Whenever I think of a caricature of a student's bedroom in the 1970s, several possible images come to mind. An unread paperback copy of Tolkien, an electric guitar that hasn't been played in an age, a handful of appropriate album jackets of those rock bands that "refused to sell out" and, of course, the ubiquitous poster of that middle-class Argentinian dental student who did for the beard and the beret what Karen Kain did for the farewell performance. Poor Che. Reduced to the status of a transitory icon employed to upset Mum and Dad.
At a more important level, Guevara's life, or the mythology that surrounds it, has been used and abused to inspire myriad Latin American revolutionaries. Only a handful of weeks ago, teenage terrorists died in an embassy in Lima, playing soccer as Peruvian soldiers stormed the building. Pathetic and painful, and acutely unnecessary. They could have used the ballot box but, like Che, they opted for the bullet.
Jon Lee Anderson's Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life sets out to be complimentary, even fawning. But in giving us an authentic picture of the biographer's hero it will make most people reject Guevara as the obsessive and fanatic that he certainly was. The author could, of course, have approached Che through analysing the modern history of the beret. Let me explain.
From Guevara the hat made its way into the sartorial consciousness of several Latin American socialists and eventually found governmental favour in Sandinista Nicaragua. Because so many ultra-liberal Roman Catholics in North America thought of Managua rather than Nazareth, Jerusalem, or Rome as their spiritual home, they too pulled berets over their heads. The Liberation Theology RCs converted secular Marxists to their headgear and now Che's fashion statement is de rigueur on marches and demonstrations. Anderson, however, chose a more formal approach.
From what he tells us Guevara would have been rather pleased with his poster hagiography, humility not being one of his stronger points. But then many of his points were not strong ones. He was a weak, sickly child and as a young man was rejected for military service. His father had a similar ability to find his way out of martial duty, and though he was passionate in standing up in the press for various violent causes he never saw any action. But he was rich.
Che used his father's cash for a grand tour, and did not like what he saw in South and Central America. But Cuba seduced him, and Castro exploited him. Che quickly surrendered to the revolutionary zeal of his comrades. On one occasion an alleged traitor was questioned by the Communists but they were not sure if the man was lying or not. Che had no time for such ambivalence, as his diary reveals. "So I ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 pistol in the right side of the brain, with the exit orifice in the right temporal lobe. He gasped a little while and was dead. Upon proceeding to remove his belongings, I couldn't get off the watch tied by a chain to his belt."
The next day's entry does not mention the murder, but does refer to a female comrade in terms that would not win over the Marxists within our own National Action Committee on the Status of Women. She was "a great admirer of the movement who seems to me to want to fuck more than anything else."
Che admired Stalin and Stalin's heirs admired Che. Not surprising, in that their dedication to the pristine future of socialism was so similar. Che was the leader of Castro's Cleansing Commission, which managed to slaughter more than five hundred people in under three months in 1959. The victims were business leaders, priests, alleged anti-revolutionaries, and people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. After such success with this social engineering Che set up the notorious G-2, the Cuban equivalent of the KGB. He was good at it.
Che's father visited him in Cuba and never stopped loving his pampered son. But the son had changed. He had, said his father, "brutalized his own sensitivities." In fact he had done so long ago. When he became a revolutionary he abandoned his current wife, his ex-wife, and his five children and left them without any financial support. They were merely obstacles on the shining path to the new dawn. In the Congo, in Cuba, and in Bolivia, he refused to listen to local peasants, to aboriginal peoples, and to his fellow Marxists when they objected to some of his policies. He never seemed to doubt that he always knew best.
In fact his achievements were minimal and transitory. His beloved Cuba became a nasty dictatorship with more political prisoners than the rancid state that had preceded it. His own death was sordid. He was shot but not killed and wobbled around the floor in agony, biting on his wrist so that he would not scream out. Then he was shot dead. His throat was cut and his blood removed, his hands were sawn off, and superstitious women cut off his hair. His body was buried in an unmarked grave.
Say it ain't so, Che, say it ain't so. But it was. Take down that poster, throw away that beret. And book those vacation tickets to the new post-Castro Cuba.