In the summer of 1960 the 32 year old Dr. Ernesto “Che” Guevara agreed to meet some US students at his president’s office in Cuba’s National Bank. Fidel had recently appointed him to that unlikely post. Like most events in Cuba, Che’s becoming Bank President provoked a joke.
Fidel asks the Cabinet: “Any of you guys an economist?”
Che raises his hand. Fidel, surprised, says “OK, Che, you’re the new bank chief.”
Afterwards, Fidel approaches Che: “You’re an economist?”
“Economist?” says Che. “I thought you said communist.”
At the 2:30 A.M. meeting, in July 1960, the new bank prez took his feet off his office desk and admitted that he knew little about economics. Revolution inspired him, he told the students. “Politics,” he emphasized, “not economics, should drive revolutionary policy.”
The dangerously handsome, bearded physician talked about his travels through Latin America now etched on the screen in The Motorcycle Diaries (directed by Walter Salles). “The imperialists have sucked blood from the indigenous people of the Andes. Centuries of abuse have exhausted the land and the people,” he lectured. “And US imperialism continues to exploit.”
He described poverty and underdevelopment in Argentina, where this son of an architect grew up. The conditions at Chile’s Chuqicamata copper mines “are beyond belief,” he said, accusing Guggenheim-Rockefeller family interests of exploiting the minors’ labor, and persecuting those who tried to unionize, especially the communists. “Imperialism,” he snapped “has also wreaked havoc on the Amazon region shared by several countries.”
He spewed facts. Less than 2% of the population owned 65% of the land; 72% of the rural people owned less than 4%. He cited dramatic data on malnutrition, income gaps and foreign ownership, as if Doctor Guevara was presenting his case for major surgery to a hospital Board of Surgeons. UN data, he said, confirmed his own observations that he had recorded in notebooks from his early 1950s motorcycle journey. Only a continental revolution could bring justice to the poor majority and Fidel’s guerrilla model had lit the path for such a movement.
“What would you like the United States to do during this revolution?” the student asked.
“Disappear,” snapped Che, without cracking a smile.
Che stared at the student, who visibly gulped. The room was quiet. “I’m yanking your chain.” said Che, now smiling. Che emphasized to the students that revolution offers the best, if not the only way to make one’s historical mark on the side of justice and freedom, He radiated this contagious notion with perilous magnetism. At 3:30 a.m., he rose, shook hands and explained he still had work to complete before getting his four hours of sleep.
44 years later, I stared into the face of Gael Garcia Bernal, playing the youthful fourth year medical student bouncing on a motorcycle, with his Jack Kerouac-like partner, (Rodrigo de la Serna) in the pit of Patagonia, the snowy Andes of Chile and on the Amazon. In The Motorcycle Diaries, the asthmatic hero, struggling for breath, swims the un-swimmable river to the other side of the Amazon to spend his birthday with the lepers: determination, audacity, recklessness.
Five years later, now doctor for the guerrilla army of the Sierra Maestre in eastern Cuba, the real Che raced into no man’s land in the midst of a firefight to rescue a wounded comrade.
Che was “temerario,” (Presumptuously or recklessly daring) Fidel told me in July 1974, one of the few criticisms he had of his most brilliant lieutenant. “I once tackled him [during the 1956-8 guerrilla war against Fulgencio Batista] when he stood up during a battle. `You’re too important to lose,’ I told him.”
In the film, Che’s recklessness manifests itself not only by his daring physical feats, but in the scene of him coveting a mechanic’s wife at a town dance while her husband drinks. Then he must flee to escape the wrath of angry townspeople. Young Che also jumps into a freezing lake to retrieve a duck for dinner. “Fearless,” Fidel agreed.
“But he shouldn’t have allowed his columns to lose contact,” Fidel said bitterly, referring to the split of Che’s guerrilla group in Bolivia. “And his relaxed attitude on security cost him,” he remarked. Che had permitted Regis Debray, the French intellectual (author of the text on guerrilla strategy, Revolution in the Revolution?), to learn the guerrilla’s whereabouts. Debray was subsequently captured. We now know, however, that CIA agents had tracked the guerrillas.
