Che: The Ronald McDonald of Revolution

Speaker's Corner: Rolf Potts examines the clichés of the revolutionary's admirers and detractors

01.27.09 | 10:00 AM ET

Che billboard Cienfuegos, CubaREUTERS/AIN/Justo Gonzalez Ortega

Visit the Museo de la Revolución in central Havana, and two things about the museum’s photo displays will immediately capture your attention. First, it’s clear that the battle to control Cuba in the late 1950s was ultimately won by the cool guys. Young, bearded and ruggedly handsome, the rebel warriors of Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement look like Beat hipsters and rock stars—Fidel tall and imposing in his fatigues; Camillo Cienfuegos grinning under his broad-brimmed cowboy hat; Ernesto “Che” Guevara looking smolderingly photogenic in his black beret. By contrast, the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista and his cronies look bloated, balding and unquestionably corrupt in their stubby neckties and damp armpits and oversized paunches. Even without reading the captions, it’s easy to discern the heroes from the villains.

Look closer, however, and you’ll notice that the triumphant photos of Fidel and Che are faded and mildewed, their corners curled by age and humidity. The photo captions are spelled out in a clunky die-cast typeset that hasn’t been used in a generation, and contain glowing present-tense references to the magnanimity of the Soviet Union—a country that hasn’t existed since 1991. Despite the grungy glamour of the young men who toppled a tyrant all those years ago, the anachronism and decay of the museum’s exhibits reveal just how tired and toothless Cuba’s revolutionary myths have become in Havana. In many ways, the building is a museum of a museum—a yellowing relic of how the communist regime chose to portray itself in the 1970s.

Step outside the Museo de la Revolución into the humid Havana air, and the glamorous sheen of the bygone Cuban revolution seems to have been distilled into a single image—Alberto Korda’s famous 1960 photo of a bearded Che Guevara looking steely and determined in his beret. In a city where few buildings outside the restored Habana Vieja district have seen a new coat of paint in half a century, freshly retouched renderings of Che’s mug adorn countless walls and billboards. Moreover, in a country largely devoid of public advertising and religious iconography, Guevara’s ubiquitous image appears to fill the role of both Jesus Christ and Ronald McDonald—a sainted martyr of unwavering purity who also happens to promote a meticulously standardized (if not particularly nutritious) political menu. 

Study the life of Che Guevara and a complicated portrait emerges. Raised by old-money bohemian parents in Argentina, young Ernesto struggled with asthma, read voraciously, studied medicine and became inspired to help the world’s poor after vagabonding through the Americas in his early 20s. Falling in with Fidel and Raul Castro in Mexico, he played a heroic role in the Cuban insurgency that eventually brought down one of the most spectacularly corrupt regimes in the history of Latin America. As he worked with Fidel to consolidate the revolution, Che displayed incredible physical and intellectual energy, an unyielding (if rather creepy and totalitarian) idealism and a consistent inability to see any project through to a successful completion. Guevara’s stint as minister of industry and president of the national bank crippled the Cuban economy and resulted in food rationing; his rigid Marxist-Leninist fantasies helped derail the revolution’s original democratic-socialist inclinations and led to Cuba’s dependence on the Soviet Union; his inability to recruit and organize the very peasants he meant to liberate led to a series of disastrous guerrilla adventures in Africa and Latin America, ultimately resulting in his capture and execution in Bolivia. Fortunately for his legacy, he left a beautiful corpse (quite literally, as photographed by his killers), and he’s been an icon of revolutionary romanticism ever since.

Interestingly, Che’s legacy inspires some of the least street-level romanticism within the country he influenced the most. I recently spent a month in Cuba, and—despite the surplus of government-issued Che images along the avenues of Havana—I rarely met Cubans under the age of 40 who regarded Guevara with anything other than ambivalence. Whereas outsiders see Guevara as a symbol of rebellion, two generations of Cuban children have been required to bleat “Seremos como el Che!” (“We will be like Che!”) at the outset of each school day. Most people I spoke with were proud to be Cuban and could intellectualize the historical merits of the revolution (and Guevara’s role in it), but they were less concerned with emulating Che than navigating the absurd challenges of day-to-day life in a repressive, dysfunctional gerontocracy.

