Bunke, Tamara (1937–1967)
Bunke, Tamara (1937–1967)
Argentine-born revolutionary and Communist double agent in Cuba who was instrumental in planning the guerilla operation in Bolivia in which both she and Ché Guevara died. Name variations: (codename) Tania. Born Tamara Haydée Bunke on November 19, 1937, in Buenos Aires, Argentina; killed in ambush by Bolivian army patrol on August 31, 1967, at Vado del Yeso, Bolivia; daughter of Erich Otto Heinrich Bunke (a German Communist and teacher) and Esperanza Bider (a Polish Communist and teacher); educated in Argentina until 1948; graduated from Clara Zetkin Senior High School in East Germany; trained in East German and Soviet intelligence; married Mario Martínez Älvarez, briefly, to obtain Bolivian citizenship, 1966; children: none.
Moved with family to the German Democratic Republic (1948); joined GDR defense training program (1952); recruited for intelligence work by the East German Ministry of State Security (1958); went to Cuba as a translator (1961); recruited for Cuban intelligence (March 1963); sent to La Paz to establish a urban guerrilla network in Bolivia (October 1964); after deliberately revealing extent of Cuban involvement in Bolivia, joined Ché Guevara's guerrillas in the jungle (February 1967).
Inspired by ardent patriotism or motivated by the thrill of danger, women and men throughout history have chosen to engage in the difficult and demanding work of the intelligence agent. Following the overthrow of the Juan Batista dictatorship in Cuba in 1959, the Communist island revolution led by Fidel Castro inspired many idealistic revolutionaries and agents who believed that the model of society it proposed foreshadowed a new and better era for humankind. But this Caribbean island country off the U.S. coast was also caught up in struggles between internal warring Communist factions and a huge ideological conflict between East and West in ways that could result in the sacrifice of individual lives. Tamara Bunke, code name Tania, was one such dedicated Communist, who died not as a victim of the West, but because of infighting within her own party, while her actions also led directly to the death of the famed Cuban revolutionary Ché Guevara. Such is the tangled history that often surrounds the life of a double agent.
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on November 19, 1937, Tamara Bunke lived the outwardly normal childhood of many in her country; she swam, went horseback riding, and attended summer camp. Fluent only in Spanish (she did not learn German until adolescence), her cultural identity was Argentine. What made her household different from many others was the fact that her parents were dedicated Communists, engaged in clandestine activities, which required that she and her older brother, Olaf, learn to be close-mouthed and secretive from the earliest days of their childhood. In the privacy of her home, the blue-eyed little girl with pigtails was part of the revolution.
The ideology of the family was grounded in European events that began four years before her birth, when Adolf Hitler, at the head of Germany's Third Reich, had determined to wipe out both Jews and leftists. Tamara's father was Erich Otto Heinrich Bunke, a German and a Communist then living and teaching in Berlin; her mother Esperanza Bider was also a teacher and a Communist, and a Pole as well as a Jew. By 1935, many friends of the Bunkes had been rounded up by the Gestapo, and that year, shortly after the birth of her son Olaf, Esperanza was ordered to report to the Gestapo. Understanding the meaning of the summons, the couple arranged for Esperanza to escape the country within 24 hours, on her Polish passport with her son, fleeing first to Warsaw, then on to Switzerland, Luxembourg, France, and ultimately Argentina. The first choice of the Bunkes would have been to live in the USSR, but since there was no time to acquire the necessary papers, the couple reunited in Argentina and settled with other relatives among German refugees. As members of the Argentine Communist Party, they took up their underground work, learned Spanish, and became Argentine citizens.
In 1948, the Bunke family returned to Europe, moving to Stalinstadt in the German Democratic Republic to be closer to the center of Communist power. At age 11, Tamara lived for a while with a German family and found the adjustment to her new country a great shock. Teased about her accent, she was sometimes driven to tears, but she enjoyed sledding in winter and target shooting, and, in 1952, she joined the East German defense training program, the GDR Association for Sports and Skills. Trained in gymnastics, Morse code, target shooting and other skills useful to young revolutionaries, she developed a fondness for uniforms and handling weapons that was to last throughout her life.
