Che Guevara’s mysterious stay on the outskirts of Prague

Che Guevara, photo: Alberto Korda, Museo Che Guevara, Havana, Cuba / Public Domain

Che Guevara is probably one of the most famous revolutionaries of the 20th century. His iconic photograph, one of the best known images in the world. And for a few months between revolutionary episodes in his life, he spent a few months in 1966 at a secret intelligence villa on the outskirts of Prague.

Che Guevara,  photo: Alberto Korda,  Museo Che Guevara,  Havana,  Cuba / Public Domain
The Argentinian-born medical school graduate became famous when he teamed up with Fidel Castro and helped toppled the corrupt Batista regime in Cuba. In the aftermath of the 1959 revolution, Che Guevara was given a series of jobs which meant that he effectively controlled and directed the Cuban economy. One of the jobs was as central bank governor with Che Guevara signing off on the new banknotes with just his nickname, “Che.”

And it was in those circumstances that Che Guevara started to tour the world, including communist Czechoslovakia, and meeting with economists and specialists shipped in to help Cuba on its new socialist path. Many of them Czechs and Slovaks.

But it’s a later trip to Czechoslovakia with none of the official ceremonies and receptions that we will focus on in this week’s feature. Che Guevara had already stepped down from all his official posts in Cuba and was back on the revolutionary trail. In 1965 he went to the Congo, then in the throes of various uprisings against president Mobutu Sese Seko. But by the end of the year it was clear there was insufficient support for a wider revolution and a discouraged Che Guevara had come down with dysentery and acute asthma. He spent some time in Dar Es Salaam and was reluctant to return back to Cuba. Instead, he opted for Czechoslovakia and Prague. Historian Prokop Tomek has studied Che Guevara’s brief and somewhat mysterious sejour in Czechoslovakia and takes up the story:

“Che Guevara came to Prague to find some shelter, a concealed place, probably for a four month long stay, because he was looking at some way how to travel from Cuba to the Third World. So, it was only a short stay in a place that could help him again how to fight for revolution.

This trip between March and July 1966 wasn’t his first trip to Czechoslovakia or Prague was it?

“There were a lot of connections between Czechoslovakia and Cuba in the first part of the 1960s.”

“It wasn’t. He came to Prague several years earlier as the leader of one official mission from the Cuban government. He met with the head of state before and he had other experiences with people from Czechoslovakia who came to Cuba as experts and specialists who could help the Cuban economy. I think the most interesting person among these experts was Valtr Komárek, who was quite famous in 1989 as a very progressive Communist economist. Another important person who met Guevara in Cuba was František Kriegel, he was one of the people from the 1968 reform movement and one of the key people from Charter 77.”

And relations between Czechoslovakia and Cuba, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, were quite close weren’t they? There were quite a lot of accords, there were advisers, and there was also connections between the intelligence and security services as well?

“Yes, there were a lot of connections between Czechoslovakia and Cuba in the first part of the 1960s. Czechoslovakia provided a lot of weapons supplies for the Cuban revolution and quite significant and broad economic support. One of the very interesting ways how the Czechoslovak regime helped Cuba was intelligence assistance, for example, the training of people from the Cuban secret service. There was also operation Manuel under which Cuban revolutionary fighters were transported from Cuba. They had training in Cuba and they travelled to Czechoslovakia and then to South America to spread the revolutionary fight and movement.”

Che Guevara,  Fidel Castro,  photo: Alberto Korda,  Museo Che Guevara,  Havana,  Cuba / Public Domain
It was in those circumstances that Che Guevara came to Prague, I think he had a false passport like most of these other people, and he was expected to move on from Prague after his stay…?

“I must say that we have no direct information about Che Guevara’s stay in Czechoslovakia and it is very interesting that he stayed here without the knowledge of the Czechoslovak intelligence service. During his stay, he was here incognito. He owned a false passport but that was quite common for all revolution fighters who travelled through Prague. They often used false passports. We don’t know exactly when he came, which day he came, and when and where he travelled from Prague abroad.”

This is quite strange in a way because he stayed in a villa about 20 kilometres south-east of Prague which was, effectively, owned by the [Czechoslovak] intelligence services?

“Yes, it was a very special house where secret agents, collaborators, were trained for their missions abroad and for some short stays of foreigners from friendly powers could also be accommodated. Such people could also be housed by the Cubans without the direct help or knowledge of the intelligence service. It is strange and perhaps Guevara was not the only such person who spent such time in Czechoslovakia and maybe some other famous persons also came.”

“One of the very interesting ways how the Czechoslovak regime helped Cuba was intelligence assistance.”

The Czechoslovak government only officially know about this visit when Fidel Castro made an official approach about it apparently because he maybe wanted to get a plaque put on the villa after the death of Che Guevara?

“Yes, it was probably the first information about this stay provided by Fidel Castro and the Czechoslovak intelligence service was very opposed to the idea of putting there some plaque or announcement that Che Guevara stayed in that house because it was a secret house and site. This information was hidden in the Czechoslovak intelligence service archives until 1989.”

Just about the location of this villa, it is in some village outside Prague, there is not much there and it’s difficult to imagine what Che Guevara would do…There are some suggestions that he was ill at the time and that he had problems after being in Africa. Otherwise, there is not much there…

“There were some other Cubans, some guides, and other people who accompanied him. And there were some Czechs…I know about one case, an expert who met Che Guevara before in Cuba and during his stay he was his guide in Prague, Prague pubs for example. But I only know about this man from the testimony of other persons because this man died many years ago.”

Prokop Tomek,  photo: Jana Chládková
More generally, I read some autobiography of the famous British spy, Kim Philby, and it seems that he also stayed in Prague for a few weeks before eventually getting to the Soviet Union and Moscow. So I was wonder how often Prague was used as a sort of stepping off post, a place where agents were debriefed before they were moved on perhaps to Moscow. Do you know of other cases?

“I know only about the man who killed Trotsky in Mexico. In the 1960s, he spent some time in Prague, also in some secret house or apartment which was owned by the state security service. It is perhaps a similar case. And also there was another interesting person, the man was Austrian and he provided help to the Czechoslovak secret service to kidnap Bohumil Laušman. He was a Czech politician and he was kidnapped from Austria in 1953 and he died in Ruzyně prison in the 1960s. His agent was moved to Czechoslovakia at the end of the 1960s and he spent the rest of his life in Czechoslovakia at one flat in Prague and he spent some holidays at his house in Ládví, the same house where Che Guevara lived.”

Revived and recuperated after his Czech stay, Che Guevara was ready to relaunch his revolutionary mission and after short, almost farewell, trip to Cuba he was heading towards one of South America’s least developed countries, Bolivia.

“Perhaps Guevara was not the only such person who spent such time in Czechoslovakia and maybe some other famous persons also came.”

The revolutionary movement in the mountainous south started promisingly, but Che Guevara soon found peasant support lukewarm, the local communist party difficult, and the Bolivian army – backed by CIA information and support, less of a pushover than he had expected. He and his ragged force were eventually cornered in the mountains with an injured Che Guevara captured. The order came through that he be executed the following day, October 9, 1967. He was only 39. The legend was ready to grow take root although historian still quarrel about what his real legacy was.