Iván García, 9 October 2017 — Inside a Miami house devoid of grand architectural pretensions is a museum devoted to Brigade 2506. It commemorates the Cuban troops who came from the United States to confront the island’s militias and armed forces at the Bay of Pigs.
On several wooden panels hung on the walls are hundreds of photos of combatants in who fell in armed confrontation against the communist system imposed by the Castro brothers in those years.
With any luck, you might run into Felix Rodriguez, a former CIA agent who on October 8, 1967 captured the Argentinian guerilla Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Quebrada del Yuro, Bolivia.
Rodríguez, an elderly man who maintains a military posture despite physical ailments, has on countless occasions recounted an episode that demystifies the image of the illustrious hero that Cuba’s dictators wants to promote.
No one, not even his adversaries, question Che’s courage. But on that cold morning Guevara was forced to surrender after being ambushed by the Bolivian army.
The man who captured him reports that at the time Che was wounded, dressed in rags and in possession of an unused firearm. He was also very disappointed to have lost contact with Havana. Rodriguez remembers that he still had bullets in his pistol and that upon surrender he told his captors, “I am worth more alive than dead.” That is what Felix Rodriguez also believed.
But orders from superior officers were to execute him and to bury his body in a section of runway at the Vallegrande airport. This fact is overlooked in official accounts by the Castro government. They prefer to emphasize his heroism and guerrilla leadership.
Che Guevara’s life has become an imprecise myth. In Cuba his death is commemorated on October 8 though he actually died in a hail of gunfire a day later. John Lee Anderson, who has researched the life of Guevara, claims that the date of birth — June 14, 1928 — is false, that he was actually born a month earlier in the Argentinian city of Rosario.
After gaining immortality by winning the last, decisive battle of the Cuban revolution in Santa Clara, Guevara’s exploits in the field of combat were reduced to a string of failures. Because conditions in the Congo and Bolivia were not conducive to guerrilla warfare, skirmishes there turned into bloodbaths.
He did not distinguish himself in the field of economics either. After Guevara was appointed head of the national bank and Minister of Industry, he tried to graft his concept of the “New Man” onto the normal commercial, wage and financial rules by which a country is governed. The results were routinely bad.
His enemies accuse him of murder. While he was the commander of La Cabaña Fortress, he signed five hundred summary death sentences A dedicated Communist, he always came off as a sullen, inflexible guy during his time in the Sierra Maestra, though one who was highly cultured. He personally recruited a number of subversive guerrillas.
His disregard for material possessions, his austerity and his personal integrity were probably his most striking personal qualities. And above all he risked his own neck to validate his “truths.”
Along with Fidel Castro, Guevara is today one of the patron saints of the revolution, which has now evolved into the perfect dictatorship. From childhood, Cubans are inculcated in the almost religious cult of Che.
“I remember in pre-school they told us stories about Che and his friendship with Camilo [Cienfuegos] and Fidel. Then you enter primary school and every morning they make you repeat the slogan ’Pioneers for communism, we will be like Che.’ This systematic indoctrination has left a mark on many people,” recalls Octavio, a civil engineer.
Ada, an educator, argues that the way the life and work of Che Guevara has been advertised and marketed is “simply atrocious.” She adds, ” They create conditioned reflexes that end up beatifying figures of the revolution. But when you reach adulthood, you recognize them as being the ones guilty for the national disaster. The same thing happens with Che. His mistakes as [economics] minister are minimized while the government’s advertising campaign emphasizes his abilities as a leader. Among young people in the western world he is a more iconic figure than Lenin or Mao and this has made him into a political marketing tool. People with no attachments to Communist ideology, such as Madonna or Mike Tyson, get tattooed with his likeness. His face is printed on T-shirts and luxury wristwatches. Major brands have used his image in publicity campaigns.”
In a mansion in Guanabo, a town to the east of the capital famous for its beach, lives one of Cuba’s best tattoo artists. I asked if Che’s image still sold well.
“It’s one of the top sellers, not just among foreigners but among Cubans as well,” he says. “What has always struck me is how many freaks, sex fiends, liberals and lovers of capitalism pick his image for a tattoo because Che was the antithesis of all that. You don’t often see officials from the Young Communist League or the Communist Party coming here for tattoos even though they are his most loyal followers. Perhaps it’s because of the pain, or the cost. Every tattoo costs from twenty-five to fifty convertible pesos,” says the Havana tattoo artist.
If anyone has profited off Che’s visage it is his family in Cuba. Under the pretext of promoting her father’s work, Aleida Guevara has created a foundation in his name whose trademark yields good economic dividends.
Let’s call him Ruben. He is a person intimately familiar with the Che Guevara Foundation’s scams. “The fat lady (Aleida) does not miss a thing,” he says. “Two years ago a left-wing South American publisher released a book on Che’s ideas and Aleida sued them, demanding payment. Che would have been very honest but his Cuban descendants are litigious. They like money more than sweet coconut.”
Daniel, a fan of Harley Davidson motorcycles, recalls, “At a time when there were very few people in Cuba who cared about Harleys, some of us formed a club which met on weekends. After going through a lot of red tape, we organized a Harley festival in Varadero which riders from other countries would attend. But when Che’s two sons, Camilo and Ernestico, got wind of it, they took over. They partnered with Gaviota, opened a bar in Varadero which charged in hard currency, rented out brand new Harleys and charged $2,500 to $3,000 to tour the entire island. They have falsified history; the motorcycle Che used on this tour through South America was a Norton 500.
Ernesto Guevara works better as a business venture than an ideology. At the time of his detention, he told his captor, Felix Rodriguez, that he was worth more alive than dead. He was not mistaken.