14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 14 January 2018 — Almost four decades ago, when I was learning the alphabet, I had to say my first political slogan, the same one repeated every morning by thousands of Cuban schoolchildren: “Pioneers for communism, we will be like Che.” The only thing that has changed is that, today, the figure of the guerrilla is sharply contested in many parts of the world, but not in Cuba.
The man who posed for so many photographers, who was immortalized in a portrait with his beret and lost gaze, is not escaping the judgment of History. Now, when violence and armed struggle are increasingly publicly condemned, the details of his excesses are coming to light and the victims of those years are finally beginning to be heard.
Times are not good for Ernesto Guevara, the Argentinian who has captivated filmmakers, writers and journalists. It does not matter if his face continues to be reproduced on countless T-shirts, flags or ashtrays all over the planet, because the more it becomes known what kind of person he really was, the more his myth fades. The truth floats while he sinks.
The material voracity of his heirs, the unscrupulous use made of his name by his own compañeros in battle, and the frivolity of the consumers of ideological relics add corrosive acid to his legend
The unrestrained commercialization that has taken over that image with its thin beard and prominent brow also contributes to his descent. The material voracity of his heirs, the unscrupulous use made of his name by his own compañeros in battle, and the frivolity of the consumers of ideological relics add corrosive acid to his legend.
Che has become a business, a good business for nostalgics who write books about those utopias so lacking today. They are tomes to deify a man who would have persecuted many of his current admirers for wearing a nose ring, having long hair or for the residue of marijuana in their pockets.
Like one of life’s ironies, the Guevarian cult spreads among people who could never have fit into the strict mold that the Argentinian designed for the “New Man.” That individual had to be motivated by “hatred as a factor of struggle” and had to know, when the time came, how to become a “selective and cold killing machine,” he warned in his last public message in 1967.
In what way can Che appeal to the pacifists, environmentalists or anti-establishment types who today venerate him? How do those who claim to want greater spaces of freedom for citizens be in tune with a man who helped subdue an entire society to the designs of a few? At what point does their idealism connect with a man who wanted to change Latin America through the sights of a gun?
Guevara’s early death and his failure to age in power are not enough to sustain his legend. The complacent biographers who retouched every passage of his life have contributed to his deification, as have his former fellow travelers in need of a “martyr” for the pantheon of revolutionaries, a John Lennon without a guitar or a Jesus without a crown of thorns.
In October 2016, the image of Che Guevara which, for more than 30 years, had stared out over the main square of the National University of Bogotá in Colombia, disappeared from the wall of the León de Greiff auditorium. The erasure of that face provoked a bitter controversy among the students and soon after a group of the Argentinian’s supporters ended up repainting the mural.
The clash revealed something more than ideological differences among the students: it showed the clash of two eras. On one side, a moment when Guevara was seen as a Latin American liberator who, riding his motorcycle or holding his gun, represented a quixotic figure ready to face the imperialists’ machines. On the other, a time when the failure of the model that the guerrilla wished to impose has been proven.
There is nothing that gives a greater lie to the man who reached the rank of commander in the Sierra Maestra, than the rancid totalitarianism into which the Cuban Revolution sank
There is nothing that gives a greater lie to the man who reached the rank of commander in the Sierra Maestra, than the rancid totalitarianism into which the Cuban Revolution sank. No blow to his image has been as harsh as the pro-Soviet drift that Fidel Castro took after Che’s death and subsequent “concessions” to the market he was forced to make when the subsidies from the Kremlin abruptly ended.
Last year, just half a century after the death of Guevara in Bolivia, the liberal Bases Foundation began a campaign to collect signatures on Change.org to eliminate all monuments and other tributes to Che in the city of Rosario, where he was born. The Argentinian NGO called him the heir of the “murderous legacy of communism.” More than 20,000 people have signed the demand.
At the end of December, last year, the controversy reached France when the Parisian City Council, led by the socialist mayor of Spanish heritage Ana Hidalgo, hosted the exhibition Le Che à Paris. Several intellectuals and academics signed a protest letter written by the journalist and Cuban exile Jacobo Machover in which they demanded the immediate closure of the exhibition.
Machover, author of The Hidden Face of Che, recounts in his book several of the aspects most hidden in the official history. Guevara “attended the executions” carried out after summary trials in the first year of the Revolution and “the Cubans, who feared him, called him the butcher of La Cabaña,” he relates. In 1964, from the podium of the United Nations, he boasted of his actions: “We executed, we are executing and we will continue to execute as long as necessary.”
Hidalgo responded with a message on the social network Twitter that fired up the mood even more, where she said, “the capital city pays homage to a figure of the revolution turned into a militant and romantic icon.” The Parisian mayor closed her tweet with an emoticon in the form of a closed fist, in the old revolutionary way.
With her gesture, Hidalgo joined one of the most elaborate publicity campaigns that has emerged from the Castroist laboratory, one in which the past is distorted and Guevara is praised, while the extensive cruelty that characterized him is hidden.
For several generations of Cubans who have repeated from an early age the commitment to “be like Che,” all these polemics come as a shock. Like slaps, they bring us out of the hypnotic state engendered by the combination of ignorance and indoctrination.
However, the most devastating blow I have witnessed to the figure of the so-called “heroic guerrilla” came from a compatriot. In the midst of a party in Havana, a young university student realized that a German guest was dressed in one of those shirts with the famous snapshot taken by the photographer Alberto Korda.
“You could just as well put on a shirt with the face of Charles Manson,” the student said to the tourist, and the phrase remained floating in the air while the music seemed to stop. Nervous laughter and silence. No one defended Che Guevara.
Editor’s Note: This text was initially published in the Spanish newspaper El País.
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