If 'El Che' Came to Cuba Today ...
An Anniversary Show.Would he salute Fidel or sell Nikes? Cubans debate his legacy and what he'd have wanted.
HAVANA — At a small used-book store and art gallery on a narrow Havana street, a portrait of Che Guevara presides over the affairs of the day and prompts a glowing commentary on the Argentine physician-turned-Marxist-revolutionary icon.
"I am a black woman with two degrees and am now a university English and German professor," says Navidad Scull, as she sits painting a naif-style picture of Cuban daily life. "Race and poverty would have prevented me from doing this in any other country, but the fact that I could in Cuba is a testament to what El Che stood for, and what he helped accomplish," she says. "I'm sure that if El Che were here today he would be 100 percent behind the Cuban revolution and [Cuban leader] Fidel [Castro]."
A few hundred yards down the narrow street, a young man selling papier-mch and wooden crafts, many emblazoned with the familiar portrait of Che Guevara, has a different take. "El Che was a very intelligent, very perceptive man," he says. "So that makes me certain that if he were alive today he would be in favor of a democratic Cuba and even a capitalist economic system open to the world," says the young man, without a hint of irony. "Just as he was in the '60s, he would want to be a man of his time today."
In a Cuba marked by deep divisions over the 38-year-old communist regime and the path the country should take in the future, the Cuban people remain remarkably unanimous in their reverence for Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Portraits are everywhere of the handsome, charismatic revolutionary who helped bring Fidel Castro to power in 1959. His familiar face hangs like a saint's in offices, shops, and homes, and peers down from giant lighted billboards.
But perhaps because he can no longer speak for himself, Che Guevara - simply "El Che" to Cubans - has become everything to everybody. "If El Che could see Cuba today?" ponders a Havana engineering student, as if offering a counterpoint to Ms. Scull's point of view. "He would be disgusted to see how wretched his revolution has left the Cuban people."
To mark the 30th anniversary of the revolutionary's death, Cuba is staging a week-long homage to the man who rose to the rank of major in Castro's Army and who became a minister of industries in the young regime.
The observance will also spotlight the revolutionary who left Cuba on an unsuccessful quest to spread Marxist revolution in Africa and South America, before being tracked down and killed in Bolivia in 1967.
Guevara will also be celebrated by the government for the same reasons he continues to be used for propaganda purposes: for the wide perception, in Cuba, Latin America, and beyond, that El Che was a good, selfless man who loved freedom and equality and abhorred the domination of the squalid masses by a privileged, monied elite.
At a time when "the poison of imperialist individualism" is threatening Cuba "from within," as Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcn said last week, the Cuban government "needs to emphasize more than ever the honesty and impeccable conduct" of Guevara.
Mr. Alarcn, who was speaking at the opening of a Havana conference on Guevara, likened the revolutionary to a "messiah" and called for the increased study of his thought and deeds, especially among young people.
Cuba's official observance of the anniversary of El Che's death will begin Saturday in Havana, where his remains - discovered earlier this year in Bolivia and flown to Cuba for permanent burial - will be placed on display. The remains will then be moved to the provincial city of Santa Clara, which was captured by a revolutionary unit under Guevara's command in the final days of the Cuban revolution.
A second period of public viewing will end Oct. 17 with a giant gathering in Santa Clara's Ernesto "Che" Guevara Revolutionary Square, where a mausoleum built in his honor will receive the remains.
'He came to help'
If Cubans continue to hold El Che in such unanimous esteem, it's because "they are a very appreciative people," says Froyln Gonzlez, a Cuban Guevara expert and author of many books on his life.
"He came from Argentina to help free them from one of the bloodiest dictatorships this continent has known, and they won't forget that. When he left here," adds Mr. Gonzlez, "it was to fight on the side of the humble, the exploited, the discriminated everywhere, and Cubans appreciate that, too."
After 14 years studying Guevara's life, Gonzlez says he is also sure that El Che would be "totally faithful to Fidel and the Cuban revolution" if he were alive today. "In his last letter to Fidel he said, 'I thank you for your teachings and your example, to which I will try to be faithful to the ultimate consequences of my actions,' " he quotes. "That would not have changed."
Young have different view
But other Cubans, especially among the younger generation, believe the humane, freedom-loving, and intelligent Guevara they "know" would have broken with the Cuban regime by now and followed other former communist countries in adopting new forms of political and economic organization. It is no doubt this weakening of communist ideology that Mr. Alarcn had in mind in giving his Havana speech.
"Cuban kids don't care about El Che, he's from another era for them," says "Jorge," an athletic instructor who, as a soldier in the early 1980s, went to Angola as part of Cuba's revolutionary force there. "Yea, I followed El Che's dream in Africa, and for what? So that Angola could be capitalist now, and Cuba the last socialist holdout." He says, "Put a T-shirt with El Che on it next to one with Nike, and the Cuban young people will pick Nike every time, no hesitation."
But in fact most Cuban youths questioned about El Che offered glowing assessments of his "example" and his "love for those left behind" - even if they thought he would no longer be a friend of the regime he helped found.
"Everything he fought to banish from Cuba, extreme economic inequalities, the control by a small elite, the lack of freedom, social corruption, all those things are back today and maybe even worse than before," says a young woman who just began a career as a doctor. "If El Che could come back to Cuba today, he would die."