The Legacy of Ernesto Che Guevara

Fearing that Che’s burial place would become a shrine to the fallen guerrilla leader, the Bolivian army officers secretly disposed of his remains. Che’s body – excluding his hands, which were amputated for positive identification – and those of his comrades were buried in a mass grave near a Vallegrande air strip in central Bolivia. But rather than destroy the myth of Che, the circumstances surrounding his death only intensified it.

In Asia, Latin America and Africa, Marxist guerrilla movements embraced his image as a symbol of revolutionary struggle.Che Guevara In Western Europe and North America, protesting college students invoked his image in defiance to the Vietnam War, racism and anything considered the establishment. Che’s image, bearded and wearing a single red star studded beret, became an international symbol of revolt and revolutionary idealism.

Thirty years later, Che Guevara still fascinates and confounds. In Cuba, 1997 is observed as “The Year of the 30th Anniversary of the Death in Combat of the Heroic Guerrilla and His Comrades.” And on October 12, 1997, after his remains were unearthed in Bolivia, Che’s body was returned to Cuba, where he is now buried in the town of Santa Clara.

Despite the official celebrations honoring its fallen hero, many experts believe that the Cuban government is more interested in promoting Che’s image than his actual ideas, many of which conflict with Cuba’s current state policies. But the Cuban government is not alone in the plundering of Che’s legacy: everyone from Hollywood to athletic equipment manufacturers are cashing in on the fallen revolutionary’s image, if not his principles.

In addition to being the topic of several upcoming feature films and the subject of several new biographies released this year, Che Guevara’s image itself has become a formidable marketing tool.Che Guevara A few years ago, Swatch, the Swiss manufacturer of watches, released a Revolution model of their watch adorned with Che’s image on its face.

Similarly, Fisher, an Austrian Ski and Tennis manufacturer, unveiled a Revolution model of its skis also adorned with Che’s likeness on its product. In the world of music, the very political rock band, Rage Against the Machine, have placed Che’s image on everything from album covers to T-shirts. And in Bolivia, tourist agencies offer package tours through the mountains and countryside where Che and his comrades fell thirty years earlier.

From posters to even a short lived beer in London (it was taken off the market following Cuban government objections), Che Guevara, long a potent political symbol, has become a pop icon of mythic proportions. In a recent interview in the Miami Herald, Jon Lee Anderson, author of the ground breaking new biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, noted, “Che is the last unplundered icon of the ’60’s in popular culture, and now can be looted for commercial use in our entertainment culture.”

Answering your forum questions is Jon Lee Anderson, author of “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life” (Grove Press) and former reporter for the Lima Times in Peru. Mr. Anderson, working over the last five years, gained unprecedented access to both Che’s personal archive through his widow and to the formerly sealed Cuban government archives. In addition, Mr. Anderson interviewed scores of Che’s closest comrades and friends, KGB officials who worked with Che and the CIA men and Bolivian army officers who hunted him down.

Jorge E. Ravelo, M.D. of Virginia Gardens, FL, asks:

Thirty-odd years after the death of Che Guevara many Cubans like myself are perplexed by the attention given to a man we knew well enough to despise. Why should this man who preached the virtues of cold-blooded HATE as a weapon of revolution, who was the executioner of many innocents all the way from the Sierra Maestra to the Cabana prison, and who ultimately betrayed the revolution he rode to fame and misfortune be the subject of so much attention? What has Che to offer today besides a commercial opportunity? Why all this attention? Why now?

Mr. Jon Lee Anderson, author of “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life,” responds:

In his characterization of Che Guevara, Mr. Ravelo makes a number of sweeping and emotional assertions which are historically unsound.

