Legacy of Che Guevara
The legacy of Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara (June 14, 1928 – October 9, 1967) is constantly evolving in the collective imagination. As a ubiquitous symbol of counterculture worldwide, Guevara is one of the most recognizable and influential revolutionary figures of the twentieth century. However, during his life, and even more since his death, Che has elicited controversy and wildly divergent opinions as to who he was and what he represented. Mostly revered and occasionally reviled, he is passionately characterized along the entire continuum as everything from a heroic defender of the poor, to a cold-hearted executioner. Admired, sanctified, romanticized and derided, his crystallized status as either a brilliant intellectual or a violent ideologue is usually dependent on where one falls along the left and right of the political spectrum. The debate around his legacy is further complicated by the fact that Guevara exists simultaneously as several different entities, both literal man and global emblem, leading to disputes between what people contend he did and what he now represents.
Guevara's extensive written legacy includes intellectual writings on radical Marxist politics and social theory, military/guerrilla warfare strategy and tactics, diplomatic memos, books, speeches, magazine articles, letters, poetry and diaries, as well as official documents preserved in Cuban government archives. Che's practical and theoretical work had a profound political impact around the globe during the second half of the 20th century, especially in the developing world, where revolutionary organizing and anti-colonial struggles were inspired by his thought and example. As a consequence, his writings have been translated into hundreds of different languages.
Martyrdom and sanctification
In 1967, while pictures of Guevara's dead body were being circulated and the circumstances of his death debated, his legend began to spread. Demonstrations in protest against his execution occurred throughout the world, and articles, tributes, songs and poems were written about his life and death. Latin America specialists advising the U.S. State Department immediately recognized the significance in the demise of "the most glamorous and reportedly most successful revolutionary", noting that Guevara would be eulogized by communists and other leftists as a "model revolutionary who met a heroic death."
British politician George Galloway has remarked that "one of the greatest mistakes the US state ever made was to create those pictures of Che's corpse. Its Christ-like poise in death ensured that his appeal would reach way beyond the turbulent university campus and into the hearts of the faithful, flocking to the worldly, fiery sermons of the liberation theologists." The Economist magazine has also pointed out how Che's post death photos resemble Andrea Mantegna's The Lamentation over the Dead Christ. Thus fixing Guevara as a modern saint, the man who risked his life twice in countries that were not his own before giving it in a third, and whose invocation of the "new man", driven by moral rather than material incentives, smacked of Saint Ignatius of Loyola more than Marx.
This rung true the following year in 1968 when among Italy's emerging new breed of Roman Catholic militants, named the Jacques Maritain Circle arranged a memorial mass in Che's honor and Catholic services were held for him in several other countries. In addition, in Brazil, mythmakers began to circulate thousands of photograph copies of a dead Che captioned "A Saint of Our Time". Italian students took up a similar tone and christened Guevara an "Angela della Pace" – "Angel of Peace." Regardless of Che's non-sanctifying failures and contradictions, or the obsolescence of his methods and ideology, the potency of his "messianic image", with its "symbolic" and "religious quality", continues to inspire many throughout the World.
1960s & 70s symbol of rebellion
Guevara, who has been variously described as "the rock-hero biker revolutionary", "the martyr to idealism", and "James Dean in fatigues"; became a potent secular symbol of rebellion and revolution during the May 1968 protests in France. In the view of The Guardian's Gary Younge, "(Che's) journey from middle-class comfort to working-class champion and his long-haired unkempt look, mirrored the aspirations and self-image of the Woodstock generation as they demonstrated against the Vietnam war." For her part, the 1960s literary icon Susan Sontag spoke glowingly of the "inspiring beautiful legend" that was Guevara, comparing him Lord Byron, Emiliano Zapata, and José Martí. Moreover, the slogan Che lives! began to appear on walls throughout the West, while Jean-Paul Sartre, a leading existentialist philosopher who knew Guevara personally, encouraged the adulation by describing him as "the most complete human being of our age."
In addition, more radical left wing activists responded to Guevara's apparent indifference to rewards and glory, and concurred with Guevara's sanctioning of violence as a necessity to instill socialist ideals. Even in the United States, the government which Guevara so vigorously denounced, students began to emulate his style of dress, donning military fatigues, berets, and growing their hair and beards to show that they too were opponents of U.S. foreign policy. For instance, the Black Panthers began to style themselves "Che-type" while adopting his trademark black beret, while Arab guerrillas began to name combat operations in his honor. Addressing the wide-ranging flexibility of his legacy, Trisha Ziff, director of the 2008 documentary Chevolution, has remarked that "Che Guevara's significance in modern times is less about the man and his specific history, and more about the ideals of creating a better society." In a similar vein, the Argentine writer Ariel Dorfman has suggested Guevara's enduring appeal might be because "to those who will never follow in his footsteps, submerged as they are in a world of cynicism, self-interest and frantic consumption, nothing could be more vicariously gratifying than Che's disdain for material comfort and everyday desires."
