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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Don’t cry for me Che Guevara

One Saturday, a couple of years ago, I brought the Munchkin to her weekly ballet lesson, as usual. But on that particular day, there was no dancing. Instead the entire lesson time (for which we were paying very good money) was devoted to collecting, cataloguing and documenting all sorts of half-filled bottles and containers of second-hand prescription medicines and pills. The teacher and her friends (and coerced parents and students) were doing this because a Cuban friend of hers, who was in Ireland on a visit, was returning home soon, and the teacher wanted to send as much medicine with her as possible, “for the Cuban people.” The country, she said, was suffering a shortage of medicines.

The memory of this came back to me earlier this year when I read reviews of Michael Moore’s Sicko (which I still have not gotten the opportunity to see), which reportedly extolled the virtues of the Cuban health care system, especially when compared to the U.S.‘s. The memory of it came back to me yet again during the past few days when I started coming across al kinds of radio, internet and print items noting the anniversary of the death of one of the founders of the modern Cuban state.

Last year, when everybody thought Fidel Castro was on his deathbed, humorist/columnist Newton Emerson had fun with the Cuban health care system in an Irish Times column. Wrote Emerson, with tongue embedded firmly in cheek, “‘It… became necessary to execute several thousand political opponents,’ Castro explained. ‘A state-controlled pharmacy just can’t compete with over-the-counter revolutionaries.’ … In 1964 Castro’s new health minister, Che Guevara, left the country due to an argument over the effectiveness of Chinese medicine. He died two years later in a Bolivian high-velocity acupuncture accident.”

Guevara was never Cuba’s health minister, although he might have qualified by virtue of his diploma in medicine from the University of Buenos Aires. But he did serve as commander La Cabaña Fortress—where he oversaw executions (sometimes preceded by trials, sometimes not) of hundreds of officials of the previous regime—as well as serving, later on, as Minister of Industries. Like Cillian Murphy’s character in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, he completed years of study in medicine, only to chuck it all and take up a gun. I am morbidly fascinated by this recurring phenomenon of doctors deciding to become terrorists/freedom fighters/whatever. How does that happen? After all those years of intense study and testing, do they suddenly wake up one morning and say to themselves, “Hey, you know, I think I will chuck all that studying for a few rounds of target practice. After all, I could do more good in the world by ending a certain number of lives of a certain set of people—instead of trying to save as many lives as I can”?

And, of course, it was not an acupuncture accident that caused Che’s death, but rather an execution by a Bolivian sergeant, who drew the short straw, in a dilapidated schoolhouse in the village of La Higuera forty years and two days ago. He had been captured because one of the people he was trying to liberate had informed on him. Ironically, if Guevara were alive today, he might well come to Bolivia as a state guest of the government of President Evo Morales, a political ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

On the anniversary of Guevara’s death, The New York Times published an article in which the revolutionary’s daughter decried the way Che’s image has been appropriated to adorn every manner of consumer product—a strange irony, given what the man spent so many years fighting, and ultimately died, for. The most pervasive image of him is from a photograph by Alberto Korda Díaz in Cuba in 1960 and was published in Paris Match in 1967. The article notes that Korda Díaz, a Cuban, never received any royalties for his iconic photograph—which has adorned everything from tee-shirts to posters to mugs to, most recently, a designer bikini—but he did win $50,000 from a British advertising agency, over its use in a marketing campaign for vodka—which he then donated to buy (guess what) medicine for Cuban children. Last year, the Target store chain in the U.S. withdrew a CD carrying case, with his image on it, after protests.

I have written about Che on these pages before, specifically a couple of years ago, when commenting on a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Bridget Johnson. She was upset about all the critical adulation heaped on Walter Salles’s The Motorcycle Diaries—based on Che’s own writings from his youth about a journey around South America that helped to form his political thinking—as well as other positive portrayals of the revolutionary in other films as well as other movies about heroic Communists. My response to Johnson was that any movie that Hollywood is making about these subjects is more about profit motive than Communist ideals. In other words, there is a market for such movies. But that raises the question: why does a segment of the movie-going public want to see movies about revolutionaries in general and Che Guevara in particular? Obviously, political leanings explain the preference to some extent, but there is a simpler explanation for the popularity of Che, even beyond the politically engaged. The man, well, rather his myth, is sexy.

