'Che' Legacy Still Strong In Cuba

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The luminous gaze of revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara is almost a constant presence in communist Cuba, his dark eyes staring out from beneath a black beret on office walls and pro-government billboards.

Nearly four decades after his death during an abortive attempt to export revolution to Bolivia, the Argentine-born physician remains a beloved national hero, almost a secular saint, to many on this Caribbean island.

With a biopic about Guevara's early years, "The Motorcycle Diaries," opening in the United States on Friday, his relatives hope the film will show Americans another dimension of the man they may know only as an iconic image.

"It will be very interesting for Americans," said Camilo Guevara, the 42-year-old son of the late revolutionary and a project director at Havana's Che Guevara Studies Center.

The film is based on the personal writings of Guevara and fellow Argentine Alberto Granado about their travels across Latin America on a Norton motorbike in 1952.

"The film appears to be very faithful to the documents, respectful to the subjects and esthetically beautiful," the younger Guevara said this week. "I liked it very much."

Producer Robert Redford traveled to Cuba in January to privately screen the film for Guevara's widow, Aleida March, and other close relatives.

The film's Brazilian director Walter Salles and Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who plays Guevara, traveled here in June when the movie opened to enthusiastic audiences.

Nicknamed "Che" for the Argentine expression he used to address people, Guevara is remembered by older Cubans as a leader who rejected privilege and celebrated hard work.

"We will be like Che," uniformed boys and girls recite each school day when pledging to be "pioneers for communism."

Images of Guevara hang in schools, medical clinics and food ration centers. His visage is on postage stamps and the 3-peso coin beneath the words "Patria o Muerte" — "Homeland or Death."

Guevara himself evidently sensed his ideals would live on after he died.

"Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man," Guevara told his Bolivian executioner, according to revolutionary legend.

Dead at 39, Guevara became an icon to leftists worldwide, especially Latin Americans who made him a symbol of their struggles against U.S. interference and poverty and corruption in their own nations.

"Why did they think that by killing him, he would cease to exist as a fighter?" former comrade-in-arms and President Fidel Castro asked in October 1997, when Guevara's remains were enshrined in a mausoleum built beneath an 18-foot bronze statue in his likeness in the central city of Santa Clara. "Today he is in every place, wherever there is a just cause to defend."

If still alive today, Guevara would be 76, two years younger than Castro, whose beard has grown gray during his 45 years in power. Castro discourages public display of his image, thus few photographs — and no statues — of him are seen in Cuba except for official portraits in government offices.

The men met in 1955 in Mexico, where Guevara drifted after his motorcycle sojourn.

Turned increasingly radical by the poverty and injustice witnessed on his travels, Guevara joined Castro's invasion of Cuba a year later. They were among the few who survived the disastrous landing of the rebels' yacht, Granma.

From Cuba's Sierra Maestra, the rebels launched their guerrilla war on Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship. In 1958, Guevara led the rebels' capture of Santa Clara, a victory that drove Batista into exile and secured Castro's triumph on Jan. 1, 1959.

Several months later, the best known image of Guevara was captured by Cuban photographer Alberto Diaz Gutierrez, better known as Alberto Korda.

In it, Guevara gazed into the distance during a memorial service for more than 100 crew members of a Belgian arms cargo ship killed in an attack Cuba blamed on U.S.-backed counterrevolutionaries.

The portrait of the man who went on to promote armed revolution across the Americas and Africa was emblazoned on posters and T-shirts. Even former Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona, who returned to Cuba this week to resume treatment for his cocaine addiction, sports a "Che" tattoo on his arm.

Guevara's family and Korda, before his death in 2001, were enraged four years ago when the image was used to advertise Smirnoff vodka. Guevara, who didn't drink, would have hated the commercialization of his memory, they said. Korda later won copyright protection for the image from a British court.

Guevara assumed Cuban citizenship shortly after Castro's revolution and went on to become the nation's top economic planner, steering the country toward central planning and sending aid to South American revolutionary movements.

But Guevara's efforts to export revolution failed in the Congo and in Bolivia, where he was captured and shot to death by soldiers in October 1967.

The whereabouts of the remains of Guevara and six comrades were unknown for three decades until identified by an international forensic team in Bolivia and brought to Cuba.

Seven years after the interment, Argentine lawmakers last month asked for Guevara's remains to be taken to the country of his birth. His relatives refused.

"The decision that they stay where they are is the will of his family, as well as the loved ones of many of his fellow fighters," Camilo Guevara said at the time.

The 1997 ceremonies for Guevara's interment in Cuba on the 30th anniversary of his death resembled a state funeral.

Hundreds of thousands of people lined the 180-mile route from Havana to Santa Clara as his small flag-draped casket traveled to its final resting place.

Cannons thundered, air raid sirens shrieked and schoolchildren sang a popular song recalling Guevara's farewell message to Cubans: "Hasta siempre" — "Until forever."
  • Jaime Holguin

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