Che Guevara looks like a ghost in January 1959. I'm so used to seeing his two-tone face staring out from t-shirts. Leaning over Castro with his beret and leather jacket, he looks so young, so alive. I begin to understand a little of what old folks are sighing when they page through photos from decades ago of their friends and family: always youthful, always vigorous, never dying. There's nostalgia and strength, all at once.
L--- shows me that picture. -I met Che in 1965, he says. -The Soviets were going to send him to the Moon.
I smirk. -You forget!, shouts L---, and I can't help smirking again at his outburst. This makes him even angrier. -You don't even forget, you weren't even born! Let me tell you: in 1965, the Soviets were ahead in the race to the Moon. They were planning to land by the end of 1967. Two years!
-Look, he says, -When Che left Cuba in 1965, he went to Zvezdnyy Gorodok where he met Gagarin. At that point, the revolution was being fought on two fronts. First, the unification of South America was being attempted, and in Africa too, to fight back against the hegemony of the West. Second - and this was mainly led by the Soviets - to beat the Americans at their own game. Che's initial realisation was that this was not a revolution, but still only a resistance. He conceptualised the struggle as the Southern hemisphere against the Northern. The Northern Hemisphere embodied a certain kind of practice: call it industry, or capitalism. It sought to define and represent the South on Northern terms, in an effort to channel it through its greedy production lines. Che's battles were an effort to get the world to understand the South on its own terms. The Soviet approach was to tackle the North more directly, to demonstrate a different kind of practice.
-But this was Che's genius. He recognised that this North/South dichotomy would eventually develop a synthesis, but one ultimately defined by the the consumer-consumed relationship set up by the Americans. He wanted to set up a political trialectic, and to make a statement both concrete and symbolic. By taking the Moon and creating a revolutionary heartland, a third way would be opened: not the North, not the South, but something other. It would step outside the struggle and allow a new future to be chosen.
We sit in silence for a few minutes. L--- calms down slowly, and we sip our thickening coffees in the dusk. My mentor lights another cigarette. -It didn't happen. Gagarin couldn't help but see Earth orbit as inward facing. He implicitly believed the system was closed, and cared more about recycling than new frontiers. Never let a man shaped by the journey dictate the destination.
L--- coughs, the orange circle is travelling slowly.
-Listen, my young friend (he says). -You can find a thousand people who will tell you what I have just told you, but you have to know this: Before Che was killed, he did go to the Moon. I learned this in Prague, in 1968, just months after Che's hands had been cut off and his brains blown out. Gagarin died a few weeks later. You think that was an accident? Ha.
-There was, and is still, a Cuban settlement on the dark side of the Moon. You think the Czech uprising was because of jazz, right? That jazz wasn't from Radio Free Europe, let's just say that.
-The Soviets turned into the Americans just as the Americans turned into the Soviets. Both got caught up in industry, both needed to be fed by whole continents otherwise occupied by in-fighting. America would have its South, Europe was for the Soviets. You wonder what Henri was on about with his three-way dialectic, and why he was hated by the Marxist establishment so much for it? He was speaking Che's words, make no mistake, and the Soviets had turned against that, turned inward. He was speaking in code.
-From Gagarin? The space race halted, the missions to the Moon halted, the cultural connection to Prague stamped out: all Gagarin left us was his obsession with rubbish. But Che, ah Che. He left us a space elevator.
Turning to me, L--- places a map of South America on the table. He stabs a finger at Bolivia. -This is where Rodriguez took Che's hands. On his left hand, a map to the generator in the Amazon that scales food packages up to the Moon on a magnetic beam. Tattooed on his right hand, directions to the Cuban lunar base itself. The Americans never deciphered them, never found the elevator or the base, but not for want of hunting. They've spent the last 40 years burning the rainforest hoping to uncover one, and billions in satellites looking for the other. Despite our best efforts, those of us following Gagarin haven't been able to promote environmentalism enough to stop them. (He jabs with another finger at Santa Clara.) -This is where Che's hands are buried now. We know how to decode the maps. We need those hands.
L--- passes me a plane ticket and a gun. -The world has changed. We are out-numbered, and the North is stronger than ever. Revolutions have been made a spectator sport. Most of us are dead. We need to restart the struggle before the communications mesh closes in the Earth once and for all. Once you have the directions, follow them! We'll need a sign, and the settlement has the technology to provide it. We'll know you've succeeded when the Moon rotates, and the dark side is looking down on us all. Now go.