Che Guevara ... The Dark Underside of the Romantic Hero

Roundup: Media's Take

Sean O'Hagan, commenting in the Guardian on a new film about Che (July 11, 2004):

Thirty years after his death, the remains of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, whose hands had been cut off following his execution by his Bolivian army captors, were finally returned to Cuba, the homeland he adopted and helped remake in his image. His final resting place is a mausoleum in the suburbs of the city of Santa Clara, a site of almost religious significance to Cubans who lived though the revolution of 1959. Vallegrande, where his corpse was put on public display following his execution, remains much as it was, a forlorn place with little trace of his presence save for the hawkers of cheap Che memorabilia who wait for the tourist buses. On the wall of the town's public telephone office, someone has written, 'Che - alive as they never wanted you to be'.

In the tumultuous year that followed Guevara's death, that sentiment was echoed in the slogan 'Che lives!' which appeared on walls in Paris, Prague, Berkeley and Belfast. During the political unrest of 1968, it became a clarion call for what seemed like a spontaneous global insurrection and, for a brief moment, it seemed like the old order - capitalism, the Cold War, conservatism, militarism - might actually be replaced by something (though what exactly was never defined) younger and freer. That something was symbolised by the doomed romantic figure of Che Guevara, whose short life ended in a kind of martyrdom in the mountains of Bolivia, where the CIA openly admitted their role in his capture....

'The image of Che was just so right for the time,' says liberal American writer Lawrence Osborne, whose critique of Guevara appeared recently in the New York Observer . 'Che was the revolutionary as rock star. Korda, as a fashion photographer, sensed that instinctively, and caught it. Before then, the Nazis were the only political movement to understand the power of glamour and sexual charisma, and exploit it. The Communists never got it. Then you have the Cuban revolution, and into this void come these macho guys with their straggly hair and beards and big-dick glamour, and suddenly Norman Mailer and all the radi cal chic crowd are creaming their jeans. Che had them in the palm of his hand, and he knew it. What he didn't know, of course, was how much that image would define him.'...

In 1954, having seen the CIA-backed coup overthrow the socialist government in Guatemala, Che fled to Mexico, where he met the exiled Fidel Castro, who was plotting revolution against the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Che immediately volunteered his services as a medical officer and, while training with Castro's guerrillas in Mexico, married his first wife, Hilda Gadea. Their daughter, Hildita, was just one year old when Che set sail for Cuba with Castro and 80 other exiles, and began the guerrilla campaign against Batista.

Initially, the campaign was a catalogue of disasters but slowly the rebels gained local support, often from peasants who realised it was more dangerous to support Batista than Che. 'Denouncing us put them in danger,' he wrote in his Cuban war diaries, 'since revolutionary justice was speedy.' In 1958, in a battle that has now entered Cuban folklore, a few hundred rebels defeated 10,000 of Batista's men in the Sierra Maestra mountains, and Castro and Che's impossible adventure sud denly turned into a real revolution. By the time they took Havana in 1959, Che had taken up with the woman who would become his second wife, 24-year-old Aleida March de la Torre. Politically, Aleida and Che were incompatible as she belonged to an anti-Communist revolutionary faction that he hated. But, as Jon Lee Anderson notes, 'When it came to women, especially attractive women, Che tended to put his political philosophies on hold.'

In truth, though, the same kind of contradictions attended those politic philosophies. Che was an inspiring leader but also a harsh and unbending taskmaster, who meted out stern punishment. On his orders, several peasants were executed for disloyalty, as were local bandits who preyed on the poor. Others, often no more than boys, underwent mock executions. 'We blindfolded them,' he wrote later, 'and subjected them to the anguish of a simulated firing squad.'

In his trenchant short study, Che Guevara, the British historian Andrew Sinclair concludes that, during the guerrilla war, Che 'discovered a cold ruthlessness in his nature. Spilling blood was necessary for the cause. Within two years, he would order the death of several hundred Batista partisans at La Cabana, one of the mass killings of the Cuban Revolution.' Later too, after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion by anti-Communist Cuban exiles, all the survivors were summarily shot....

Of course it is this ultimate sacrifice that defines the romantic myth of Che Guevara as much as his good looks or his revolutionary life. In death, he was frozen forever, and spared the ignominy of a long decline. 'Che's iconic status was assured because he failed,' says [Christopher] Hitchens, 'His story was one of defeat and isolation, and that's why it is so seductive. Had he lived, the myth of Che would have long since died.'


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