FIDEL’S HEROINE OF THE REVOLUTION
The world’s finest female spy isn’t the creation of Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming or John LeCarre. Or, if you guessed Mati Hari, you’ve not studied your espionage history very well. The woman who was probably history’s greatest spy spent five years in a most complex and dangerous pressure cooker assignment of truly international proportions, died before the age of 30, and is now buried in Cuba as a “heroine of the Revolution,” thanks to Fidel.
Her name was Tamara Bunke (Tania), who worked her way up from bit parts as sexual bait for the East German intelligence service to being a full KGB master agent. She was also Che Guevara’s lover as well as his KGB control, that role unknown to him, of course.
Former CIA officer Victor Marchetti explains, “Tania was a lady espionage agent, and a good one. She was adept at propaganda, running an agent’s network, could handle an automatic weapon as well as a man, was totally dedicated to destroying capitalism; she was a highly qualified KGB operative who fought and died like a true soldier.”
Despite her known status as a Soviet agent, Tania is regarded throughout South and Central America as a true heroine of the people’s revolution, a martyr for the Marxist cause. A number of schools, hospitals, workers’ unions, and military units in Cuba are named after this mysterious woman.
Daniel James, a scholar of Guevara’s life and times, who edited the translations of Che’s Bolivian diaries, classes her as “the most outstanding spy of any gender, … in a very difficult assignment involving difficult people in a difficult time.”
“Tania spoke in a husky voice, had soft eyes in a pretty, oval face, with a very full, female figure.” One of her Bolivian journalist contacts later told authorities, “She had blue-grey eyes that could either seduce you or pierce you. Her silky brown hair fell in waves over her shoulders …. Even in jungle fatigues, her breasts were alluring. Even though we knew she was an agent and a fighter, this was a very sexy woman.”
There was much more to this woman than physical charm. As James writes, “Bunke’s intelligence role with the Cubans was very complex. She was spying for both the USSR and for Che, as well as on Che for the USSR. Her slightest slip would have created a massive problem between the Soviet Union and Cuba, a major breach in the Communist world at that time.
“That doesn’t even factor in that she also had to contend with the American CIA as well as the intelligence services of the Latin countries in which she worked. Some of these foes were not only smart, but brutal as well. Somehow, this woman stayed ahead of all of her foes for a long while.”
THE SPY OF MANY ALIASES
Haydee Tamara Bunke Bider served almost as many espionage masters as she had aliases and cover names. The British journalist Allan Weeks documents that the young revolutionary worked for the East German Ministry of State Security (MFS—the Stasi), the Soviet KGB, Czechoslovakian intelligence and, of course, for Che, using at least 12 known covers.
Even before getting into espionage service, Tamara Bunke had a long record of association with Communist groups. In 1969, the official Cuban weekly magazine BOHEMIA noted that she had belonged to the East German Free Youth; the SED (East Germany’s Communist Party); and had conducted revolutionary “missions to Moscow, Prague, and Vienna before coming to Latin America.”
Leo Sauvage, a journalist with a solid Latin experience and contacts, points out that of all members of Che’s command, Tamara alone was a member of an orthodox Communist front, i.e., one loyal to Moscow.
She put her whole self into its service, almost as a birthright. She was born in Buenos Aires on 19 November, 1937, to Professor Erich Otto Heinrich Bunke, a German agnostic, and his wife, a Polish Jewess named Esperanza Bider. The parents, both wealthy Communists, left Germany in 1935 to escape the hated Nazis. The family moved back to Germany in 1952, settling in Stalinstadt, East Berlin. Young Tamara studied Marxism at Humboldt University, from which she was recruited into espionage work for the state. This is how she first met Che Guevara.
He had arrived in East Germany in 1960 to arrange a $16 million line of credit for Castro’s Cuba. The MFS assigned their lovely 22-year-old lady spy to the wavy-haired, handsome 32-year-old Guevara, who was as well known for his sexual exploits as for the battlefield ones.
“He was so utterly charming that in addition to her assignments of spying on him, Tamara fell in love with Che,” James writes. “Che was happily married to his second wife, Aleida March, who had fought at his side during the decisive last battles of the Cuban revolution. Yet, Tamara was a compatriota, spoke Spanish with a true Argentine accent, and was equally fluent in the Marxist idiom,” he adds.
A defected German Communist agent, Gunther Maennel, told his Western counterparts that he had personally assigned Tamara to “seduce Guevara, gain his confidence, stay with him, and report his thoughts and activities to her superiors. As we were pouring millions into Cuba we wanted to know what its leaders were thinking and doing. She was our best choice. Tamara took this assignment literally to heart.”
Her work drew excellent ratings, both with Che and the MFS. After Che’s departure, she was recruited by Maennel for the Soviet KGB, the major league of espionage, where she learned their whole sphere of agent training.
