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Deconstructing The Angry Mind: Thoughts on Ernesto "Che" Guevara

For some time I’ve wanted to write about the counter-culture revolutionary hero Che Guevara. Like many cult figures of the twentieth century he had loomed like a slowly leeching color-bleed along the peripheral edges of my mind. But I hadn’t taken the time to really consider either him or his larger-than-life posthumous presence along the crumbling avenues and parks of La Habana. Then, out of nowhere (one might say, if one believed in illusory things such as coincidences ;-), my husband ordered “The Motorcycle Diaries” from Netflix. I’ve been gorging myself lately on Spanish language films in order to attune my ear to idiomatic syntax. What impressed me almost as much as the travels of the youthfully robust and handsome Guevara and his friend Alberto Granada was the plethora of foul language that rolled off their tongues, frustrating me with its very inaccessibility. I thought perhaps that el profesor could shed some light on Guevara, his wanderlust, filthy slang and je ne sais quoi.

¿Vio la pelicula Los Diarios de un Motocicleta?” I asked Aristides during a Spanish class.

“Moto-cee-clee-sta” he corrected, ignoring the question. Then: “¿Te gusta esta blousa?” waving his latest colorful import in my face.

“Es un pelicula sobe Che Guevara cuando fué un joven hombre,” I went on, aspiring for better pronunciation. “Viajo en todas partes de Latino América con su buen amigo Alberto Grando.”

“Guevara estuvo loco. El no fue un buen hombre.”

And so it seems, our friend Che is not a friend in the mind of every Latin American who came of age with him. But in passing Cuba’s decaying parks, where imposing statues of a heavily armed and bearded image figure prominently, you would have thought so. At least that was my impression during a trip to Cuba ten years ago, when Castro was still calling the shots, though the splendor of his once vibrant island nation had been struck a blow by U.S. sanctioned trade embargoes. Havana was literally peeling away like paint; the paint of a thousand dying mansions and gas-spitting Soviet jalopies. And yet, it was still beautiful and gracious, like the grand dame of the manor house in her golden years.

Only martyrs who have achieved glory in death are cast in stone in Cuba, which explained why monuments to Castro himself were nowhere in evidence. So who was this Guevara? I wondered. One thing he certainly wasn’t was Cuban, as his curious Argentine nickname suggests. And that, in the grand scheme of revolutionary causes, was a major problem, even with honorary Cuban citizenship, which he later vaingloriously renounced in a furtive letter read aloud by Castro after he’d disappeared into the jungles of Africa and later, Bolivia. Never mind that Castro purposely read the letter against Guevara’s wishes. As it turned out Che’s chief ambition was to become a martyr cast in stone; the letter was to be read to Cuba in the event of his death, when he would cease forever to be a citizen of the greater rank and imperialist world.

“They were never going to accept an Argentine as the liberator of Cuba,” Aristides pointed out. “Castro had to get rid of Che.”

The lengths to which Castro went to accomplish this remain obscure, although it seems implausible that Guevara’s ill-fated plans to train guerrilla warriors in the steaming, fetid jungles of Boliva were achieved without a nod (and more likely a nudge) from Castro. But the writing was on the wall before that. Guevara began courting Chairman Mao and his brand of communism after a visit to China in November of 1964 (and earlier, in 1960) and wasted little time in denouncing Soviet communism. The role the Soviets played in the Cuban Missile Crisis brought down an avalanche of criticism from Guevara after Khrushchev withdrew missiles from Cuban terra firma. In a speech in Algiers, Che declared the Northern Hemisphere to be the ruthless exploiter of the Southern Hemisphere. By now he was also liking the look of things in Communist North Vietnam, so much so that he urged the oppressed of other struggling countries to create “many Vietnams,” obviously rapturous at the idea of further bullet holes and bloodshed. This, of course, went down like a bitter aspirin with Castro, who no longer cared for his enfant terrible’s gush of rhetoric. Guevara fared better as a thug and skull cracker than as a revolutionary philosopher. He excelled at meting out punishment in the form of the “Ley de la Sierra,” a 19th-century penal law which did not discriminate greatly among its victims; supporters of the former dictator Batista and errant revolutionaries alike were marched to the gallows and summarily executed. Between January 2 and June 12, 1959 Castro designated Guevara commander of the La Cabaña Fortress prison as well as “supreme prosecutor” of his appellate court. For Guevara there was only one kind of justice: the kind that brought the gavel down hard against war criminals and enemies of the revolution. For this dubious honor Che was certainly feared, but if he was reviled as well for his grim corporal exertions, that sentiment has evidently settled along with the dust of revolutionary folklore.

And yet there are particles that still float in the stratosphere. What happened, one wonders, to the young starry-eyed medical student who traveled through an impoverished South America, enduring numerous privations himself, to minister to the lepers of Venezuela and sit at the bedside of an acutely suffering, asthmatic old woman? The Motorcycle Diaries only hint briefly at the dark horse to come. When Granado humorously asks his friend if marrying an indigenous woman could further their revolutionary prospects in union with passive resistance, Guevara replies seriously that only an armed revolution would work. These words do prove prophetic, of course, but not for the reasons one would think. In time Alberto Korda’s famous 1960 photo of Che (taken at the La Coubre memorial service) would become a symbol of something far greater than the man himself. A symbol can only endure by becoming iconic, thereby transcending its original (in this case human) form. At the same time it is nearly impossible for a mere symbol to balance on the lofty yet precarious pedestal ascribed to it. The laws of nature dictate that it will eventually disintegrate as all illusions do; first into a crumpled black and white photo of a handsome, crazy man with a defiant expression, then into a cheap, charred piece of paper, and finally to a rotting carcass. But we crave the symbol on the pedestal, even when the decay of older and grander and lovelier images swirl around us before decomposing on the earth as dust. The angry mind and the iconic symbol, are, in other words, one and the same. It too will become dust. It too will be borne away by the wind.