El Che: Investigating a Legend
by Glenda Moss
From October 9-16, 1999, members of the Department of History, Dr. Scott Bills and Dr. Patrice Olsen, as well as other faculty from Stephen F. Austin State University will visit Cuba as part of a project entitled, "Cuba 1999: Identity and Culture, Revolution at the Threshold of the Millennium." To mark that occasion, Glenda Moss, a doctoral candidate in the College of Education, reviews the controversial career of Che Guevara.
What words can describe the experience of this film? It is a documentary based upon Pierre Kalfon's book, Che: Ernesto Guevara, Une Du Nuestro Siecle. The documentary screenplay and narrative, blurs the boundaries between facts and legend, but is engrossing. For many, classroom educational experiences rendered documentaries stale and boring, lessons in painful note taking for regurgitation on a test and then, forwarded into oblivion. The film, El Che: Investigating a Legend, presents a paradoxical, and, sometimes, incongruous set of images, with Che as a social democrat, revolutionary peace-maker, home-bound wanderer, aristocrat in poverty, and Communist Christ.
Since the film relies heavily on authentic footage and photographs, care is needed to distinguish between dramatization and documentary segments. The opening scene of the film captures a view of Vallegrande, somewhere in Bolivia, from behind a graven statue with outstretched arms. The scene is 30 years after the death of Che Guevara. The camera moves to a field next to an airstrip where Cuban geologists are searching for the site of a mass grave containing among others the remains of the legendary Che.
Taking the viewer back in time, the next scene moves from colorful tango dancers, not yet born when Che died, to the wall the behind them where images of Che are enshrined, an icon in Latin America's struggle for freedom from imperialism.
Moving further back in time, black and white footage draws the audience into the ranks of marchers in the streets of Havana, where posters of Che are held high as symbols of a new kind of socialism, which many of the marchers only dimly comprehend. Describing Che, the narrator's words resound poetically: "a face with the beauty of an archangel, emblem of revolution, Ernesto Che Guevara has gone down in legend, the image of the pure and generous revolutionary, still omnipresent on the walls of Havana as he was in France on the barricades of May '68. His portrait, captured in eternal youth, has circled the globe a million times. [It] still embodies the figure of revolt. Dead at 39, the incurable romantic is a hero of a tragedy that changed his life in a place of destiny." The camera rests momentarily on a Che billboard, Tu Ejemplo Vive Tus ideas perduran, ending the introduction to the film:
The opening scenes capture a small motorbike carrying two male riders down a winding highway through the Argentine hills while the narrator tells how the legend begins with the adventure of an aristocratic medical student in a search of identity. Drawing from Guevara's travel diaries, the film traces his journeys through the Andes and the Chilean copper mines which the makers of the work see as crucial in the formation of Che as a Latin American phenomenon. Next to a lake in Peru, Che records his conscious formation of a new identity. He will be a Latin American, a cultural icon much deeper than the geographical and national confines of his Argentine heritage or his aristocratic birth.
Che's trip ended in his return to Buenos Aires in September, 1952, where the twenty-four year old medical student completed the ordeal of fifteen exams in five months. To his father's chagrin the new doctor was immediately on the move again, leaving his native land forever. He had seen Latin American poverty and turmoil as well as the beginning of a revolution in Bolivia, which led to the nationalization of the tin mines and launched agrarian reform. Increasingly, he saw the United States as a problem for Latin America. He believed that the United States represented an alien force "keeping close watch on the pulse of the continent" and defending "what it sees as its own backyard." Such protectionism, Che concluded, primarily benefited the United States and its multinational corporations such as United Fruit, known contemptuously to Latinos as the "Green Octopus." Discovering poverty, malnutrition and social violence with a new perception, Che recorded in his diary, "I have sworn not to rest until the tentacles of capitalism are crushed."
The film producers bring to life the development of Che's legend by employing his contemporaries, some famous and some private citizens, but many now elderly, to recount their memories. Fernando renders Che the hyperactive neighbor everyone knows. "He needed to keep going" as if 'he had ants in his pants'." Fernando traces Che's journey to Guatemala where a democratic regime, encouraged by many Cuban exiles, was trying to break from the tutelage of the United States. Here, the film introduces the critical pedagogy, exposing the paradoxical. A Latin American democracy is struggling to escape the hold of an economically imperial United States.
Oscar Valdovinos, a political activist, remembers that in the beginning, "Che wasn't political." It was Che's relationship with his future wife, a strong militant, that drew him into the political sphere and persuaded him to join forces with Fidel and Raul Castro in their plans to overthrow Juan Batista and his oppressive regime. In a secret meeting in Mexico, Che Guevara, convinced that the Marxist designated enemy was imperialism, became a member of Fidel Castro's July 26 Movement. He quickly found himself leading peasants who not only had to overthrow Batista by becoming guerrilla warriors, but also had to learn the rhetoric of revolution.
