Che Trippers

Long declared to be mere footnotes to history, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are riding high in the American media.

Long declared to be mere footnotes to history, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are riding high in the American media. The Cuban Revolution, it seems, is everywhere once again, and cold, hard historical judgment is harder and harder to find. HBO may have pulled Oliver Stone’s fawning documentary Comandante after Mr. Castro, in April, sentenced 78 dissident Cuban writers to the gulag for 28 years, then executed three Cubans who hijacked a ferry, but the scheduling decision doesn’t appear to be a sudden spasm of political conscience. Those events, HBO said, merely mean that Comandante “has become incomplete” and would have to be updated. If viewers get impatient waiting for Mr. Stone to work in the new material, another biography of Castro is currently being produced for the PBS American Experience series.

And in the fall, we’ll have a brand-new Che movie, an adaptation of The Motorcycle Diaries , Guevara’s record of his seven-month motorbike trip across South America in 1952. The director is Walter Salles, the Brazilian director of Central Station and producer of City of God , who employs Mexican heartthrob Gael García Bernal as the charismatically fragile Che (who suffered from chronic asthma). American audiences will not be especially surprised: Mr. Bernal, star of Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También , already played Che in Showtime’s Fidel miniseries last year. As the rising Latin star of his generation, the 24-year-old Mr. García Bernal will undoubtedly do for Che what Antonio Banderas did for him in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Evita : make him, yet again, a Reinvented Hero.

None of this is new, of course. Che got his first big-screen glorification in 1969, just two years after his death, in 20th Century Fox’s Che! , with Jack Palance as Castro and Omar Sharif as a sultry Che. We didn’t exactly see Omar-as-Che dealing with the vexing problems of sugar production as a Cuban minister, but we did get a voluptuously endearing and idealistic social reformer not unlike Doctor Zhivago. Olivetti even used Che for one of its ads, with the caption: “We would have hired him.” (As what? An enforcer?)

Current vapid commercializations of the Che mystique include the cover of Madonna’s new CD American Life , on which the venerable pop star strikes a Che pose. Meanwhile, the iconic Korda image of Che adorns the key rings, rolling papers and fridge magnets that drip from a thousand sidewalk stalls, along with copies of his dozens of books, especially The Motorcycle Diaries . All this is in addition to Che beer bottles and a Che Smirnoff vodka ad campaign. A Steven Soderbergh Che project has also been rumored, with Benicio del Toro in the title role.

The refusal to see Che for what he really was is proving to be a strangely obstinate phenomenon. You never know where it will turn up next. Three years ago, for example, Presidential hopeful Gary Hart published a novel called I, Che Guevara under the pseudonym John Blackthorn. It’s a thriller set in Cuba, in which a shadowy figure somewhat resembling the long-dead Che roams that miserable isle looking for a “third way” between Castro’s Communism and Miami vice. But oddly, given Che’s actual history of affection for totalitarian methods, this fictional Che turns out to be a fan of Thomas Jefferson and the ideals of the Republic. Mr. Hart’s fantasy of Che Guevara, in other words, is a suave projection of the average, decent, middle-class white American liberal’s political sensibility. Then again, how could he be anything else?

Cold War historian Robert Conquest commented on the “rebirth” of Che in his 1999 book, Reflections on a Ravaged Century , citing the “persistence to this day of an adolescent revolutionary romanticism, as one of the unfortunate afflictions to which the human mind was and is prone.” It’s being demonstrated “yet again with (hardly credible though it may be) a revival of the cult of the totalitarian terrorist Che Guevara,” Mr. Conquest wrote.

He also notes a conversation he once had with Adam Watson, the former British ambassador to Havana, who commented that while Castro was an “amiable rogue,” Guevara was a “cold-blooded hypocrite.” But who among the avid consumers of Che memorabilia and cinematic epics would echo or even understand such sentiments? Omar Sharif as a cold-blooded hypocrite? Cute and sympathetic Gael García Bernal as a totalitarian terrorist?

Mr. Bernal, for his part, seems to speak for his generation when he expresses his admiration for Che. In a January interview with the Daily News of Los Angeles , he remarked that the role meant a great deal to him. “To play Che Guevara,” he said, “he was an amazing character. He’s a person that changed the world and really forces me to change the rules of what I am.” In a December interview with the Los Angeles Times , Mr. Bernal told a reporter that to prepare for the role, he’d been reading Karl Marx and Pablo Neruda. And, he added, “I feel a lot of responsibility. I want to do it well because of what [Che] represents to the world. He is a romantic. He had a political consciousness that changed Latin America.”

