"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Monday, February 13, 2006
What is it about Che?
by Brian Peterlinz

What is it about Che Guevara that makes him mythical nearly 30 years after his death? Che became rooted not only in worldwide political mythology, but even in American pop culture. He is the narrator in Evita. The group "Rage Against the Machine" had his image on the cover of their first album. I remember the big poster of Che that hung in the grad student office at my school. I even have a t-shirt with his image on it. Certainly his good looks didn't hurt. In a 1987 article in Spin, Scott Cohen, in an imaginary meeting with Che in a cafe to discuss the revolution in America, compares Che to Jim Morrison (as to Fidel Castro's Jerry Garcia). And his martyrdom; while Fidel stayed safely in Cuba (or not so safely as it turned out, considering all the CIA plots against him ), Che went to Bolivia to die fighting the oppressive government there.

But it would be a shame if that is all Che is remembered for-- as sort of a leftist James Dean, young, handsome and dead. Let me tell you a little bit about Che. Ernesto "Che" Guevara was born in Rosario, Argentina in 1928 into a middle class family. Che went to medical school and became a physician. He then set out travelling through Latin America. Che's mother Celia was a socialist, but Che was intially more interested in archeology than politics. It was Che's experiences in travelling and the companions he met that seemed to push him to the left. Che became an administrator in the leftist Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1953. He was forced to flee after the CIA-aided military coup in 1954. While this was happening, he, like the rest of Latin America was watching the events in Cuba. In 1953, a group of men and women, led by a young attorney named Fidel Castro, militarily assaulted the Moncada barracks in Cuba. The raid was, militarily, a disaster, leading to the death or capture of nearly everyone involved in it. However, the Cuban government made the mistake of trying to make an example of Castro and the other survivors by trying them in a court of law. Castro was, of course convicted, but used his sentencing as a bully pulpit from which to deliver what wouldbe his most famous speech, "History Will Absolve Me." This brash speech inspired patriots throughout Latin America.

Soon Castro was released in a general political amnesty. He made his way to Mexico, where he was to meet Che. Though severely asthmatic, Che signed on with the Cuban rebels. He quickly demonstrated the natural ability to take on new tasks that he showed throughout his life by swiftly rising to the command of one of the rebel columns. At the beginning of the year 1959, the Cuban rebels rolled into Havana triumphant. They were cheered not only through Latin America, but by radicals in the United States as well. Che switched from rebel commandante to running the Cuban national bank. Within a year he virtually took charge of the entire Cuban economy when he became the Minister of Industries.

His ability to take on various tasks was impressive, but not necessarily what was unique about Che. To me, his uniqueness, his beauty came in a couple of lesser-known incidents. In the book My Friend Che, Ricardo Rojo, a friend of Che's, as the title intimates, told of travelling with Che through Latin America in the early fifties. They arrived in Bolivia just after an alliance between workers and leftist elements in the military had taken power. While his travelling companions found these developments very heartening, Che was disturbed by some of it. He was particularly distressed by an incident they had witnessed in a rural mountain area. They had seen peasants lined up and sprayed for lice like one might treat cattle. Rojo recounted: "We left the ministry unable to erase from our minds the sight of hundreds of vermin-infested Indians being doused by a bureacrat with the same method used on farm animals in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. Standing in the street before a statue of Bolivar, Guevara summed up his feelings: 'The question is one of fighting the causes and not just the effects. This revolution is bound to fail if it doesn't succeed in reaching deep inside them, stirring them right down to the bone, and giving them back their stature as human beings. Otherwise, what's the use?'" The other story that comes to my mind is set ten years later, when Che was Cuba's Minister of Industry. In Che's own words:

'"I'll tell you one thing, when I visit a factory I systematically encounter a large number of criticisms of all kinds. Some of these criticisms really indicate there is something in the apparatus as a whole that has to be corrected. In one visit to a shoe factory in Matanzas, a worker told me, 'Look how I'm covered with dust. I told them I needed a fan, some way of fixing this problem, or else I'll have to change jobs. Look at me. My asthma is killing me.'" As a fellow asthmatic, Che certainly empathized with the man. He took the grievance to the head of the factory: "I spoke to the head of the factory and said to him: 'Hey, take a look at this poor fellow. These things cause asthma. A man with asthma can't stay where there's dust like this around. This is barbaric. It can't continue.'But he can't change jobs.' 'Well, either change his job or get him a fan..' 'But the thing is, he doesn't really have asthma; he's got tuberculosis.' How on earth could something like this happen? What a lack of human sensitivity!"

Even as a bureacrat, Che never lost the human touch, his ability to be outraged. As Castro began to sell the revolution out to a Soviet-subsidized paternalism, Che still sought to instill the revolution in the hearts and minds of the Cuban people. When that conflict came to a head in 1965, took took the honorable way out. He resigned as Economic Minister and announced that he was going to spend the next five years managing a factory. He was willing to take this demotion rather than have a damaging public falling-out with Castro. In a letter, Che's mother Celia chided her son for taking this step down, and wryly suggested that fellow socialists Nkrume, in Ghana, and Ben Bella, in Algeria, could use his Internationalist services. After his resignation from the Ministry of Insdustries, Che mysteriously disappeared, rather than taking over the factory. It was rumoured variously that he had died or that he was helping with a socialist insurrection in the Congo, which turned out to be true. After a couple of years of speculation, the world learned where Che was: he had returned to the Bolivia he had left a decade before. He and some Cuban military officers were going to aid the fledgling insurrection. The rebel group was quickly located and the US-trained Bolivian Rangers hunted them down. Most of the men and women in the bodly out-numbered and out-gunned group were quickly killed or captured. Che and a Bolivan miner/guerilla (ironically named Simon Cuba) were cut off from the group and surrounded. Che was badly wounded and Cuba fought ferociously to save Che from capture. Cuba was killed and Guevera taken into custody. The next day two Bolivian officers walked into the small house he was held in and gunned him down.

It is impossible to say what would have happened if things had gone another way; if Castro had listened to Che. What is certain is that Castro's short-sighted and often foolish economic policies have left Cuba in ruins. The industrialization Che championed never happened, as Castro pushed continued sugar production, so that Cuba could exhange the sugar for Soviet petroleum or sell it to them at inflated prices. Che had wanted to allow small businesses; he understood that this increased the number of consumer goods available to people and soaked up excess currency, preventing inflation.

Castro finally allowed this until the last couple of years. Perhaps Che's policies would have failed as well. We'll never know. But what is certain is that wherever he went, Che had faith in people. While Castro wants to be the godfather, the patron of the Cuban people, Che lived-- and died-- to be the servant of the people. He was a rare bird: a pragmatic idealist. He fought for a revolution where people find not merely the economic heaven-on-earth that Marxism promised, but the self-fulfillment, empowerment and humanity that struggling for control of one's destiny brings. I think of the men in the American civil rights marches who would wear the placard "I Am A Man." In the struggle for liberation, people find some sense of self in the act itself, whether successful or not. From the AA meeting to the overthrow of a dictatorship, and everything in between, struggling for control of our lives makes us more of a person. In the unfinished history of this planet, of our peoples, Che Guevara was a beauty. Like Camus' Sisyphus, struggling vainly with the rock, showing that he is greater than the fate dealt to him, Che moved through his life seeking, and I suspect finding, his humanity in the struggle of liberating his fellow man. Vaya con dios, Che. No te nunca olvidaremos.
posted by R J Noriega at 8:04 AM | Permalink |


free hit counters
Best Buy Coupon