Che as he was in 1950, riding across Argentina.
The Motorcycle Diaries, a dramatization of Che's formative voyage through the length of South America.
The ubiquitous Che t-shirt
Che and Fidel in real life.
Famous photo by Freddy Alborta of Che's corpse surrounded by Bolivian military. Leandro Katz made a documentary about the photo and Alborta, El día que me quieras. (Click link to see Jump Cut essay by John Hess on film).
Seeing Che (parts one and two, dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2008) and then reading about it prompts reflections on the larger political project that inspired its protagonist. One wonders to what extent the scope and thrust of that project – socialist revolution in Cuba and beyond – can be conveyed to audiences of a new generation through a focus on that particular individual.
Not surprisingly, the reviews of Che are politically predictable. Commentators who parrot the dismissive labeling of Cuba’s revolutionary regime as a totalitarian dictatorship are scornful of the film – their hostility only magnified by its length. They cannot get beyond noting – not mentioned in the film – that Guevara ordered executions of Batista henchmen in the aftermath of the 1959 victory. Any notion of situating those decisions in relation to the prior regime’s conduct – and the intense mass repudiation it aroused – would no doubt be viewed by them as mere apologetics. They reject the revolution on principle (just as U.S. officialdom after 1979 denounced the Nicaraguan revolution even though it abolished the death penalty), and no film that gives a respectful treatment to one of its leaders can be expected to change their minds.
What gives Che Guevara an appeal that eludes such gatekeepers is his unique trajectory from the perils of guerrilla warfare to a position of power and renown, and then back again to clandestinity, danger, and eventual capture and assassination. The two phases of this trajectory – shown in Parts I and II of the present film – are inseparable in defining who Che was. Revolutionary leaders in power, no matter how faithful to the ideals that inspired them, are always vulnerable to the charge that they value their position of authority more than they do their original commitment to social justice. Che’s withdrawal from state functions was the most conclusive proof that no such accusation could be leveled at him. It was at the same time a tribute to the larger vision that enabled him to think that way.
Che’s legacy thus beams an aura of integrity that reaches beyond those who share his politics or who know much about his life. However much his iconic status may have been degraded by commodification (the ubiquitous T-shirts), the aura underlying it is one that will continue to perturb defenders of privilege. Among the messages it conveys is that no amount of economic, political, or military might can withstand the moral force of a mobilized population. Corollary to this, and implicit in Che’s practical optimism, is the idea that while corrupt regimes have much to hide, their revolutionary challengers thrive on bringing every dilemma and every social antagonism to the surface.
The task, therefore, for anyone wanting to build on Che’s example – a goal embraced by this film’s producers[open endnotes in new window] – is not to feed into a legend of heroism but rather to develop an awareness of both the objective hurdles and the positive human qualities that are involved in dismantling structures of oppression. This is a tall order, certainly a challenge to any attempt at reenactment. As predictable as the hostility to Che shown by commercial taste-makers are the reservations, qualifications, and overall ambivalence expressed about the film by so many of those who on political grounds might have been expected to welcome it.
Much of such criticism emanates from a misplaced literal-mindedness. One reviewer, for instance, laments the fact that the film’s Fidel (Demián Bichir), although a skilled actor, lacks Castro’s physical stature and charisma. Such details do not seem to bother those who care about the film’s basic subject-matter, which does not end with the personal traits of even its main protagonist. In a post-screening appearance in Cambridge, Mass., producer and lead actor Benicio del Toro was asked about the film’s reception in Cuba. Remarking on the Cubans’ positive response, he told of an Afro-Cuban veteran of the revolution present at the Havana screening who was portrayed in the film by an actor with blond hair and blue eyes. Asked whether this bothered him, the veteran replied that it was of no importance in terms of the film’s authenticity.
Of course, any number of real omissions can be found. This is not a biography of Che (his early development was portrayed in The Motorcycle Diaries), nor does it offer more than the briefest glimpse of his private life. As for his role (between 1959 and 1965) in Cuba’s revolutionary government, this is represented almost exclusively in the form of flash-forwards from the pre-1959 guerrilla struggle (Part I of the film) to scenes from when he spoke at the UN General Assembly in 1964. There is thus no attempt to encompass his significant (and controversial) impact on the economic transformation of Cuba, or his role in Cuba’s internal struggles of that period. What the UN scenes (including interviews and small talk) offer is a sense, on the one hand, of Guevara’s intellectual agility and his understanding of imperialism and, on the other, of his detached and ironic attitude toward the trappings of power. These flash-forwards, then, serve to dramatize the outcome of the victorious struggle of Part I, and thereby also to frame the tragic unfolding of Che’s subsequent Bolivian venture (1966-67), which is the theme of Part II.
Just as the film as a whole is not a “life” of Che, so also the account in Part I, based as it is on his Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, does not purport to be a full history of how the revolution came to power. It mentions only in passing the urban middle-class opposition to the Batista regime, whose importance in the whole process we do not need to debate here. The reason the revolutionaries based in the countryside prevailed is that it was they who routed Batista’s armed forces, having successfully mobilized the Cuban peasantry – a large portion of which was made up of seasonally unemployed cane-cutters on the sugar plantations. The focus of Che’s narrative, and hence of the film, is on understanding how this mobilization was carried out.