Maennel noted, “I had recruited Tamara from the university. Her intelligence assignments before meeting Che were mostly sexual. Her function was to lure political and military male foreigners into sexually incriminating situations, where pictures would be taken, so we could extort sensitive intelligence. I had selected Tamara Bunke for the KGB after personally assigning her to Guevara as our control agent, although he, of course, knew nothing of that. She was the best we had, and the KGB made her better. ”
After serving as a sexual decoy, Tamara was given further training in espionage, then assigned other minor spying functions. Her dossier grew from her excellent assignment with Guevara, and she was given the full KGB spy schooling.
A TEMPTRESS IN THE CUBAN MILITARY
Paranoid as ever, the KGB worried about cover for Bunke, afraid of a scandal because of his marriage. Thus, she was set up as official interpreter for the Cuban Ballet Nacional, which was visiting East Germany in 1961. She returned to Cuba with them carrying the status of an “official cultural guest” of the Castro government. She quickly made her position more formal.
“Che was repeatedly trying to get her to come to Havana, so the KGB gave her that assignment. Che got her a job in the Ministry of Education, plus an officership in the women’s militia, a very rare thing for a non-Cuban,” Maennel reported, adding that Bunke’s control officer at the KGB center at the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City rated the young female “an excellent agent … doing a superb job with Guevara …. He suspects nothing.”
That her life was kept secret from all was a real feat considering that:
• She was a KGB agent assigned to spy on the leaders of a government friendly with and financially dependent upon the USSR.
• She was the passionate lover of Che Guevara, one of the most powerful and visible men in Cuba.
• Guevara was living with his wife and children in Havana, where Tamara Bunke also had her apartment. Hilda, Guevara’s first wife, also lived in that city and was always looking to make trouble for her ex-mate.
• Che was constantly pressuring Bunke to make trips with him to export his brand of revolution, i.e., violent. The Soviets had specifically warned Guevara and Castro against this policy.
THE GUERILLA FIGHTER SPY
By 1962, Che was campaigning to turn his revolutionary rhetoric into some real field action. Castro agreed, over the Soviet objections, and Che took Bunke to Nicaragua to help him train a revolutionary army. When these troops headed for the real fighting, Guevara and Bunke went in with them, together. She saw her first combat as a guerrilla fighter in the Frente Unitario Nicaraguense. The mission was urban terrorism — stealing weapons and conducting harassment sniping at civil authorities on the streets of Managua. She was under hostile fire for the first time in her life, and the KGB was less than pleased.
They had ordered her to accompany Guevara simply to gather intelligence, to act as his babysitter. They had no idea she would go roaring into full scale guerrilla combat.
“Her Soviet bosses were horrified. They knew the propaganda the CIA would make of the capture or death of a KGB agent. They ordered her out of the field. The Soviets were also getting disenchanted with Che’s advocacy of violent revolution. They preferred the more subtle political/economic/nationalistic brand of revolution,” James reports.
“Moscow and Che had fallen out over what the Soviets felt was his mismanagement of the Cuban economy … for which they had to foot the bill,” James writes.
In 1965, when Che openly attacked the Soviet diplomatic policies, his position became untenable. Partially because of his own difficulties with Che and with Soviet pressure, Fidel Castro “banished” his old comrade from power in Cuba. Guevara resumed his life’s work of making revolution abroad, first in Africa, then to Bolivia.
It was on this assignment that Bunke got her final orders — stop Guevara.
Through her control officers, Bunke was issued specific, personal orders not to even remotely expose herself to any further combat hazards. Secondly, she was specifically ordered to stop Guevara from continuing his active participation in armed revolution advocacy in Latin America. She joined Che in Bolivia in 1964, with KGB cover as his liaison with local rebels. He gave her the now famous code name “Tania.”
“Che depended on her very much,” Maennel reported. “He was interested in setting the entire continent aflame with revolution, and Bolivia was only a part of his plan. He was all over South America, leaving his woman ‘Tania’ to handle Bolivia.”
As her cover job, Tania worked as a secretary in the Bolivian Press Service office. She stole a number of press passes and arranged for false passports for the rebels, which served Che well as he easily moved in and out of various South American countries. Rene Capriles Farfan, a journalist who knew Tania from her press office days recalls, “She was using the alias of Laura Bauer and told me she was a German student studying in Bolivia. She was alert and very intelligent. She was inclined to the Bohemian, though, living in a rundown flat and sleeping on a floor mat. She went to a few parties, drank a little, and loved folk music. She never discussed politics, though.”
