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Whose Che?

By Rodrigo Acuña - posted Thursday, 11 October 2007


It is 40 years since Ernesto “Che” Guevara - the Argentine revolutionary who had helped Fidel Castro overthrew the US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 - was captured with the aid of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and executed by the Bolivian military.

Ceremonies commemorating Guevara's death have been held throughout Latin America, with the largest taking place in Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Nicaragua and, ironically, Bolivia - a country whose population once denounced Guevara to local troops as he attempted to ignite another revolution.

In 1967, as Guevara lay dead next to his Cuban comrades in the Vallegrande hospital, displayed before the international press like a trophy by Bolivian generals, few could have imagined that one day Cubans would return to Bolivia at the request of the country's Head of State. Since Evo Morales - an astute trade union leader of humble origins - became Bolivia's first Indigenous President in 2005, Cuban teachers and doctors have arrived in their hundreds, providing services that were much needed by the impoverished population.

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Even Mario Teran - the miserable and, at the time intoxicated, Bolivian soldier who executed Guevara - is reported to have received eye surgery by Cuban doctors.

In Australia, like in many parts of the world, Guevara has been both placed on a pedestal or demonised out of all proportion. Writing earlier this year in The Australian, Cassandra Wilkinson quoted Guevara - generally, out of context - defending Cuba's right to execute Batista's former, often CIA-trained henchmen.

Wilkinson constructs her image of Guevara using a book entitled, Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolise Him by Cuban émigré Humberto Fontova. The book paints Guevara as a failed physician and psychopathic guerrilla, who killed 14,000 people, as well as puppies and was “deathly afraid to drive a motorcycle”. Fontova's work could not obtain any serious academic reviews and to say that it merits a 10-second glance at a secondhand bookshop may be too kind.

And, the Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt provides another predictable angle on his blog.

It's true that, since 1967, Guevara has been elevated to saint-like status - particularly in Cuba. After his death was announced, Castro held Guevara up as the New Man who belonged to the future - the model to which all generations should aspire.

And yet, for a supposed man of the future, Guevara looked very much like a Latin male of the 1960s. A chauvinist, it is claimed the rebel on some occasions publicly berated his wife in the harshest of terms. With his military subordinates, Che's reputation as a commander of little patience was notorious. According to Dariel Alarcón Ramírez's book Memorias de un Soldado Cubano, Guevara would often listen patiently to a soldier's account and then respond in the bluntest of terms: “Look, what you are saying is shit.” Guevara's honesty and distaste for privileges were admired but also deeply disliked - because they bordered on the puritannical.

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Asked to comment on Guevara, Jeff Browitt, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Technology Sydney, said:

Now we all know the good things about Che, but let's look at a couple of problems: the New Man had no room for the New Gay Man and besides that, Che contributed towards the silencing of critics of the Revolution … and if one thing undermines revolutionary gains it is the unwillingness to listen to internal criticism.

These points certainly tarnished Guevara - and Cuba.

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First published in New Matilda on Ocotber 10, 2007.



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About the Author

Rodrigo Acuña is a PhD candidate in International Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. A recipient of Benchmark Prize in Hispanic Studies by the University of New South Wales, he was also runner up for Open Prose in the Unsweetened 2007 Literary Journal. He writes regularly on Latin American affairs and has presented seminars at various Australian universities on political developments in Venezuela, as well as other Latin American countries.

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