From the The Antigonish Review, March 2005


The Legacy
of Che Guevara

(Rebel with a cause)



by Wayne Curtis


    Entering Santa Clara, which is a three-hour ride down the Central Highway from Havana, we are able to glimpse the great tomb of Che Guevara from two kilometres away. On its rooftop a bronze figurine in the likeness of Ché emerges above the palm trees, wild brambles and sugar cane. It looms high above this old colonel city like a giant Oscar held with diligence to the scorching midday sun. Che is in his combat fatigue, armed with a rifle and with his signature black beret and revolutionary five point star sitting square upon his brow. This monument, along with Che's tomb and a train wreck from the battle of Santa Clara are the only real attractions here and are the pride of Villa Clara Province and indeed all of Cuba. In comparison to other busts or statues commemorating those who martyred themselves for the people's cause, this is perhaps the ultimate, far and beyond others I have visited: José Martí, Máximo Gomez, Eduardo Chibas, and a dozen lesser names whose vacant eyes watch over Parque Central in Havana, Parque Libertad in Matanzas, and a hundred smaller plazas in this country.

Like the eight-story portrait of Che in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, this tomb is visited daily by thousands of sight-seers from around the world who have a lasting fascination with this great hero from the Cuban people's July 26th Movement of the fifties. Having worn a Che t-shirt to street protests in the sixties, I've also had a life-long curiosity, perhaps even a touch of hero-worship for the man Che, for his diligence, fearlessness, sense of loyalty, and cause. Even in death, this man continues to exude charisma and mystique.

At the museum parking lot, Markham's John Bayfield and I leave the tour bus and walk across sun-heated flagstones, into a large air-conditioned lobby where there is a guest book to sign and on into the adjacent empty room where an attractive dark-haired female sits as though in vigil (or perhaps in servitude) beside Che's tomb. We talk in whispers after she forces a near smile and makes a motion toward the wall, asking if we will keep our voices down. "Señoers, irespeto por el General Guevara, por favor!"

Che's body rests behind a stone wall where a bronze plaque is inscribed with the standard dates and phrases: Born Rosario, Argentina, June 14th, 1928; Died Vallegrande, Bolivia, October 10th, 1967. The latter date is a National Holiday in this country, where Che was made an honorary citizen after the Revolution and where he served in the Government of Fidel Castro as President of the National Bank of Cuba (with his photo on the peso bill) and Minister of Industry. John and I stood awhile in silence and goose bumped from solemnity.

The complex houses his medical instruments, asthma relief devices, combat boots, black beret with the five point star, knives, guns, video tapes of speeches being played on monitors, photographs, diaries, letters from his home in Argentina, and books of biography written by a dozen admirers, including one by Fidel Castro. There are photographs of a young Ernesto "Che" Guevara standing with his smiling parents in Córdoba, driving through a prosperous Buenos Aires in his father Ernesto Guevara Lynch's old open Desoto filled with girls. This is as much a place to learn about Che's short and turbulent life as it is to pay one's respect.

We learn that the Cuban people had nick-named him "Che" from the interjection meaning "Say" or "Hey" that Argentines so frequently insert into their sentences the way Canadians do "Eh." His real name was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna after his mother Celia de la Serna (Spanish) and father Ernesto Guevara Lynch (Irish). Che attended the Colegio Nacional Dean Funes, a state-run high school in Córdoba, while living at Alta Garcia, a small place in the Andes where there was an asthma treatment centre. After graduation, he moved with his family to Buenos Aires, where he studied medicine at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, completing a medical degree in 1953.

Che Guevara spent his boyhood fearlessly tight-rope walking over the deep ravines around Alta Garcia, flying a hand-glider with his uncle Jorge, and exploring the Pampas around his Córdoba home. As a teen he had been a biker, hitch-hiker, a daredevil, and showman. He was rebellious, flirting with the element of fear, and getting an emotional high out of risk and danger. These traits, inherited from his mother, made him a charismatic figure, popular with both his male and female contemporaries. Once when his old motor scooter broke down, Che wrote a letter to Evita Perón, wife of then Argentine President Juan Perón, to ask if she would buy him a decent Jeep. His letter was never answered.

Because of his shitty lungs, which had forced him from the soccer fields, the polo grounds and the army, the young Che Guevara kept to himself in a curtain-drawn bedroom for days at a time, through drowsy siesta heat, sinking himself into the most profound books imaginable. He read Freud; enjoyed the poetry of Baudelaire and Neruda; studied Dumas, Zola, Verlaine, and Mallarmé in their mother tongues; and read the Argentine classics. He became fluent in many languages and for light reading enjoyed Jack London and John Steinbeck. Che wrote poetry and philosophy and became a Marx and Lenin scholar, adapting a leftist doctrine of his own, having long since discarded the teachings of the Catholic Church.

