Monday, May 27, 2013

The Motorcycle Diaries and the Cult of Che Guevara

In atheist Cuba Che occupies the place of Jesus Christ. I was struck from the moment I arrived there by the ubiquitous Che souvenirs and the small icons of the revolutionary leader that hang on dashboard shrines inside taxis.



While people spoke of Che in revered tones, nobody praised Fidel Castro, who had headed up the Communist government for more than 40 years at this time.

In Revolution Square in the heart of Havana the iconic face of Che stares out from a concrete building. It's one of the largest plazas in the world but I have seldom felt more hemmed in. For a few moments I felt the claustrophobia of millions of Cubans who are anchored down by these concrete monstrosities of a former age and unable to leave.

I hadn't thought about Che for a long time but finally watched a DVD of The Motorcycle Diaries that had been hanging around for a few months.

The movie is the dramatization of a motorcycle road trip Che went on in his youth that took him out of his native Argentina and gave him his life's calling as a revolutionary.

In 1952, the 23-year-old medical student Ernesto Guevara de la Serna - Fuser to his friends and later better known as 'Ernesto Che Guevara' - postponed his graduation to go on a grand tour of South America with his old biochemist friend 'Alberto Granado.'

 
Che in the Motorcycle Diaries


They mount the Mighty One and fell off it a number of times while passing some breathtaking scenery into Chile. When they are in Chile the motorcycle dies and they head north on foot. It feels like a coming of age movie or Jack Kerouac's On the Road, but as they walk through the Atacama Desert, they meet a poverty stricken couple who are seeking work at a mine.

They witnessed at first hand the exploitation by the mine owners of the workers. As they head north up the Andes exploitation of the masses rears its head in many forms.

In Peru they visit Cusco, the Old Inca capital and conclude the Incas were superior to their Spanish conquerors in so many ways, apart from weaponry.

Che's conviction to fight for the oppressed grows when he volunteers at the San Pablo Leper Colony in the PerĂºvian Amazon Basin. He balks at the fact the river separates the staff from the lepers and the nuns make them wear rubber gloves and won't serve food to anyone who hasn't attended Mass.

The scene where the asthmatic Che swims the river because he thinks he should be spending his leaving party with the lepers, forms the climax of the movie.

 
Che with Fidel Castro


Seeing Che depicted in such humanitarian terms made research more a man who was vilified in the west.

Che formed the view of the United States as an Imperialistic bully when he saw it overthrow the government of Guatemala. As a guerrilla leader in Cuba in the 1959 war he gained a reputation for brilliance and ruthlessness. Che was even known to personally shot defectors in the head. Heavily outnumbered at the Battle of Santa Clara, Che's victory paved the way for the Communists to take control of Cuba.

Much of what Che did when occupying high positions in the Cuban dictatorship, mirrors some of the experiments seen in countries such as Russia and China.

He saw capitalism as a "contest among wolves" where "one can only win at the cost of others" and sought to bring about the creation of a "new man and woman". He stressed that a socialist economy in itself is not "worth the effort, sacrifice, and risks of war and destruction" if it ends up leading to"greed and individual ambition at the expense of collective spirit."

Predictably these experiments in collectivism proved to be a miserable failure. Facing isolation, he sought economic ties with the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Che was instrumental in bringing Soviet made nuclear armed ballistic missiles to Cuba in 1962, precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the planet has been to nuclear war to date.

Facing the threat of nuclear war, the Soviets dismantled their missiles. The episode soured Che's relationship with the Soviets. He later told a journalist if the missiles had been under Cuban control, they would have fired them off. He later explained the cause of socialist liberation against global "imperialist aggression" would ultimately have been worth the possibility of "millions of atomic war victims.

It's hard to square such frightening callousness with the character in The Motorcycle Diaries who gives his coat to outcasts and swims a river for lepers.

Che fought in the Congo and Bolivia where he tried to export the Cuban revolution. In Bolivia special forces along with the CIA captured him. He was executed on October 9, 1967.

 
Revolution Square, Havana


He remains an enigma and a figure whose actions seem incompatible with his iconic status.

Che, writes Paul Berman, "was an enemy of freedom, and yet he has been erected into a symbol of freedom. He helped establish an unjust social system in Cuba and has been erected into a symbol of social justice."

The Motorcycle Diaries is still worth watching. But we should bear in mind it's just a first step along the road. Maybe Che's idealism was pure back then. But life has this unpleasant habit of muddying the waters.

12 comments:

  1. There are a lot of people in the SF Bay Area, esp. 'The People's Republic of Berkeley' who are way into Che. I'm just not that interested in politics or revolution so I never read stuff about him or saw the movie.

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    1. Indeed but h's two dimensional; a lot of people are seduced by the image..

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  2. Wow, what an informative, fascinating bio.

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  3. I think I watched that a while ago. It sounds like I should watch it again. a

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    1. I liked it, do like those adventure tales.

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  4. I'd love to go to Cuba, so much to see! I've not seen the motorcycle diaries but feel like I want to watch it now. How you getting in with your book?

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    1. you should go Rowena, fascinating - um slowly for sure lol :)

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  5. I really liked that film, but I must admit, he didn't live up to expectations. At some point he lost it which is a shame because in the film you can see he was sincere in his distress for the victims of oppression. Bizarre that he went on to be an oppressor himself.

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    1. lol Sarah - yes he went a bit squiffy

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  6. I haven't seen that film. I'm now inspired to. I've also been to Cuba and he is very predominant. An interesting man.

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    1. was - you should check it out Juliette :)

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