It was forty years ago on October 8 when he was executed by a Bolivian Army subjected to CIA orders – sprinkled with Bolivian Rangers trained by US instructors imported from Laos. Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna might have been an austere, serious nemesis of the Western capitalist order. Or he might have been just a solitary idealist, a celestial wanderer. At 39, captured, wounded, exhausted, shackled, suffering with asthma, like a lion in a cage – the dingy room at a little adobe school in the tiny pueblo of La Higuera – he rose from a rickety chair to stand tall and face death.
His trembling executioner, soldier Mario Teran, later recalled his last words: “Be serene,” said Che, “and be on target. You are about to kill a man.” Teran saw “a big Che, enormous. His eyes were gleaming …When he stared at me, I felt dizzy …” At one in the afternoon, his hands shaking, Teran would unleash two bursts of machine-gun fire into Che’s chest (to make it look like he was shot in combat), just to plunge into an endless nightmare himself.
Then there was the striking smiling corpse, eyes wide open, brought as a war trophy by the Bolivian soldiers to the hospital laundry in colonial-era Vallegrande. Some compared it to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson; it was rather the Lamentation over the Dead Christ in Renaissance master Mantegna’s 1490 AD masterpiece. The laundry today is a holy chapel – its walls covered by thousands of pilgrim’s inscriptions. The school at La Higuera is a museum where peasants sell pieces of earth impregnated with the blood of Che.
As much as Spartacus throughout history became the icon of all global wars fought by slaves against their masters, Che in only four decades is the undisputed global icon of all wars fought by rebellious peoples who believe in hope against injustice and who believe another, less cruel world is possible.
He’s not only “Che-sus” – more popular than Jesus in a way John Lennon himself wouldn’t dream of. He is revered by Bengalis in Kolkatta, Palestinians in Gaza, Egyptian lawyers, Uzbek dissidents, Afghan exiles, Kiwi backpackers, Russian soccer players, Syrian computer wizards, the Pumas (the Argentine rugby team), Cuban chess masters, Brazilian motorcycle gangs, Iraqi sharpshooters. In His name, everything is permitted. Last week Che’s daughters were invited by an Iranian university just for them to learn he was being hailed as an anti-communist religious leader. In Bolivia – where in 1967 he hoped to be spearheading guerrilla columns towards Peru and Argentina – he’s no less than Saint Che, or San Ernesto de La Higuera, and his story, via crucis, is transmitted by sacred oral tradition from peasant to peasant.
A recently declassified secret note of Paraguayan intelligence tells how Che, disguised as “Oscar Ferreira”, was crossing from Brazil to Paraguay in 1966. This proves how all US-supported dictatorships in the southern cone were in close synch at the time, all bowing to the dictates of US counterinsurgency. The problem is that at that very moment Che was fighting in the Congo.
Top of the pops
Che, single red-starred beret pulled casually over gorgeous long black hair, eyes flaming with purpose and staring into infinity, is the most iconic, recycled and ripped off image of the 20th – and so far, 21st – centuries. Alberto “Korda” Diaz, Fidel’s official photographer, has described Che in the legendary March 4, 1960 shot he defines as “Guerrillero Heroico” (Heroic Fighter), as “encabronado y dolente” (angry and sad).
But way beyond this angry and sad “die young, stay pretty” rock aesthetic, transcending all ideology, transcending all the perverse embraces of hyper-capitalism, Che came to personify the very essence of rebellion and resistance, anti-imperialist struggle with a romantic aura. From soccer god Maradona, with a tattooed Che on his shoulder, to Osama bin Laden, who could not resist posing for the Islamic masses as Sheikh Guevara. Serious students of Che’s life came to view him not only as a symbol of all things revolutionary, but of an almost Zen-like compassion and sacrifice for a worthy cause. He became much more of a cultural than a political hero. That explains his killer seduction of global youth’s collective unconscious.
As a representation of dreams and aspirations, he could not but belong to a pantheon of Virgins and saints. As the ultimate crossover saint, pop sainthood had to translate into pop art. Thus the prized Che-signed Cuban banknotes at Buenos Aires flea markets, the Che cigarettes in Peru, the Che bikinis in Brazil, the Che clocks in Kerala, Che on Thai trucks, Che wallets and lighters in China, and on the T-shirts worn by radical Hong Kong legislator Leung “Long Hair” Kwok-hung, Che alongside Sheikh Nasrallah in Lebanon, Che alongside Imam Hussein all over the Middle East.
On the road with Che
Doctor, serial reader, serial smoker, a lover of chess, rugby and motorcycles, amateur economist, one-time Minister of Industries and Minister of Finance in revolutionary Cuba, Fidel Castro’s favorite commander, the greatest Latin American since Bolivar, Che was above all a humanist. It’s all there in his many writings – stressing the crucial importance of every cultural process linked to economic transformation, an analysis which orthodox Marxism never addressed.
In a post-modern South American echo of Ken Kesey’s Magic Bus, which in the early 1960s was driving “further”, introducing the US to acid tests, a yellow La Preferida (The Prefered) bus set out from Buenos Aires on a 36-hour journey towards Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and then the holy sites of Vallegrande and La Higuera, carrying everything from young Argentine militants to Uruguayan union leaders, not to mention the coca leaf-chewing Bolivian drivers, everyone listening to Bolivian rock group Atayo. How’s that for South American integration?
