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Expectations of Steven Soderbergh’s Che

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A lot of noise and excitement has been raised already about Che, Steven Soderbergh’s two-part film epic about the life of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinean blue blood guerrilla leader. The film stars Puerto Rican actor, Benicio Del Toro, in the leading role. The very talented Del Toro has already been awarded the Best Actor award at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

The French love anything and everything about Che and have been the leading commercializer of his image; for instance, Che vodka and Che cigarrettes).

In the next few days I will set aside half a day to go and see the film, and because I have been an avid Guevara follower nearly all my life, I will bring with me some prejudices, notions, knowledge, facts, and ideas about how a film — any film — should depict Guevara. One such fact is that Guevara’s paternal grandparents, Roberto Guevara and Ana Lynch, were born in California, and he was part Irish (from his mother’s side).

Whoever does the trailers and advertising for the film should remember his name is pronounced Geh-va-rah with a soft “G” like in “get” and not Gueh-va-rah. The “u” in his last name is silent in the correct pronunciation.

Che Guevara by F. Lennox Campello, charcoal on paper
“Che Guevara” by F. Lennox Campello. Charcoal © 2003. 6 x 15 inches

My father was born in Cuba. Like Castro, Cienfuegos, and other Cuban guerrilla leaders, my father was the son of Galician immigrants and fought alongside Guevara during the Cuban Revolution. Like the vast majority of the brave young men and women who fought against the Batista army in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra and the Escanbray range, and the students who battled the Batista police on the streets of Havana and Santiago de Cuba, my father wasn’t a Communist and he never expected the Cuban Revolution to institutionalize a far worse dictatorship than Batista’s bloody regime.

Che Guevara never hid his Communism, but even he admitted that Communists were rare in the ranks of the rebels. Most people are unaware that the official Cuban Communist Party was part of the Batista government while the Revolution was taking place. The Communists were part of the Batista regime.

Guevara had harsh words for the Cuban Communists during the struggle. In 1958 he wrote that there were “mutual fears” between the rebels and the Party, and “fundamentally, the Party of the Workers has not perceived with sufficient clarity the role of the guerrilla.” After the revolution, Guevara further added that he “only knew of three Communists who had participated in combat.”

Besides himself and Raul Castro (who was a “hidden” Communist), one must wonder who the third Communist was as Fidel Castro has denied many times that he was a Communist during the Revolution and for the first couple of years after its triumph.

Raul Castro’s future wife, Vilma Espin, was also a known Communist, and she was also apart of the struggle; however, she was one of the urban guerrillas working under Frank Pais, the anti-Batista leader in the streets of Cuba. Pais was strongly anti-Communist. Of interest, a persistent rumor blames Espin as the traitor responsible for Pais’ death at the hands of the Batista police. After the Revolution triumphed, several Communists were shot for being Batista police informants.

No one can deny that Guevara was an idealistic and brave fighter with brass cojones (as opposed to Fidel Castro, who spent most of the war hiding in the relative safety of the Sierra Maestra mountains), but Che was also the grim executioner and killing machine of the Cuban Revolution. This is a fact that Guevara never hid. He even bragged about and recounted several instances when he pulled the trigger against deserters and captured Batista soldiers. This is a facet of Guevera’s complex character that most Guevara admirers conveniently ignore. I will be curious to see how the film handles this.

After the Revolution triumphed, it was Guevara who signed many of the tens of thousands of execution orders, when Cuba was bathed in blood by avenging firing squads. Che was the Robespierre of the Cuban Revolution.

Documentation on Cubans executed by Guevara (including over a dozen shot by Che himself) abounds as the Revolutionary government never tried to hide the executions.

Firing squad in action (broadcast over Cuban TV in 1959)

Because of that grim role during and after the revolutionary struggle, Guevara is known to Cubans as “El Chacal de La Cabaña.” “El Chacal de La Cabaña” translates to the “Jackal of La Cabaña,” although it is usually translated as the “Butcher of La Cabaña.” La Cabaña is an 18th century fortress complex located on the elevated eastern side of the harbor entrance to Havana, and the location for many of the thousands of firing squad executions which took place after January 1, 1959. Shot were former members of Batista’s police, army, navy and air force, and informants, traitors, and counter-revolutionaries.

Last week I heard a Spanish language radio show in Florida relating a story on this issue. The radio announcer related how a Cuban mother went to see Che at La Cabaña to beg for her young son’s life. Apparently, her son was 17-years-old; he was on Che’s firing squad list and was to be executed within a week. If Guevara pardoned her son, the mother begged, she would ensure that he never said or did anything against the Revolution.

Che’s response in the presence of this mother’s request was to order the immediate execution of the boy, while the mother was still in his office. His logic: now that the boy was shot, his mother would no longer have to anguish over his fate.

Che’s proven courage as a guerrilla leader, his dedication to his cause, and his willingness to put his life in danger for his beliefs are well documented and never challenged, but did eventually cost him his life. Guevara put his life at risk fighting in guerrilla wars in Africa and Latin America. He was caught in the highlands of the Bolivian mountains in 1967 and murdered on the spot – much as he had murdered deserters and others during the Cuban struggle.

It is this idealistic side of Che’s complex character that Che’s admirers and apologists always focus upon, and the side that most people know about. I am looking forward to seeing if this new film addresses both the spectacularly courageous side of this iconic figure, as well as his war crimes, and the dark side of a man with little compassion and remorse. I am also curious as to how the film handles Guevara’s departure from Cuba.

Dariel Alarcon Ramirez (a man with stellar revolutionary credentials who joined the rebels in 1956 and then followed Guevara to Bolivia) claims that Che “left Cuba after being accused of being a Trotskist and a Maoist…. and because of the problems he had with the Cuban government, specifically Fidel and Raul Castro.”

Once I see the film, I will tell you my thoughts on it.

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About Lenny Campello