In the age of spectacle the icon is as durable as ancient marble. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the exterminating angel of the Cuban Revolution, comes down to us half a century after his CIA-backed execution in Bolivia as a Janus figure — a pop icon which nevertheless provokes fierce political debate and fears. His death in October 8, 1967 set aflame waves of indignation among the world’s revolutionary fronts. Today he is a warrior set in stone, interpreted in countless different ways by foes and admirers. In the Bolivian village where Guevara was executed a virtual shrine now stands, where locals have even claimed divine healing. During the 2011 Tunisian Revolution it was common to see the youth of Tunis wearing flags and banners baring the Argentine’s visage. And a friend of mine, a Persian who carries herself with the grace of Jean Moreau, swears she would have married him. One needs only to hear the first name to know who is being described. How many Americans realize the term itself, “che,” is simply Argentine slang equivalent to “dude,” or “hey man?” The nick name was given to him by Cuban comrades during the revolutionary war of 1956-59, when they were astounded to find such an internationalist in their ranks.
Gone are the days when guerrilla war was a constant over the entire hemisphere, when Guevara’s shadow cast itself over fierce civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua during the 1980s. Nearly 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell, Marxism is now a kind of exotic flower when mentioned in political discussions, or a cheap slur spat from Tea Party partisans. It is common to hear students nowadays say “socialism is a great idea, but…” Even Cuba now slowly prepares for a new era where capitalism from the imperial power 90 miles away readies itself to flood back into Havana.
But like some figure in a mosaic, Che Guevara had always surpassed historical developments through the power of image. Those gritty photos that went around the world in 1967, of Che on the slab, his body, Christ-like being displayed by Bolivian military officials, is to millennials as ancient as Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat. But like the figures of the French Revolution, Che is distant but potent. Fidel lived on to become elderly and eventually disabled, but like Alexander or Jim Morrison, Guevara’s image is forever young, forever in loose fatigues, looking sternly at a lens or grinning knowingly while holding a Cuban cigar aloft. How could capitalism’s sense of marketing ignore such a persona?
Fifty years removed from Guevara’s death, the terrain is even more open to demystify the man. Even mythology itself cannot dispel the human complexities of a historical figure. This is obvious in the way cinema has tried to adapt Guevara’s exploits into entertainment. In 1969’s Che! Omar Sharif notoriously plays Guevara as a B-movie action tool. 1996’s musical Evita features Antonio Banderas as Che the crooning worker, observing and violently criticizing the celebrity cult of Argentina’s Eva Peron (played by Madonna). In 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries, Gael Garcia Bernal plays the young Guevara as a medical student road tripping through the Americas with his best friend, discovering in turn the continent’s brutal inequality. A year later, Andy Garcia would present Guevara as a blood-stained warlord, making quips after executions, in The Lost City, a nostalgic elegy for pre-revolution Havana written by exiled Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante.
Omar Sharif as Che
Up to now the grandest effort to understand Guevara via film is Steven Soderbergh’s five-hour opus Che, released in 2008. Starring Benicio del Toro in a harrowing performance, the film is a detached view of the icon, presenting him as stern and driven to an almost messianic intensity. If we are to believe the Soderbergh film, Guevara as a person was hard to ever know intimately, because his life was as dedicated to armed revolution as a monk is devoted to the cloister. His death in Bolivia is almost an act of stubbornness, a result of insisting on a method or way of life that has only two roads: Victory or death. If cinema is our equivalent of medieval quilts or classical panoramas, then cinema has preserved Guevara as an armed fighter of various tones and personalities. He is in various frames, and depending on the director, a romantic, a ruthless warlord or serious tactician.
It is one of the great ironies of history how capitalism has consumed the most fervent icons who sought its destruction. Che Guevara is as commodified as Mao and Frida Kahlo. Some of Communism’s darker characters like Joseph Stalin now appear on soda bottles (I had one in Palm Springs just last January). But while Guevara has been commodified, his image retains a hidden sense of danger. Unlike other socialist personas, Guevara never fit in with the classic portrait of a commissar. If we are to believe his biographers, such as Paco Ignacio Taibo II (“Guevara, Also Known as Che”) or Jorge Castaneda (“Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara”), it was precisely when Fidel Castro began adapting more of the mold of the USSR that Guevara came into disagreement with the revolution’s turn. He ends then as a Latin Leon Trotsky, except young, handsome and dying in battle, but saved from the heap of abuse thrown at those Marxists who clung to power well into old age.
