Authors: Christopher Hitchens
Thank you for downloading this Simon & Schuster eBook.
Join our mailing list and get updates on new releases, deals, bonus content and other great books from Simon & Schuster.
or visit us online to sign up at
One should strive to combine the maximum of impatience with the maximum of skepticism, the maximum of hatred of injustice and irrationality with the maximum of ironic self-criticism. This would mean really deciding to learn from history rather than invoking or sloganizing it.
Letters to a Young Contrarian
Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life,
by Jon Lee Anderson, and
The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey around South America
, by Ernesto Che Guevara, translated by Ann Wright
HEN, SHORTLY AFTER
the triumph of the Castro revolution, Ernesto Guevara took over the direction of the Cuban National Bank, it became his duty to sign the newly minted ten- and twenty-peso notes. This he did with a contemptuous flourish, scrawling the bold nom de guerre “Che” on both denominations. By that gesture, which made those bills a collectors' item in some quarters of the left, he expressed an ambition to move beyond the money economy and what used to be termed “the cash nexus.” It was a stroke, at once Utopian and puritanical, that seemed to sum up his gift both for the improvised and the determined.
Revisiting Havana recently, for the purpose of making a BBC documentary on the thirtieth anniversary of Guevara's murder, I discovered that there are now four legal currencies in circulation. The most proud and salient, of course, is the United States dollar. Nowhere outside the Panama Canal Zone has any Latin American economy capitulated so utterly to the usefulness of this green symbol. Once the preserve of the Cuban
and of those with access to
special diplomatic “dollar stores,” the money of
is now the preferred streetwise mode of exchange, and also the essential legal tender in hotels and newly privatized restaurants. Next in importance is the special “INTUR” money, printed by the Cuban Ministry of Tourism for the exclusive use of foreign holidaymakers. Large tracts of Cuba, especially the Varadero beach section outside Havana, have been turned into reservations for this special breed of “internationalist.” Third comes the
, a piece of scrip with a value pegged to that of the dollar. And last we find the Cuban peso, a mode of exchange so humble that windshield washers at intersections, when handed a fistful, will wordlessly hand it back.
On this last currency appears the visage of Che Guevara. It certainly, if somewhat ironically, demonstrates the regime's fealty to his carelessness about money. Meanwhile, under stylized poster portraits of the heroic comandante, and within sight of banners readingârather gruesomely, perhapsâ
“Socialismo o Muerte,”
the youth of Havana sell their lissome bodies as they did in the days of the Sam Giancana and George Raft dispensation. Junk tourist artifacts are sold from stalls outside Hemingway's old Bodeguita. The talk among the liberal members of the writers' union, as also among the American expatriate veterans, is all of the surge in street crime and delinquency. With unintentional comic effect, these conversations mimic their “deprived or depraved?” counterparts in Los Angeles and New York. Is it the lack of jobs and opportunities? Or could it be the decline in the moral basis of society? After all, it's not that long since Martha Gellhorn instructed her readers that mugging in Havana was unknown. The old “moral versus material” debate continues in a ghostly form, as if there were a pentimento of Che concealed behind the partly gaudy and partly peeling faÃ§ade.
Leaving Cuba and landing in CancÃºn, Mexico, I buy the
New York Times.
On the front page of the
is the news that Hector Silva, candidate of the Farabundo MartÃ Liberation Front, has been elected mayor of San Salvador. The paper mentions that many of Silva's enthusiasts “still sport” lapel buttons bearing the
likeness of Guevara. When I interviewed him in 1987, the brave and eloquent SeÃ±or Silva was a much likelier candidate for assassination than election.
The front page of the
New York Times
reports from Zaire, and carries the claim of Laurent-DÃ©sirÃ© Kabila that his rebel forces will be in the capital city by June. The paper's correspondent, citing the inevitable “Western diplomatic sources,” quotes them as saying that they will be surprised if it takes as long as that. One of Guevara's first acts, after the overthrow of Batista, was to extend hospitality and training to the embryonic forces of the Sandinista and Farabundo MartÃ fronts. And one of his last acts, before embarking for Bolivia, was to spend some time on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, attempting to put a little fiber and fervor into the demoralized anti-Mobutu guerrillas. (At this time, he formed a rather low opinion of M. Kabila, whose base and whose tactics were too tribal, who demonstrated a tendency toward megalomania, and who maltreated deserters and prisoners.) Still, Mobutu had been the jewel in the CIA's African crown. So perhaps not all the historical ironies turn out to be at Guevara's expense.
The superficial account of Che's significance is narrated chiefly in symbols and icons. Some of these constitute a boutique version: Antonio Banderas plays a sort of generic Che in the movie rendition of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's
As photographed by Alberto Korda with an expression of untamable defiance, Che became the poster boy of the vaguely “revolutionary” generation of the 1960s. (And of that generation's nemesis: the Olivetti conglomerate once used a Che poster in a recruiting advertisement with the caption “We would have hired him.”) The Cuban government recently took legal steps to stop a popular European beer being named after its most popular martyr.
Much of the attraction of the cult has to do with the grace of an early and romantic death. George Orwell once observed that if NapolÃ©on Bonaparte had been cut down by a musket ball as he entered Moscow, he would have been remembered as the greatest general since Alexander. And not only did Guevara die before his ideals did, he died in such a manner as to inspire something akin to superstition.
He rode among the poor of the altiplano on a donkey. He repeatedly foresaw and predicted the circumstances of his own death. He was spurned and betrayed by those he claimed to set free. He was by calling a healer of the sick. The photographs of his corpse, bearded and half-naked and lacerated, make an irresistible comparison with paintings of the deposition from Calvary. There is a mystery about his last resting place. Alleged relics are in circulation. There have even been sightings.Â .Â .Â .
The CIA and its Bolivian military allies chopped off Guevara's hands in order to make a positive fingerprint comparison with records in Argentina: the preserved hands were later returned to Cuba by a defector from La Paz. We may be grateful that the Castro regime did not choose to set up an exhibit of mummification on the model of Lenin's tomb. Though I did discover, during my researches in Havana, that the pictures of Guevara's dead body have never been shown in Cuba. “The Cuban people,” I was solemnly told at the national film archive, “are used to seeing Che Guevara alive.” And so they do, night after night on their screensâcutting cane as a “volunteer,” greeting parties of schoolchildren, orating at the United Nations or the Alliance for Progress, posing in a clearing in the Sierra Maestra or the Bolivian uplands.