American revolution is advancing steadily toward a higher level, and I am fortunate enough to take part of it! ... Patria o muerte! Venceremos!"

 

Tamara Bunke wrote this in a letter to her parents in 1962 when she was an internationalist volunteer in Cuba during the height of the Missile Crisis as the revolution was mortally threatened by the forces of imperialism. Yet these words express the world outlook and revolutionary ethic of Tamara Bunke, who left the comforts of home in East Germany to serve the Cuban Revolution. Certainly Tamara's commitment as a volunteer in Cuba's educational programs and the militia was impressive, but she took it a step further. She became a revolutionary spy, and a major player and guerrilla fighter in Che Guevara's last military expedition, who died in the distant land of Bolivia. Her life, albeit short for Tamara was not yet 30, was one of steadfast internationalism and communist commitment. And this is her story.

 

Haydee Tamara Bunke Bider, or Tania was born on November 19, 1937 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Tania' parents had left Germany as exiles in 1935 for reasons both political and racial. Her father had been a member of the Communist Party of Germany since 1928 and her mother was of Russian Jewish ancestry. As a result, Tania found herself in exile and grew up in one of the suburbs of Buenos Aires where she studied a wide range of subjects such as music to sports, especially track and field. Tania showed herself to be a diligent student, remarkably disciplined, dedicated and exceptionally bright.

 

Tania's parents remained politically active in exile, joining the Argentine Communist Party and working as militants in the struggle against fascism. Their home hosted many party meetings, housed Jewish exiles and stored weapons for cadres who fought local rightists and fascists in the streets. Tania did not remain aloof in this highly charged political atmosphere and became a militant at a fairly young age. By her early teens, Tania was handing out radical newspapers, delivering messages and distributing clandestine information.

 

In 1952, at the age of 14, Tania and her family left exile and returned to Germany, or rather the Eastern portion now known as the German Democratic Republic, which was governed by the Socialist Unity Party (SED). While attending high school there, Tania became involved in sports and the Free German Youth (FYG), the youth wing of the German SED. In 1956, Tania moved to East Berlin where she took up work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She worked there in several different posts, such as in finance and information. The following year, Tania took a job in the International Relations Department of the FYG where she improved on her language skills. Tania was already fluent in both German and Spanish along with being proficient in English and French.

 

In 1958, Tania attended Humboldt University, focusing her studies on Latin America. She also began to travel abroad to Moscow, Prague and Vienna, where she met many Latin American students. Among the students Tania encountered while abroad were a number of Cubans, some of whom had been tortured under the Batista dictatorship. This gave Tania an initial interest in Cuban affairs. Following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Tania followed the developing situation with even greater interest. In 1959, she met the first Cuban delegation that traveled to East Germany. In December, she met Ernesto Che Guevara when he came to Germany. Tania made a very positive impression on the Cubans and in 1961, while planning to return to Argentina, she received an invitation to Cuba, which she accepted.

 

Before discussing Tania's time in Cuba, let us step back for a moment and highlight the background of the Cuban Revolution. Since 1898, when Cuba officially gained independence from the Spanish Empire, the country was a neo-colony of the United States. US business interests who controlled the sugar industry, Cuba’s main export crop, ruthlessly exploited the country. Havana itself was a site of rampant exploitation and prostitution, much of it under control of the US mafia, as depicted in the film The Godfather Part II. Unemployment was rampant, especially for agricultural workers. The only unions allowed to exist were largely subservient to the government and business interests. Most of the population lacked access to basic health care and illiteracy was extremely widespread.

 

The Cuban government bowed to US interests, whatever they may be. Elections were rigged to return pro-US results. And when those elections did not go according to plan, either the marines were sent in or a coup was engineered in Washington. Real power was not held in the Presidential palace, but in the US embassy. A number of military dictatorships were established in Cuba during the first half of the 20th century, the most notorious being that of Fulgencio Batista who first rose to power in the early 1930s. During his tenure, Batista held a number of rigged elections to legitimize his position, but he primarily ruled through armed force, terror and the backing of Washington. Following a fraudulent election in 1952, which Batista handily won, a number of Cubans decided that the time had come to act to restore freedom and national sovereignty.

