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BACKGROUNDING HISTORY:

Movie Can Clarify Vision of Rebel Che Guevara

by Gary Olson

One hopes that Soderbergh’s work provides the context for Che’s oft-quoted statement that “The true Revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.”
Last year was the 40th anniversary of the death of mythic Argentine-born, physician-turned-revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna. Now Director Steven Soderbergh ("Traffic") is shooting a dual biopic film project about Guevara with Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro as Che. In the stills I’ve seen from location in Spain, Del Toro bears an uncanny resemblance to Guevara.

There is a responsibility to correct a narrative grievously marred by misinformation, vilification, and commercialization since Che’s death. That includes the marketing of Alberto Korda’s iconic photograph of Che, something that would have appalled him. A few years ago I spotted a teenager wearing a tee shirt bearing this virtually ubiquitous image. Curious, I stopped to inquire what he knew about the man. After a moment’s hesitation, he replied, “I think he plays lead guitar for Rage Against the Machine.”

In attempting to set the early record straight, Soderbergh reportedly is using recently declassified CIA transcripts as background preparation. He is also following in the footsteps of the 2004 Walter Salles film “The Motorcycle Diaries,” in which Salles tracks Che and his friend Alberto Granada on an eight-month trek across Argentina, Peru, Columbia, Chile and Venezuela. When leaving his leafy, upper-middle-class suburb (his father was an architect) in Buenos Aires in 1952, Guevara is 23 and one semester from earning his medical degree. The two young men embark on an adventure, a last fling before settling down to careers and lives of privilege. They are preoccupied with women, fun and adventure, and certainly not seeking or expecting a life-transforming odyssey.

The Salles film’s power is in its depiction of Guevara’s emerging political consciousness as a consequence of that experience. During their 8,000-mile journey, they encounter poverty, exploitation and brutal working conditions, all consequences of an unjust international economic order. Influenced by these encounters, Guevara turns away from a medical career, believing that, while essential, medicine can only treat the symptoms of poverty. For him, revolution becomes the only way to address suffering’s root causes, what Harvard Medical School professor Paul Farmer terms 'politics as medicine on a grand scale.'

One hopes that Soderbergh’s work provides the context for Che’s oft-quoted statement that “The true Revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.”

We do know that in 1954, while working for the Guatemalan government, Guevara witnessed the overthrow of the democratically elected, populist Jacobo Arbenz by a CIA-sponsored coup. This experience reinforced Che’s belief that peaceful progressive change would not be tolerated by the Colossus of the North. Che escapes Guatemala for Mexico City where, after working briefly in the allergy ward of a hospital, he links up with the Castro brothers, who had fled Cuba. Intent on overthrowing the reviled Cuban dictator General Fulgencio Batista, their ragtag group of 82 exiles arrives by boat on Cuban soil on December 2, 1956 and are ambushed. Only 16 rebels evade capture or death by escaping to the mountains. After two years of organizing, land redistribution and fierce fighting, the guerrilla army proclaims victory on January 1, 1959.

After serving in two government posts, Che left Cuba in late March, 1965 to participate in the global liberation struggle, first in the Congo and later in Bolivia, where he attempted to organize a peasant movement. While in the Bolivian jungles, CIA agent Felix Rodriguez is assigned to track his movements in cooperation with the pro-U.S. military government.

A Bolivian battalion, trained, equipped and directed by U.S. Green Berets and the CIA, wounded and captured Che on October 8, 1967. On the following day a Bolivian soldier executed him. He was 39. He was mutilated and secretly buried in Vallegrande, Bolivia. In 1997, his remains were discovered and transferred for internment in Santa Clara, Cuba.

Che’s legacy is exemplified by a recent incident in Bolivia. Health care improved dramatically in Cuba after the revolution and cataract and other eye diseases are a world-recognized medical specialty. Today, Cuban doctors perform free eye operations in other Latin American countries. Under Operation Milagro (Miracle), financed by Venezuelan petrodollars, some 600,000 people have had their vision restored. According to Cuba specialist Salim Lamrani, one recent elderly Bolivian recipient, Mario Teran, had lost his sight due to cataracts and could not afford surgery. Teran simply appeared at Operation Milagro hospital in August 2006 and Cuban doctors restored his vision.

Why does this anecdote merit mention? Because Mario Teran was the young sergeant who executed Che Guevara on October 9, 1967 in La Higuera, Bolivia. It’s both poignantly ironic and morally inspiring that today’s Cuban doctors embody Che’s passionate and incorruptible struggle for social justice and a better world.


Gary Olson is professor and chair of the political science department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. He can be reached at: olson@moravian.edu (This article was first published in The Morning Call, Allentown, PA, on February 4, 2008), and is published in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.


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This story was published on February 15, 2008.