THE “EXILED” BOLIVIAN HUSBAND
Tania worked for the magazine ESTO ES, as well as freelancing for several small newspapers. She also taught German in a private school, and did research work in antique native ceramics and ethnology at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres in La Paz. She told fellow students she was an Argentine citizen whose parents were German and that she had visited Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela. She was described by teachers as “friendly, quiet, very pretty, obviously well educated and quite well traveled.”
In 1966, Che told her to obtain a legal Bolivian passport, so she seduced and married an obscure Bolivian student. After the wedding weekend, she had the KGB pack him off to “study” in Bulgaria on a “state scholarship” for the honeymoon. The strange marriage was consummated only as another spy mission. The real lovers, Che and his Tania, celebrated her new freedom to travel with the legal passports gained from her “exiled” Bolivian husband, traveling into Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. She also maintained her liaison with the Bolivian Communists under his command.
“Above all this, she was being run from the enormous KGB complex in the Soviet embassy in Mexico City, their central spy headquarters for Latin America,” claims the late Philip Agee, a former CIA field agent and case officer in Latin America.
Because of her travels, Tania quit her press job and took a part-time spot with a La Paz radio station. She became an Ann Landers of Bolivian radio, answering letters from the lovelorn and others seeking advice. According to Agee, “Her answers must have sounded a bit odd. What she was really doing was circulating coded messages to and from Guevara and his rebels. It was his idea, but she had the poise and guts to pull it off on the government station.”
Instead of jumping to shut down the situation, both Bolivian government and American CIA officials saw this radio assignment as a hysterical effort to bolster Che’s dying cause and let it run to discredit and dishearten the rebel supporters within the city. This plan would force the rebels out of their hideout, Agee claims.
Another explanation was offered by Col. John Waghelstein, former commanding officer of the U.S. Military Group in El Salvador and of the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Ft. Bragg. “Che established no alternative base camp to provide the guerrillas with safe shelter …. The base itself was too accessible as shown by the constant flow of visitors, journalists and Party members,” he writes. When their camp was compromised by the U.S.-trained Bolivian Rangers, the guerrillas were forced to become revolutionary nomads, carrying their weakening fight on the sparse jungle paths with them.”
However, it is true that while popular support for the guerrillas was weakening, government counter-guerrilla measures were tightening. The Soviets apparently saw Guevara as a loser and attempted to cut their losses and create a depth of deniability in the region so that the local Communist party apparatus would not be dragged down by the defeat of Che’s rebels, who were seen as Moscow’s people. Tania was not instructed to actively scuttle Guevara’s operations.
According to undocumentable, but reliable CIA records, the first alert of Tamara Bunke’s true role with the guerrillas was given to the local Bolivian authorities by the CIA Station, La Paz, on 20 March, 1967. She was described as “a propagandist and emissary for the rebels and may be the contact person for potential upper level recruits in the city.”
Later, CIA assets were able to pinpoint the Tania/Tamara connection and reported that she was the “principal axis between the rural guerrilla personnel and the urban support movement.” Her cover name of Laura Gutierrez Bauer was leaked by either CIA or Bolivian officials to the local newspapers. This combination of intelligence and media pressure broke her cover and forced her to make her next move …. into the field.
Within the week, the Bolivian Army had found Guevara’s camp, either through Tania’s carelessness or through her KGB operational plan.
“She had an expensive Toyota jeep, very inconsistent with her student and part-time work cover. This had alerted us, and we tipped the Bolivian military. She drove this Jeep [sic] all over the place and openly was seen with rebels,” Agee recalls.
CARELESSNESS OR ESPIONAGE GAME PLAN?
“Her cover was blown when the police found her list of contacts. So, she ceased being a spy and became simply an armed fugitive on the lam from their authorities,” Agee explained.
“We were overseeing the operation,” he continued. “The agent in charge was named Eduardo Gonzales, and it was simply a search and destroy mission from that point on. We knew she was a KGB operative. Her La Paz cover story was pretty thin and very shaky. It wasn’t hard to ID her positively, so we wanted her out of there … But, not killed.”
The Agency plan was to capture Tania in hopes that she could lead them to Guevara, whom they wanted badly. By 23 March, there was open fighting between the rebels and growing numbers of army troops circling the area. The possibility of betrayal was not lost on Che. His diary for that day reads, “Everything appears to indicate that Tania is spotted, whereby two years of good and patient work are lost.”
His restraint disappeared when he spoke with her the next morning. According to an eyewitness, he really chewed out Tania for her carelessness, then started double cross accusations. She fled in tears, real or staged.
Che Guevara and his KGB agent lover were now trapped by the CIA-led Bolivian army, which was drawing the net tighter. Ideologies crossed, according to James, who feels that Tamara Bunke had been faking her devotion to Che as part of her KGB assignment. When her Soviet bosses ordered her to stop Guevara at all costs, she knew betrayal was the only answer.