 

These Cubans, led by the former law student and brilliant orator Fidel Castro attacked a military barracks at Moncada on July 26, 1953, with the plan to seize arms and begin a general insurrection. Unfortunately, the assault failed and Fidel and a number of militants were captured and put on trial. During their trial, Fidel Castro delivered a masterful defense speech that turned the tables on his accusers. He indicted the Batista regime for its subservience on the United States, torture, neglect of the welfare of the poor and upheld the revolutionary and democratic ideals of Cuba's national heroes and the program of the July 26 Movement. Even though Fidel knew he was going to be convicted, he ended his trial speech with the following words: "Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me." It was both a warning and a prophecy of things to come.

 

Fidel's bold actions and defiant words made him the central leader of the anti-Batista resistance. His trial speech circulated clandestinely around Cuba. Yet Batista was seemingly impregnable. He won a further “election” in 1954 while his army was equipped with the latest US-made weapons and jails were filled with tortured political prisoners. Still, the dictator's position was growing increasingly uneasy and dissatisfaction was mounting with the regime. In 1955, Batista granted an important concession – a bill provided amnesty for all political prisoners.

 

This led to Castro and his comrades being freed. Yet Castro could see through Batista's ruse. There was no lifting of the police state nor any fundamental change in the nature of the regime. So he left Cuba for exile in Mexico in order to better organize an underground struggle. While in Mexico, Castro and his compatriots, who now included the Argentine Marxist doctor Che Guevara, received military training. In late 1956, they returned to Cuba to begin the armed struggle. Their efforts were halted almost before they truly began, when their ship, the Granma was delayed by bad weather and engine trouble and they landed in inhospitable conditions. The invasion force was nearly wiped out by Batista's forces, and out of 82 of Castro's original force, only 12 survived. Among them was Che Guevara. The odds against the revolutionaries were impossible – they were a poorly armed force standing up against a US-backed dictatorship with a fully armed and mobilized army.

 

Yet during the next two years, the rule of Batista shook and eventually crumbled. Castro's guerrillas evaded the enemy army and managed to hide out in the forests and mountains of the Sierra Maestra. They instituted land reform measures, which won the allegiance of the peasantry, and the guerrillas treated captured enemy soldiers with great humanity – which was a stark contrast to the behavior of Batista's armies. The July 26 Movement became a pole of attraction for the oppressed masses and all those opposed to Batista. Revolutionaries moved into action in the cities as well the countryside, attempting to assassinate Batista and to launch insurrectionary general strikes. These efforts, though heroic, were defeated. The main battlefield was in the Sierra Maestra, where wave after wave of Batista's soldiers were defeated by Castro's guerrillas. By late 1958, the guerrillas moved on to the offensive and under the command of Che Guevara, they captured the city of Santa Clara, cutting Cuba in half. Batista fled into exile and within days, Castro and his soldiers marched triumphantly into Havana.

 

Yet the Cuban Revolution had only just begun. Castro was not willing to compromise on his program and quickly found himself in opposition to the United States. Castro instituted major land reforms and seized US companies without compensation. Literacy campaigns were enacted to bring basic education to poor campesinos. Segregation and racist laws were wiped out with a single stroke. The Cuban upper class and other supporters of Batista decried the loss of their “freedom” to enslave and to exploit. Thousands of them left for exile in the United States bemoaning Castro's “tyranny.” Others began armed terrorist and subversion campaigns against the revolutionary government, with the backing of the United States.

 

It should be noted that since the early 1960s, Cuba has not been given a single day of respite by the United States. The CIA has organized multiple campaigns ranging from economic destabilization to armed terrorist attacks to numerous assassination attempts on the Cuban revolutionary leadership. The United States also organized an armed invasion of exiled Cubans in April 1961 at Playa Giron, also known as the Bay of Pigs, which was decisively defeated by the forces of the Revolution. During the invasion, Castro proudly proclaimed the socialist nature of the Cuban Revolution.