The film’s depiction of this process did not strike me – contrary to the assertions of certain hostile reviewers – as in any way hagiographic. True, we see Che at one time or another applying his medical expertise, encouraging a peasant recruit to become literate, and coughing from his asthma. But the film’s emphasis is less on his uniqueness than on the egalitarian camaraderie that prevailed among the guerrilla fighters. More revealing in a political sense are the guerrillas’ interactions with the local population. Here Guevara’s revolutionary implacability is fully reflected. While the guerrilla band is open and welcoming to those desiring to join the struggle, and is willing to allow them a probationary period after which they are free to leave, it follows Che’s lead in showing no mercy to those who inform on the group or whose misconduct risks disgracing the revolution in the eyes of the people.
The film does encourage reflection on such matters, showing discussions of them within the guerrilla band. There is no way to pretend that decisions made in such a context are necessarily the right ones; a degree of guesswork is sometimes unavoidable. What we come to see, however, is that the moral dimension of those battlefield choices is fully recognized. A remarkable trait of Che’s writings is the candor with which he speaks of the day-to-day routines of guerrilla struggle, in which what might otherwise be passed off as casual lapses of vigilance can suddenly take on life-and-death proportions. The challenge is sometimes as much to the patience of the participants as it is to their courage. It would be difficult to convey this on film without some slow-moving passages.
Where in Part I the guerrillas’ forest routine is offset by repeated reminders of eventual success, in Part II (based on Guevara’s Bolivian Diary ) its heaviness is unrelieved. Interestingly, the experience of this latter part is what the filmmakers started out from. Director Steven Soderbergh at first thought of just casting occasional backward glances from the Bolivian campaign to Che’s earlier career. Only later did those planned recollections expand to comprise the entirety of Part I. In any case, it is clear that whereas for the film’s viewers Che’s triumph frames his subsequent defeat, the opposite dynamic was at work in the film’s gestation. Either way, though, the interplay of the two components is ever-present. There is an inescapable irony in watching how a man who has held U.S. imperialism up for condemnation before the entire world can be brought back to a situation in which his fate and that of his movement are placed in the hands of a taciturn Bolivian peasant whom he has unsuccessfully cajoled with his medical services. His very persistence, in that context, appears all the more remarkable.
The only cinematic counterpoint in Part II to the guerrilla campaign is the arousal of the Bolivian military government and its U.S. backers. More chilling, however, than their predictable counterinsurgency plotting is the diffidence of the rural population. The guerrilla band, cut off from any external supply lines, was without recourse. Its presence in such hostile surroundings reflected the disconnect between a global analysis of the empire’s vulnerability and the clashing reality of a people who – as also experienced by Che the previous year in the Congo, albeit for different reasons – had not yet developed a capacity to challenge the empire’s oppression. The consequent hopelessness of the guerrilla campaign is so insistently impressed upon us that it comes as a surprise when Che, captured and doomed, is shown a fleeting expression of warmth by a young soldier assigned to guard him.
And yet, however incongruous the global analysis might have appeared in such a desolate setting, the ultimate impact of the Che’s guerrilla campaigns has played out over a bigger canvas. His abortive mission in the Congo proved nonetheless to be an early step in a long-term Cuban involvement in Africa, one of whose fruits was a major military victory (in Angola) over the South African apartheid regime – a decisive moment in apartheid’s collapse. The impact in Latin America would be more diffuse. The Bolivian defeat ended any thought of an external jump-start to revolution, but guerrilla warfare – indigenously based – would continue to spark popular movements with notable impact especially in Nicaragua and later (1994) in Chiapas.
Broader than Che’s strategic legacy, however, is his moral legacy, expressed in the depth of his personal commitment and also in his internationalism. These traits have attained a resonance in Cuban society which is not even noticed by those who see in that country only its material challenges and its harsh response to subversion. Cuba projects an ethic of service which would be unimaginable on such a scale in a capitalist society, and it has indeed begun to show results at a global level which may prove – in our new age of military robotics – to be a more effective anti-imperialist strategy than was Che’s admonition (1967) to “create two, three, many Vietnams.” Cuba’s global presence now takes primarily the form of doctors, teachers, and disaster-relief teams. It has for years provided hurricane-relief all over the Caribbean; its earthquake-relief has extended as far as Pakistan, where its workers stood out in their readiness to share the hardships of those they were helping. Supporting the new wave of elected revolutionary regimes in Latin America (beginning with Venezuela and Bolivia), thousands of Cuban health workers are providing service in poor communities. And, in an astonishing gesture of reconciliation, Cuban doctors performed a cataract operation, forty years later, on the Bolivian soldier who had carried out the execution order against Che Guevara.
No better monument could be imagined to this warrior and doctor. The effectiveness of “Che the film,” like that of any cinematic representation of political struggle, will ultimately depend on how it can be used in raising awareness. Part of this job will depend on the rest of us. The contribution of the film itself – for which Del Toro, Soderbergh, and their team deserve great credit – is to have provided context for a full appreciation of Che’s integrity.