Cuba has promoted Che as a "symbol of revolutionary virtues, sacrifice and internationalism" inside and outside the country since his death. Guevara remains a "beloved national hero" in Cuba (almost a secular saint, to many on the Caribbean island), where he is remembered for promoting unpaid voluntary work by working shirtless on building sites or hauling sacks of sugar. To this day, he appears on a Cuban banknote cutting sugar cane with a machete in the fields.
The Cuban state has continued to cultivate Guevara’s appreciation, constructing numerous statues and artworks in his honor throughout the land; adorning school rooms, workplaces, public buildings, billboards, and money with his image. His visage is also on postage stamps and the 3-peso coin beneath the words "Patria o Muerte" (Homeland or Death). Moreover, children across the country begin each school day with the chant "Pioneers for Communism, We will be like Che!". The University of Havana also possesses an academic concentration in "Che." Guevara's mausoleum in Santa Clara has also become a site of almost religious significance to many Cubans, while the nation’s burgeoning tourist industry has benefited greatly from the ongoing international interest in Guevara's life. For example, some 205,832 people visited the mausoleum during 2004, of whom 127,597 were foreigners. However, Argentine psychoanalyst Pacho O'Donnell regrets the formal rigidity of Che's state-crafted image, opining that "The Cubans have excluded everything about the younger Che that is not heroic, including that which is most deliciously human about him. Personal doubts, the sexual escapades, the moments when he and (Alberto) Granado were drunk, none of that fits with the immortal warrior they want to project."
Despite the formal adulation, Guevara's legacy is less pronounced on a national policy front. In Cuba, Guevara's death precipitated the abandonment of guerrilla warfare as an instrument of foreign policy, ushering in a rapprochement with the Soviet Union, and the reformation of the government along Soviet lines. When Cuban troops returned to Africa in the 1970s, it was as part of a large-scale military expedition, and support for insurrection movements in Latin America and the Caribbean became logistical and organizational rather than overt. Cuba also abandoned Guevara's plans for economic diversification and rapid industrialization which had ultimately proved to be impracticable in view of the country's incorporation into the COMECON system. As early as 1965, the Yugoslav communist journal Borba observed the many half-completed or empty factories in Cuba, a legacy of Guevara's short tenure as Minister of Industries, "standing like sad memories of the conflict between pretension and reality".
In the Cuban-American community
Reverence among Cubans for Guevara's memory is by no means universal. Many Cuban exiles have spoken of Guevara in unfavorable terms, and he is remembered by some with the epithet "The Butcher of la Cabaña", a reference to Guevara’s post-revolutionary role as "supreme prosecutor" over the revolutionary tribunals at the fortress. Similar disapproval has been shared by Cuban-American actor and director Andy García, who alleged in 2004 that "Che has been romanticized over the years, but there is a darker side to his story. He looks like a rock star, but he executed a lot of people without trial or defense." Garcia's 2005 film The Lost City, portrays what could be perceived by some, as the brutality of pre and post revolution Cuba, including Che. In reference to such polarization, Cuban-American academic Uva de Aragon has hypothesized that "we'll still have to wait many years for history to deliver a definite judgement on Che, when the passions of both sides have passed."
In Latin America
In Latin America, the perceived failures of the liberal reforms of the 1990s intensified ideological antagonism towards the United States, leading to a resurgence in support for many of Guevara’s political beliefs: including Pan-Americanism, support for popular movements in the region, the nationalization of key industries and centralization of government. In nearly every upsurge of revolutionary movements in Latin America over the last forty years, from Argentina to Chile, from Nicaragua to El Salvador, from Guatemala to Mexico and Chiapas, there are traces of "Guevarismo" – sometimes clear, sometimes faint. In the view of the indigenous rights activist Rigoberta Menchú, "In these present times, when for many, ethics and other profound moral values are seen to be so easily bought and sold, the example of Che Guevara takes on an even greater dimension."