After graduation from Clara Zetkin Senior High School, Tamara joined Socialist Unity, the local name for the Communist Party; her Argentine background led to her placement as an interpreter for the Free German Youth's Latin American Bureau, for which she traveled to Prague, Vienna, and Moscow. At age 21, she was recruited for intelligence work by the East German Ministry of State Security (MFS), where she assisted Oberleutnant Guenther Maennel (who defected to the West in 1961); shortly thereafter, she was approached by the KGB to work as a double agent for Moscow.
Fluent in Spanish, dedicated to communism, intelligent and attractive, Tamara Bunke was the ideal candidate for the type of espionage work desired by the Soviets in Latin America, and especially Cuba. The small island country was heavily subsidized by the Soviet Union as a Communist foothold in the Western hemisphere, but since China was the great rival of the USSR in the Communist world, the Soviets were anxious about Maoist tendencies exhibited by some who were in power in Cuba. A Soviet agent who could document what was happening on a daily basis therefore seemed prudent, and Tamara had long shown an interest in advancing the Communist revolution in Latin America.
To older, mainline Communists, the revolution in Cuba often seemed undisciplined and unreliable, but to younger members of the party it was an inspiration. In late 1956, a group of 82 men led by Fidel Castro had invaded Cuba; among its members was an Argentine doctor, Ernesto "Ché" Guevara. In December of that year, all but 12 had been butchered in Oriente province by the troops of the ruling dictator, Juan Batista. This small group of survivors, including Fidel and Raúl Castro, Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos, formed the guerrilla movement dedicated to the overthrow of Batista that was finally successful on January 1, 1959. Guevara became a chief of staff of the Cuban revolution, appointed minister of industries and charged with introducing Communist reforms.
In 1961, Tamara Bunke arrived in Cuba to be a translator for the Ministry of Education. In a rare show of esteem toward a foreigner, she was invited to join the militia, and often dressed in uniform thereafter. A spontaneous and enthusiastic woman, popular with co-workers, she differed from many foreigners who came to help the revolution in her involvement in Cuban daily life. She also pursued her Communist ideals with the zeal of a religious believer, living by the maxim, "Anybody who can't do small things will never be able to do great things." When she discovered that a domestic worker living in her building, named Elisa, had only a fifth-grade education, she spent up to three hours a day teaching the woman; she swapped her three-bedroom apartment for a two-bedroom apartment occupied by a Chilean family with four children; and she exchanged refrigerators with a neighboring family after theirs broke down, contending after it was fixed that they needed the larger one because they had children. As an important party functionary, she had many privileges, including an assigned maid, but the woman rarely had work to do because Bunke lived so simply.
At the same time, Tamara kept her activities strictly compartmentalized. Colleagues at work did not know her neighbors and neither knew her friends in the Young Communist League or other Latin American groups. Intense involvement as well as a close-mouthed nature were necessary for one in service to two bosses, one in Havana and one in Moscow. In March 1963, Tamara entered the phase of her life that inaugurated her identity as "Tania," the guerrilla. She was selected for a small and elite clandestine group and given the work of organizing a network to invade Latin America countries and subvert their governments, confronting the power and influence of the United States whenever possible.
A first step in this phase was to withdraw from public revolutionary work and stop associating with those who had become her comrades in Cuba. Her apartment was no longer open to friends and her life became further compartmentalized. Issued the first of many false identification papers, as Tamara Lorenzo, she was taught how to work in code, to make drops and pickups, to watch those around her to detect if she were under surveillance, and to mark clothing and personal items so that she would know if her belongings had been searched.
The full reasons for her selection to such a post are not fully known, but the appointment was probably influenced by her relationship with Ché Guevara. The actual nature of their association is not known, though they may have been lovers. What is known is that both were from Argentina, and therefore foreigners in Cuba, and both were ardent Communists. At the very least, she was a trusted ally of Guevara, and as such she was called to his office at the Ministry of Industries in March 1964, where she was informed that she would be sent to La Paz, Bolivia, to set up an urban guerrilla network.
