Kay Steiger

October 12, 2007

This week is the 40th anniversary of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s infamous death in Bolivia, and his legacy is still hotly contested. There’s a website called TheCheStore.com. On it, you can buy t-shirts, caps, “collectables,” and camouflage gear–all pasted with the iconic image of South America’s most famous revolutionary. It’s one of many commercial endeavors devoted to selling gear–including watches, key chains, and even bikinis–decorated with Guevara’s image. The New York Times pointed out that Guevara’s face is now “as much a marketing tool as an international revolutionary icon.” Richard L. Harris is re-releasing his book Death of a Revolutionary: Che Guevara’s Last Mission, and Stephen Soderbergh is working on a movie called Guerrilla, starring Benicio Del Toro as Guevara, to be released next year. We live in an age where Guevara “sells.”

This man, born as Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, was born in Argentina to a family of wealth. He studied medicine in his youth, but while traveling, met leftist revolutionaries Fidel and Raúl Castro. It was then that they formed a plan to overthrow Cuba’s capitalist government and replace it with a socialist one. They fought a long guerrilla war, and Castro finally seized power on January 1, 1959. He recruited Guevara to lead Cuba from a primarily agrarian economy to an industrialized one.

Governing is hard work, and it requires tolerance and patience. It’s debatable whether those are skills that Castro possessed, but Guevara most certainly did not. When Guevara’s impatience with governing had reached its limit, he traveled to other communist countries in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa. While in Africa, he felt the Congo was ripe for a socialist revolution in the same way Cuba had been, so he returned to lead the guerilla mission there. But Guevara miscalculated the political situation, and language barriers prevented him from truly becoming one of the Congolese fighters. By his own admission, the endeavor was a failure. Instead, he turned his attention to Bolivia, hoping to incite a socialist “Latin Revolution.” He failed there too, and was executed after being captured by the Bolivian army.

Guevara was intelligent and hugely prolific, compulsively keeping volumes of diaries throughout his life; his seminal work, Guerilla Warfare, was published posthumously in 1969. The books in his personal library were jammed in the margins with his own notes and thoughts. During a journey highlighted by the Oscar-winning “Diarios de Motocicleta” (The Motorcycle Diaries), he provided medical treatment to Peruvian Indians, who were living examples of social injustice, suffering from poverty and disease. Early in life he resolved to aid those who like himself, battled asthma. (Guevara suffered from the disease for his entire life.)

He was a man of principles, to a fault. Despite his promotion to a high-level position in the Cuban government Guevara kept his wife, Aleida, and four children (in addition to his ex-wife and her daughter) on a strict salary that was equal to what he earned as a soldier in Fidel Castro’s rebel army, according to New Yorker writer Jon Lee Anderson in his definitive biography of Guevara. Aleida routinely borrowed money from the bodyguards to make ends meet. His frugality was motivated by ideology; he was deeply devoted to the works of Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin. The Socialist Worker Online paints its own rosy version of Guevara’s life, emphasizing his concern for the common worker and his courage as a fighter.

Because of his close relationship to Castro, it’s hard to separate feelings about Guevara from feelings about Castro, and from political baggage of the Cold War. Of the first time Guevara met Castro in Mexico, Anderson writes,

Ernesto and Fidel shared some traits. Both were favored boys from large families and extremely spoiled; careless about their appearance; sexually voracious, but men to whom relationships came in second to their personal goals. Both were imbued with Latin machismo: believers in the innate weakness of women, contemptuous of homosexuals, and admirers of brave men of action.

At best, Guevara’s politics advocated for a mindless devotion of the working man (with an emphasis on “man”) to socialism, but left out other causes many progressives have worked long and hard for: equality for gender and sexual orientation. In fact, gays were persecuted following the Cuban revolution. (Poet and novelist Reynaldo Arenas, who included descriptions of his openly gay lifestyle in his writings, was killed as the result of the government’s prosecution of gays.)

Guevara was raised with a Catholic outlook on life, in which the “good” girls saved themselves for marriage. Wealthy Argentine boys tended to sexually exploit the family mucama, or servant girl, and Guevara was no exception. Anderson tells of a cousin who once “watched in astonishment from his place at the dining table through the open doors leading to the kitchen as Ernesto had quick sex with the muchama on the kitchen table, directly behind their aunt’s unsuspecting back.” His treatment of his first wife, Hilda Gadea, highlights his mistreatment of women, which was well-known to those around him. Guevara used her connections to revolutionaries like Castro, married her reluctantly once she was pregnant, and then, following the Cuban Revolution, traded in Hilda in for his new, younger wife, Aleida.

Guevara treated his fellow freedom fighters brutally. He would deny his men the personal comfort of writing a diary even though he kept his own. He often held tribunals where he would execute his own guerrilleros if he questioned their loyalty to the revolution, labeling them “counterrevolutionaries.” These served as models for Guevara’s tribunals at a prison called La Cabaña. The New Republic has described the events at the prison as “one of the darkest periods of the revolution,” where an estimated 200 men were killed without any kind of due process for fighting against the revolution. Anderson wrote in his biography that Guevara “acquired a reputation for a cold-blooded willingness to take direct action against transgressors from the revolutionary norms.”

Guevara is perceived as a revolutionary icon, and serves as powerful symbol for many young progressives. But he was cruel and militantly dogmatic in ways that should make the left squirm. The fascination with him is understandable; he was a charismatic figure that believed in something so much that he was willing to devote his entire life to it. Although we live in a post-Cold War world, where socialism has been widely discredited, the desire to make life better for the working man is still an admirable goal. The discussion of Guevara is still divisive and complicated, years after his death, and it should be.

Kay Steiger is an associate editor of CampusProgress.org.