In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas, a group with ideological roots in Guevarism were re-elected to government after 16 years. Supporters wore Guevara T-Shirts during the 2006 victory celebrations. Bolivian president Evo Morales has paid many tributes to Guevara including visiting his initial burial site in Bolivia to declare "Che Lives", and installing a portrait of the Argentine made from local coca leaves in his presidential suite. In 2006, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez who has referred to Guevara as an "infinite revolutionary" and who has been known to address audiences in a Che Guevara T-shirt, accompanied Fidel Castro on a tour of Guevara’s boyhood home in Córdoba Argentina, describing the experience as "a real honor." Awaiting crowds of thousands responded with calls of "We feel it! Guevara is right with us!" Guevara’s daughter Aleida also transcribed an extensive interview with Chávez where he outlined his plans for "The New Latin America", releasing the interview in book form. Guevara also remains a key inspirational figure to the Colombian guerrilla movement, the FARC, and the Mexican Zapatistas led by Subcomandante Marcos. In addition, the various "expressions of the popular will" that Che favored over ballot-box democracy – neighborhood courts and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution – have found new expression in Venezuela and Bolivia.
Amongst the youth of Latin America, Guevara's memoir The Motorcycle Diaries has become a cult favorite with college students and young intellectuals. This has allowed Guevara to emerge as "a romantic and tragic young adventurer, who has as much in common with Jack Kerouac or James Dean as with Fidel Castro." Speaking on this phenomenon, biographer Jon Lee Anderson, has theorized that Che is "a figure who can constantly be examined and re-examined, to the younger, post-cold-war generation of Latin Americans, Che stands up as the perennial Icarus, a self-immolating figure who represents the romantic tragedy of youth. Their Che is not just a potent figure of protest, but the idealistic, questioning kid who exists in every society and every time."
Although to some Che is known as a hero — Nelson Mandela referred to him as: "An inspiration for every human being who loves freedom" — others view him as the spokesman of a failing ideology and a ruthless executioner who did not afford others a proper legal process. Typically, responses to Guevara's legacy follow partisan lines. The U.S. State Department was advised that his death would come as a relief to non-leftist Latin Americans, who had feared possible insurgencies in their own countries. Subsequent critical analysts have also shed light on aspects of cruelty in Guevara’s methods, and analysed what Fidel Castro described as Guevara’s "excessively aggressive quality." Studies addressing problematic characteristics of Guevara's life have cited his unsympathetic treatment of his fellow fighters during various guerrilla campaigns, and his frequent humiliations of those deemed his intellectual inferiors. Though much opposition to Guevara's methods has come from the political right, critical evaluation has also come from groups such as anarchists, Trotskyists, and civil libertarians, who consider Guevara an anti-working-class Stalinist, whose legacy was the creation of a more bureaucratic, authoritarian regime. Johann Hari, for example, has stated that "Che Guevara is not a free-floating icon of rebellion. He was an actual person who supported an actual system of tyranny, one that murdered millions more actual people." Detractors have also theorized that in much of Latin America, Che-inspired revolutions had the practical result of reinforcing brutal militarism for many years.
Pop culture icon
On the 40th anniversary of Guevara's execution in Bolivia the compilation Che in Verse brought together a diverse collection of 135 poems and songs in tribute to Che Guevara. Celebrated poets such as Pablo Neruda, Allen Ginsberg, Julio Cortázar, Nicolas Guillén, Derek Walcott, Al Purdy, Rafael Alberti, Ko Un, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko devoted the aforementioned works to, as the book states in its introduction, "celebrate the world’s icon of rebellion". In September 2007, Guevara was voted "Argentina's greatest historical and political figure."
Despite the occasional controversy, Guevara's status as a popular icon has continued throughout the world, leading commentators to speak of a global "cult of Che". Well known Bohemian writers extolled him, while West German playwright Peter Weiss has even compared him to "a Christ taken down from the Cross." A photograph of Guevara taken by photographer Alberto Korda has become one of the century's most ubiquitous images, and the portrait, transformed into a monochrome graphic by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, is reproduced endlessly on a vast array of merchandise, such as T-shirts, posters, cigarettes, coffee mugs, and baseball caps. This fact led Argentine business analyst Martin Krauze to postulate that "the admiration for El Che no longer extends to his politics and ideology, it’s a romantic idea of one man going to battle against the windmills, he’s a Quixote."