But in early July 1968, having just written the introduction to Che’s Bolivia Diary, Fidel still anguished over the death of his comrade and the defeat of the Bolivian guerrilla expedition. He still clung to the foco guerrillero notion which, if properly applied would serve as a model for third world revolution. A mobile guerrilla troupe backed by organized clandestine urban rebels posed a two-front dilemma for unpopular third world governments and their inept repressive forces.
It had worked in Cuba. So, in 1964, with Fidel’s full support, Che organized a similar battle plan in the Congo. In his Congo diary (Che in Africa: Che Guevara’s Congo Diary, by William Galvez), the scientific minded-Che records his observations about reality in the Congo, as he did in Latin America.
His assessment: The Congo mission failed. One factor that contributed to the defeat of the effort, he observed, was lack of knowledge. The supposed Congolese revolutionary soldiers were “saturated with fetishistic concept about death and the enemy and have no organized political education.” But Che the poet also took this personally.
Like a character from a Conrad novel, he concludes that “During those last hours in the Congo, I had felt more alone than ever”
Just hours after writing these words, Che addressed his soon-to-depart comrades. Imagine the internal adrenalin it required to force these optimistic words into his mouth! “This struggle that we have waged has been a great experience. In spite of all the difficulties we’ve had, I hope that if some day Fidel proposes another mission of this kind, some of you will volunteer.”
Che returned in disguise to Cuba; then led an elite group of veteran guerrilla warriors to join a Bolivian cadre to liberate the landlocked country. The “foco” method assumed support from the Bolivian Communist Party whom, despite protests from Moscow, Fidel had “convinced” to back the operation. But the Bolivian Communists, following Soviet orders “betrayed Che,” Fidel charged.
Without the vital underground, the guerrilla foco floundered. In early October 1967, after months of unproductive struggle, a Bolivian soldier, with CIA agents hovering nearby, murdered the captured Che Guevara. This drama occurred in La Higuera, near the place where Jose Antonio de Sucre, Bolivar’s lieutenant, fought the Spaniards more than a century earlier.
Che’s death became and has remained an international event. Now, the movie offers insights into Che’s character. Gael Garcia conveys the young medical student whose addiction to principles propelled him to action, injected him with the kind of courage that arises almost preternaturally from the wellspring of feeling and thought inside him; the qualities that made him charismatic. Thirty seven years after his murder, his icon still entices the most noble souls around the world to try to “be like Che.”
His image and the slogan “Viva Che” appear on apartment walls in Damascus and Baghdad; his heroically drawn face on millions of T-shirts throughout the world. Yes, along with revolutionary sanctification, Che’s image has been commercialized. But those who understand what he meant will make history in his way throughout the world.
“Seremos como el Che,” appears on billboards and posters. Some students cynically reply, “Sure, we’ll also become asthmatics.” One student, however, insists that Che epitomizes revolutionary. She plans to spend her life working for the poor:
She cites sentences from Che’s Congo diary. “You are only a revolutionary when you are willing to leave all your comforts to go to another country to fight.” Che internalized the principle of “the recognition of necessity as the guide to freedom.” The poet, doctor, warrior, revolutionary continues to inspire from his grave. “Once again,” he wrote his parents as he prepared to embark for Africa in 1964, “I feel beneath my heels the ribs of Rocinante [Don Quixote’s `horse’].” He describes “a willpower that I have polished with an artist’s delight that “will sustain some shaky legs and some weary legs. I will do it.”
In the film, Garcia Bernal portrays of Che with effortless changes of facial expressions and body language. He offers qualities of wit, intelligence and determination that the real Che later manifested as he made history. Garcia Bernal’s Che shows how an immature medical student transforms his middle class guilt into revolutionary will.
In the contemporary globalized world, injustice has grown. Guerrilla focos no longer respond realistically to systemic injustice. But understanding the nature of exploitation, as the movie Che confronts exploitation of workers and indigenous people, means one must act — in Seattle, Washington, DC and other venues where the WTO meets. Viva Che!
SAUL LANDAU is the Director of Digital Media and International Outreach Programs for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. His new book is The Business of America.