A country chooses its own heroes. Yet it was not "Cuba," in the sense of
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
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
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.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post