His visage adorns murals, posters, postcards, various body parts as tattoos, t-shirts, flags, banners, bikinis, coffee mugs, and yes…key chains. But who was the real Che Guevara? It depends on who you ask. Some say he was a revolutionary, a visionary, a philosopher who could more than hold his own with the likes of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. In fact after Guevara's death, Sartre would call him "not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age". Some consider him a romantic and caring figure as depicted in The Motorcycle Diaries. These same folks deem him a benevolent protector of the poor. Carlos Santana, the rock guitarist, says Che is love. In Argentina, the country of Che's birth, there is an expression among the youth – "Tengo una remera del Che y no si por que". (I have a Che t-shirt and I don't know why) It seems Che is a blank canvas where anyone can project whatever they wish. But in so doing, we're not getting the full measure of the man. There is an historical record of his life which is a lot more complicated than the comic book figure depicted in those slap dash murals and t-shirts.
And while his popularity has increased over the years, there has also been a rising chorus of naysayers who believe all of this hero worship is misplaced. If Guevara's character flaws and "dark side" aren't pointed out, then history itself is being perverted. We are now living in the twilight zone of Wikipedia where anyone and everyone can edit history. And yes revolutionaries like Guevara live by different rules than you and me. They live in a world of mercenaries, CIA and KGB agents, secret files, and political intrigue. Admittedly, a factual account of one's life that lives in such a world can be hard to come by, but certain facets of Guevara's life are well documented and should be quite disturbing to those interested in free expression.
Ernesto Guevara, the product of leftist parents was born in Rosario, Argentina on June 14, 1928. Guevara would later study to become a medical doctor. In 1951, he would take a break from studies to take a trip across Latin America. It was during this trip that Che would witness first hand the mistreatment, abuse, and abject poverty of those who he felt were impacted by U.S. foreign policy and the actions of multinational companies. The seeds were planted during this trip (which became the basis for The Motorcycle Diaries) for the intense rage and hatred Guevara would later exhibit toward the U.S. Also the American backed overthrow of socialist President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala would solidify those feelings. Later in the decade he would team up with the Castro brothers in their successful attempt to take over Cuba. He soon became Fidel Castro's chief enforcer and henchman. However, Cuba would not long hold the interest of one hell bent on fomenting revolution across the globe. Misadventures in the Congo and Bolivia would follow.
According to Michael Casey, author of Che's Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image, all of this Guevara myth making began with that iconic 1960 Alberto Korda photo. We've all seen it – the image of the red star beret wearing Che staring into the distance beckoning us all to take up the armed struggle. Casey goes on to describe in detail how that one photo has helped turn Che into a commodity – something that can be bought and sold. Thus we have thrust upon us the Che brand. The avowed Marxist must be turning over in his grave at the thought of himself becoming a business model. For whatever reason, the real rebel has mass appeal to all of those rebels without a clue.
And while a certain segment of the artistic community get warm tingly feelings up and down their legs at the mention of his name, here are some salient points to consider by some of Che's detractors such as Humberto Fontova (Exposing the Real Che Guevara: And the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him) and Alvara Vargas Llosa (The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty):
During the Cuban missile crisis, Guevara was the chief proponent of launching those nuclear weapons against the U.S. He was relentless in pressing Khrushchev to do so and was devastated when he backed down.
In a famous speech, Che vowed "to make individualism disappear from the nation. It is criminal to think of individuals!" So much for us "artist" types who like to flaunt our uniqueness and our eccentricities. And while some rock stars like Carlos Santana worship at his shrine, Guevara was not fond of them or their music. He felt that rock music was a distraction and a frivolous pursuit. Now he's starting to sound like my dad.
College students according to Che should be "chanting government slogans and singing government approved songs" while volunteering for government service.
Guevara was quick to exterminate enemies – real or imagined. Some of the revolution's victims were simply peasants who joined Batista's army as a means of employment. His obsession with executions came in handy when Castro put him in charge of the notorious La Cabana prison.
Guevara's ideal society? The big concentration camp called North Korea. He was in awe of Kim Il Sung's brutal regime.
Che had a huge hand in the development of Cuba's forced labor camps and domestic intelligence operations.
It is easy to see why Miami's Cuban exile community and ardent anti-communists would be appalled at the hero worship bestowed upon Guevara. But why should people like Christopher Hitchens, Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Santana, Benicio Del Torro and others in the creative artistic community idolize this guy? Would he greenlight their projects? Would he allow them to keep their millions of dollars? Would he allow them to speak their minds and write about any subject they wished? Would he allow them to travel freely and to enjoy their vast luxuries? I think the answer to all of these questions is a resounding no. And that's the trouble with Che. The more we learn about his life, the less likable he becomes. And if Che can be turned into a secular saint, what about others like Pol Pot? Is there a line of Pol Pot BBQ grills coming our way?
Where are the great writers, musicians, painters, and actors in Cuba? I'm sure they are there, but their voices have been silenced. The Buena Vista Social Club created quite a stir in the late 90's. But as great as that phenomenon was, the music hearkened back to a pre-revolutionary Cuba. Not that pre-revolutionary Cuba was great, it wasn't. But as the members of The Buena Vista Social Club have shown, there was vitality, a charm, and an allure that has been missing from modern day Cuba. But most of all, freedom has been missing. I would love to visit the island and walk the streets of Havana, visit the cafes, and have an open dialogue about life, love, politics, music, religion, and of course Che Guevara. But my country won't allow it and although Cuba would be open to my visit, they are only interested in my tourist dollars. Someday…maybe someday.
Che met his untimely end in the Bolivian jungle. His powers of persuasion failed him. He wasn't able to persuade enough miners and peasants that his cause was worth fighting for. He wasn't able to persuade the Bolivian army that he was worth more alive than dead. He wasn't able to persuade CIA operative Felix Rodriguez that his life was worth saving. He died uncharismatic and unpersuasive – a narcissist in fatigues. Let's not turn him into something he wasn't.