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Commentary/Dilip D'Souza

Man From Myth: Che Guevara

Che Guevara Two notes about Che Guevara. First, from when he was on the run after losing a battle in the Congo in 1965. On the banks of Lake Tanganyika, Che wrote in his journal: "A desolate, sobering and inglorious spectacle... There was not a trace of grandeur in this retreat, nor a gesture of rebellion." Now another commander might have hunted for glory in defeat, claimed he was indulging in a "strategic withdrawal" rather than a retreat.

Not Che. Those things would not even have occurred to him. It is a glimpse into this compelling, complex, enigmatic character to read his forthright: "There was not a trace of grandeur in this retreat."

Second note. You find memorials to Che all over Cuba. At least three stick in my mind. The most famous is the enormous mural of his face that overlooks Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion, complete with his famous Hasta la victoria, siempre! ("Onward to victory, always!"). Less well-known, but no less dramatic, is the gigantic statue on the outskirts of Santa Clara, the place where his recently discovered remains are to be buried.

But neither of those touched me like another did. Strolling through Old Havana, I idly looked left down a street I was crossing. There, past the silhouettes of Cubanos walking under an arched bridge, was a multicoloured portrait of the man. Not a vast mural, not an overwhelming statue. Just an ordinary painting on an ordinary wall, framed by a few ordinary cars and heads. If Che himself had to choose a monument to his memory, I like to think he might just have plumped for this very plebeian one.

Che was like that. Undilutedly frank about himself; truly a man of the people whose causes he fought. And framing both those qualities, giving them a context: a fierce, unswerving commitment to Marxism.

He even retained a sense of humour about it all. "I am a complete bum," he wrote from Guatemala to his mother in Argentina in 1955.

Che Guevara Particularly after visiting quixotic, passionate Cuba last year, I find myself wondering just what Che's legacy really is. What his memory can possibly mean today. Has his life been reduced to portraits on T-shirts and on college hostel rooms around the world? To the shining three-peso coins charming old men try to sell you on Havana's streets, only because Che's handsome face graces one side?

The Marxism that inspired Che, they tell us, is effectively dead. The Cold War was lost by the Communists, which only proves that theirs was a failed, unworkable ideology. Across the world, men who believed in it raced to change the names of their parties, to obliterate any reference to Communism, to wrap themselves in more appealing packages.

In Russia, rump of the old Soviet Union, money is all and all are outlaw capitalists. China swears by Communism but has embraced capitalism with the fervour of the new convert. Even Cuba, without admitting it, is tempering its Communism with everything it once despised: five-star tourism, foreign investment, an economy that lives, now even legally, on Uncle Sam's greenbacks. In fact, widespread prostitution and corruption, major evils Che's Cuban Revolution was supposed to whisk away, are unremarkable facets of life in Cuba today. This is Communism, where it is still called that, '90s style.

And with this take on the ideology today, the great causes of Che's time cannot help but seem strange, almost fantastic.

What, after all, was the Vietnam War for? The US entangled itself there ostensibly to save the world from marching Communism. But it had not bargained for the unforgiving conditions, the corrupt regime in South Vietnam, the vocal opposition at home, the numbing horrors of war, the determination of Ho Chi Minh's Viet Cong. All these made it a supremely unwinnable war: as the US eventually realised, turning the country over to the Communists.

But only two decades later, Vietnam, like so many others, is also reaching out to the capitalists of the West. So as the circle comes around, you think: why was the war fought at all?

Or the Congo, where Che was part of a socialist insurrection in 1965. He fought Mobutu's Belgian mercenaries at the side of a certain Laurent Kabila, of whom he had a particularly poor opinion. Che and Kabila routed, the Belgians eventually pulled out. For the next thirty years, the country was left in the grubby hands of Mobutu, that most despotic of despots. Only for Kabila himself to mount another rebellion against Mobutu, this one putting him in power in June 1997. Only for Kabila himself to be accused of horrible atrocities in his campaign. And there's one final twist in the tale. Mobutu, don't forget, was the CIA's bulwark against Communism in Africa. So his dethroning and death was, in a sense, the victory Che had been denied in 1965.

As this circle comes around, as the characters and causes shift ground, you try to recall: what was Che fighting for in 1965? Was it all clear then, much as it is murky now?

Murky or not, Marxism scorned or not, everything we know about Che tells us he would have stood by his beliefs. He was singularly uncompromising about them. He would not have wasted time mourning the watered-down versions of the ideology that pass today. He would have been far too immersed in his struggles for the oppressed, in his revolutions, in the guerrilla warfare that made him the man he was. Even in his unforgivably darker side, as seen in his cold overseeing of the executions of some 500 Batista men after the Revolution. In a revolution, Che used to say, "one wins or dies."

Che, more than we remember now, for better or worse, was "one of those rare people," as Christopher Hitchens wrote recently, "for whom there is no real gap between conviction and practice."

The greatest irony about Che may be right there, in the way he lived his beliefs like none of his contemporaries did. In the '60s, that quality inspired millions across the world and moved Jean-Paul Sartre to describe him as "the most complete human being of our age." In the '90s, his beloved Marxism is reviled. If there's reason enough for that, we are even faintly scornful of the kind of commitment he showed to it. That's out of fashion too. Today's political poster-boys and cutout-girls flaunt their shifting, shiftless ideology; not that they care very much for living it, whatever it is.

Che Guevara Just possibly, that lack of commitment contributes to much of the distress around us, the same distress that moved Che.

That may be why, in the end, Che's most enduring legacy is his life. He reminds us that there is a value to being uncompromising, to believing in a cause.

Human like the rest of us, he went to extremes at times. Much of what he predicted proved entirely mistaken. But as long as the miseries to which Che responded live on, he does too.

Third note about Che. The end came on October 8, 1967. Fighting a no-hope revolution -- the word barely applies, especially given his previous victories -- in Bolivia, Che had been captured by a Bolivian army unit the day before. Held in a small house overnight, he was dispatched without fuss the next morning.

Che was defiant to the end. His executioner later said his last words were: "Shoot, coward! You are going to kill a man."

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Dilip D'Souza

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