The Guevara's were not well to do. But, having come from mid-upper-class families (Celia having inherited an estancia on the Pampas), they kept a lifestyle that was beyond their means, attending cocktail parties of the old aristocracy. Celia madre was forever bringing home people who were down and out, feeding, and keeping them under her roof until they could get a fresh start. Eventually she had to sell her property to keep the family going after Che's father Ernesto Guevara Lynch made bad business decisions, first in a yerba mate plantation up on the Rio Parona, then in boat-building at San Isidro on La Plata, then in real estate and contracting. The whole family had to find part time work: Che's sisters Celia and Ana María and his brothers Roberto and Juan Martin. This while Ernesto Guevara Lynch came and went from a troubled marriage, partied and womanized. While in medical school Che, the oldest child, found a summer job working as a "ship's nurse" on a petroleum boat out of Buenos Aires called the Anna G, writing secret letters home to his first love María del Carmen "Chichina" Ferreyra, a beautiful brunette who came from an aristocratic background, and whose parents did not approve of him.

By this time Che had grown into an extremely handsome young man: slim and wide shouldered with dark brown hair, intense brown eyes, clear white skin, and a self contained, easy confidence that made him alluring to women.

After graduating from medical school, a ceremony which he didn't bother to attend, and after being jilted by Chichina, the young doctor set out on an eight-month motorcycle odyssey through South and Central America, volunteering his medical services in Guatemala. He was on hand when the Arbenz Government was overthrown by a CIA-engineered coup. Guevara helped the leftist resistance, an experience which had a profound influence on his way of thinking and left him hostile to the United States. He left Guatemala for Mexico with a mission to revolutionize all of Latin America, including Argentina. He wanted to save those countries from the evils of Imperialism; the corruption of political leadership and globalization; the loss of culture, resources and power to outside countries; and the exploitation of the poor and the environment. One has to wonder all these years later, if Che's cause, as that of many Latin America rebels (and for that matter, the peaceful protestors of Río de Janeiro, Seattle, and Quebec city) have accomplished anything at all.

In Mexico, Che met up with Fidel Castro, who had taken exile there after he had been released from Cuba's prison on the Isle of Pines after serving time for taking part in an uprising known as the July 26th Movement. (The date is now a National Holiday in Cuba.) Castro had been making plans to return to Cuba, to overthrow the regime of Fulgencio Batista, the casino mobster and assassin who had connections with Al Capone and who had put an end to all civil rights there. After some persuasion, Castro agreed to let Guevara accompany him and his eighty volunteers as a "troop doctor." On a December night in 1956, with a boat Castro had purchased called the Grandma, the small band of guerrillas set out across the Gulf of Mexico to take up positions in Las Coloradas on the south eastern tip of Cuba. From there they would advance into the Sierra Maestra and the Sierra del Escambray Mountains.

A rag-tag bare-foot operation with no food and few arms, Fidel Castro and his men (among them Fidel's brother Raul, Camilo Cienfuegos a Cuban folk hero and warrier, and Che Guevara) recruited as they went. It was not difficult to get the hungry peasant farmers and cane cutters to join the cause. The regime of Fulgencio Batista had been kidnapping their daughters, putting them to work as prostitutes in the casinos of Havana. Cuba's black people had also been overworked and were not allowed to ride on the trains or busses or to be seen in the city plazas. The troop grew in number, in spirit, and in arms as it made its way across Cuba, overpowering Batista resistance and taking siege of city after city. There was great hardship and many defectors. Any rebel who knew the operation but was not one hundred percent loyal to the cause was executed.

Che Guevara was ruthless when it came to loose cannons or traitors in the troop. He did some of the executing himself or had a junior officer do it, to test his or her grit and loyalty. Castro soon found that, in the jungle, Guevara's sense of leadership was invaluable, both because he was a good doctor and also a cool-headed warrier. Wounded twice after the first few months of the campaign, Che had become Castro's best field commander and thus was promoted to General. It is said that each of Che's rebels were worth a hundred uniformed soldiers. Che kept diaries and notes on everything he did. In his short lifetime, he wrote two books on guerrilla warfare that would become standard texts for third-world revolutionaries.

On December 28th, 1958, when guerrilla fighters had surrounded Santa Clara, Batista sent four hundred uniformed soldiers into the city on an armoured train. It was here that the Cuban Revolution was won with General Guevara leading the attack. Che's men and women over-threw the train, using a D-6 tractor to derail the armoured boxcars and riddle the helpless soldiers with rifle fire. Many were killed. Others surrendered. During the battle some of Batista's men switched sides and started to fight for the Revolutionaries.

The next day there was a victory parade through the streets of Santa Clara with thousands of men, women, and children cheering their heroic rebel fighters. Fulgencio Batista escaped the country, flying out of Havana's José Martí Airport in the middle of the night to find exile in the United States.

It was during the battle of Santa Clara that Che met his future wife Aledia March, a rebel fighter with the same cause who had joined his troop. The two were married after Che's divorce from his first wife Hilda, and they lived in Havana and raised four children. Che worked in the Castro Government as Minister of Industry and President of the National Bank of Cuba. He lectured at the United Nations and, in disguise, travelled to the Soviet Union and China seeking trade. We were told by old people in Havana that during the early sixties it was not uncommon to see Che driving down the Melecón, that scenic expressway along the sea wall, in his Chevy convertible. But Che Guevara was a guerrilla fighter. With the bigger cause burning inside him, he withdrew from public life and left Cuba in March 1965, travelling to Africa where he helped organize left-wing rebels in the Congo. He wanted to do in the Andes what he had done in Cuba's Sierra Maestra.