First, however, on April 9, 1964, "Tania" left for Europe as Haydée Bidel Gonzalez. The objective of her travels over the next several months was to learn to be comfortable with different identities. In her first new guise, she was also to present herself as a nonpartisan after several years of living in the fervor of the Cuban Revolution. She was instructed to pose as an apolitical person, with slightly anti-Communist tendencies. In October 1964, she finally set out for Bolivia, where she was to establish residence as Laura Gutiérrez Bauer, an ethnologist. Since she played the accordion and guitar, the study of Bolivian folk music was a good cover. Bunke was a charming woman of 26 who quickly established herself in La Paz, making friends in the highest circles of government. To demonstrate a visible source of income, she devoted a few hours a day to teaching German to eight students; one of these pupils was López Muñoz, a journalist, whose influence eventually helped her to secure papers for Guevara to enter Bolivia as an anthropologist. She became a friend of Anita Heinrich , who was also of German background, and private secretary to the minister of government and justice, Antonia Arguedas Mendieta. Arguedas was a Communist, with a pipeline to the presidency, and his ministry controlled immigration, which proved helpful when papers were needed. No direct contact was established between Arguedas and Bunke, but it is possible that he was a part of the network she established. In mid-1966, Bunke married Mario Martínez Älvarez, a student of industrial engineering at San Andrés University, and thus obtained Bolivian citizenship. Much to the distress of Älvarez, who was genuinely in love with "Laura Bauer," she quickly sought a divorce and obtained a scholarship for him through Soviet contacts that allowed him to be packed off to Sofia, Bulgaria.
In her role as a musical ethnologist, Bunke had meanwhile traveled around Bolivia acquiring a vast collection of Bolivian folk music. The accumulated material documented a true talent and interest in this area while she was becoming highly familiar with the countryside. In mid-1966, she moved to Camiri, where she lived at the Hotel Oriente and started a radio program called "Advice to Women." The show was a huge hit among the lovelorn, though her audience sometimes found parts of her message unintelligible; it was only later realized that Bunke had used her program to send out coded messages to members of her network and the guerrillas awaiting word of when they were to launch their anti-government offensive.
Meanwhile, Bunke's information about Cuban activities was invaluable to the USSR, where the Soviets were eager to make Maoists like Ché Guevara toe the party line. In Cuba, Ché's popularity was also on the wane. He had always been viewed there as a foreigner, and his insistence on punctuality and efficiency, the norm in Argentina, had not won him allies. His relationship with Fidel Castro had also become tenuous, since he liked to take credit for guerrilla exploits, and Fidel had a way of eliminating those who tried to share the limelight. It was probably not by accident, therefore, that rumors of Guevara's death began to circulate in the mid-'60s. In 1965, Castro had sent Guevara to the Congo, to lead the mercenaries of the dictator Moïse Tshombe in Katanga province, but the outcome was not a success. In March 1966, Guevara returned secretly to Cuba, where he kept a low profile until leaving for Bolivia in early 1967.
Considerable money and effort had been invested by then, both to establish Bunke's network and to supply guerrilla bases in the Bolivian jungle. From the viewpoints of both Havana and Moscow, this was the perfect exploratory venture. If it succeeded, the U.S. would have another Vietnam on its hands; if it failed, a troublesome guerrilla leader would have been eliminated. Of all those involved in the plans, only Bunke belonged to an orthodox Communist organization loyal to Moscow. Her role was to reconcile the operation's two opposing objectives—the desire of Guevara to spread revolution and the determination of Moscow to extinguish a Maoist insurrection. Meanwhile, although it was not a declared aim, she might help Castro to eliminate a potentially dangerous rival. Her task was enormous, but she had made real inroads in Bolivia. Based on Bunke's clandestine activities, Guevara arrived in the country prepared to launch a guerrilla offensive.
Guevara's dream of a Bolivian revolution dated back to 1953, when a spontaneous revolt had put down a rightist coup against the government of Paz Estenssoro. A student at the time, Guevara had never forgotten how miners and peasants joined forces to quell the coup, and believed that the feat could be duplicated. Once the Communists were in control of Bolivia, his next objective would be to begin a revolution in Argentina, to be followed by a series of "Latin American Vietnams" he would help to create, which would overwhelm the U.S. and end its dominance in the hemisphere.
Guevara's romantic revolutionary notions were not well suited to the Bolivian jungle, nor to the Bolivian people, who held a deep resentment of foreigners of any ilk. Their hatred of outsiders extended even to members of the Bolivian Communist Party, and when threatened by outside influences, Bolivians from both the left and the right tended to unite not to overthrow their own government but to throw the intruders out.
