Journey around my father
Che Guevara's daughter resurrects the ideals of the man whose photo
became one of the world's
most compelling images. Sushi Das reports.
Thirty-five years after Che Guevara's death, Alberto Korda's famous
brooding picture of the young
revolutionary fighter with his beard and black beret still adorns T-shirts, jeans, punk-metal CDs and
posters, and features in Madonna's latest video.
It is a potent image that has inspired disaffected youth all over the world.
To a generation of new teenagers, this legendary guerilla fighter is
a dude. His image resonates with
the idea of anti-globalisation and the battle against American imperialism. For millions, Guevara
represents freedom, youth and the idea of rising up and being strong enough to change the system
we live in.
But who was the real Che?
Aleida Guevara, his eldest daughter, is now touring the world to separate
the myth from the man. It is
a personal journey as much as a political one.
She says Korda's picture of Che, taken while he was in mourning at a
friend's funeral, has been
commercially exploited and cheapens his message. Mass marketing has stripped him of his Marxist
ideology and she is on a mission to restore it.
She bears a remarkable resemblance to her father and like him, she has
studied medicine. Che was
passionate about the future of young people. Aleida, 42, expresses her passion for youth through
her work as a pediatrician at a children's hospital in Havana, where she lives.
She shares her father's idealism about creating a world free from oppression
and is a prominent figure
in the anti-globalisation movement. She works closely with the Che Guevara Studies Centre in
Havana, where her mother is a director.
Visiting Australia for the first time, she is promoting a new book,
Che Guevara Reader, a collection
of her father's writing. Asked if she tries to be like her father, Aleida replies: "Everyone in Cuba has
that commitment - to try to be like Che."
Cubans are familiar with the story of the young Argentinian-born socialist
doctor who joined Fidel
Castro in 1956 and fought a guerilla war to successfully overthrow the Batista dictatorship in Cuba.
After Castro took control of the country in 1959, he appointed Ernesto Che Guevara to his ministry.
Guevara was largely responsible for the political and economic alignment of Cuba with the Soviet
bloc. In the 1960s he vanished while at the peak of his power, eventually turning up as the leader of a
band of guerillas in Bolivia. On October 1967, 39-year-old Guevara was gunned down in the jungle by
US-backed Bolivian troops.
Aleida was seven at the time. She has only "very small memories" of
her father, but she remembers
his warmth, tenderness and capacity to love. The rest of the picture is filled in by stories that her
mother told her and through her enduring friendship with Fidel Castro, whom she calls "uncle".
Aleida says she didn't really know her father "physically and personally"
but she recalls the lessons
he taught her. "The most important one was to try to understand another human being, even though
you may not be sure of what's going on. And even when you are sure, be as delicate as possible with
that other person," she says.
During the years when Che Guevara disappeared into the Bolivian jungle,
he would emerge to visit
his four children incognito, as a "friend of their father's" fearful that they might inadvertently
disclose his whereabouts.
Aleida says Che was as flamboyant and passionate as any young man, but
what set him apart was
his dedication to the cause.
In 1965 he wrote to his children: "If you ever have to read this letter,
it will be because I am no longer
with you . . . your father has been a man who acted on his beliefs and has certainly been loyal to his
He ends his letter by giving a last piece of advice to his offspring:
"Above all, always be capable of
feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world."
That was to be his last letter to his children before he was killed
in 1967. Che's remains were
eventually found near the Bolivian town of Vallegrande in June 1997 and returned to Cuba.
Since his death, Aleida has maintained an affectionate relationship
with Castro. "It's like a
relationship of a father and daughter; whatever I don't understand, I ask him to explain it to me . . . I
demand that he explains."
The 76-year-old Cuban president has been in power for 44 years. During
much of that time American
trade and travel embargos have crippled the island's economy. The US wants economic and political
reform in Cuba and the settling of legal claims.
Aleida says Cubans will resist US-imposed regime change and she is sensitive
relating to Castro's successor. Her father may have rebelled against rulers in several countries, but
Aleida remains fiercely loyal to her "uncle" in Cuba. She is an unwavering member of the Cuban
Communist Party and she does not question Castro's leadership.
"The huge majority of people think that Cuba behaves as it does because
Castro exists . . . all the
resistance that we have had to put up with during these years, it's not just because one man exists,
there is a people actually convinced of what they are doing," she snaps.
With the exception of North Korea, Cuba is the last of the hardline
leftist revolutionary regimes
established in the 1950s. In a clear message to the Bush Administration that Cuba will not tolerate
efforts by the US to build a dissident movement in Cuba, the Castro regime this year sentenced at
least 36 dissidents charged with opposing Castro to up to 27 years' jail - the toughest political
crackdown in decades.
According to the Human Rights Watch, the Cuban government has carried
out a full-scale offensive
against dissidents, journalists and human rights advocates.
Aleida dismisses accusations of human rights violations in Cuba, saying
the country's penal code is
approved by its people. She also denies that the jailed dissidents were journalists and human rights
"The US spends millions of dollars paying people in Cuba to carry out
acts against the Cuban
government. You can call them dissidents if you wish, but for us that's not what they are, because
they are paid and supported by the US," she says.
Aleida is angry the dissidents have received worldwide attention while
five Cubans jailed in Miami
on conspiracy and spying charges remain largely ignored. She claims they were not given a fair trial
and should be tried again or released.
She is committed to carrying on her father's fight for freedom for the
oppressed by travelling the
world and telling people about the real Che Guevara.
At the end of another media interview in Melbourne, a photographer asks
Aleida to pose in front of a
framed picture of Alberto Korda's famous portrait of her father. But she declines. "No. That is not my
father. That is a moment in his life," she says.
Implicit in her refusal is a desire to be free from the commercialised,
popular side of her father that she
She turns to a different photo of her father holding a cigar between
his fingers, wearing military
khakis and a broad grin. "That is my father," she says. "I remember him always smiling. I remember
him as a human being."