Che Guevara: When the reality becomes myth

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Even given its critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, which opened across the country yesterday, has created unusually large amounts of pre-publicity. Surprisingly, you might think, if all you knew about it was that it is the story of a journey across Latin America by two men on a Norton 500 who uncover, on the way, the deep poverty of the continent in the early 1950s.

Even given its critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, which opened across the country yesterday, has created unusually large amounts of pre-publicity. Surprisingly, you might think, if all you knew about it was that it is the story of a journey across Latin America by two men on a Norton 500 who uncover, on the way, the deep poverty of the continent in the early 1950s.

What changes everything is that one of the two men later went on to become the archetype of the contemporary revolutionary, Che Guevara. At the end of that motorbike journey he announced: "I want to link my destiny to that of the poor of this world." But the real journey here is not one from Argentina across a continent to Guatemala. It is not even Guevara's transition from bourgeois complacency to fiery rebel. It is a voyage from reality into myth.

Such was Che Guevara's hold on the imagination of his time that Jean-Paul Sartre called him "the most complete man in history", and Time magazine, that embodiment of all the American values which Guevara so despised, declared him to be "the icon of the 20th century". In 1968 - the great year of political, cultural and social revolution that followed his death - the slogan "Che lives" appeared on walls from Paris to Prague, Berkeley to Belfast and anywhere else that the old order seemed under threat by what felt like an unstoppable wave of youthful opposition. It was the era of anti-Vietnam War protest and student barricades. The times they were a-changing and the image of Che Guevara, dead but resurrected in a billion bedsit posters, was the most potent symbol of this new generation of power.

It is not difficult to deconstruct the power of the man and his myth. He was sultry and sexy: there is no myth around his revolutionary comrade Fidel Castro, who also made the mistake of staying alive. Che Guevara, by contrast, died young, as all the heroes of the age, from James Dean to Jimi Hendrix, did and should. Hope I die before I get old was the maxim of the moment.

He was, like so many of his devotees across the world, someone from a middle-class background who had rejected the cosy cocoon of affluence. He had attended medical school in Buenos Aires but, after the long exposure to his continent's poverty in that celebrated 1952 motorbike epic, everything changed. It was not just the urban and rural deprivation, the migrant workers driven from their land and the degradation of the native Mayan Indians. In Guatemala he witnessed the overthrow of its progressive leftist government in a CIA-backed coup and became convinced him that social progress was impossible without violent revolution. From there he went to Mexico to join up with Fidel Castro, and in 1956 landed in Cuba to carry on a guerrilla campaign against the US-backed dictator Batista.

He was physically brave. He carried on the invasion despite being wounded in the neck, fatally he thought at the time, in an ambush.

He was the ultimate emblematic figure of the counterculture, who had made real the aspiration that, against all the odds, things could actually be changed. This was the man, after all, who had entered Cuban and then worldwide revolutionary folklore in a battle where he and a few hundred rebels defeated 10,000 Cuban government troops in the Sierra Maestra mountains, and turned an impossible adventure into a real revolution. Ordinary people could triumph over their masters, was his message, which seemed so much more radical than the alternatives of anarchist hippies such as Abbie Hoffman, whose ultimate rebellion was the instruction to bookstore shoppers to "Steal This Book". Even as a member of Castro's elite after the revolution, he refused the privilege and luxury granted to other Cuban leaders, insisting on drawing only the average wage.

He had the gift of being able to encapsulate his idealism and his philosophy in pithy and memorable phrases. "It is better to die standing than to live on your knees." "I don't regard only Argentina as my native country but whole of America." "We have a rendezvous with history, and we simply cannot permit ourselves to be afraid!"

And like so many of his youthful devotees, he did not allow his idealism to be sullied by the drudge of daily existence. He was briefly, and not very successfully, made governor of the National Bank of Cuba - and got his portrait on the three-peso note - and was then for a short time minister of industry. But he soon got fed up with the quotidian dreary detail of trying to make Marxism work and, after a period roaming the world as Cuba's ambassador, sought once again the purity of political commitment in far-off lands. In 1965 he led a covert and unsuccessful Cuban intervention in the civil war in the former Belgian Congo and then, in the following year, went to Bolivia to try to foment a Marxist revolution there. Failing to understand the cultural differences there, his revolution was a dismal failure and, dishevelled and defeated, he was captured by government troops and handed over to the CIA for interrogation. Characteristically Guevara refused to talk and was shot the next day.

Yet even in the banality of his execution the myth was fed. The executioner bungled his first attempt. (He averted his eyes while he shot at Guevara, who lay trussed on a slab.) The revolutionary hero told the man to get on with it with the reported last words: "Shoot, coward! You are going to kill a man." It was a romantic death, at least as it later entered the mythology, a man who was not afraid to die for what he believed in.

