The myth of Che

Those who have defined Guevara have picked his idealism over ruthlessness

The myth of Che

In his final moments, at least, Ernesto “Che” Guevara lived up to the reputation his name and image would command after his death.

Following his capture in the mountains of Bolivia by CIA-backed soldiers, Guevara stood up to face CIA agent Felix Rodríguez, who told him he would be executed. “It’s better like this . . . I never should have been captured alive,” he said. Guevara told Rodríguez to “tell Fidel that he will soon see a triumphant revolution in America . . . And tell my wife to remarry and to try to be happy.” Moved, Rodríguez embraced his enemy, then walked out of the dingy schoolhouse where Guevara was held. Bolivian Sgt. Mario Terán, his face flushed from drinking, walked in. Guevara struggled to his feet. “I will remain standing for this,” he said, and, “know this now, you are killing a man.”

Like much of his story, these details of Guevara’s death are disputed. Were his last words meant to affirm the value of every life, in this case his own? Or, in a slightly different version of events, did he scorn the scruples of his executioner? Some reports allege that Guevara berated Terán when his captor hesitated to pull the trigger: “Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”

What is clear is that Guevara died standing up. What is more important, perhaps, is that he died young, handsome, and actively fighting for his ideals—long before he might have degenerated into a revolutionary windbag, or a desk-ridden bureaucrat, pot-belly bursting the buttons of his military fatigues. He also died with blood on his hands. After his comrade Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959, Guevara was appointed “supreme prosecutor” and oversaw the execution of several hundred alleged traitors and war criminals associated with the previous regime.

Today, more than 40 years after his death—as Steven Soderbergh’s almost 4½-hour epic, Che, opened in limited releases in Canada—Guevara’s face, especially as captured in the 1960 photograph by Alberto Korda, has become the most iconic visage of the last 100 years. Korda decided not to demand payment for non-commercial reproductions of his photograph, which allowed it to spread. But mass reproduction of Guevara’s image has stripped the man of complexity. His face represents whatever the person who displays it, or produces it, wants it to. It is spray-painted on the walls of slums in Caracas, where it arguably makes sense, and it is tattooed below Mike Tyson’s left nipple, where it does not. It has become a fashion statement as much as a political one. Yet his story still resonates among the angry, earnest, and romantic.

Soderbergh, who debuted his two-part biography at the Cannes Film Festival last May to mixed response, admitted he struggled with the script. “It’s been hard to figure out what story we want to tell,” he said as he was beginning work on the project. In the end, Soderbergh focused on Guevara leading two insurgencies: the successful revolution in Cuba and the failed one in Bolivia. Guevara’s intervening role in Castro’s government, at a time when a socialist dictatorship was consolidated, doesn’t feature in the story. This leaves an incomplete picture. But Guevara never defined himself as a politician and likely would have preferred to be remembered as a guerrilla. He could have led a soft life in Cuba, but instead chose quixotic quests to stir up uprisings in Africa and South America.

“He lived the revolution,” says Luis Martínez-Fernández, a professor of history at the University of Central Florida, and the author of a forthcoming book about the Cuban Revolution. “I think he was mostly driven by the internationalism in him. He believed, almost in an evangelical way, in the notion of a ‘New Man’—that in order for the revolution to succeed, you need a spiritual overhaul of the individual, that there has to be an interior desire to sacrifice, to give up everything.”

Those who lacked Guevara’s commitment suffered for it. He was unforgiving as a guerrilla commander, and as a politician he established forced labour camps for Cubans who didn’t volunteer to help build his new society. “We should not forget that there was this—I don’t want to use the word evil—but there was this violent strain in him,” Martínez-Fernández says. “But overall, when we look at the picture of Che Guevara, he was very honest, self-sacrificing, and idealistic. And the mistakes he made are overshadowed, really, certainly in comparison to the Castro brothers. He has a rightful place in the pantheon of the great revolutionary figures of world history. His legacy is one of the revolution in its idealist phase. His legacy is one of the best emblems for sacrifice.”

Guevara’s early death allowed others to define him, and most have picked his idealism over his ruthlessness. “Somehow, he has retained a powerful hold on the popular imagination, seeming to transcend time and place,” writes John Lee Anderson in his comprehensive biography of Guevara. “Forever youthful, brave, implacable, and defiant, perpetually staring out with those eyes full of purpose and indignation, Che has defied death . . . He is immortal because others want him to be.”