One soldier, Bignigno, an illiterate seventeen year old living deep in the Sierra Maestra, witnessed the Batista's soldiers kill his fiancee, burn his home and plunder his village. A young peasant woman, Eoberda, recalled her first meeting with Che, tailoring his uniform trousers while he wore them. Such mundane details of everyday existence, when lived in collective consciousness, give birth to legends; for it is out of the details of human activity that hope stirs and power is generated.
Peasants such as Bignigno and Eoberda joined the revolution in the Sierra Maestra and Che's dream of the future, creating a free territory, conducting literacy courses, broadcasting radio reports, and printing leaflets to explain their goals for the people's Cuba. At this point, the film utilizes a flashback to Che's childhood. Told through home movies and candid shots and narrated by a family friend, Carmen Cordova, Che's strength and courage are traced to his early struggle with asthma. Other footage and narration give insights into his ambivalence about his aristocratic heritage, acted out in conflicts with his eccentric, philandering, spendthrift father. By the time Che was grown, the family name Guevara had become an adjective to outsiders for describing disorderly and undisciplined behavior.
These childhood images, sandwiched between the story of the military campaign that eluded Batista army of 10,000 and Che's fabled march to Santa Clara with only one hundred men add humanity to the aura of revolutionary leadership. Victor Bordon honors Guevara as a man who "spoke with moral sense." Che's aura evolved from such early events in his youth and career while at the same time his critical pedagogy became tied to guerrilla warfare. From the taking of Santa Clara and a crucial trainload of arms, the legend grew to become virtually mythic with the surrender of Havana.
With the victory won, Che was assigned to an official office and made a citizen of Cuba. He supervised the trials and executions of hundreds of Batista's torturers accused of atrocities. "Revolutionary justice is a true justice. When we declare a death sentence, we are right to do so," he declared. He insisted that all officers take turns executing the condemned so that the responsibility would be collective.
While celebrations and executions continued in Cuba, Che suddenly divorced his first wife and married Aleida March in 1959. Although Che was frequently away, they had four children in the next six years. Neither Che nor the filmmakers question the lengthy absences from home life. Che declared his expectations that a socialist nation cares for and raises its children. How the nation does so in the absence of real mothers or fathers remains a revolutionary mystery. Nevertheless, this was Che's perception of revolution, one that focused on agrarian reform, social industrialization, and independence from imperialistic capitalism. Much of the remainder of the film is based upon interviews with and news coverage on Fidel Castro, which certainly enhances the value of the work as documentary history. Castro is shown reflecting on life with Che in the new atmosphere of revolutionary Cuba. Amusingly, he reminds us that as Minister of the National Bank of Cuba, Guevara signed the nickname Che to the newly issued currency. Although there are moments of humor during the transition to socialism, the shift is marked by hard work, internal quarreling and international antagonism.
Shortly after establishing control on the island, the Cuban leadership approached the Soviet Union about buying Cuban sugar and providing armaments on credit, an overture the United States deeply resented. Consequently, three months later, it denied Che's request that a North American corporation be permitted to refine Soviet crude in Cuba. Che immediately accused the State Department of not only prompting the denial but also of intriguing against the revolution. The United States retaliated by prohibiting the importation of Cuban sugar. The Soviet Union rushed in with an offer of purchase. With this economic and moral support, Cuba nationalized U.S. companies, leaving the Eisenhower administration shaken and under intense criticism for the emergence of a communist country only ninety miles from American soil.
Documentary footage conveys the atmosphere and the patriotic parades in Cuba as Castro prepared for an anticipated military intervention by the United States. In an abortive and embarrassing incident for the newly installed administration of John F. Kennedy, Cuba easily crushed American supported 'counter revolutionaries' at the Bay of Pigs. Che declared this event as a symbol for all oppressed peoples attempting to destroy imperialist powers. The subsequent Cuban missile crisis completed the total break between the two countries and left Cuba in the diplomatic and military sphere of the Soviet Union.
As Minister of Industry, Che continued to implement socialistic change. Yet, the hasty attempt to diversify crops proved disastrously chaotic. As a result, Che never fully gained leadership over Cuban farmers whom he tended to see as economic soldiers in an agrarian war that must be won. The revolution to completely change the society to socialism was ongoing in Che's mind, yet it was a concept the lower classes did fully comprehend and support. Che was a different kind of leader from those the Cuban people were used to in their long history of dictators and tyrants, self appointed or falsely elected. Several of those interviewed in the film recognized that there was a disparity, if not a gulf, between Che's attitudes and those he sought to lead. In many ways, he was more of a 'Man of the People' than the people could understand. Jeanette Habel, head of the Young Havana Youth during Che's ministry, remembers that when Che was told he must have a bodyguard, he chose peasants and then found the time to teach them to read. Nestra Lavege recalled that Che forbade managers in national companies to have sex with their secretaries. This left the managers confused, but Che personally tried to explain to them the concept of abuse of power. When urged to go on television to promote industrial products, Che boldly denounced defects with matches that did not light and glasses that were impaired.
