New York souvenir stores aren’t the most obvious platforms for ideological debates and therefore I let the challenge pass, but the thought stayed with me. “Why do you want a ‘Che’ Tee?” the store owner, an African-American, had asked. “I don’t like him… he was a very bad man. Killed a lot of people” he concluded.
I was taken aback. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was a man I used to worship as a teenager and even today, though a fi rm pacifi st, still admire. Almost ‘the most complete man of the 20th century’, as Jean-Paul Sartre had claimed. Che memorabilia adorn stores and torsos across the world, from Nairobi to Norway and Shenandoah to Singapore. ‘The Cult of Che’ has inspired a whole generation of global villagers, and while I was told that he was deemed a villain in certain corners of the world, I had not expected it to come from as innocuous a corner as the above. The incident gnawed away at the paradigms I held dear. One of us clearly saw the wrong side of the story and in these times, it is important to establish that not every man unfairly executed is a revolutionary and nor is every revolutionary a power hungry despot in disguise.
Born in Argentina, of Irish and Basque descent, Ernesto had revolution coursing through his veins by sheer virtue of his ancestry. Trained as a doctor, a motorcycle journey he undertook across South America with Alberto Granado was the spark that lit the revolutionary fi re that still burns bright in graffi ti across the world’s walls that scream ‘Che lives!!’ During the journey, as he witnessed the wretched lot of disfranchised South Americans, he became convinced that armed revolt against oppression allied with Marxist principles was the only way out of the squalor. Ernesto could’ve lived a comfortable life in Buenos Aires but instead he chose a diffi cult life and a painful death. What distinguishes him from any other revolutionary is the incredible fact that unlike even the greatest revolutionaries, Che did not fi ght for the liberation of a country or its people alone, but for the liberation of ‘man’. Che was an Argentinian who served Peruvian lepers, actively supported the Guatemalan Arbenz government against a CIA-led coup; without any military training, fought valiantly and successfully as a commander alongside Fidel Castro to liberate Cuba from the violently oppressive Fulgencio Batista and then instead of resting on his well fought-hard earned laurels, he gave up all the privileges of a senior Cuban statesman to chase his ideology of fi ghting for the most oppressed communities of the world in a bid to liberate them and entrust them with the ideological and military wherewithal to defend and further their rights. Leaving his cushy offi ce in Havana, Che led revolutions in the swamps of Congo and the valleys of Bolivia where he was betrayed to the US Special Forces-led Bolivian Army, captured and summarily executed (a phrase that might suffer frequent usage in this unipolar world).
Thousands of passionate young men followed his example and stood up in defi - ance against tyranny and oppression. Most of them died, just like their hero, obviously unsuccessful, apparently unfulfi lled. And yet the romance of the romantic revolutionary endures. Beyond T-Shirts, coffee mugs and bright buttons, the real Che – the sensitive doctor who picked up arms for a cause, the asthma patient who transformed into a daredevil in battle fatigues, the allegedly ruthless military commander who personally treated captured enemy soldiers even before getting his own wounds treated, the intensely committed revolutionist who had committed himself to martyrdom even in the lost cause of the Congolese revolt as an example of revolutionary zeal and had to be literally forced to escape, the man whose just-dead body reminded women of Christ on the cross – though obscured, still breathes in the new found socialistic zeal in Latin America in the form and shape of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Lopez Obrador, Rafael Correa and now Daniel Ortega gives new hope to an ism that had lost steam. Socialism is a valuable philosophy in this unequal world but history has proven that there are rickety fences that separate revolutionaries from ideologues, and ideologues from dictators. But as long as there are children in schools who take oath and swear ‘Seremos como el Che’ (We will be like Che), dictatorship, whether by a nation or an individual will always, eventually, meet its Waterloo.