 

This brings us to 1961, when Cuba had become the first free territory of the Americas. The country had restored its sovereignty and carried out a socialist revolution only 90 miles away from the imperialist predators in the United States. To revolutionaries and the oppressed across Latin America, Cuba was not only a beacon of hope but an example to follow. Insurgent revolutionary movements sprouted up across the continent from Brazil to Nicaragua, Colombia to Venezuela and beyond. They were determined to follow the Cuban road and free their countries from dependency and imperialism. Although most of these movements were quickly defeated, the US government along with allied oligarchs, military leaders, landlords and capitalists across Latin America were not blind to the potential Cuban challenge. Under the Alliance for Progress, the US promoted “reforms” in Latin America to undercut the emergence of any latent revolutionary movement. Chief among these reforms were hundreds of millions of dollars that were funneled to Latin American armies, the development of counterinsurgency programs which included the use of torture, and the consolidation of existing despotic regimes. Cuba was also diplomatically and politically isolated across the continent.

 

Yet Cuba was determined to not only break their isolation, but to support a continental Latin American revolution that would bring socialism by way of guerrilla campaigns. No one in Cuba was more supportive of guerrilla war and socialist revolution across the Americas than Che Guevara. Even in 1955, after they first met, Fidel had promised Che that he could continue to fight for the liberation of Latin America after the victory of the Cuban Revolution. At this time, Fidel's promise may have sounded deluded and fantastic, but by 1961 Che was working to create the conditions that would facilitate development of revolutionary struggle across the Americas, particularly in his home country of Argentina. Che worked closely with Cuban intelligence to organize several columns in Colombia and Argentina. Although these efforts failed, Che was undeterred.

 

During this time, Tania was working as a volunteer in Cuba. She trained with the militia and was a teacher in several educational campaigns in the countryside. Tania continuously impressed the Cubans, and Che Guevara in particular, with her talents, discipline, dedication to communism and her internationalist spirit. During this time, she also met a number of exiled Nicaraguans, including Carlos Fonseca, founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, who would fall in battle in 1976, while his movement would come to power in 1979.

 

Tania's talents impressed the Cubans enough that in 1963 she was selected for an important mission by Che Guevara and Manuel Pineiro, who worked in the America's Department of Ministry of the Interior, which oversaw Cuba's underground operations in support of liberation movements. She was to be trained in the clandestine arts for revolutionary work in the Americas that would lead to the liberation of the continent. At this time, the destination and the exact nature of Tania's mission was kept secret. Despite the immense dangers in this line of work, Tania accepted them and began her training.

 

We know that Tania's political perspective was one of support for the Cuban Revolution and that she was considered reliable by the Ministry of Intelligence. She was a supporter of both the Soviet Union and East Germany, even though she was a fierce critic of Stalin's abuse of power and the persecutions that occurred under his regime. She thought that Cuban socialism was different from that of Eastern Europe - with its higher socialist consciousness, internationalist spirit and disdain for consumerism.

 

During the next two years, in both Cuba and Prague, Tania trained in many areas of espionage - ranging from the use of radio to developing a new identity to reconnaissance to the habits of an undercover agent along with an extensive study of the conditions prevailing in Latin America. Her instructor was Ulises Estrada, an African Cuban member of the intelligence services with a distinguished revolutionary career. Even though it was against the rules, Ulises and Tania fell in love and planned to marry and raise a family when her assignment was completed.

 

In March 1964, Tania successfully completed her training and met with Che Guevara, who at last revealed her destination and assignment. She was being sent to La Paz in Bolivia to work under the cover of being an expert in folklore and ethnography. She was instructed to travel across the country, particularly in the rural areas. Tania was also assigned to study deeply the social, political and economic conditions of Bolivia. She was instructed to develop close links wherever possible with figures in the government, the bourgeoisie and the armed forces. All of this was in order to prepare the way for Che and other revolutionaries who intended to make their way to Bolivia to begin a revolutionary war.

