Aged twenty-four, Ernesto Guevara pens a regular letter home to Rosario, Argentina from his flat in Mexico. It concludes: “Things are moving with tremendous speed and no one can know, or predict, where or for what reason one will be next year”1. This, perhaps, is one indication of the mans legendary appeal – not as a hero of socialism or political ideologist, but as a free-spirited and non-fictitious adventurer. After all, how many of us could end our letters with the same thrilling poignancy, at any age?
Further still, how many of us manage to more then dream of exploring the sprawling sceneries of our home-land as Guevara did in 1951 (from Buenos Aires to Venezuela)? Those of us outside Cuba who accept the commercialization of Guevara’s legacy, in purchasing any of the posters, t-shirts or “Revolucion” Swatch watches his dashing image adorns, are unlikely to be linked by communist sympathy, revolutionary intention or anti-American sentiment. More likely, it will be a fondness for the broader ideals his face has came to encapsulate – equality, strength, moral perfection and endless self-improvement.
It is no doubt that today, thirty-six years after his death, Che Guevara has became half political legend, half pop-culture commodity and a complete, world-wide icon. Yet Jean-Paul Sartre’s comment – that ‘his (Guevara’s) life is the story of our era’s most perfect man’ – fails to consider the scale of Guevara’s imperfections. Ernesto Guevara the neglectful family man, who became a Father on Valentines Day 1956 yet left by June to face likely death in the Cuban jungles. Ernesto Guevara the Latin-American, who believed women as intellectually inferior and homosexuals as despicable.
Ernesto Guevara the militant, directly responsible for the execution of dozens of Batista loyalists and advocate of nuclear confrontation during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Like the much used stencil of Guevara’s determined visage, the general perception of his life is flat and two-dimensional. No where more so, it seems, then in the country richest in Guevara’s history, Cuba. An article printed July 21st 1997 in Newsweek, entitled ‘Return Of The Rebel’, explored Cuban society in the wake of the long-awaited discovery of Guevara’s skeleton in Bolivian town of Vallegrande.
In it journalist Brook Lamer explains how ‘the Cuban Government played a pivotal role in creating the Che mystique, and it is not about to let its franchise slip away’2. Understandable, viewing the twenty-two ton statue of Guevara that still rules over Santa Clara. In Cuba, Guevara remains imbedded in national pride and retains the mythology of a moral saint. This is an impression maintained through decades of censorship and flat denial of facts – something Lamer attributes to the reality that Cuba is “scrambling to stay afloat by abandoning many of the socialist principles Che held sacred”.
Across Cuba, Guevara’s execution of Cuban defectors is unheard of, while shopping centers such as Havana’s Palacio de Artesanias thrive by selling everything from Coke-a-Cola to Adidas clothing. ‘Return Of The Rebel’ questions not only whether Guevara deserves his iconic treatment, but what kind of icon he has actually become – one perpetuated at home by government propaganda, and across the wider-world by the adoption of his image to promote rock music and sell clothing.
That, and the fact that “Che’s revolutionary ideals no longer pose much of a threat in the post-cold-war world” as “thirty years have tamed the anti-imperialist tiger and turned him into a rebel without claws”3. Still, it is easy to become over cynical when considering Guevara’s ironic transformation from socialist revolutionary to capitalist cash-cow. After all, no one can deny that Guevara himself would likely turn in his grave at the thought. From the earliest period of his adult life, Guevara displayed traits we rightly crave in our leading peers – human compassion, moral determination and acute belief in social equality.
These beliefs were cemented long before his first encounter with Fidel Castro, largely during his 1950 trip through Northern Argentina and the more famous ‘motorcycle journey’ across much of Latin America – a trip undertaken, according to his Ernesto Guevara Lynch (Guevara’s Father), as an attempt to “really understand the needs of the poor, not as a tourist stopping to take pretty pictures, but in the way he did, by sharing the human suffering found at every bend in the road and looking for the causes of that misery”4.
To leave the comfort of a large, well-off upper middle-class background and embark on such a trip required more then the usual youthful thirst for travel, nor could it have been an attempt to impress university entry committees (he had already studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires) – it is not without credit then, to suggest that Guevara was a man of genuine sympathy and curiosity about the plight of the less fortunate of his generation. The Motorcycle Diaries’, Guevara’s account of his South American trip, is loaded with tales of misadventure – the worst of which include enlisting as a fireman during an outbreak of fires in Chile, only to oversleep as a house burns to ashes in his absence. Yet in the background to these writings, there runs a steady line of observation and a simmering dismay over the social conditions he encounters.
Exploring the ‘realms of Pachamama’, Guevara recalls meeting a tribe of Indians fascinated with “the wonderful ‘land of Peron'”, one of which “asked us for a copy of the Argentine Constitution with its declaration of rights for old people”, Guevara “promised enthusiastically to send him one”.