Che is remembered also for his interviews on voluntary labor. He wanted to "create a new man, moved by the joy of work, by moral imperatives, and ethical motivations, not merely by material satisfaction." The worker dear to Che's heart, needed no raise in pay "because he feeds on the desire for revolution," Che's new man would be a product of this "dream of total revolution that will change man in the deepest sense." The narrator tells us wryly that "There were few, even in the top ranks, ready for such heights."
The communists denounced Che as an adventurer and mounted a campaign to discredit him. Castro claims that he supported Che but by 1963-1964 it was clear that Guevara wanted a different socialism than that of the Soviet Union. He was openly critical of both the Soviets and of the Eastern European satellite nations and warned Cuba against "mindlessly imitating brother nations."
Not surprisingly, Castro removed Che from his ministry positions and, naming him an ambassador, sent him around the world to meet dignitaries and carry the message of the revolution. It was same work for a volatile mind. Che remained non-conformist but became increasingly interested in the global third world. He denounced the imperialism of Hitler, the United States, Belgium and France, while labeling the Soviet Union as an accomplice for not more actively supporting the struggle against such powers. This stance became a wedge, then an abyss, separating Che from the leadership of both Cuba and the Soviet Union.
Returning to Cuba, Che met secretly with Castro and then Che seemed to drop off the face of the earth. In this period, he planned and prepared for a secret mission to the Congo to train for and precipitate a third world revolution. Weak leadership in the Congo, cultural differences, and disparate goals resulted in the failure of the scheme.
At the same time, Che received word of the death of his mother at age 58 from cancer. Public humiliation followed upon disappointment and grief. Castro publicly read a letter written by Che to answer growing concerns about his disappearance from public life. The letter which was intended to be read only after his death revealed that Che had severed his ties with the Cuban elite, given up his citizenship, and resigned from the party,
Che viewed Castro's premature reading of the letter as a betrayal. Moreover, Che deeply distrusted personality cults whether they centered on a Stalin or a Castro. Clearly he feared such a cult was developing in Cuba. For Che, the reading of his letter confirmed his disaffection from the political scene and confirmed that he had no future in Cuba. The nation was no longer Che's Cuba. In his loneliness, Che went to Prague, where he meditated, wrote, and decided to take his revolutionary message to South America.
Che returned to Cuba briefly to prepare for the next and last stage of his life, the South American Campaign. This brought him to Bolivia where he hoped to establish a central training camp for all of Latin America. His ultimate goal was to spawn insurrections all over the hemisphere by creating numerous Vietnams. Such small, localized, but depleting conflicts, he believed, neither the United States nor the western nations could ultimately suppress.
In the end, Bolivia defeated him physically if not intellectually. The project was plagued from the beginning by lack of sufficient military, economic and political support. Above all, local internal quarrels about leadership and direction proved disastrous. Due to internal conflicts, perhaps stirred secretly by the machinations of the Soviet Union, the Bolivian Communist Party abandoned Che. Pursued by government forces and rejected by the communists, Che struggled on, reduced to recruiting whoever he could hastily train and with little apparent support from Cuba. Nevertheless, his efforts were impressive enough that the United States government sent in Rangers to train Bolivians to pursue the legendary guerrilla. The latter eventually captured Che, shot him in a backwoods schoolhouse, and buried him in a mass grave.
Did Fidel send Che to Bolivia intending to abandon him? Did the Russian government deliberately undermine his efforts there? The film leaves these questions to be judged by the viewer. Such mysteries are tantalizing, but should not distract American audiences from more serious questions.
Why did the United States support a dictator who prohibited free elections and whose regime endorsed cruelty and oppression? What is appropriate foreign policy to boycott Cuba in an effort to paralyze its economy? Does American partnership too often mean submission? Is it acceptable to exploit third world peoples industrially without contributing significantly to improving the well being of such countries? Indeed, have western societies helped create and perpetuate the third world phenomenon? If and when U.S-Cuban relations are reestablished, what will be the responsibilities of both nations regarding their past and their future differences? Undoubtedly, discussion of issues and policies will range from defensive rhetoric, to insincere apologies, from economic restitution to land restoration, from forgiveness to retribution.
El Che: Investigating a Legend is a challenging documentary. The film engages the viewer in critical thought with the context of humanity as a whole. Che, the leader, was a revolutionary message, one that did not die with the man buried in a mass grave somewhere in Bolivia, but lives on in the hearts and actions of those who seek security and freedom in the context of democracy.
Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life;
Jorge G. Castaneda, Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara;
Fidel Castro, Che: A Memoir, edited by David Deutschmann