This week marks the 40th anniversary of Che Guevera’s death, where he met an untimely demise in the heat of battle, heroically defending the inside wall of the abandoned schoolhouse his arms and legs were chained to. Of course, this is only the official story of what happened to Guevera. In reality, and depending on your inclinations, he either died carrying helpless children and bread vouchers from the clutches of merciless capitalism, or lives on today housed in the basement of the DNC offices issuing decrees of faith and inspiration.
Che Guevera is the poster boy—rather literally, given the bottom line of many a leftist college bookstore—for young revolutionary gone good. With a bright future and a remarkable display of intelligence in his youth, he witnessed the widespread poverty in throughout his home region and resolved to do something about it. Betraying this intelligence, however, was the fact that he thought the best way to do this was through armed communist rebellion, a method that has been proven to work so well then and since.
While Che was a gifted leader, his actions seemed somewhat out of character given his posthumous accolades. He was initially trained in medicine, but expedited his education so he could get a move on overturning despotic regimes, a somewhat curious career path for a medic—most doctors go from being a doctor to heal people and making no money to doctor in California inserting bags of wonderfulness into certain parts of women and making boatloads of cash, quite different than going from GP to revolutionary foot soldier.
While he helped organize some of the most successful socialist revolutions in modern history, he also spent a lot of his time being not much more than a desk jockey itching to go fight, spending his time in Cuba as the Minister of Industry, carting around blueprints and creating elaborately unsuccessful plans for the industrialization of the nation instead of out sabotaging weapons shipments or executing enemies of the state. His time as the head of the National Bank of Cuba and the National Institute of Agrarian Reform also diluted his revolutionary zeal with the slightest stigma of a bureaucrat. One becomes a cultural icon of the constant revolution by leading armed insurrection against fascists, not by being co-chairman of the Fourth Annual Comintern South American Industrial Trades Expo and Socialist Revolution in Buenos Aires.
Armchair psychologists—the best kind, I might add—could have a field day. Naïve left-coast students are lovingly enthralled with his seeming indifference to rewards and glory, the only possible explanation to the fact that he was never installed as the chief executive of any nations he helped change governments in, with the possible exception of not wanting to be shot in the head by a CIA agent within moments of inauguration. On the other hand, he was an incredibly aggressive individual. Not in the let’s-go-get-’em can-do attitude inherent in many military-minded individuals, but the for-the-love-of-all-that-is-holy-don’t-let-him-near-the-cat way. Of course, some of this transcended his decision-making process, and many failures were pinned on his inability to compromise when needed, such as sacrificing a position to reach a cease-fire or actually taking a bath. (No, really. The left’s most iconic hero hated bathing. It’s hardly a penchant for autoerotic asphyxiation or water sports, but it’s still kinda creepy.)
Sometimes his revolutionary fervor hindered his abilities. He suffered a bullet wound to the face during the ill-fated (for us, of course) Bay of Pigs invasion; alas, the wound appeared to be self-inflicted. A rather large portion of his rebellion attempts failed miserably, and his hubris led him to assume support where there was none, and contribute his failings to the United States, capitalism, or (one assumes) the Freemasons and international bankers (wink, wink).
Part of the Che mystique is, of course, inherent in the subterfuge necessary for a revolutionary. Much of his life he was simply missing from the public eye, supposedly in secret locations prepping local citizens in the art of sticking it to the man. People and governments would gently prod Fidel Castro for his whereabouts, and El Presidente would, as is his wont, reply with a gentle reminder that it would be in the best interests of the Communist Revolutionary Movements of the world that they display their solidarity by shoving it up their ass and spinning.
Of course, propping up the memory of a slain comrade is a tried and true tactic, one not lost on such progressive political luminaries as Castro, Hugo Chavez, and (so help us all) Jean-Paul Sartre. By remembering the capitalists he fought, and conveniently whitewashing the thousands of real and imagined traitors of the state executed Stalin-style during the regimes Che supported, it’s easy to latch onto a figure that has been sanitized into a cartoon black-on-red version of themselves.
One has to stop and wonder about it all, of course. The cult of Che hasn’t progressed because he helped further the cause of communism throughout Latin America; his value lives on because he died, a martyr to the cause of unsuccessful five-year-plans and state-run health care. But his image is mostly known because merchants have produced his likeness on silkscreened T-shirts and Rage Against the Machine lyrics, the success of which is a testament to the effectiveness of the free market system. Viva, as they say, la revolution.