In November 1966, Che arrived in Bolivia and established a base camp. After a successful ambush of a Bolivian Detachment in March 1967, he issued a call for "two, three, many Vietnams." This alarmed the United States, which quickly sent military advisers to Bolivia. Thousands of Bolivian troops began combing the area where Che's small band of guerrillas were operating. On October 8th, 1967 Che was captured by the Bolivian army and, after consultation with military leaders in La Paz and Washington, DC, he was shot to death while bound hand and foot. His end had come on the dirt floor of an abandoned schoolhouse in Vallegrande, Bolivia. CIA agent Felix Rodriquez was on hand.

The execution was carried out by a volunteer who tortured Che before bringing him to a slow death, claiming revenge for having lost family members in one of Che's attacks.

Possibly the most daring warrier to ever come out of Latin America, Che gained the respect of even the most sacred monks, priests, and nuns. The poor, of course, revered him. They stood in line to file past his body which lay on a stretcher in the street (as is the custom with such captures) in hopes of getting a lock of the young rebel's hair. Among the poor and the downtrodden, Che Guevara had become a demigod.

After Che's body was displayed, he was buried in a shallow grave near Villagrande. For some time the site remained a secret. Fidel Castro, perhaps out of honour or public pressure, set out to find his comrade's body to bring it back to Cuba for decent burial.Through secret sources the Guevara grave was disclosed and the body exhumed. DNA and forensic testing proved the body was that of Ernesto Che Guevara and it was shipped to Santa Clara for proper burial. Che's hands had been cut off and preserved in alcohol for viewing at the Medical Department of the University of Buenos Aires.

While the legacy of Che Guevara is important to Santa Clara, this city has also figured strongly in the turbulent life of Che. This is where the Cuban Revolution was won with Che as head commander. This is where Che met his wife Aledia March. And this is where Che Guevara's body now rests, where his monument stands proudly.

Entering Che's tomb there is a solemnity that enshrouds the entire complex. One can sense the Cubans' love for this courageous youth who did so much for Castro's July 26th people's movement and who, despite what outside propaganda might have us believe, still remains revered by the people here. Che has become a symbol of pure revolutionary virtues, the official role model for socialists who work toward moral advances and the common good. "We will be like Che" is the official slogan of the Young Pioneers, the Nation's Youth Organization.

Leaving Che's tomb, we walk through the city's sultry and crowded barrios and out to the railway for photographs of Tren Blindado - the scene preserves the boxcars with bullet holes, twisted rails, strewn railway ties, and the caterpillar tractor still in place.

Santa Clara is shabby and painless, the stores like Firestone, Woolworth's, and Sears having gone through a name change after the Revolution. New buildings that had been framed by the Soviet Union were never finished because of the Soviet pull-out in 1992. Houses are propped up, food and water are in short supply, and electrical blackouts occur frequently: all, they say, because of the American embargo. Yet I can find no bitterness among these wonderful people.

After forty-odd years, Che is everywhere: in shop windows, on news stands and in souvenir shops where posters, t-shirts, black berets, and combat fatigue are being sold to tourists. We sit awhile in the Parque Vidal, then we walk along the slanting, narrow sidewalks of Calle Independencia where people dressed in cottons and straw sandals hold out their hands looking for alms. Black women stand in beaded curtain doorways, babies in their arms, their unadorned stone rooms behind them. And there are the rancid street smells from the sewers that trickle in the cobbled gutters, and which we have to step around to keep our sandalled feet dry. A pimp-waiter takes us to an outdoor café called Casa de la Trova, finds us a table and, after shooing a swarm of blue-bottle house flies from the soiled tablecloth, gets us a menu and stands waiting for her tip. We order hamburgers, French fries with ketchup and colas, a meal which is not always available in Cuban restaurants.

Because of something I have picked up in the food or the water, I've been suffering from a stomach problem. After we eat, I ask the waiter where the washrooms are. At first she shakes her head to indicate there are none, but then she passes me a key and asks me to follow her up a long set of stairs and down a dark hallway. The washrooms are out of water, the power in this part of the building having been shut off long before. As I enter the dark concrete room, the stench of excrement is overpowering. There are no toilet seats, and the wire baskets by the flushes are overflowing with used toilet tissue. But an old man who is sitting on a flush smoking a cigar, scrambles to his feet to make me welcome. I hold my breath in the perpetual foul-smelling heat.

Later we visit the El Cristobal Colón [Christopher Columbus] antique store and the Teatro La Caridad on the Parque, where six musicians are playing guitars and bongos in the lobby. We sit awhile and listen. Because two so-called tourists are present, an old Afro-Cuban man who is dressed in white baggy pants, with skinny ankles and bare feet pushed into shoes that have been cut open at the sides to make room for his bunions, gets to his feet and with vigor he paces the floor. In his broken English he sings, As Time Goes By.

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THE GAME (by Wayne Curtis)