Whatever your political preference or lack thereof, it is hard not be stirred by the image (often reproduced in stark black-and-white contrast, with no shades of gray) drawn from Korda Díaz’s photograph. There is something feral in the intensity of his eyes, something wild and powerful about the thick black tangles of hair, something a bit stylish about his beret with the star. Above all, he is a handsome man who, to all appearances, has a deep soul. Even without knowing anything about him (actually, especially not knowing anything about him), we cannot help but feel drawn to him. The fact that he died relatively young and fighting for what he believed in only adds to the allure. While he was alive, much of his charisma flowed from his seeming invincibility as he risked his life around the Americas in revolutionary struggle. But, for the past four decades, it has flowed from his martyrdom.

So it makes perfect sense that, when casting a hunky myth, filmmakers would settle on hunky actors. And so it was that Mexican heartthrob Gael García Bernal was tapped to play the idealistic young Che. When Richard Fleischer undertook a feature film biopic called Che!, within a couple of years after his death, the starring role went to one of the biggest international screen hunks of the time, Egytian-born Omar Sharif, fresh from his roles in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. When Alan Parker adapted Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera Evita for the big screen, the character of Che (who acts as a sort of Greek chorus opposite the Eva Perón character, played in the movie by Madonna) was played by Spanish sex symbol Antonio Banderas. According to the IMDB, Ocean’s [pick a number] director Steven Soderbergh is working on not one but two movies about Che, both aiming for a release next year and both starring the not-unattractive Benicio Del Toro. One is called The Argentine and seems to deal with the Cuban revolution. The other, which previously had the working title Che, is now called Guerilla and appears to concentrate a 1964 visit made by Che to New York to address the United Nations.

The IMDB has only sketchy information about a movie called Che Guevara, supposedly made or being made by Josh Evans, son of legendary producer Robert Evans and actor Ali McGraw. The rather cute Spanish actor Eduardo Noriega (Plata quemada, El Lobo) is listed in the title role. And no survey of Che Guevara would be complete (on this web site anyway) without mentioning Irish director Anthony Byrne’s 2003 16-minute delight Meeting Che Guevara and the Man from Maybury Hill, which highlighted Che’s Irish connection (like a surprisingly huge number of Argentines, he could claim Irish ancestry—his grandmother Ana Lynch was from Galway) and was inspired by a brief stopover Che made at Dublin Airport in 1963. In that film he was played by Karl Sheils, who seems like a nice bloke but, by default, may be the least hunky actor to play the revolutionary icon. (Sorry, mate, but I have to call ‘em as I see ‘em.)

Other actors to play Che on the big screen: eye-pleasing second-generation Cuban-American actor Jsu Garcia in Andy Garcia’s The Lost City, one of the few movies to portray Che and the Cuban revolution in a negative light, and conventionally good-looking Spanish actor Francisco Rabal in Paolo Heusch’s 1968 film El ‘Che’ Guevara. Actors to play him in made-for-TV movies: Alfredo Vasco in the 1997 Argentine flick Hasta la victoria siempre, Gael García Bernal (again!) in the 2002 U.S. production Fidel, and Julio A. Quesada in the 2006 French-language movie Sartre, l’âge des passions.

I suppose that, if some people are annoyed by the continued popularity of Che Guevara four decades after his demise, it is because they think this constitutes some sort of posthumous victory for him. And that perhaps it validates the old saw about killing a rebel only makes him a martyr and increases his power. But I really don’t think they need to worry. If anything, the fact that running dog capitalists the world over are using his image to make a buck on everything from tee-shirts to bikinis is the ultimate indignity for a Communist revolutionary and a certain sign of his utter defeat. The image of Che that we see in the popular media bears about as much resemblance to the actual man as Santa Claus does to Saint Nicholas of Myra.

In hindsight, Che Guevara might have made better use of his time on earth, after all, using his medical training to build a health system for Cuba that the world and Michael Moore could really be proud of.

-S.L., 11 October 2007

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