The Miami Herald
Jan. 16, 2004

Real Ché Guevara is still an enigma

A new movie skips Ché Guevara's leftist revolutionary period in favor of a spectacular South American road trip he took in his 20s.

  Knight Ridder News Service

  ROSARIO, Argentina - More than 36 years after his capture and execution, Ernesto ''Ché'' Guevara is about to be reborn. As a celluloid hero.

  The Argentina-born, anti-American revolutionary, perhaps best known today for millions of appearances on T-shirts and posters, is the subject of a
  much-anticipated movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, which will debut Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

  The movie -- directed by Brazil's Walter Salles and produced by actor-producer Robert Redford -- is based on diaries Guevara wrote during a 1952 road trip
  by motorcycle and thumb across South America. Guevara, then an asthmatic 23-year-old medical student, sweated his way across the Chilean desert,
  played soccer with lepers in Peru and rafted down Amazon River tributaries to Colombia.

  The nine-month trip introduced Guevara, a son of an upper-middle-class engineer, to the harsh realities of poverty and the indifference of the region's
  ruling classes to the poor. What he saw led him eventually to seek revolutionary change in Latin America. Were Guevara still alive, he would now be 75.

  According to Salles, the movie focuses on Ernesto, the young man coming of age, not Ché, the revolutionary he became. Salles describes his film as the
  ``story of two young men's search to discover for themselves an unknown continent -- before the age of television and globalized information . . . the
  story of two young men crystallizing their identities in the process.''

  Movies often reshape public perceptions of history. Likely to be overlooked in this instance is the fact that Guevara, when he was a little older than he
  appears in the movie, preached a gospel of violence and advocated a nuclear showdown with the United States during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.


  Guevara was born June 14, 1928, in Rosario, about 110 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. After the epic journey, he became a doctor in 1953 and soon
  afterward met Fidel Castro in Mexico City. After Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959, Guevara held numerous government posts before parting ways with
  the communist leader in 1965.

  The author of a treatise promoting guerrilla warfare, Guevara tried to export rebellion in the Congo but failed. He then sought to spread revolution in
  Bolivia but was hunted down by U.S.-trained Bolivian soldiers and executed by them on Oct. 9, 1967. To prove his identity, his face was spared from gunfire
  and his hands cut off for fingerprints.

  Three decades later, his handless skeleton was sent to Cuba for burial.

  Today, Guevara lives on as a fashion statement. College students worldwide wear T-shirts bearing his handsome bearded face. Internet retailers hawk his
  trademark soldier's beret for $16.95 plus shipping.

  ''He has become a plastic Ché,'' lamented Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, 61, a former leader of the Tupamaros, an armed urban guerrilla group in Uruguay
  during the 1960s and 1970s to whom Guevara was an inspiration.

  ''What lingers is the image of an age when youths were the protagonists, the clothes, the music, revolution, a new way to see sex. It was a cultural
  revolution that swept the world,'' said Fernández, who's now an influential Uruguayan senator. ``All the leaders then were 20-somethings. Today we have
  a youth that complains a lot but is unwilling to act.''

  In Rosario, there's no plaque on the elegant apartment building where Argentina's most famous, or infamous, son once lived on the second floor.

  Elderly doorman Miguel Gili gladly showed a reporter the damaged steps where Guevara sympathizers, angry at neighbors' refusal to place a plaque on the
  building, blew off the front door with a homemade bomb several years ago.

  A group of local professionals has tried for years to create a Ché Guevara museum. The city renamed a small plaza in his honor, and city fathers last year
  named him an ''illustrious person.'' But they won't go any further than that.


  ''Here in Rosario, Ché didn't exist,'' said Diego Sciascea, 32, a psychologist who is a museum proponent. ``I've been struck by his humanity, the disposition
  to change things, more than the guerrilla part of him.''

  His group gives away bottles with a quote from Guevara inside: ``The only fight you lose is the one you abandon.''

  Verónica Domínguez, a clerk in a convenience store near Guevara's apartment building, said she'd had a surprise encounter with the famous revolutionary

  When robbed at gunpoint recently, Domínguez noted that the crook wore the telltale rebel's badge on his arm: a tattoo of Guevara's face.

  ''I wondered if he knew what Ché was about,'' she recalled thinking.

  María Masse, a Buenos Aires painter of T-shirts with Ché's image, had this answer about who he was:

  ``When Ché died, I was just a kid. I didn't know what his revolution was all about. The image I formed is of a man following his ideals. . . . This spirit is
  what I see. Only every now and then someone like him comes along.''