Indeed, to get a sense for what it’s like to be 18 and Cuban these days, imagine going to a high school that won a miraculous and inspiring football championship in 1959. The guy that quarterbacked the team some 50 years ago is still wearing the same damned uniform—only now he’s the school principal, and he’s decreed that all academic subjects must be studied within the context of that bygone championship game. Everyone at your school is now an honorary member of the football team—though the stadium is condemned from years of neglect, no actual games have been played in decades and anyone with the temerity to point out this discrepancy is summarily sent to detention. On most school days you’re required to study your principal’s old pass-routes and blocking schemes and tell him how ingenious he was to have devised them. All of which would seem insane were it not for the fact that tourists from wealthier schools—schools with actual, functioning football teams—are constantly visiting your class to marvel over how wonderful it was that your team triumphed 50 years ago, and gush about how proud you must be to have such innovative role models. In this context, it’s easy to understand why young Cubans are underwhelmed by the idea of Che: To them, he’s just another sepia portrait in the trophy case—handsome and intriguing, perhaps, but hardly relevant or revolutionary.

Granted, it’s not hard to find Che Guevara aficionados in Cuba—just keep an eye out for anyone who has the option to leave the country at their leisure. During my month in Havana, I met half a dozen Europeans with Che tattoos on various body parts, no less than two Uruguayan medical students who unironically wore black berets, and a woman from Oregon who sported a homemade “Guerrillero Heroico” tank top and insisted that the blame for contemporary Cuban misery could be traced to the small-minded prejudices of red-state America. Whenever I mentioned the more troubling aspects of Che’s biography to these folks, none of them seemed all that fazed. Sure, Che might have promoted his ideals through force and violence, they said, but unwavering conviction and action are the only forces that can change a complacent world. Sure, Che shrugged off torture and executions on his watch, but he was at heart an inspiring humanitarian who ultimately hoped to improve the lives of millions. Sure, Che tried to impose a one-size-fits-all political vision on faraway cultures—but at least that vision was just, and might well have worked had it been given a chance to take hold. 

This kind of rationalization sounded vaguely familiar at the time, and it wasn’t until I returned to the United States that I realized neo-conservative apologists were using the exact same language and reasoning to defend the foreign policy decisions of George W. Bush.

While it’s doubtful that any filmmaker would endeavor to dramatize Bush through the unvarnished lens of his political ideals, that’s more or less the treatment Guevara gets in “Che,” Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour, two-part film biopic, screening in select theaters nationwide. Soderbergh’s project, which stars Academy Award-winner Benicio del Toro, depicts Che’s military accomplishments in Cuba as well as his failed guerrilla insurgency in Bolivia. Though both installments of the film are too grungy and impressionistic to spin Guevara as a typecast Hollywood hero, the continual portrayal of Che sacrificing and suffering for his ideals makes him come off like something more fanciful—a warrior-humanist martyr, as comfortable tending to the sick and illiterate as he is brandishing his rifle or facing certain death. Guevara’s less-than-saintly real-life exploits between his Cuba and Bolivia campaigns (including but not limited to his role in executing political prisoners in Havana, his callous mismanagement of the Cuban economy and his military blunderings in the Congo) are conveniently glossed over.

Omission or embellishment of context is, in fact, a central pillar of the Che Guevara movie sub-genre (which goes all the way back to 1969’s “Che!”—which starred Omar Sharif and was directed by the same guy who made “Soylent Green” and “Mandingo”). In the climactic scene of Walter Salles’ 2004 film “The Motorcycle Diaries,” for instance, a young Che played by Mexican heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal swims across a swollen Amazon tributary as a display of solidarity with a group of dispossessed Peruvian lepers. Read the actual diary on which the movie was based, however, and it’s apparent that Guevara’s river-swim was an apolitical test of his own aquatic skills—and, on saying goodbye to the lepers, he glibly noted that they looked “like a scene from a horror movie.” Moreover, Guevara’s unnerving sense of entitlement in the pages of “The Motorcycle Diaries” (at one point young Ernesto throws a sullen tantrum when a local shipping deputy won’t comp his riverboat fare) never makes the transition onto Salles’ big-screen version.