British journalist Sean O’Hagan has described Che as "more (John) Lennon than (Vladimir) Lenin." Taking the opposite hypothesis, Mexican commentator and Che Biographer Jorge Castañeda Gutman has proclaimed that: "Che can be found just where he belongs in the niches reserved for cultural icons, for symbols of social uprisings that filter down deep into the soil of society." Castañeda has further stated that "Che still possesses an extraordinary relevance as a symbol of a time when people died heroically for what they believed in", adding that in his view "people don't do that anymore." The saying "Viva la revolucion!" has also become very popular and synonymous with Guevara. In North America, Western Europe and many regions outside Latin America, the image has been likened to a global brand, long since shedding its ideological or political connotations. Conversely, the obsession with Guevara has also been dismissed by critics as merely "adolescent revolutionary romanticism."
American, Latin American and European writers, Jon Lee Anderson, Régis Debray, Jorge G. Castañeda and others contributed to demystify the image of Guevara via articles and extensive biographies, which detailed his life and legacy in less idealistic terms; and, in the case of Octavio Paz, was accompanied by a critical indictment of the Marxism espoused by many in the Latin American left. Political writer Paul Berman went further, asserting that the "modern-day cult of Che" obscures the work of dissidents and what he believes is a "tremendous social struggle" currently taking place in Cuba. Author Christopher Hitchens, who was a socialist and a supporter of the Cuban revolution in the 1960s but later changed his views, summarised Guevara's legacy by surmising that "Che's iconic status was assured because he failed. His story was one of defeat and isolation, and that's why it is so seductive. Had he lived, the myth of Che would have long since died." Taking the opposing view, Richard Gott a Guardian journalist in Vallegrande, sent a dispatch on the day of Guevara's death stating the following:
It was difficult to recall that this man had once been one of the great figures of Latin America. It was not just that he was a great guerrilla leader; he had been a friend of Presidents as well as revolutionaries. His voice had been heard and appreciated in inter-American councils as well as in the jungle. He was a doctor, an amateur economist, once Minister of Industries in revolutionary Cuba, and Castro's right-hand man. He may well go down in history as the greatest continental figure since Bolivar. Legends will be created around his name.
- Commandante Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928–1967) by The Mostly Water Collective
- The Spark that does not Die by Michael Löwy, International Viewpoint, July 1997
- Carlos Puebla: "Hasta Siempre, Comandante"
- U.S. Department of State: Guevara's Death, The Meaning for Latin America pg 6. October 12, 1967: Thomas Hughes, the Latin America specialist at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research providing an interpretive report for Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
- George Galloway: Should Che be an icon? Yes by The Independent, October 6, 2007
- Che Guevara: Modern Saint and Sinner" by The Economist, Oct 11, 2007
- The Cult of Che by Time, May 17, 1968
- Still a Messiah? by Isabel Hilton, New Statesman, October 4, 2007
- Che Family Album Presents New Image of Revolutionary by Gary Younge, The Guardian, July 24, 2004
- Viva Che!: The Strange Death and Life of Che Guevara, by Andrew Sinclair, 1968, re-released in 2006, Sutton publishing, ISBN 0750943106, p. 124
- Just a Pretty Face ? by The Guardian, July 11, 2004
- Michael Moynihan, "Neutering Sartre at Dagens Nyheter"
- Viva Che!: The Strange Death and Life of Che Guevara, by Andrew Sinclair, 1968, re-released in 2006, Sutton publishing, ISBN 0750943106, p. 82
- Trento, Angelo. Castro and Cuba : From the revolution to the present". p.64. Arris books. 2005.
- Ernesto "Che" Guevara (World Leaders Past & Present), by Douglas Kellner, 1989, Chelsea House Publishers (Library Binding edition), ISBN 1555468357, p. 101
- Che: A Myth Embalmed in a Matrix of Ignorance by Time Magazine October 12, 1970
- Viva the Chevolution! by Trisha Ziff, The Huffington Post, April 21, 2008
- Comrade Che Keeps an Eye on British Workers by Owen Booth, BBC News, October 24, 2002
- Cuba Honours Comrade Che by BBC News, June 15, 2003
- Che Guevara Remains a Hero to Cubans, by People's Weekly World, October 2, 2004
- Cuba remembers Che Guevara 40 years after his fall by Rosa Tania Valdes, Reuters, October 8, 2007
- Cuba's Face, by Stanford University Germanic Collections
- 40 years after Che Guevara's death, his Image is a Battleground by Marc Lacey, International Herald Tribune, October 8, 2007
- Letter from the Americas; Che Today? More Easy Rider Than Revolutionary by Larry Rohter, The New York Times, May 26, 2004
- Hugh Thomas. Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom. p. 1,007.