 

Che had several reasons for choosing Bolivia as a favorable staging ground for the Latin American revolution. For one, Bolivia was an ideal training ground for guerrillas across the continent since it was so centrally placed. After they received their training, the guerrillas would travel to neighboring countries to develop new armed columns. Bolivia also bordered Argentina, which Che planned to return to as part of a liberation front. While Che Guevara wanted to use Bolivia as a springboard for a continental American socialist revolution, he had another reason – solidarity with Vietnam. By the mid-1960s, the United States was supporting its puppet regime in South Vietnam from the guerrillas of the National Liberation Front with bombing campaigns, a massive military build-up, and the development of a whole repressive apparatus. As Che said, highlighting the importance of Vietnam's struggle: “There is a sad reality: Vietnam — a nation representing the aspirations, the hopes of a whole world of forgotten peoples — is tragically alone.” Che planned on changing this by opening a second front in the Americas that would take the pressure off Vietnam. As he proclaimed, highlighting the duty of revolutionaries towards Vietnam:

 

We must carry the war into every corner the enemy happens to carry it: to his home, to his centers of entertainment; a total war. It is necessary to prevent him from having a moment of peace, a quiet moment outside his barracks or even inside; we must attack him wherever he may be; make him feel like a cornered beast wherever he may move. Then his moral fiber shall begin to decline. He will even become more beastly, but we shall notice how the signs of decadence begin to appear. And let us develop a true proletarian internationalism; with international proletarian armies; the flag under which we fight would be the sacred cause of redeeming humanity. To die under the flag of Vietnam, of Venezuela, of Guatemala, of Laos, of Guinea, of Colombia, of Bolivia, of Brazil — to name only a few scenes of today's armed struggle — would be equally glorious and desirable for an American, an Asian, an African, even a European. Each spilt drop of blood, in any country under whose flag one has not been born, is an experience passed on to those who survive, to be added later to the liberation struggle of his own country. And each nation liberated is a phase won in the battle for the liberation of one's own country... How close we could look into a bright future should two, three or many Vietnams flourish throughout the world with their share of deaths and their immense tragedies, their everyday heroism and their repeated blows against imperialism, impelled to disperse its forces under the sudden attack and the increasing hatred of all peoples of the world!

 

This was nothing less than a call for a coordinated, concerted and disciplined effort by a communist revolutionary vanguard to smash the imperialist system across the world. And Che was not the only communist who planned to follow this command: Tania also answered this call.

 

However, the conditions favoring Che's arrival in Bolivia had not been created yet. While anxiously awaiting his chance to return to Latin America, Che traveled to the Congo in 1965 as part of a Cuban internationalist mission in support of progressive forces against US-backed mercenaries.

 

Tania was infiltrated into Bolivia in early 1965, adopting the identity of Laura Gutierrez Bauer, a German-Argentine woman primarily interested in Bolivian folklore. Her training paid off and Tania was able to develop relationships with a number of intellectuals, professionals and politicians linked with the right-wing parties, bourgeoisie and the army. During her time in Bolivia, Tania was able to obtain information about US ties with the military and the location of key armed units. She was even able to gain Bolivian citizenship in 1966. In September 1965, Tania was informed by Pineiro that as a reward for her excellent service, she was to be awarded membership in the Cuban Communist Party.

 

Tania was able to begin preparing the groundwork for the clandestine guerrilla network before the initiation of military operations. In order to assist with Che's arrival, Tania used her connections with high-ranking government circles to obtain several favorable letters of introduction from official institutions for “Alfredo Mena”, Che's alias.

 

Due to her proven ability, Tania was instructed by Cuban intelligence, and later by Che Guevara when he arrived, not to jeopardize her cover by involving herself in illegal activities or the guerrilla campaign. Che believed that Tania was much more valuable in the cities obtaining intelligence on the military and political situation in Bolivia. However, due to the skeletal nature of the clandestine urban network, there were few trained operatives who could help with the material or security concerns of the revolutionaries, so Tania was intimately involved in this work. She also helped bring travelers and recruits to Che's encampment in the countryside. All of these tasks were necessary for the revolution to succeed, but they threatened Tania's cover and several years of patient work.

 

While Tania continued her work, Che and his men were camped in the countryside at a secluded ranch - too secluded as it would turn out - training and preparing for the initiation of combat. The guerrillas were also working to gain the support of the Bolivian Communist Party for their campaign, which failed because the Party wanted leadership over the struggle, something that Che refused to relinquish, and this left the revolutionaries without a larger urban support structure or links to the working class.