Tempting as it may be to attribute Che’s popular appeal to the reductionist tropes of photography and cinema, however, I’d wager his enduring potency goes beyond mere imagery. Of the many books that have been released or reprinted to coincide with the release of Soderbergh’s movie, Humberto Fontova’s “Exposing the Real Che Guevara” is perhaps the most telling. Published by Penguin’s politically conservative Sentinel imprint, “Exposing the Real Che Guevara” is meant to be a polemic against Guevara’s T-shirt-certified mythology—but in function it does a lot to show how Che’s reputation actually benefits from the myopic fury (and misguided political influence) of those who hate him the most. 

Taken in selective doses, Fontova’s book does punch some well-placed holes in Che’s presumed humanism and military competence. The problem is that each argument invariably meanders off into subject matter that has little to do with the book’s premise. A chapter that starts out as an indictment of Guevara’s battlefield acumen ultimately turns into a tribute to the Cuban-exile fighters who stormed the Bay of Pigs in 1961; a chapter meant to debunk Che’s intellectual proclivities wanders off into a jeremiad on behalf of the Cuban-exiles who lost their art collections after the revolution. In places, Fontova’s books seems less an indictment of Guevara than the New York Times (which gave positive coverage to Che and Fidel in the months before they toppled Batista) or John F. Kennedy (who scuttled U.S. military support when the Bay of Pigs invasion went sour). 

Ultimately, “Exposing the Real Che Guevara” is less about Che Guevara than the “King Lear”-style resentments of the Cuban-Americans who hate him—and the effectiveness of its argument suffers as a result. In two lengthy chapters detailing Guevara’s bloodthirsty stint as commander of Havana’s La Cabaña Fortress prison, Fontova veers into abstraction by continually comparing Che and Fidel’s tyranny to that of Hitler and Stalin instead of contemporary Latin American dictators like Somoza or Trujillo. The most damning comparison might well have been to draw parallels to the brutal repression of Batista himself—the very tyrant Che helped depose—but this would have been too awkward a juxtaposition for the Cuban exiles the author seems anxious to venerate. This gives the book a slightly schizophrenic tone, from which it never fully departs. At one point, Fontova convincingly argues that Guevara wanted the all-encompassing U.S. economic embargo that strains Cuban-American relations to this day. So why not ruin Che’s master plan by lifting the embargo and flooding Cuba with American investment, trade and tourism? Fontova’s answer is incoherent: “Libertarian-free-market ideologues got it wrong,” he writes. “They insisted that with the lifting of the embargo, capitalists would sneak in and eventually blindside Castro. All the proof was to the contrary. Capitalism didn’t sweep Castro away or even co-opt him. He swept it away.” 

Such an inane suspension of logic and chronology would be easier to dismiss if it didn’t mirror 50 years of American foreign policy toward Cuba. There is no doubt that Cuban exiles suffered when Fidel and Che took power all those years ago, but basing present-day policy decisions on 1959-vintage revenge fantasies is not only ineffective (as Castro’s lengthy reign has illustrated)—it’s bad for the image and national interests of a country that already has a less-than-honorable track record in Latin America. Che Guevara’s radicalization is famously tied to America’s moral hypocrisy in the region (specifically the CIA-sponsored 1954 coup in Guatemala, when Eisenhower chose the corporate interests of United Fruit Company over the authority of a democratically elected government)—and his revolutionary legacy will likely remain strong so long as the U.S. government flouts international law with the Helms-Burton Act, permits prisoner abuse in Guantánamo and punishes Cuba for the same set of political circumstances it tolerates in China and Vietnam. 

In recent years many people have pointed out how Che Guevara may someday be remembered as a capitalist brand as much as a communist firebrand. Those affronted by the intolerant extremes of Che’s Marxism can take comfort in the fact that his visage is now used to sell T-shirts, belt buckles, Taco Bell gorditas, bikinis and “Cherry Guevara” ice cream sandwiches (“the revolutionary struggle of the cherries ... trapped between two layers of chocolate”). 

This in itself is a telling contradiction. But so long as U.S.-Cuba policy remains as warped and dated as the photos in Havana’s Museo de la Revolución, Che Guevara will continue to thrive as a catchall symbol of the American government’s own tendency to contradict itself.