Bush and Che: different concepts of freedom

Tepid reception for US leader at Argentina's Summit of Americas.

In the birthplace of Ernesto "Che" Guevara - one of the 20th century's great icons of liberation - and in a nation where most adults remember life under a brutal military dictatorship, you might think there would be greater appreciation for a world leader who champions freedom through prosperity and democracy. But no.

President George Bush finds little respect in Argentina. In some ways, the Guevara comparison is unfair. History hasn't judged Bush yet, and analysts here note that Argentina's favorite son benefits from a mythological status that allows vendors to sell Che T-shirts for $40 in London and New York. But there are revealing distinctions about Latin Americans' views of the freedom each symbolizes.

"Che's liberty was not individual freedom, it was the independence of countries and the liberation of the collective poor of those countries," says Manuel Mora y Araujo, director of Ipsos-Mora y Araujo, a prominent public-opinion analysis agency here. "But for Bush it is about individual freedoms. He is the archetype of the conservative, whereas Che was the archetype of the socialist."

That does not mean Argentines wish to emulate Guevara's political and economic ideology, experts explain. "The admiration for El Che no longer extends to his politics and ideology, certainly not to his Marxism," says Martin Krause, dean of the Graduate School of Economics and Business Administration in Buenos Aires and a longtime analyst of Argentine society. "It's a romantic idea of one man going to battle against the windmills, he's a Quixote."

Several years ago, when there was fresh intrigue about where Guevara's remains were buried, Mr. Krause wrote that the socialist icon's spiritual tomb is Cuba. "That's where his ideas found their final resting place," he says, "and it's a disaster."

Some, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, would disagree with that assessment. But Guevara was certainly integral to Fidel Castro's revolution. He fought alongside the Castro brothers when they seized control of Cuba in 1959. Later, he was a key participant in the socialist reforms, and became known for his fiery attacks on US foreign policy. He also wrote the influential manual "Guerrilla Warfare," which advocated peasant-based revolutions worldwide.

Today, what remains of Guevara in pop culture is often a figure stripped of political ideology, an "icon of rebellion," Krause says, which explains why youth wear his face on shirts and put his poster on college dorm walls.

Ricardo López Göttig, a young Argentine historian, says Guevara was basically about "freedom from" - from the survival-of-the-fittest nature of capitalism, from the crushing wearing-down of poverty - while Bush is about "freedom to" - to make one's own life.

"Che wanted a return to a simpler, communitarian life where there was no property and the individual was absorbed in a protective, collective whole," Mr. Lopez says. "Bush stands for a freedom for the individual, but it is a freedom exposed to competition, conflict, and without protection from failure. At a time of globalization and increasingly complex living," he adds, "the discourse of Che Guevara has a certain attraction."

The challenge for what Mora y Araujo calls a "current" would-be liberator is that he is judged against the backdrop of current events - a fact that exposes Bush to charges of hypocrisy that Che the myth doesn't face. For example, Mora y Araujo says, people look at Iraq and conclude there is no freedom.

And there is the example of the US. "Bush is no longer just the post-9/11 president, he is now the post-Katrina president," says Oscar Raúl Cardoso, a political analyst and radio talk show host here, referring to the "gaps" in American society exposed by the hurricane. "People hear that Bush's tax cuts benefited the wealthiest 4 percent of the population, then they see what Katrina revealed," he says. "There are some people in Argentina who lend an ear when Bush talks about freedom," he adds, "but the majority by far has a hard time swallowing it."

A recent telephone poll in four Latin American cities - Buenos Aires, Brasilia, Santiago, and Montevideo - showed that antagonism toward Bush was highest in Buenos Aires, with 64 percent saying they have a "poor" or "very poor" opinion of Bush.

The news kiosks here in the capital reflect those feelings. While carrying a full line of "El Che" postcards, biographies, photographs, and the latest investigations into the revolutionary's death in the Bolivian jungle in 1967, also sell newspapers with full-page ads calling on all Argentines to "stop Bush."

"Ah, you can't compare Bush to our Che," says José, who runs a newsstand on bustling Corrientes Avenue where he sells a variety of Che memorabilia. "Che was a doer, he carried out his words of liberation. But Bush just talks."

What about Iraq, which Bush describes as a war of liberation from a detested dictator? "He did that for the oil," says the affable vendor. "Surely people in America know that."

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