For instance, he says that Che was “the executioner of innocents all the way from the Sierra Maestra to the Cabana prison.” To this I must point out that, while Che did indeed execute people [an episode I have gone into at length in my book] I have yet to find a single credible source pointing to a case where Che executed ‘an innocent’. Those persons executed by Guevara or on his orders were condemned for the usual crimes punishable by death at times of war or in its aftermath: desertion, treason or crimes such as rape, torture or murder. I should add that my research spanned five years, and included anti-Castro Cubans among the Cuban-American exile community in Miami and elsewhere.

Next, Mr. Ravelo asserts that Guevara “ultimately betrayed the [Cuban] revolution.” This is a novel concept indeed. Indeed, it is the first time I have heard such a claim. Mr. Ravelo is obviously confused: Che Guevara was a Marxist, and, even before the revolutionary victory in 1959, he was determined to see that Cuba’s “revolution” become a Marxist one.

He never concealed his beliefs, and never swerved from this course. I have never heard anyone – even his most bitter foes — accuse Guevara of betraying his beliefs in Marxist revolution. Indeed, there are many amongst the U.S. Cuban exile community who credit Guevara for having always spoken honestly about the aims of Castro’s revolution – while accusing Castro himself of having ‘betrayed’ the many anti-communist Cubans who once supported him.

Jason Kanarish of Seattle, WA, asks:

During this hero-less time and relative lull in the currents of history, (if such a thing exists), is it possible that Che represents something more than the era in which he died? Was it Che’s revolutionary idealism and sincere dedication to a cause that make him so appealing now, or are these characteristics that have fallaciously arisen from his ‘myth’?

Mr. Jon Lee Anderson, author of “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life,” responds:

I think Che’s contemporary appeal is due in great measure to his “revolutionary idealism and sincere dedication to a cause,” at a time in which such examples of idealism and faith are seen as quaint, quixotic or misplaced. In a sense, Che is the ultimate emblematic figure of what might be called the Decade of Youth — the Sixties — the last period in our country in which young people around the world rose up in revolt against the established order, believing that they could actually change things, Who better than Che exemplifies that phenomenon?

At the same time, I think that Che does transcend his era, in that he serves as a visible reminder that history is full of surprises, and that many of its most dramatic episodes have been spawned by individuals who, like him, looked around them, did not like what they saw, and thereafter dedicated their lives in efforts to change things.

In this sense, too, Che perhaps represents the perennial ‘idealism of youth’ and it is undoubtedly the reason why he remains an international figure of mythological dimensions, especially amongst the young. Like Icarus — who tried to fly to the sun and died, inevitably, in his effort – Che stands out as a latter-day mythological hero, admired for his daring and his faith — and some would say his innocence – in trying to achieve the impossible.

In a sense, Mr. Ravelo’s overheated and erroneous perceptions show why I believed it was necessary to write my book: To try and construct an accurate portrait of a fascinating, controversial and little-understood man, dispelling many of the legends, conjectures and myths — both positive and negative — that had cloaked his figure during the Cold War.

I think even Mr. Ravelo would agree that history’s protagonists –however distasteful they may be to one’s particular worldview – are worthy subjects of biography. We are enriched by our knowledge of the past, and they include those men and women who have affected history — for better of worse.

Finally, regarding all the attention Guevara has been given recently: It just happens that a number of biographers, including myself, have published their findings coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of Che’s death. The fact that his secretly-buried remains were finally discovered in Bolivia this summer also contributed to renewed public interest in Che Guevara’s life and times.

David Miller of Higland Park, IL, asks:

Considering the manner in which he died, how will history treat Che relative to other guerrilla leaders, like Washington, Chairman Mao and Ho Chi Minh?

Mr. Jon Lee Anderson, author of “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life,” responds:

Unlike the “revolutionary” leaders mentioned by Mr. Miller, Che was not a politician. He was first and foremost a visionary who was propelled by his radical concept of political and social change which transcended national boundaries. Unlike these other leaders, he gave up all the trappings of privilege and power [in Cuba] in order to return to the revolutionary battlefield and ultimately, to die. He didn’t, strictly speaking, have to, and if he had been more impelled by the desire to exercise power, or the innate sense of pragmatism that seems to come with great politicians, he wouldn’t have.