A later retrospect of that experience begins to reveal Guevara’s strengthening political conviction – “The fate of these unhappy people is to vegetate in some obscure bureaucratic job and die… 5 he comments, in one of countless rants that seem to formulate his motives for wanting communist revolution through-out Latin America, a view supported in a review of the diaries by The Scotsman, which considered the journey “the formative influence on Che’s pan-Americanism and the development of his revolutionary consciousness”6. In a time of growing political apathy, Ernesto Guevara leaving his comfortable life to tour the poverty line of his nation is an admirable act in its self – perhaps not worthy of creating an icon, but certainly providing a decent basis.
But of course it was the events in Cuba between 1956 and 1959 that saw Guevara emerge as notorious world-wide figure, when he followed Fidel Castro’s revolt against the Batista regime. The image of a small army riding triumphantly over the waves towards the Sierra Maestra mountains is a romantic one, but the revolution began in disaster when, already two days late, the Granma struck a sand-bar and sank a good swim shy of the isolated bay they had chosen. Not only that, but their lateness had meant that the Santiago rebel group they arranged to meet had gone on ahead and began an attack on the near-by town of Niquero.
Consequently, the Cuban army had been alerted, and were awaiting Guevara and his comrades as they arrived. Their first landing on Cuba was chaos, with the immediate lose of men (only twenty-two of the eighty-two men would survive the first days), weapons and medical supplies. Ernesto Guevara was shot in the neck. By luck the wound was superficial. Now injured and split from Castro, Guevara lead the others he had meet with on a heroic week long journey to the sierra in hope of finding his leader. In his diaries of the war, Guevara comments on the post-landing situation – “We had a tin of milk and approximately one litre of water.
We guide ourselves at night with the moon and North Star”, yet despite their grave situation he successfully lead his group to Sierra Maestra. In the face of his asthma and inexperience of the Cuban mountains, Guevara was beginning to display his undoubted leadership skills – something that would later be recognized and rewarded by Castro, as Guevara’s role of troop doctor was promoted to Rebel Army commander in July the following year. Guevara displayed similar bravery – and military talent – during the Rebel’s first combat assault on La Plata, some small local barracks in East Cuba, then again countless times throughout the revolution.
Yet this alone should not single Guevara as an icon. It is questionable why exactly he followed Castro on his revolution. As Jon Lee Anderson contends in his book ‘Che Guevara A Revolutionary Life’, Batista was not the worst of the Latin American dictators around at the time. He writes “compared with the flamboyant despotism of his Dominican colleague, Batista was a political choirboy”7 in reference to the neighboring Dominican Republic leader Leonidas Trujillo, who had controlled with absolute dictatorship there since the 30s.
Since Guevara neither was born nor lived in Cuba prior to joining the revolution, this casts some doubt over the purity of his cause. Surely if his intentions were to aid the suffering classes, he would take his fight where it was most needed. The truth is that Guevara was opportunist in joining the trip the Cuba, lead not by over-bearing moral principle but by a thirst for adventure – a chance to escape what he himself described as a life that had “acquired a monotonous Sunday-style rhythm”. The other reason for Guevara’s involvement was the strengthened conviction he had acquired in his own political leaning.
Before meeting Castro and hearing of his plans for revolution, Guevara had emerged himself in political learning, informed largely by the writings of Marx, Lenin and Mao. His communist tendencies were established long before even Castro came to agree with him. This leads to another question of Guevara’s legendary status. Why over Castro did he become a icon? Or even Raul Castro, who played an equal part in the revolution? After all, Fidel had already fought Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and the Cuban revolution was a result of his military planning.
Yet there were subtle differences between the men that made certain they would be remembered for very different reasons. As Anderson comments “Castro came from a wealthy family of the Cuban-elite, and was raised to despise American influence in Cuba. He craved leadership and power”8. By contrast, Guevara was more secure in his heritage. He saw politics as “the path to social change”, not personal power. Guevara was younger, more modest and less egotistical then his leader. Not only that, but Guevara suffer from a physical disadvantage, making his fight seem all the more brave to the rest of us.
While Castro was fit and physically powerful, Anderson explains “For Ernesto, it had been an achievement just to be able to play rugby… to be accepted as a team member… it was camaraderie, not leadership that he craved”9. Guevara suffered from bad asthma – something he would at first attempt to conceal from his fellow revolutionaries to avoid being left out. Despite his defect, Guevara endeavored to scale the mountain of Popocatepetl as ‘physical conditioning’ for the war in Cuba – such was his determination for physical improvement, as well as intellectual.
Of the two men, it’s quite understandable why Guevara became the iconic figure of our era – people are fond of the under-dog, particularly one that looks suave in a beret. Yet the young, self-disciplined Guevara was soon to change, as Castro and his army finally ceased control of the island. From the rank of army doctor, Guevara would prove himself worthy of greater and greater responsibility within Castro’s government. He developed such belief in the revolution that any defector of it became intolerable. Towards the end of the Cuban war, the Guerillas executed the first traitor in their ranks.