- Andy Garcia Tells His Cuba Story, at Last by NewsMax.com May 5, 2006
- Don’t Let This Movie Get Lost by Kathryn Jean Lopez, National Review
- Sympathizers Mark 40th anniversary of Che Guevara's Death, by the Associated Press, October 8, 2007
- How the US 'Lost' Latin America by BBC News
- Anti-U.S. Protests Flare at Summit by The Washington Post
- Latin America's Left Turn by Foreign Affairs
- Latin America: Awakening of a Continent: Synopses & Reviews by Powell Books
- Photograph of Sandinista election victory parade
- Cuba pays tribute to Che Guevara, by BBC News, Oct 9, 2007
- Evo Morales 'Padlocked' in Palace by BBC News
- Capitalism Has Only Hurt Latin America by Der Spiegel
- President Evo Morales pays tribute to Che Guevara by The Latin American and Caribbean Information Center of the Florida International University
- Hugo Chavez Superstar by The Guardian
- Castro, Chavez Tour Che Guevara’s Home by MSNBC
- Chavez: Venezuela and the New Latin America by Aleida Guevara
- The Impact and Legacy of Che Guevara’s Foco Theory, with Special Reference to Guerrilla Warfare in Colombia by Leeds University
- Profile: The Zapatistas' Mysterious Leader by BBC News
- The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation
- Editorial Review of The Bolivian Diary on Amazon.com --- This quote also appears in the opening trailer for The Motorcycle Diaries (film)
- Fidel Castro on Che Guevara: Speech by Fidel Castro, given on October 18, 1967
- The Resurrection of Che Guevara, by Samuel Farber, Summer 1998
- Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, New York: 1997, Grove Press, p. 567.
- Ernesto "Che" Guevara, 1928–1967 at LibCom
- Johann Hari: Should Che be an icon? No by The Independent, October 6, 2007
- Guevara has been heavily idolized by people in the music industry. Particularly rock and hip-hop. Despite this, some see Che as more champion of political and ideological conformity. Cuban jazz legend Paquito D'Rivera stated in interview "Che hated artists, so how is it possible that artists still today support the image of Che Guevara?" The Killing Machine: Che Guevara, from Communist Firebrand to Capitalist Brand by The Independent Institute
- A Radiant Face Driven Mad with a Rifle: Che in Verse[dead link] by The Latin American Review of Books
- Intro to: Che in Verse, by Gavin O'Toole, Aflame Books, 2007, ISBN 0-9552339-5-X
- Poems Guevara Lived and Died by by Javier Espinoza, The Observer, September 9, 2007
- Che Guevara Photographer Dies by BBC News, May 26, 2001
- Che Guevara: An Image that Keeps the Spirit of Revolution Alive by the Socialist Worker, Issue 2005, June 17, 2006
- Che Guevara: An Image that Keeps the Spirit of Revolution Alive 2005 Issue of The Socialist Worker
- Che Guevara: Revolutionary & Icon, by Trisha Ziff, Abrams Image, 2006, pg 76
- Discussion about Che Guevara, by CBC Radio One
- The Cult of Che by Paul Berman, Slate magazine, September 2004
- The Final Triumph of Saint Che The Guardian, September 23, 2007. Retrieved: 12 October 2011.
- BBC: Che's Spirit Burns on in Latin America by Daniel Schweimler, January 3, 2009
- Daily Observer: Che Remembered: on 80th Birthday June 12, 2008
- Der Spiegel: Photo Gallery – Latin America Commemorates Che Guevara
- Harpers Magazine: Six Questions for Greg Grandin on Che’s Legacy September 30, 2007
- PBS Forum: The Legacy of Che Guevara with biographer Jon Lee Anderson November 20, 1997
- Socialist Worker: The Legacy of A Revolutionary – Who was Che? October 12, 2007
- The Observer: The Final Triumph of Saint Che September 23, 2007
- TIME 100: Che Guevara June 14, 1999
- Wall Street Journal: In Argentina, Che Guevara Finally Gets More Than a Lousy T-Shirt by Michael Casey, June 14, 2008
- BBC Radio: Witness: Che Guevara October 8, 2010
- BBC Video: Che Remembered 40 Years On October 8, 2007
- NPR Audio Report: Thirty Years After His Death, Che Guevara Still an Icon
- Video: Does Che Guevara Still Matter? interview with biographer Jorge Castañeda