The Martyring of Che Guevara

The 40th anniversary of the death of Che Guevara elicited considerable media attention, mostly about his iconic image captured on T-shirts throughout the world. There were the standard snarky asides that many young people wearing those T-shirts have scant notion of who Che was, but the journalists reporting the story seemed equally ignorant. Little was reported about Che's life and what led him to shun the comforts of a physician's lifestyle in Argentina to fight as a revolutionary in the rugged terrains of Cuba, the Congo and, finally, Bolivia-or why someone who claimed to be obsessed with helping the world's poor was executed, gangland style, on the order of a CIA agent.

One exception was the BBC, which bothered to send a reporter to Florida to interview Felix Rodriguez, the Cuban-born CIA agent who was part of a team of CIA operatives and Bolivian soldiers who captured Che. "Mr. Rodriguez ordered the soldier who pulled the trigger to aim carefully, to remain consistent with the Bolivian government's story that Che had been killed in action in a clash with the Bolivian army," said the BBC report. Che's hands were then cut off and put in formaldehyde to preserve his fingerprints.

In his interview with the BBC, Rodriguez claimed that the order to kill Che came from the Bolivian government, and that he went along: "I could have tried to falsify the command to the troops, and got Che to Panama as the U.S. government said they wanted," he recalled, but he didn't. Clearly, the U.S. government was not unhappy with Rodriguez's role in the bloody affair, for he went on, as he boasts, to train the Nicaraguan Contras and advise the repressive Argentine military government in the 1980s. He showed the BBC reporter his CIA medal for exceptional service along with a picture of him with the first President Bush in the White House. George H.W. Bush, it should be remembered, had been the head of the CIA during some of the years that Rodriguez worked there and was not put off by the man's past deeds, including his part in Che's assassination.

So, what's the big deal? Che was a Cuban Communist, and it's a good thing that folks like Bush and Rodriguez were able to defeat him before he spread his evil message further-right? False, on every count.

First off, he was either an Argentine Trotskyite or an anarchist, but Che was not a Communist in what we think of as the heavily entrenched, bureaucratized Cuban mold. Che was restless in post-revolutionary Cuba because his anarchist temperament caused him to bristle at the emerging bureaucracy. He was, like Trotsky in his dispute with Stalin, skeptical that the kind of socialism that truly served the poor could survive in just one country; hence, he died attempting to internationalize the struggle.

It also turned out that killing Che was a big mistake, as his message was spread more effectively by his execution than by his guerrilla activities, which were, after he left Cuba, quite pathetic. This is the case in Latin America, where political leaders he helped inspire are faring better than those coddled by the CIA. Daniel Ortega, whom the CIA worked so doggedly to overthrow, is the elected president of Nicaragua. Almost all of Latin America's leaders are leftists, some more moderate than Che (as in Brazil), and others as fiery as the guerrilla (in Venezuela), but all determinedly independent of yanqui control. Fortunately, they differ from Che in preferring the ballot to the gun. But all recognize that poverty remains the region's No. 1 problem and that the free-market model imposed by the United States hardly contains all the answers. Recall that the U.S. break with the Cuban revolution came before Castro's turn toward the Soviets, and that it was over his nationalization of American-owned business assets in Cuba ranging from Mafia-run casinos to the electric power grid.

These days, few politicians in the United States even seem to care about the subversive Cuban influences in our own backyard that once haunted them. The embargo on Cuba remains to mollify Florida's aging Cuban community, but what's important to Washington today is Mideast oil, not protecting the peasants of Bolivia from the likes of Che Guevara.

On Monday, Che's death was marked, in the Bolivian village where he was killed, by Bolivian President Evo Morales, who proclaimed his movement "100 percent Guevarist and socialist," which hardly registers as a propaganda success story for those favoring CIA assassinations. They turned a failed-and flawed-guerrilla fighter into an enduring symbol of resistance to oppression.

Robert Scheer is editor of and a regular columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.

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