Agee disagreed, saying, “They were both Marxists. They were very much in love. The situation is not inconsistent. She stayed with her man, yet fed intelligence to her bosses at the KGB, always hoping for the best. I think she felt she could stop the revolution and still save Che. She followed both her heart and her head.”
The truth died with both of them in Bolivia in 1967.
They eluded the army through the spring. Then, following a battle in June, Tania fell ill and was left in a village while Che and the main units moved on. Daniels writes that there are verified reports that Tania was several months pregnant by Che at this time, which accounts for her poor condition.
Her end came relatively mercifully, as novelists might write, on 31 August, 1967.
The sweltering tropical sun beat down on a small, isolated band of rebels, led by the Cuban Juan Acuna Nunez, a.k.a. “Jacquin,” as they stumbled through the jungles toward a river crossing. Bringing up the rear was a sick, probably pregnant woman. Captain Mario Vargas of the Bolivian Army had his 31-man patrol hidden for an ambush at the crossing. His scouts had spotted the 11 rebels an hour before.
Vargas recalls, “We fired when they were chest-high in the river. The woman was among the first to fall. I guess she was a conspicuous target because she wore a green and white striped blouse, while the others wore fatigues.”
Almo Ortiz, a Korean War vet who did contract jobs for the CIA throughout Latin America, and was at the ambush site, personally interviewed the only rebel to survive the ambush, Jose Castillo Chavez, a tough Bolivian Communist. This man, whose code name was Paco, was the last person to talk with Tania.
Paco told Ortiz, “She could be a mean bitch and no one messed with her. Somebody gave her money and orders, somebody even higher than Che. The men were afraid of her and she used it.”
He said that Tania was ill and wanted to surrender the rebel band, and had argued with Jacquin about contacting Che to pack it in also. According to Paco, Tania and Jacquin almost came to physical blows over the argument.
“This guerrillera Tania was both sick and pregnant, and was about at the end of her health,” Paco told his CIA captors. “But, I give her this, she had the discipline. She was true to what she believed and fought for it to the end when you killed her.”
The river current carried Tania’s body away during the brief firefight, giving rise to rumors that she had escaped the ambush. Then, a week later, her positively identified, badly decomposed body was found down river.
Soldiers found a packet of her unmailed letters, including one to her mother in Germany. The final lines read: “I am a child that wants to hide in some corner that is cozy and where no one can find me. I want to crawl away and hide. But, where can I hide?”
Those were the last words of this revolutionary and competent KGB agent. The man she loved and/or betrayed would die five weeks later in another military ambush by Bolivian Rangers, trained personally by U.S. Army Special Forces legend, Major Ralph “Pappy” Shelton.
“Che died a victim of his own miscalculations as well as the machinations of the Kremlin and its extraordinary agent, Tamara Bunke/Tania,” James notes.
DEATH WITHOUT GLAMOUR OR DRAMA
By October there were only 17 men left with Che, and the Bolivian Army’s 2nd Ranger Battalion encirclement was drawing tighter. His determined rebels tried to break out on 8 October, 1967. Philip Agee reports on the death of Guevara, “There was nothing glamorous or dramatic about the end. Che was wounded in the leg and captured along with four men who chose to stay with their leader. Several of the others actually escaped.
“They took Che to a nearby village, La Higueras, where a Bolivian officer and CIA agents Felix Ramos and Gustavo Villodo interrogated him. A bit later, the order to kill him came down from La Paz, probably by way of the CIA headquarters in Langley. Around noon on the 9th, a Bolivian sergeant, Mario Teran, shot Guevara several times, killing him.”
Felix Ramos was the cover name of CIA legend Felix Rodriquez, who was posing as a Bolivian Army officer, a role that fooled the journalists present. It was Rodriquez who handled communication between the site and Langley, and who later briefed President Johnson and other officials about the death of Guevara. Rodriguez gave the orders to shoot Guevara and told the Bolivians not to shoot him in the face so the wounds would appear to be combat related if necessary.
Rodriguez personally told Guevara his fate. Then, after his death, his hands were severed as evidence of his identity and death. Rodriguez also removed Guevara’s Rolex watch, which he still has to this day.
The body was flown to Vallegrande under the direction of Gustavo Villoldo. The body was identified and photographed by medical, military and CIA men, plus by two British journalists, Richard Gott and Christopher Roper. Despite press reports to the contrary, Guevara’s body was secretly buried in a desolate area near Vallegrande under Villolodo’s supervision. That burial site was not discovered until 1997. His remains were returned to Cuba and he was reburied officially with Fidel Castro leading the ceremony.
Tania’s body was buried in a vault of honor amid great pomp and publicity with Fidel Castro doing the honors. While the KGB did not bring home its dead agents, even a female one who became a legend, they sometimes bent the rules when it suited their mission.