Monday, October 8, 2007

Che Guevara: Superstar Revolutionary

Bolivian leftists are holding a 40th anniversary event this week commemorating the death of Che Guevara, the murderous Latin American revolutionary who died an inglorious death in the jungles of La Higuera, Bolivia, on October 9, 1967. The Los Angeles Times has the story:

Today, the ideological legacy of this peripatetic militant may loom larger than ever in Latin America, abetted by the election of a "Pink Tide" of leftist governments from Nicaragua to Argentina. Socialism is in, the Cubans are on the march, and Che is the defiant embodiment of it all.

To his critics, Guevara was a trigger-happy megalomaniac whose bloody example led thousands to their deaths in futile uprisings that only hardened military repression from Guatemala to Chile.

But to the legions of devotees who subscribe to his personality cult, Guevara is forever the doomed idealist, the poetry- loving guerrillero and "most complete human being of our age," in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre....

A legendary guerrilla leader in the Cuban Revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Guevara stumbled in his 1960s struggles. Virtually exiled from Cuba after differing with Castro and Cuba's Soviet patrons, he suffered an ignominious defeat alongside anti-U.S. rebels in Congo before meeting his demise in a secluded Bolivian canyon at the end of a quixotic 11-month campaign.

But, 40 years later, Guevara has scored big in the contested battleground of memory, emerging as a kind of secular saint, freeze-framed at age 39 between the Summer of Love and the abyss of 1968. Hollywood sees box-office cachet in Che: Director Steven Soderbergh is filming a new biopic starring Che look-alike Benicio Del Toro.

"Today Che is associated in the collective conscience with values -- his ethics, his principles, his willingness to lose his life for an ideal," biographer Pacho O'Donnell wrote recently in the Argentine weekly Veintitres.

Guevara, a physician with no formal military training, was also something else, critics say: prolific executioner, dogmatic totalitarian and co-designer of the Cuban police state and indoctrination apparatus.

His detractors contend that his short life may appear to his admirers more James Dean than Chairman Mao, but his politics were more Comrade Stalin than Mahatma Gandhi.

"What's left is a kind of idealistic, romantic aura," said Jorge Lanata, an Argentine journalist who has written about Guevara. "It's more culture than political."
I often shake my head at the celebrity cult that has emerged around this revolutionary villain. Young "progressive" mall-rats who wear t-shirts adorned with Che's iconic image - indelibly represented by Alberto Korda's world-famous snapshot - are either indifferent to Guevara's history as Fidel Castro's most willing executioner or downright ignorant of it.

I read up a bit on Che after I saw the 2004 film, "The Motorcyle Diaries," a Che biopic that develops the revolutionary killer's cinema cult. I remember reading
Anthony Daniel's critical review of the film at The New Criterion, which concludes with this interesting nugget:

In presenting Guevara as a romantic figure, generous and compassionate rather than ruthlessly priggish and self-centered, and by suggesting that he has anything to teach us other than negatively, the director is guilty of mendacity of a very high order. The film is an exercise in moral frivolity and exhibitionism, self-congratulation, of course, opportunism. It should sell as well as Guevara T-shirts.

The global activists making the trip to Bolivia's Che commemoration this week obviously won't be keeping such points in mind.