The Washington Post
Thursday, October 16, 1997; Page A18


                                   In life, Ernesto "Che" Guevara was, after his success in helping Fidel Castro
                                   make the Cuban revolution, a failure. The other would-be revolutions embraced by
                                   this Argentine-born ideologue crumbled. But in death he blossomed as a symbol of
                                   youthful daring and utopian aspiration in a global movement -- communism -- that
                                   came to be completely discredited yet survives in Cuba and a few other countries
                                   and in the minds of a diaspora of incurable romantics and unrepentant
                                   commissars. Some of his remains, found in a secret Bolivian grave and returned to
                                   Cuba last July, are at the center of Havana's current commemoration of the "30th
                                   Anniversary of the Death in Combat of the Heroic Guerrilla and His Comrades."

                                   A country chooses its own heroes. Yet it was not "Cuba," in the sense of an entity
                                   representing an inarguably valid popular will, that installed Che Guevara in his
                                   adopted country's pantheon. It was a self-appointed Marxist elite, which first found
                                   a use for him as a guerrilla leader making and exporting revolution and then found
                                   further use for him as a fixture of state propaganda. For that latter role, he had just
                                   the right attributes, being glamorous, audacious, given to spouting idealistic
                                   slogans, self-sacrificing, young (39 when he died in 1967) and -- perhaps best of all
                                   -- dead and hence no threat to the ruling circles.

                                   He was also something else: a killer who executed "traitors" in his own ranks and
                                   boasted of winning peasant support by "planned terror," a believer "in the
                                   revolution" who gave a gloss of intellectuality and social justice to the pursuit of
                                   single-party power, and a man who hated his political enemies and thereby felt
                                   empowered to destroy them. It seems a just irony that this man who claimed to be
                                   "with the people" finally was turned in to the Bolivian army by the very peasants in
                                   whose name he was attempting a revolution.

                                   All this might be no more than a historical footnote but for the fact that the Cuban
                                   regime Che Guevara served is still in power and still using him for its own
                                   anti-democratic ends. Indeed, his simultaneous success as a contemporary pop
                                   icon seems to be bestowing on him a good deal more than the fabled 15 minutes in
                                   the public eye. A pity, then, that he is not seem more widely and clearly for what
                                   he was: not the Marxist Robin Hood of myth but someone who did his country, and
                                   not only his country, much harm.

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