 

The Bolivian government was not blind and could tell that an insurgency was brewing and moved their troops to investigate Che's encampment. Armed combat began, prematurely, in March 1967. The first clash saw the guerrillas emerge victorious with the enemy suffering 7 dead, and 14 captured along with the seizure of weapons and enemy operational plans. With the beginning of the war, Tania was quickly identified. It turned out that raids on some guerrilla contacts led to the discovery of her identity papers and her cover was compromised. The Bolivian Army quickly mobilized its forces to fight a counterinsurgency campaign against Che's guerrilla front. They were backed by US advisors, military aid and CIA agents.

 

Since it was no longer safe for Tania to return to La Paz, Che decided that she would be considered another combatant and was given a rifle. Tania remained a part of Che's column until mid-April when she was ordered with other troops to the rearguard. At this time, Tania was suffering from a high fever and, like many other guerrillas, she was unused to the rigors of travel in the countryside.

 

Tania and her column ended up permanently separated from Che's main force for the duration of the war. While information on Tania's military activities in Bolivia is incomplete, we do know that she carried out a number of assignments: sewing, information analysis and the distribution of food. Tania's column spent three months avoiding contact with the enemy and gaining the support of the peasants in an isolated zone. The Bolivian army and their US advisors patrolled the outlying areas of the guerrilla area and they managed to cut off Tania's column from that of Che (who hoped to reunite the two forces).

 

At the same time, the Bolivian army clamped down on the peasantry and the column suffered desertions. The guerrillas faced a tightening noose from the enemy along with defections. From the accounts of those that survive, we know that Tania remained committed to the cause, stoic, and was both distinguished and brave in battle. During combat, Tania called out for the enemy to surrender, which demoralized them and strengthened the will of the revolutionaries to resist.

 

By late August, a Bolivian peasant betrayed the guerrilla column. The peasant, Honorato Rojas saw his family held hostage by the Bolivian Army and was instructed to lead the guerrillas into an ambush. When the guerrillas moved into a river at the agreed upon signal, they had no idea that soldiers were waiting on both banks for them. The army had a decisive advantage over the guerrillas, who were already worn down by months of marching and ill-health. The guerrillas were taken by surprise and in minutes, 7 out of 10 were killed. We know that Tania reached for her machine gun and tried to fire at the enemy, but was shot through the lung, quickly killing her. She fell into the water and was carried downstream before her body was recovered. Not only was Tania killed, but her entire column was wiped out.

 

When Che heard of the death of Tania and her comrades, he did not believe it at first. Yet as it became clear to him that they were dead, and even though the Bolivian army was moving in, Che refused to give in. He was determined to fight onto victory. But it was not to be. Following an ambush in early October 1967, Che was taken prisoner by the Bolivian army and executed the next day. The dream of Tania and Che for a continental socialist revolution was over .... for now.

 

The bodies of Tania, Che and the other guerrilla combatants were buried in unknown graves and they would likely have remained that way. However, in 1995, a retired Bolivian army officer General Mario Vargas Salina told the journalist and biographer of Che Guevara, Jon Lee Anderson the location of the resting places for some of the guerrillas. This intensified a search for the rest of the gravesites and by 1998, nearly all of the guerrilla remains were identified. In 2001, Tania's corpse was returned to her adopted homeland of Cuba, where she was buried with honors with her aged mother present.

 

When we remember the Bolivian campaign of Che Guevara, we can easily say with hindsight that the campaign was ill-fated from the start for a multitude of reasons - ranging from the guerrilla strategy, the lack of a revolutionary situation, the poor choice to launch an armed campaign and any number of blunders. All that being said, we should not forget that this mission was motivated by the highest communist and internationalist principles to spark a continental revolution and was the ultimate expression of solidarity with Vietnam. And while we should always honor the martyrdom of Che Guevara, we should not forget that the blood of others was shed in this noble of struggle: including those of Tania, a revolutionary warrior to the end.

 

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