In March 1967, Guevara set up camp near Ñancahuanzú, with some 40 men. There is considerable evidence that Castro knowingly sent Ché to his death on this ill-starred mission. At best, the Bolivian Communists were hostile allies, and by the time Guevara reached the country, the Bolivian government had documentation of the activities of Bunke's network. In late February, she had picked up two journalists in La Paz, to take them to interviews in the guerrilla area. Authorities in Ñancahuanzú were already suspicious of strange events in the area and therefore alert to unfamiliar vehicles. When the group stopped in Camiri for the night, she inexplicably left her jeep parked in a prominent place, containing documents and notebooks with names and addresses that gave away the entire enterprise. Throughout her intelligence career, Tamara Bunke had never committed such a gaffe, and it can only be concluded that this was a deliberate act: Moscow wanted Bolivian authorities to know what Guevara's troops were doing.
With the plans revealed, Bunke's cover was also blown, forcing her to move into the jungle with Guevara's forces. Meanwhile, chaos began to overtake the group. On March 14, two guerilla deserters, named Rocabado and Barrera, fell into the hands of the Bolivian army. Angered by an argument with Ché, they were ready to tell all they knew and confirmed what had been discovered in the jeep. On March 19, a Bolivian soldier discovered the guerrillas and was killed. In contradiction of a basic tenet of guerrilla warfare, which mandates that the fighters melt into the jungle, Guevara decided that the Bolivian troops should be ambushed when they came looking for the soldier. The camp was moved and valuable supplies, especially medicine, were lost in the process. On March 23, a Bolivian army patrol entered the area and was ambushed by some of the rebels, but it managed to kill and wound all who were not taken prisoner. With the presence of the invaders thus established, the guerrillas began to live as hunted animals.
News of the ambush electrified the country, unifying Bolivians of all political persuasions. The Bolivian army was mobilized to hunt down the intruders. By this time, Castro wanted no part of the venture and contact with Cuba was sporadic. In the jungle, Bunke became sick and ran a high fever. It is rumored that she may have been pregnant. Because her presence slowed the group's movements, Ché relegated her to a smaller group to unburden the main force. Although Ché never held her responsible for the jeep episode, some guerrillas viewed her as a traitor. Emotionally tormented, derided and sexually molested, suffering from hunger and exhaustion, she begged at times to be killed.
On August 30, as the Bolivian army drew closer to the rebels, Bunke's group bargained with a peasant for food. He alerted the army and led them to the camp the following day. Early on the morning of August 31, members of the Bolivian army waited for the guerrillas to pass by on the narrow path near the river in the Vado del Yeso. In the ambush that commenced at 5:20 AM, Bunke fell in a hail of bullets without firing a shot, and most of the group was slaughtered. Her body was discovered a week later, washed down the river. German nuns at a Christian school in nearby Valle Grande buried it in a modest coffin in the public cemetery. The other guerilla group eluded the army for five more weeks, until October 9, 1967, when Ché was finally captured and shot.
The life of the woman who has passed into history as Tania was so compartmentalized that even today it is impossible to discover all the facts. She was a dedicated daughter who wrote faithfully to her parents until her clandestine activities forbade further contact. She was an intelligent and charming person, who spoke several languages fluently, and could gather a creditable collection of material about folk music, while setting up an underground revolutionary network. She was also a double agent who could follow Ché Guevara's instructions while laying the groundwork for his demise. It is clear that she believed communism would create a better world, and accepted the view that the Moscow version of this doctrine was needed to accomplish this feat. Dead before her 30th birthday, she lies buried in a small Bolivian cemetery, where lighted candles and flowers appear from time to time on her grave, although no one knows who brings them.
González, Luis J., and Gustavo A. Sánchez Salazar. The Great Rebel: Che Guevara in Bolivia. Translated from Spanish by Helen R. Lane. NY: Grove Press. 1969.
James, Daniel. Ché Guevara. NY: Stein and Day, 1969.
Marchetti, Victor, and John D. Marks. The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence. NY: Dell, 1974.
Rojas, Marta, and Mirta Rodríguez Calderón, eds. Tania: The Unforgettable Guerrilla. NY: Vintage Books, 1971.
Sauvage, Léo. Che Guevara: The Failure of a Revolutionary. Translated from Spanish by Raoul Frémont. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
"The Two Faces of Tania," in Newsweek. Vol. 72, no. 5. July 29, 1968, p. 45.
Karin Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia
"Bunke, Tamara (1937–1967)." Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bunke-tamara-1937-1967
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