Mr. Salles himself, meanwhile, thinks Che has been revived in Latin America because he is ever more relevant to the continent’s problems, which are composed of the same “structural problems and injustices” that Che addressed 50 years ago: “If anything can change our perception of the world,” Mr. Salles has said, “it’s the possibility of proposing an outlook proper to this continent, which doesn’t mimic that of Europe or the United States.”

And let’s not overlook the words of Mike Tyson, who has a tattoo of Guevara, next to those of Arthur Ashe and Chairman Mao. “An incredible individual,” Mr. Tyson says cheerily of Che. “Someone who had so much, but sacrificed it all for the benefit of other people.”

Which other people would that be? Cubans?

A Budding Errol Flynn

Ernesto (Che) Guevara de la Serna was born in 1928 in the Argentine city of Rosario, into a slightly decayed but respectable bourgeois family. Part of the family was Irish, part Spanish, and their politics could be described as a genteel left-leaning liberalism, anti-Nazi and anti-Peronist in equal measure. Guevara studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires, graduating in 1953 and hanging around in Communist circles. Meanwhile, he had embarked on a series of voyages across the continent, two of them by motorcycle, with his friend Alberto Granado, who ran a dispensary at the leper colony of San Francisco del Chanar near Cordoba. Che’s encounter with Granado’s lepers on the first trip in 1951 is often cited as having radicalized his social conscience. And during the second voyage, in 1952, while in Lima, Peru, he met Dr. Hugo Pesce, the head of the Peruvian national leprosy program and an avid Marxist.

Che’s long conversations with Pesce had a profound effect on him, as he himself later avowed. Leprosy, poverty and Marx: They made for a powerful moral cocktail in the mind of a privileged medical student from Rosario. He promptly wrote a letter home quoting the words of José Martí: “I want to link my destiny to that of the poor of this world.”

It would be obtuse not to admit that part of Che’s charm is his successful breakout from middle-class routines. Che lived out a fantasy to which few of us are immune. The social pathologies of Latin America are also real enough. To be radicalized by a Peruvian leper colony is neither perverse nor beyond comprehension. Not to be so radicalized might be the worse sin.

This second trip provided the material for The Motorcycle Diaries . It’s a slight but charming book, alternating breathless bursts of social zeal with lyrical sensitivity and catty portraits of the locals. The young Che comes across as something of a feckless social climber, good at buttering up useful people, ever ready to drop the family name, charming but also socially ruthless. He’s part stereotypical shallow Argentine playboy, part budding Errol Flynn.

All of Guevara’s books seem to come with sheaves of photographs, as if everything in his life were constantly being prepared for mythology. And in these, we see Che as he probably was: a pretty, convivial, quick-tongued Latin American prince off on a peripatetic lark. He sizes up people according to whether they are “useful” or not; he badgers his mother for supplies of mate tea. Aside from small-town networking, Che’s two principal interests are mines and archaeological sites.

Perhaps the most famous declaration of the young Che comes from a letter he wrote from Costa Rica to his aunt Beatriz:

I traversed the vast dominions of United Fruit. Once more I was able to convince myself how criminal the capitalistic octopuses are. On a picture of our old and bewailed Comrade Stalin, I swore not to rest before the capitalistic octopuses are destroyed.

But it was Che’s journey to Guatemala in 1953 that would ultimately provide him with his road-to-Damascus moment. The following year, he witnessed firsthand the C.I.A.-backed coup that toppled the country’s Socialist president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, and replaced him with the more amenable Carlos Castillo Armas. For Che, the 1954 coup was a crucial event-a symptomatic intervention by the U.S . government to protect the interests of American companies, in this case the dreaded United Fruit. Fleeing to Mexico in the coup’s aftermath, Che met a young student gangster named Fidel Castro and quickly talked his way into being the medical officer for Mr. Castro’s 1956 invasion of Cuba aboard the Granma . His transformation from roaming medical student into guerrilla was swiftly completed.

Of course, it was Che’s role in the Cuban Revolution that turned him into the poster boy we all know. But it was a quixotic participation in many ways. Che was known inside the revolution as a strict disciplinarian, ready to sign death warrants and mete out sundry brutalities. And yet, for all that, he was spectacularly ineffective. From 1961 to 1965, Che was Cuba’s Minister for Industries; before that, from 1959 to 1961, he was the head of the national bank. Both stints ended in farce. A Cuban expedition to Congo to prop up the anti-Mobutu forces fighting there ended similarly. Che, in fact, failed at anything requiring real ability and perseverance. He was a charismatic dilettante, like most professional revolutionaries, but in between he lived the activist high life: the Bandung-generation Third World conference circuit, dramatic speeches at the United Nations, clandestine peregrinations from country to country, murky deals, love affairs and connections in high places. None of it amounted to anything, however. In the end, Che had to foment real revolutions or nothing. And so, in the ultimate tilt at windmills, he set off in 1966 to start one in Bolivia.