The man holding the smoking gun would be Guevara. In the final months of 1958, Eutimio Guerra, the groups peasant guide, was exposed as having accepted a deal with the frantic Batista military. His execution became a Cuban state secret for four decades. In his diary, Guevara recalls the exact moments of Guerra’s death, as he, Fidel and Raul confronted their old friend with knowledge of his betrayal. His account read simply “The situation was uncomfortable… so I end the problem giving him a shot with a . 32 pistol in the right side of his brain, with the exit orifice in the right temporal lobe”.
In the view of Anderson, Guevara’s account, particularly the cold attention to the projectile of the bullet, is best described as “chilling as it is revealing about his personality… it suggests a remarkable detachment from violence”. It is difficult not to agree. By January the following year, Castro had taken power in Cuba. Because of his out-spoken favour for Communism, Guevara was awarded the deceptively low-key role of reforming the Revolutionary Army from a small base in La Cabana. His first responsibility was to ‘cleanse’ the defeated army of war criminals.
In the capacity of supreme judge, Guevara was personally responsible for fifty-five executions in one-hundred days. The trails for each solider suspected of war crimes lasted, on average, from evening until early morning. In a Cuba that had long suffered under these men, Batista’s ruling police, and was now in, as Anderson describes, “a lynching mood”, the executions passed with little objection. Yet in retrospect, this fact can only readdress the popular perception of Guevara the compassionate hero. In reality it seems, Guevara’s compassion was selective – to those who supported his theory of revolution, and to those he sought to aid by it.
Yet despite this, the answer to my question can only be ‘yes, he was’. Even in a time of growing political apathy, particularly in the Western world, it is not enough to presume that a man dedicated to his personal political agenda is iconic – that, after all, would include Adolph Hitler. Even to explore that agenda and then to discover it flawless in theory, as Guevara’s was, is not enough. In my opinion, a man is defined in part by his words, but most importantly by his actions – Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was the complete package. As the Castro regime took root in Cuba, Guevara became a commandante – second only to the ruler.
Through his life-long tradition of self-education and willingness to be taught late into his life, Guevara became equipped in economics and mathematics, earning the role of president at Cuba’s National Bank (his face would later decorate Cuban currency). Yet he rejected the seventy-five percent pay-rise out of principle. More important to Guevara then personal success or wealth, was his unflinching ideal for the world, his utopian image of the ‘new socialist man’10 that cared more for the quality of life enjoyed by everyone then personal gain.
It was a dream he sought endlessly and actively, dedicating what little time he had free from official responsibility to a policy of voluntary labor (which he encouraged in all members of the Cuban government) cutting sugar canes or lifting bricks on construction sites to set an example. As a foreign ambassador for Cuban during the early 60s, Guevara endorsed what he saw as the only route to liberation from poverty and oppression across the world – guerilla uprising against tyrannous regimes – in all parts of Latin America, with both military support and prolific political writing.
True, some of Guevara’s opinions were worrying – in 1962 when Russian ambassador Alexandr Alexier first proposed the exportation of nuclear weapons to Cuba (the start of what would become the Cuban Missile Crisis), his reaction was to say “Anything that can stop the Americans is worthwhile”. Yet months earlier, in the wake of The Bay Of Pigs incident, it was Guevara who entertained Kennedy’s advisor Richard Goodwin at the ‘Alliance for Progress’ conference and pushed for a peaceful co-existence between the US and Cuba.
Kennedy’s reaction was not to live and let live, rather to launch ‘Operation Mongoose’11, effectively forcing Guevara and Cuba to resort to nuclear confrontation to avoid an attack. Arguably, his actions were that of a political under-dog defending his nation in the only way he could. Even by 1965, having achieved more then most consider imaginable in pursuing an honorable cause, an unhealthy and revered Guevara gave up his comfortable position to once again fight for liberation – just as he had given up his comfortable middle-class roots to fight for Cuba.
This time, he traveled in disguise to Africa, assembling troops to fight in the Kinshasa rebellion in the Congo. Though the rebellion failed and Guevara was forced to withdraw, by 1966 he left to lead another revolution in Bolivia. It was here where he would meet the death befitting his legacy – not languishing in wealth in a presidential home, but on the battle-fields of his revolution. Of course there is another theory as to why Guevara would travel on a practically suicidal mission into Bolivia – as Larmer contends, “he had always felt more alive, more Che, when he was fomenting revolution. As Jorge G Castaneda argues in his essay ‘Compacero: The Life And Death Of Che Guevara’, Guevara’s last mission “was doomed from the start”12. Captured by the Bolivian army not long into his campaign, Guevara refused interrogation from the countries officials and the CIA who had long awaited and helped in his demise. After a night of deliberation, Guevara was executed, his hands severed from his body to prove his death and the corpse its self buried in a secret location.
With all icons, there is a tendency from both cynics and supporters to place too great an empathies on the persons death. Jimmy Hendrix died young being a rock a roll star, but the criteria for his status as an icon was how he played the guitar. Ernesto Guevara is indeed deserved of his role as an icon, to people of any political persuasion. His legacy is one of exploring, learning and endlessly pursuing the improvement of this world through genuine and practical means – a policy of action sadly redundant in the world today.