The face of rebellion everywhere

IN a small Bolivian town called Vallegrande, somewhat to the discomfiture of the resident priest, local Catholics commonly offer prayers not only to the Lord but also to a certain Saint Ernesto. The reference is not to some revered religious figure from the distant past but to a devout atheist who blazed a revolutionary trail in the latter half of the 20th century.


It is hard to say whether Che Guevara would have been amused or repulsed by the Vallegrande variety of veneration. “When I go to bed and when I wake up,” says a 27-year-old local, “I first pray to God and then I pray to Che – and then everything is all right. Che’s presence here is a positive force.” In many houses, representations of Guevara are displayed next to those of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary; others feature altars built in his memory, and there is no dearth of stories about miracles that Che is believed to have facilitated.


The laundry room of a Vallegrande hospital has been turned into a shrine. This is where Guevara’s mortal remains were displayed 40 years ago on Tuesday, after his summary execution by US-trained Bolivian troops in nearby La Higuera. There is also a massive irony in the fact that he is thus honoured in a region where his attempt to foment revolt floundered chiefly on account of the absence of local support.


The final chapter in Guevara’s brief life – he was not yet 40 when he breathed his last – was monumentally tragic. There was a variety of reasons why the lessons imbibed during the successful guerrilla war to overthrow the Batista dictatorship in Cuba could not be replicated in Bolivia. Among other factors, the Cuban campaign was waged under the leadership of Fidel Castro, who was  a well-known figure in his homeland, and his force, with one notable exception, consisted entirely of Cubans. An Argentinian doctor leading a troop of mainly Cuban fighters was unlikely to produce a comparable impact in Bolivia.


Che himself was an exemplary internationalist to whom boundaries and flags were of little significance. The first mission he undertook after deciding to leave Cuba was in the Congo, where he hoped to assist the forces purportedly intent on re-establishing the legacy of  Patrice Lumumba. Egypt‘s Gamal Abdel Nasser had warned Che against the risk of being perceived as a Tarzan figure, but that turned out to be the least of his problems: it was his disenchantment with the local leadership, particularly Laurent Kabila, that drove him out of Africa.


By then it was too late, in Guevara’s view, for him to return to a useful role in Cuba. He did go back, but only in secret, with the aim of preparing his next mission. Che hoped eventually to devote his energies to establishing socialism in Argentina. He accepted Bolivia as an interim task, little knowing that his expedition to that country would be betrayed by the local communist party, which went back on a promise to provide assistance, possibly at Moscow‘s direction.


Orthodox communists in Latin America and elsewhere viewed Guevara as a reckless adventurer and spared little sympathy for his view that instead of waiting for the appropriate circumstances to arise, Marxists were duty-bound to contribute towards creating revolutionary conditions. A trenchant critique of Soviet trade policy at a 1965 conference in Algiers had done little to endear him to the party faithful. Quite a few of them viewed his death in Bolivia as a convenient conclusion to a turbulent career.


However, by then it was too late for anyone to prevent Guevara from being transformed into an iconic harbinger of radical change. The image that immeasurably aided this process was snapped by Castro’s official photographer, Alberto Korda, on March 5, 1960, during a funeral for 80 Cuban victims of an explosion aboard a French cargo ship loaded with ammunition. Korda noticed the head of Cuba‘s national bank gazing into the distance, his handsome features reflecting wrath, sorrow and righteous indignation coupled with steely determination.


The photograph remained unpublished for many years. By 1967, however, it had made its way to Europe. One of the people reputedly responsible for its dissemination was the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who had described Guevara as “the most complete man of his age”. It was a young Irish graphic artist called Jim Fitzpatrick who transformed it into the familiar two-tone image that became ubiquitous after Che’s martyrdom.


During the rebellion among western youth in 1968, this representation of the heroic guerrilla was borne aloft at almost every demonstration. Before long it was transformed into a universal symbol of resistance, visible from Palestine to Peru. Even so, few could have imagined at the time that its appeal would prove so enduring.


In some ways, the face of Che Guevara became a fashion statement, coopted  by the very forces of capitalist commerce that the revolutionary leader sought to destroy. Yet the image has always – even when reworked by Andy Warhol and borrowed by vodka or underwear manufacturers – subliminally reflected an undercurrent of rebellion, a  refusal to accept the status quo. 


In recent years it has been suggested that in order to reaffirm his stature as a relentless warrior against the multifarious wrongs inflicted on society, Che ought to be rescued from the T-shirt in which he has been trapped. It may well be the case that a sizeable proportion of those who slip into Guevara-adorned T-shirts or star-encrusted berets are only vaguely aware of what he stood for. On the other hand, let’s not forget that this method of pledging allegiance to Che’s vision is favoured even by the likes of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, the elected presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia.


Yes, that’s right: Bolivia, the land where Guevara offered the ultimate sacrifice, now boasts a presidential palace decorated with a coca-leaf version of Korda’s iconic snapshot. Bolivia and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela are both in some ways a crucial part of Che’s legacy, even though Chavez and Morales acquired powers through democratic means. This is how, in the 21st century, the spirit of Che is being kept alive.


Ideological foes are keen to equate Guevara with Osama bin Laden or with suicide bombers inspired by Islamist zeal, but such comparisons are odious not only because Che was fundamentally averse to the idea of taking innocent lives, but also because his idealistic vision of a hard-working, non-exploitative society bears no resemblance to the deleterious goal of a shariah-governed caliphate.


Three decades or so ago, I was impressed by biographer Andrew Sinclair’s description of Che as someone who dedicated his “life and death to the poorest of men without help from God”. More recently I encountered Guevara’s response, in 1964, to a letter he received from Maria Rosario Guevara, a Spanish woman who wondered whether they might be cousins. “I don’t think you and I are very closely related,” he replied, “but if you are capable of trembling with indignation each time an injustice is committed in the world, we are comrades, and that is more important.” 


Now there’s an emotion that deserves a resounding Amen from believers and non-believers alike.



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