They are all now mingling with rock musicians, Nobel Prize winners, Cubans who fought with Che in the National Liberation Army of Bolivia, hordes of students, peasants, European tourists, 1960s dreamers and assorted armchair revolutionaries at the apex of five-day World Che Festival, drenched with music, movies, performance art, ritual pilgrimages and even a soccer Che cup.
They are all at the heart of the government-sanctioned, 280km-long Che Guevara trail in south-central Bolivia – the South American answer to the Ho Chi Minh trail in Vietnam. One wonders how Che – who plied these then dusty routes in the 1950s – would contemplate South American integration via revolutionary tourism, complete with bed and breakfast and trekking guides.
The Cuban ambassador to Bolivia, Rafael Dausa Cespedes, swears “this land is blessed by the blood of Che”. And by his lessons as well, one might add. There are 2,180 doctors and 119 teachers from Cuba currently working in Bolivia – by request of President Evo Morales. The ambassador stresses Cuba does not want oil or mineral concessions from Bolivia – unlike other world powers. Even Argentines are crossing the border to have their eye operations performed by skilled Cuban doctors – for whom poetic justice is sweet to the ears: before becoming a revolutionary wanderer, Che was a doctor himself.
Former soldier Mario Teran, the man who killed Che, lives in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, anonymous and dirt poor. He used to be blind because he was unable to finance a cataract operation. Cuban doctors have operated on 600,000 people in 28 countries, free of charge. Including 110,000 Bolivians and Teran. The full story of how he was cured by doctors sent by Fidel Castro was revealed to a Bolivian newspaper over a year ago by Teran’s son.
From Patagonia to Rio Bravo
Che’s daughter, Aleida Guevara, sees Latin America today as being at a “special moment” in history, recalling how her father emphasized the necessity of social movements to gather force, and everyone to realize “we are a big Latin-American family”, a “big motherland from the Rio Bravo to Patagonia”.
On December 9, 1964 Che pronounced in a prophetic speech at the United Nations in New York about the liberation of Latin America. It was his last public appearance before setting off for the Congo. Recently, an Aymara (member of an Indian people living in the mountainous regions around Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and Perualso) did New York. It was Bolivian President Evo Morales, during the UN General Assembly. He played soccer, he talked to union workers about Abraham Lincoln, dazzled Jon Stewart and the audience of The Daily Show with his sincerity, integrity and very gentle charisma.
Just as ghastly racist Bolivian white elites call him “indio de mierda” (shitty Indian), the Bush administration denies visas to mestizo (mixed Spanish/Indian) members of Evo’s cabinet. Che would immediately see what Evo provokes in white Bolivians, exiled white Cubans, prejudiced Americans, or Peruvian first-class writer and mediocre politician Mario Vargas Llosa: fear.
Evo is doing now what Che wanted to do 40 years ago – and it goes way beyond a Marxist revolution. No wonder a portrait of Che hangs in Evo’s presidential office in La Paz. Evo is a truly indigenous son of the land. His massive support base is not only Bolivian, but reaches across Latin America. He is forcing the white elites still with a conquistador mentality to confront their pitiful record in terms of exploiting, humiliating and plundering the riches of South America’s indigenous populations. And the white, exploitative elites are of course terrified of facing a slow but inevitable redistribution of wealth.
Evo even set up a kind of decolonization government body to help people deal with the effects of Western hyper-capitalism. If there is any “ism” in this revolution, it is humanism. And the inspiration had to come from Che.
Che would immediately smile, smoking a pipe, at how Evo and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela are demonized to kingdom come for nationalizing oil and gas and using the extra cash for much-needed investment in health and education and to accelerate the dreaded redistribution of wealth. Who profits? Instead of Corporate America or Corporate Europe, it’s the “indios de mierda” derided by racists – the poor indigenous and mestizos in Venezuela and Bolivia.
And Ecuador is right on track as well. Che lives in Ecuador – where the party of US-trained economist and President Rafael Correa recently grabbed the majority seats of the Constituent Assembly that will write a new constitution stressing national sovereignty and national assets in Ecuadorian, not foreign corporate hands. Just as Bolivia had been reduced by former US-puppet, comprador governments to the status of poorest country in South America, Ecuador also lags; although it’s the fifth largest oil exporter in Latin America, its illiteracy rate is 65% and its external debt towards the IMF is proportionally one of the highest.
Correa will not strike any FTA with Washington, will not be attached to the US-designed Plan Colombia, and will definitely renegotiate the national debt. What Che wanted 40 years ago is what most South American countries are striving for now: improved, increasing regional integration, not US-imposed FTAs. Seven South American countries are now joining the new Bank of the South, with its HQ in Caracas. Bye bye IMF and its poverty-inducing “structural adjustments”.
So what Che symbolizes now, mostly in Latin America but also in the troubled Middle East, is the pure essence of all 1960s dreams of radical change. And it’s even more irresistible when sprinkled with a sense of style. The man was a lover of poetry. A new book launched in Argentina, El Cuaderno Verde del Che (Che’s Green Book) is an anthology of 69 poems by, among others, Pablo Neruda, Nicolas Guillen and Cesar Vallejo, copied by Che in the Bolivian jungle. The book was found by three Bolivian officers and a CIA agent in Che’s backpack, a few hours before he was killed.
When you have brains, balls, good looks, true compassion and style your only way is up – towards a worldwide moral and political high ground. For all the young at heart in the world, Che lives – forever, and so does the example he set. The fight for social justice is an eternal flame. Hasta la victoria, siempre.