Che Guevara was executed in the jungles of Bolivia on October 9, 1967. Forty five years later he is venerated in Cuba. He has attained something akin to “rock star” status. His face is on Cuban money, t-shirts, banners, and tourist art. Billboards with his image encourage the Cuban people to work hard and support the revolution.
Even in the U.S., celebrities wear Che’s signature beret. He is featured in a movie, The Motorcycle Diaries,whose executive producer, Robert Redford, has depicted Che’s 1952 journey across South America; a journey generally credited with planting the seeds for his future radicalization.
Born Ernesto “Che” Guevara, on May 14, 1928, he was educated as a physician and was already active in social reform when he met Raul and Fidel Castro. He quickly became Fidel’s 2nd in command and played a key role in the success of the Cuba Revolution against Batista. He is credited with his work on Cuba’s literacy campaign and its agrarian land reform. He was a bank president and diplomat for Castro’s government. He represented Cuba throughout the international community, speaking on behalf of socialism and against the exploitation of the Southern Hemisphere by Western countries. Ultimately, he became critical of the Soviet Union, also condemning it for exploiting Cuba.
Celebrated by many as an idealist, he was a lifelong, and very charismatic, revolutionary. While revered by many for his struggle to liberate the poor, focused primarily in Africa and South and Central America, he is reviled as a guerilla leader ruthless in his discipline of his troops and brutal as the revolution’s chief executioner, instrumental in the war trials and summary executions of Castro’s adversaries.
The nature of his relationship with the Castros at the time of his death is unclear. On October 3, 1965, two years before Che’s death, Castro made public a letter from Che resigning his positions with the Cuban government, and giving up his Cuban citizenship. Whether his actions result from disagreements with Castro or merely a belief that he should be engaged in a wider campaign of “social justice” is unclear. He returned to Cuba only briefly after authoring that letter. His death changed a questionable relationship to martyrdom.
Che and twenty-nine comrades who fought with him in Bolivia are buried in the Che Guevara Mausoleum. It is located outside Villa Clara, Cuba, near one of his most significant military campaigns. It is treated as a shrine, almost a place of worship. Cameras are forbidden inside the Mausoleum, hats were required to be removed.
Nelson Mandela described Che as “an inspiration for every human being of our era who loves Freedom”. Jean Paul Sartre described him as “the most complete human being of our age.” Surely, Cuban exiles living in the U.S., whose family members were executed by Che’s firing squads, find no humanity in his deeds.
Such totally different images of a human being long dead seem incapable of reconciliation. For purposes of this post, I will not try. Instead, the question may be whether those who exalt him as a hero are influenced to do good or ill. And, from an entirely different perspective, whether his veneration impacts the nature of the short-term–and mid-term–relationships between the United States and Cuba.
 Robert Redford is photographed with Fidel Castro on the wall of the National Hotel, one of the few luxury hotels in Habana, presumably taken during a brief encounter between the two men during Redford’s trip to Cuba for a private screening of The Motorcycle Diaries for Che’s widow and children.
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