It was yet another fiasco, but this time one that cost him his life. After a disastrous Keystone Kops campaign in the foothills of the Andes, his little band was cornered by a Ranger Battalion of the Bolivian Army near the town of Vallegrande on Oct. 8, 1967. Che was summarily executed the next day. His body was then publicly displayed on a laundry sink, providing him with his last and most provocative photo op.

The Dreary Language of Revolutionaries

But the sex appeal of dubious, semi-fraudulent characters like Che and Castro goes beyond images-if not very far beyond. It’s clear that Cuba, the society they manufactured together, is as oppressive and miserable as any on earth. But we seem not to care. Or, at least, our filmmakers seem not to care. They can latch onto a rhetoric of “social justice,” ever vague and undefined. After all, as Jane Fonda once said, “To be a revolutionary, you have to be a human being. You have to care about other people.” That’s sexy. But what about Che’s genuflections to Comrade Stalin? A bit less sexy. He once signed a letter “Stalin II.” Will that be in the movie? Probably not.

Mr. Salles is actually sorely mistaken in thinking of Che as something “indigenous.” His thought was a hackneyed rip-off of the European revolutionary tradition, about as indigenous as the East German notebooks he wrote his Bolivian diaries in. Guevara’s early Stalinism had implications for his lifelong public attitudes and actions. What appealed to him in Marx, Stalin and the young Mussolini, after all, was a strain of visionary apocalypse, of globalized conflict, which effortlessly opened the door to jejune gangsterism.

As it is, the language of revolutionaries, from Lenin to Osama bin Laden, with its metaphors of weaponry, trenches and assaults, is as dreary in Che’s bad prose as it is anywhere else. Here, for example, is Che’s Tricontinental Speech of 1965:

Our every action is a battle cry against imperialism, and a battle hymn for the people’s unity against the great enemy of mankind: the United States of America. Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this, our battle cry, may have reached some receptive ear, and another hand may be extended to wield our weapons, and other men be ready to intone our funeral dirge with the staccato singing of the machine guns and new battle cries of war and victory.

It’s pure, derivative Lenin.

At Home on a Bottle of Vodka

Then again, we are constantly being told what a shame it is that Che’s idealism and seriousness are being corrupted by capitalist merchandising and Hollywood makeovers. A recent piece in The Guardian by Zoe Williams lamented the crassness of Madonna’s hijacking of Che’s “epic human vision.”

But Che flirted with the media from Day 1. The so-called “guerrilla war” that toppled Batista was as much a media event as anything else. Afterward, Che admitted in a moment of candor that “the presence of a foreign journalist, American for preference, was more important to us than a military victory.” Both Castro and Che were lionized in the Western press, and they were perhaps as much deluded by it as they were by Marxist-Leninist dogma. In any case, miniseries and refrigerator magnets are hardly betrayals of either man: Alas, they are entirely appropriate incarnations of both. Che belongs on a bottle of vodka.

And herein lie the seeds of Che’s own destruction in Bolivia. He wanted to create “a hundred Vietnams” all over the continent, beginning with Bolivia. If a few thousand Bolivian peasants died in the process, well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, as thugs always say. Bolivia was a suitable place for launching the continental revolution because, as Che and Castro saw it, its cities and its mining centers were ripe for revolt. What the Cubans hadn’t bargained for, however, was that the Bolivians didn’t want a Cuban Revolution. Who can blame them? Men like Che don’t build happy societies.

In fact, Bolivians had their own Revolucion Nacional , which began in 1952. It was one of the few genuinely popular uprisings in Latin American history (no Hollywood films planned on that one, though), and, by 1964, it had produced the wily, Quechua-speaking Bolivian president, René Barrientos. The poster boy from Rosario and his band of foreigners stood no chance. Besides, the Bolivian Army spent most of its time building roads in rural areas and was therefore actually popular with the peasantry. Che was furious-and dumbfounded-that they actively preferred the army to his merry band of insurgents.

But in the end, perhaps the most fitting epitaph for Che will not be provided by his cinematic admirers and pop-culture sycophants. Gen. Jeannot Ruharara served with Che during the Congo war in 1965; he’s still a member of a roaming, pointless, gun-toting guerrilla band called the Mayi-Mayi in Congo. In a recent interview with The Independent newspaper, General Ruharara remembered Che. “We used to call him Ernesto,” he recalled fondly. “A giant of a man. Big, thick hair. Smoked a lot. Guevara taught us a lot. We hope he can come back to help us someday.”

Lawrence Osborne is the author of Paris Dreambook and American Normal . His book The Accidental Connoisseur will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2004.

Che Trippers