How resilient is the ghost of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine-born Marxist revolutionary who ably assisted the Castro brothers’ sadly successful mission to turn Cuba into an island hellhole? His legend survives even a lackluster, long-winded biopic released in 2008 and now just out on DVD.
More important, Che’s legend survives the facts of his own life. Born in 1928 and gunned down in 1967 by drunken Bolivian soldiers, Che rarely missed an opportunity to make life miserable for those who opposed him. During the fight against the Batista regime, Che ordered the summary executions of dozens of real and suspected enemies, becoming the very thing he said revolutionaries must be: a “cold-blooded killing machine.” As a leader in post-Revolution Cuba, Che became known as the “butcher of La Cabaña” prison, where he oversaw hundreds of murders of political prisoners and “counter-revolutionaries.”
When he became the effective czar of the Cuban economy and attempted to create a “new man and woman,” or workers fueled by revolutionary ideals rather than conventional workplace incentives, his plans failed catastrophically and helped make Cuba the economic basket case it remains to this day. Along the way, Che did more than his share to help ban rock and jazz music as “imperialist” forms of expression. Such actions mark Che less as the youthful idealist portrayed in the acclaimed film version of his own Motorcycle Diaries and more as a repressive, murderous thug, a Caribbean version of the Taliban.
By the mid-1960s, Che left Cuba to export armed revolution to Africa and South America, all without success. If his violent death at 39 secured his romantic martyrdom to a cause that now thankfully flourishes only in Cuba and North Korea, it is his iconic, beret-bedecked image from a 1960 photo that persists everywhere in popular culture, from Mike Tyson’s torso (the boxer sports a tattoo of Mao along with Che) to beer and booze labels to belt buckles to the T-shirts worn around the world. Despite Che’s pronounced contempt for rock music, Carlos Santana wore a Che T-shirt during a performance at the 2005 Academy Awards ceremony. Other invocations of the Che image, such as the image above from a greeting card line that features a dog as Che, suggest unconscious (or at least unknowing) parody.
Increasingly, one hopes, Che’s image is becoming openly mocked as the ugly reality of his life outlasts the shiny revolutionary veneer. As Alvaro Vargas Llosa reported five years ago, young Argentines have taken to sporting shirts emblazoned with the putdown, “I have a Che T-Shirt and I don’t know why.” The Australian band The Clap sings of the “Che Guevara T-Shirt Wearer” who has “no idea” of who he is. The Cuban punk band, Porno para Ricardo, which has been arrested for “social dangerousness,” openly declaims the Castro regime and its heroes such as Guevara.
Karl Marx, of all people, once remarked that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. Marx argued that history was the key to understanding the real world, and history is certainly no friend to Che Guevara. If his younger admirers study the historical Che–the one reputed to have declared “I feel my nostrils dilate savoring the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood of the enemy”–they will understand that Che’s original influence was indeed tragic, not just for Cubans but for many others as well. And they just might skip the farce phase, out of deference to the many victims of the butcher of La Cabaña.
Watch Reason.tv’s 10-minute documentary, Killer Chic: Hollywood’s Sick Love Affair With Che Guevara, by clicking below.