I think history will always tend to romanticize Che, especially because of the circumstances of his death. There was ‘glory’ in the ingloriousness of his end, both in the tenacious way he persisted in his Bolivian guerrilla campaign, despite its increasingly obvious futility, and finally, in the way he met death face-on after his capture. History loves Quixotes.

Denice Marie of Silver Spring, MD, asks:

I am a bit concerned with all of the mass iconization of Che. He was a Marxist Revolutionary, with many members of the former KGB as his comrades. Do you see this fueling even more anti-American sentiments abroad, as well as anti-government sentiments among America’s “lost generation X-ers” who do not have hope in the “machine” as it is?

Mr. Jon Lee Anderson, author of “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life,” responds:

I don’t think the “return of Che” will fuel any more anti-American sentiments than already exist around the world today. It is useful to comprehend why such sentiments exist. In general, they are caused by the widespread international perception that the United States is a militaristic country which traditionally looks after its own interests at the expense of the national dignity of others. In Latin America, which Americans have always regarded as their “backyard,” there is a sufficiently long historical record of American intervention to have created long-standing resentments in the region.

It is easy to demonize the Soviet KGB – an especially distasteful agency – but it seems valid to put the “Red Bogeyman” and Che’s affiliation with them into historical context. It occurred during the Cold War, when two opposing political philosophies competed for international dominance, and in their own role in that competition, the American CIA thought nothing of violently overthrowing foreign regimes, supporting Latin American death squads and allying itself with the Mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro – all in the name of ‘anti-communism.’

Indeed, it is important to remember that Che Guevara’s own political radicalization (and “anti-Yankee” convictions) occurred in Guatemala in 1954 during the American CIA’s overthrow of a democratically-elected left-wing government.

With regards the possibility that American Gen-X’ers might become “anti-government” because of Che’s example: I think contemporary history is already proving that this is not the case. The most dangerous anti-government sentiments in America today come from the extreme right – eg: the militia movement, white supremacists and assorted true-blue American “Patriots.”

If anything, I see Che’s appeal to Gen-X’ers as a form of symbolic identification with a rebel figure, someone critical of the status quo. Wearing Che’s face on your T-shirt is a way of saying: “I am a rebel in spirit; I don’t accept what the Establishment stands for.” For most, this essentially aesthetic, non-threatening form of revolt will fade as they graduate from college, get their first jobs, and begin families – along with their nose rings and bleached hair. But for the meantime, it is imperative that society allows them the room to broadcast their inconformity with the way things are, just as it is necessary that society tolerates their hopes of making a future difference.

Bertrand M. Bell of New York NY, asks:

In your inquiry what role did the CIA play in the death of Che? Would the assassination have succeeded without the CIA?

Mr. Jon Lee Anderson, author of “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life,” responds:

The American role in the defeat of Che Guevara in Bolivia was probably decisive. The U.S. Special Forces trained a Bolivian army battalion in counterinsurgency techniques with the specific aim of pursuing Guevara’s guerrilla band, and it was the this same Bolivian battalion which actually captured Che Guevara.

A Cuban-American CIA agent, Felix Rodriguez, was present at Che’s execution. Although Rodriguez claims to have had CIA orders to try and ‘keep Che alive’ – but could do nothing to stop Che’s execution when it was ordered by Bolivia’s military president, General Rene Barrientos – there is no evidence to support his claims. Nor, it has to be said, is there any evidence showing that the CIA actually ordered Che’s assassination. But in covert intelligence operations, deniability is everything. If there was a CIA order to kill Che, it was probably never committed to paper.

What we are left with, then, is the historical evidence that the CIA was involved in the effort to hunt Che down in Bolivia, and that a CIA agent was present at the moment of his execution. Having said that, if Bolivian soldiers managed to capture Che without American assistance, they probably would have killed him anyway, because they did not tend to take prisoners.