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Forty years ago this month, Che Guevara was captured and executed as he tried to lead a guerilla insurrection deep in the Bolivian jungle. Despite questions about his sometimes violent tactics and effectiveness as a revolutionary leader, Che remains an iconic symbol—even though he’s now been dead longer than he was alive. Che’s popularity in this country might stem more from how he looks on album covers and T-shirts than from his ideas or actions, but in Latin America, Che is remembered for his willingness to stand up to the United States. Greg Grandin, a history professor at New York University, is the author of several books on American influence in Latin America, most recently last year’s Empire’s Workshop. This interview was edited for length.
1. How is Che currently viewed in Latin America and how different is his image there than it is here?
There are those in the U.S. who see Che as a generic symbol of rebellion against power and some who even think seriously about his political legacy, but he is more readily available as a pop and commercial icon. His image has been co-opted, following in the tradition of Warhol’s silk-screened Mao. In Latin America, some of this banalization exists, but the popularity and understanding of Che goes well beyond that. I was living in Guatemala a decade ago when peace accords ended that country’s 36-year civil war, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians died. Suddenly Che’s image was everywhere. One street vendor told me that during the first three months after the war ended she sold more images of Che than she did of pop stars or the Virgin Mary. So Che–who was no fan of free speech–became a symbol of exactly that in a country long repressed. Throughout the region, Che remains a multifaceted symbol of reform, embodying anything from anti-imperialist resistance to revolutionary purity. And of course it doesn’t hurt that he is so good looking – I.F. Stone said that he was the first man he had ever met who he thought not just handsome but beautiful. In recent years, a number of admirers have been elected leaders of a number of countries: Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner all have embraced Che. Even more cautious reformers like Brazil’s Lula feel compelled to pay homage to his legacy.
2. How has his image evolved over the last four decades in Latin America?
His popularity has increased since his death. When he was alive, the Cuban Revolution, of which he was one of the most visible spokesmen, represented a divide between Latin America’s old, reformist, Communist Party Left, and a new, insurgent left. Today, those debates are largely the stuff of history and his appeal is practically universal save among the most hidebound. Look at Bolivia to get a sense of just how much his reputation has evolved–it was there, in the remote village called La Higuera, that Bolivian forces, aided by CIA agents, executed Che. His Bolivian expedition was a complete failure and his capture had much to do with the fact that he didn’t receive much support from either the Bolivian Communist Party nor from peasants. But today Che’s image is everywhere in Bolivia and he is particularly esteemed by that country’s powerful peasant and indigenous movement. President Morales is reported to keep a picture of him in his wallet and just last year, upon winning the presidency, he participated in an unofficial inauguration, where he claimed Che as a patron saint of indigenous rights, saying, “The struggle that Che Guevara left uncompleted, we shall complete.”
3. What do you say to those who object to this canonization of Che, claiming that he’s nothing more than a totalitarian murderer?
I’d say tell it to the millions of Latin Americans, many of them at the margins of society, fighting for a just, truly democratic world, who still find inspiration in his struggle and image. To them, there is no confusion. Do our political commissars, always on the hunt for any whiff of residual sympathy for the militant New Left, really want to dismiss those people out of hand as irrelevant or misguided? Over the last two decades, social movements inspired by Che have fought against free-market orthodoxy. Those movements are bearers of the social-democratic tradition and are seeking to advance democracy.
4. The vision Che had for Cuba and the Third World in general did not develop. How does that effect his legacy?
You could argue that the failure of the Cuban model has actually benefited Che’s legacy, which has evolved from the specific political project he was associated with. Forty years ago. Che died trying to export the armed tactics of the Cuban Revolution elsewhere. There were many reasons why the Left by that time had embraced violent insurrection as a strategy, not the least of which was the refusal of the region’s elites, fortified with support from Washington, to give up even the slightest of its privileges. Since then, the Latin American Left has evolved. Today it is profoundly peaceful and democratic, despite having adopted an icon of insurrection as its talisman.
5. What are some of the common misperceptions about Che in the United States?
My guess is that the American public knows very little about Che. If they saw the movie Motorcycle Diaries, they may have learned that he was Argentine, not Cuban. But few know that just after that tour around Latin America, where he first began to develop a pan-American consciousness, he wound up in Guatemala, a country that at the time was undergoing a profound democratic revolution. Che practiced social medicine in the country’s rural highlands, ministering to the country’s most marginal. He was in Guatemala during the CIA’s 1954 coup that ended that country’s democracy, and he saw firsthand the U.S. role in restoring a regime that would go on to kill hundreds of thousands of its citizens. He always cited his experience in Guatemala as a turning point. Prior to the coup, the Latin American left, including Communist groups, still believed it was possible to work with a country’s national bourgeois to achieve social democratic reform. Afterwards, it was increasingly difficult to do so. Che himself would go on to taunt the United States, saying “Cuba will not be another Guatemala” to justify the restrictions of civil liberties in Cuba, since it was through the subversion of the press, the Church, and independent political parties that the CIA did its work in Guatemala, and subsequently elsewhere.
6. How have American policies in Latin America following Che’s death impacted his image in the region?
Che was executed in 1967, and some of the worst interventions by Washington in Latin America were still to come. Most people are aware of the CIA’s involvement in the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 and Reagan’s wars in Central America in the 1980s. Less known is U.S. involvement in, or at least sanctioning of, coups in Uruguay in 1973 and Argentina in 1976. Following the demise of the Soviet Union, Washington moved away from its reliance on repressive Latin American proxies, banking instead on its ability to project its power through elections and economic pressure. This worked throughout the 1990s, as heavily indebted countries governed by centrists submitted to the command of the IMF. Over the past few years, roughly since Chávez’s landslide victory in 1998, the system has started to break down. The “Washington consensus,” as this set of policies came to be called, proved an absolute disaster. Between 1980 and 2000, in per capita terms, the region grew cumulatively by only 9 per cent. Compare that with the 82 per cent expansion of the previous two decades, and add to it the financial crises that have rolled across Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Argentina over the past 15 years, sweeping away accumulated savings, destroying the middle class, and wrecking the agricultural sector, and you will get a sense of why Evo Morales is calling for the completion of Che’s struggle.
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“He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.”