Much of what has been written about Che Guevara in recent times has been an attempt to explode this myth. Critics have shone the light on his dark side: his direct responsibility for dozens of executions of defectors and Batista loyalists; his devotion to the monstrous Soviet dictator Stalin; his reported willingness to have unleashed nuclear weapons had the Cubans had their fingers on the button of the Soviet missiles in the Bay of Pigs crisis; even on the fact that he was contemptuous of homosexuals.

Much of this criticism is ignorant; by 1963 Che had realised that Russian Stalinism was a shambles after a visit to Russia where he saw the conditions of the majority of the people. More of it is historically unsound, since it decontextualises him from the political perceptions and realities of his time and expects him to have behaved as a 21st-century man ought, rather than someone locked into a Cold War world dominated by two oppositional worldviews in which the American CIA was as capable of bad behaviour as the Soviets - violently overthrowing foreign regimes, supporting Latin American death squads and allying itself with the Mafia in the fight against communism.

But most of all such criticism misses the point. For there is more to Che Guevara than historical fact. There is more to him even than myth, or perhaps one should say there is less to him than myth. For now he is not even a myth; he is an image.

It is no coincidence that the most famous picture of Che was taken by a fashion photographer. The classic shot of Guevara - wild-haired, bearded, wearing a single red star in his beret and a look of visionary detachment in his eyes - was snapped by Alberto Korda as Guevara stood beside Castro on a balcony in Havana on 5 March 1960. Korda said afterwards he was struck by the man's "absolute look of steely defiance". So much so that the photographer refused to collect royalties for the picture, which no doubt assisted its repeated use. "In it, Che appears as the ultimate revolutionary icon," writes Jon Lee Anderson, in Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, "his eyes staring boldly into the future, his expression a virile embodiment of outrage at social injustice."

Soon the photograph became familiar all over the world. It soon spread from political circles to rock bands seeking to advertise their subversive credentials. But then the revolutionary became chic. Andy Warhol used it alongside images of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean in the iconography of pop art. By 1970 the defiant image had become, in the words of the British pop artist Peter Blake, "one of the great icons of the 20th century", appearing on posters, T-shirts, badges and postcards and, before long, appearing in utterly debased forms to advertise jeans, china mugs, canned beer, skis, holidays and even soap powder. Swatch released a watch with Che's image on its face. Madonna used it on a CD cover. Smirnoff slapped it on their vodka ads. (Korda sued over that.) The total inversion of everything Guevara stood for was a recent newspaper photographing showing Liz Hurley club-hopping across London in a Che T-shirt and clutching a $4,500 Louis Vuitton handbag.

But the final truth about Guevara is to be found in the slogan "Che lives". It is a formula which is generally used only in a few cases: Jesus and Elvis are among the other historical figures to whom it applies. Deconstruct the semiotics and what it tells us is that our culture here is recognising the truth that some things, and individuals, are greater than mere historical reality can contain. Che Guevara is a kind of secular saint and his image is the contemporary equivalent of what the icon and the relic were in medieval times. Like all saints, Guevara's virtues have been upheld and his weaknesses overlooked.

When they killed him they cut off his hands for identification. To leave the world in no doubt of his identity, his captors instructed some local nuns to wash his face, tidy his bedraggled hair and beard, then photographed his corpse. But the image which circulated the world, almost as powerfully as Korda's original one, was not what they had intended. There he lay, white and irenic as the dead Christ taken down from the cross in so many of the great pietà images of the paintings and statues of 2,000 years of church history. "It's as if the dead Guevara," wrote Jorge Castañeda in his book on Che called Compañero, "looks on his killers and forgives them, and upon the world, proclaiming that he who dies for an idea is beyond suffering." If only he had he lived the myth would have died. Or never come to pass.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: 14 June 1928 in Rosario, Argentina, the first of five children to an upper-middle-class family. Father a construction engineer; mother an aristocrat.

Family: First wife: Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian Marxist; one daughter. Second wife: Aleida March de la Torre, of Castro's army; four children.

Education: Buenos Aries University. Qualified as a doctor in 1953, specialising in dermatology.

Career: After Cuban revolution, commander of La Cabana Fortress (1959-1963). Also governor of the National Bank 1959 and then minister of industry 1961. Worldwide ambassador for Cuba 1961 to 1965. Moved to Bolivia to foment revolution, executed on 9 October 1967.

He said...: "Always be capable of feeling deep inside any injustice committed against anyone anywhere in the world. It is the finest quality of a revolutionary."

They said...: "The most complete human being of our age." - Jean-Paul Sartre

"One of the most oversold figures of the past half century." - Daniel Wolf, journalist and broadcaster

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