He was forever young and restless. Watch his 1964 interview on Face the Nation and it is easy to catch a mischievous grin as he explains Cuba-U.S. relations to his hosts. Guevara was a sort of anarcho-Jacobin. He believed a socialist state was necessary but his impulses were against bureaucracy, and he forever sought the roads and means to spread revolution in Latin America and even Africa. He would have found more in common with Bakunin than Marx. The Russian anarchist was adored for his exploits all around Europe during the revolutions of 1848. Indeed today the young seem more inclined towards the liberating forces of anarchism than the rigidity of orthodox Marxism. The recent controversies surrounding groups like AntiFa are revealing in how they show a generation seeking insurgent options in libertarian leftism, now that the old gods in Moscow have been dead for nearly 30 years. This is another subconscious factor explaining why Che Guevara endures as an icon while even Castro slowly settles into place as a mere important historical figure.
If Castro, jefe maximo of the Revolution, was the pragmatist, Guevara was the true believer. It is ironic that his face sells countless buttons and t-shirts when during his time as minister of the economy, Guevara sought to eventually get rid of money in Cuba. If today the clarion call of society is fierce individualism, Guevara espoused the creation of “The New Man” (which no doubt would be “The New Person” today), a citizen envisioned as shedding individuality and becoming social and communal.
There was blood in his footsteps, as his detractors continually like to point out, especially in the early days of the 1959 revolution which overthrew the U.S. backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. There were executions of landlords, counter-revolutionaries and former torturers of the regime. The Cuban Revolution was as harsh as any incendiary change. It is easy to forget today the romanticism that included the violent overturning of a system when discussing revolution. Revolutionary violence was not just a part of Guevara, but of the revolutionary culture going back to 1789. Sophie Wahnich reminds us in the deliciously challenging book In Defense of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution, that for a long time it was tradition at the Sorbonne in France for self-styled republicans to have a “calf’s head dinner” for post-graduates. The head of course represented the head of a monarch undone by the guillotine’s righteous fury. This is no longer tradition, and quite frowned upon in an age of docile politics. Of course one cannot hope for Donald or Melania to be hauled off in carts to some plaza with waiting baskets, but it is important to understand the historical factors that shaped someone like Guevara.
The specter of Guevara and his age looms large over our own as traditional politics again begin to disintegrate. Ghosts we thought were banished have returned in the form of capitalist crisis in the world’s leading economies, and from Charlottesville to Greece, suddenly fascists again march with lit torches in the night. Individuals are formed by the times. Guevara himself was shaped by his journeys and experiences, in particular when he witnessed the 1954 CIA-backed coup against the elected Jacobo Arbenz government in Guatemala. Arbenz, a liberal reformer, was deemed too dangerous by U.S.-linked beasts of capital such as the United Fruit Company. For Guevara it was a lesson in the need for radical revolution to secure social change. This is not, unfortunately, ancient history. In 2009 the U.S. gleefully backed a military coup against the Manuel Zelaya government in Honduras in an almost copycat case of what took place in 1954. Time will tell how such an event has radicalized individuals living through it. Che’s own prophecy of “one, two, three, many Vietnams,” comes to pass now in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
The great question posed now, 50 years after Che Guevara’s death, is not so much what Che means — because myths become so vast and expansive they create various interpretations — but if such figures will rise again. Perhaps the myth endures precisely because today’s restless young have not experienced the political thunderclap of a defining moment like the Cuban Revolution, or the Russian Revolution, which marks its centennial this year. “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” in the words of the immortal W.B. Yeats, but just what will flower out of the current mire is hard to guess, or what harsh and believing rebels will emerge, seeking their weapons of choice and determined to remake the world, yet again.
Alci Rengifo is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.