Tamara Bunke – a life given in the struggle for socialism

Red Youth salutes the revolutionary women of the world! Our young cadre will be publishing short pieces all this week to celebrate our revolutionary heroines in the run up to International Women’s Day. Today, our comrade Ed, aged 22 from Southampton, gives a Red Salute to Tamara Bunke.

Come and celebrate International Women’s Day this Sunday in Birmingham with the CPGB-ML and Red Youth at 274 Moseley Rd, Highgate, B12 0BS.

Heidi Tamara Bunke Bider, aka Guerrilla Tania, was born in Buenos Aires in Tamara Bunke1937. She was the daughter of a Polish jew and a German, who emigrated to Argentina to escape Nazi persecution.

Returning to Germany after the war when she was 15, and having been raised by parents who were both staunch communists, Tamara soon joined the country’s Socialist Unity party. Her outstanding linguistic ability in speaking Russian, English, Spanish and German caught the attention of the authorities in what was a rapidly-growing socialist state.

While studying political science at Berlin’s Humboldt University, Comrade Tamara was employed as an interpreter for visiting delegations from Latin America. This was how she met Che Guevara. As head of a trade delegation for Cuba’s newly socialist state, he visited Leipzig in 1960, and she was assigned as his assistant and translator.

Tamara, being a committed communist, was undoubtedly in awe of Comrade Guevara’s revolutionary credentials and his charisma – as many were and are still. The following year, Tamara traveled to Cuba, taking the name of Tania, and never returned to live in Germany.

Inspired by the idealism of the Cuban revolution, she sought out voluntary work, teaching and helped to build homes and schools in the countryside. Until, that is, she was given the option of receiving special training.

By then, Che had set his sights on spreading revolution far beyond Cuba’s shores in his drive for internationalism – to Africa and throughout Latin America. It was decided that Bolivia would become the next target for peasant and workers’ liberation. It was hoped that Bolivia’s central position would allow communism to spread into the five neighbouring countries of Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Peru and Chile.

Tamara entered the most secretive phase of her life, about which she could not tell even her parents, though she continued to write to them regularly. She adopted various guises. First she was Marta Iriarte – on a false passport provided by the Czech security services. Then she was Haydée Gonzalez, and later Vittoria Pancini – an Italian citizen travelling in Europe. She used these first three identities while perfecting the persona she would finally adopt – Laura Gutierrez Bauer, working as an undercover agent in Bolivia.

Throughout the spring of 1964, Tamara was hidden on a small farm on the outskirts of Prague, where she was schooled in the art of espionage, in preparation for infiltrating bourgeois society as Bauer in Bolivia’s administrative capital of La Paz. She arrived there in October 1964 with a brief to gather intelligence on Bolivia’s political elite and the strength of its armed forces.

She learnt that the son of the country’s army chief and junta head, General Alfredo Ovando Candia, was planning to study in Germany. After finding out where the general lived, she rented a room nearby and put a sign in the window advertising “German lessons”. The ploy worked: she started teaching the general’s son German.

Through him, she quickly secured an introduction to the general himself, and was then introduced to the country’s air-force commander, and later president, Rene Barrientos. Both men fell for her charms and took her to high-society parties.

Using the cover story that she was in Bolivia to study folklore, Tamara travelled the country to gauge the popular mood. She briefly entered into a marriage of convenience with another young student to gain Bolivian citizenship and make her position there more secure. But her main objective was assessing the country’s political and military elite.

She would continue to court Barrientos, and even went on holiday with him to Peru. However, when the fiercely anti-communist Barrientos discovered, through traitors and deserters from Guevara’s guerrilla force, that Tamara was spying for the Cuban revolutionaries, he ordered that the walls of her apartment be torn down, and in doing so discovered a compartment behind a wall where the radio equipment she used to send coded messages to Havana was hidden.

It later emerged that she had also been passing coded signals to Guevara’s revolutionary bands in the south. Her cover blown, Tamara swapped her urban disguise for battle fatigues and joined Che’s fighters. She was the only woman in his small force.

In April 1967, as the isolated band of a few dozen revolutionary guerrilla fighters increasingly succumbed to sickness and disease, Guevara separated them into two columns so that the weakest could travel more slowly as the rearguard. Tamara, who was suffering from a high fever and a leg injury, would remain in the rearguard with other ailing combatants, while Guevara and the others went on ahead.

Her column was ambushed on 31 August 1967 by CIA-backed Bolivian forces whilst crossing the Rio Grande. Waist deep in water, Tamara was struck by two bullets – one to her arm and the other her chest. She and most of her comrades were killed on the spot. When Fidel Castro heard of her martyrdom, he declared her ‘Tania the Guerrilla’, a Hero of the Cuban Revolution.

In 1998, Tamara’s remains were transferred to Cuba and were interred in the Che Guevara Mausoleum in the city of Santa Clara, alongside those of Che himself and several other guerrillas who had been killed during the Bolivian campaign.