PARIS - Hollywood history is often nonsensical, but filmmakers usually have the good sense not to whitewash killers and sadists. Steven Soderbergh's new film about Che Guevara, however, does that, and more.
Che the revolutionary romantic, as depicted by Benecio del Toro in Soderbergh's film, never existed. That hero of the left, with his hippie hair and beard, an image now iconic on t-shirts and coffee mugs around the world, is a myth concocted by Fidel Castro's propagandists - something of a cross between Don Quixote and Robin Hood.
Like those tall tales, Fidel's myth of Che bears a superficial resemblance to historical facts, but the real story is far darker. Some Robin Hood probably did brutalize the rich and, to cover his tracks, give some of his loot to the poor. In medieval Spain, Quixote-like knights probably did roam the countryside, ridding it not of dragons but of the land's few remaining Muslims.
The same goes for the legendary Che. No teenager in rebellion against the world or his parents seems able to resist Che's alluring image. Just wearing a Che t-shirt is the shortest and cheapest way to appear to be on the right side of History.
What works for teenagers also seems to work with forever-young movie directors. In the 1960's, the Che look, with beard and beret, was at least a glib political statement. Today, it is little more than a fashion accoutrement that inspires a big-budget Hollywood epic. Are Che theme parks next?
But once there was a real Che Guevara: he is less well known than the fictional puppet that has replaced reality. The true Che was a more significant figure than his fictional clone, for he was the incarnation of what revolution and Marxism really meant in the twentieth century.
Che was no humanist. No communist leader, indeed, ever held humanist values. Karl Marx certainly was not one. True to their movement's founding prophet, Stalin, Mao, Castro, and Che held no respect for life. Blood needed to be shed if a better world was to be baptized. When criticized by one of his early companions for the death of millions during the Chinese revolution, Mao observed that countless Chinese die everyday, so what did it matter?
Likewise, Che could kill with a shrug. Trained as a medical doctor in Argentina, he chose not to save lives but to suppress them. After he seized power, Che put to death five hundred "enemies" of the revolution without trial, or even much discrimination.
Castro, no humanist himself, did his best to neutralize Guevara by appointing him Minister for Industry. As could be expected, Che applied Soviet policies to the Cubans: agriculture was destroyed and ghost factories dotted the landscape. He did not care about Cuba's economy or its people: his purpose was to pursue revolution for its own sake, whatever it meant, like art for art's sake.
Indeed, without his ideology, Che would have been nothing more than another serial killer. Ideological sloganeering allowed him to kill in larger numbers than any serial killer could imagine, and all in the name of justice. Five centuries ago, Che probably would have been one of those priest/soldiers exterminating Latin America's natives in the name of God. In the name of History, Che, too, saw murder as a necessary tool of a noble cause.
But suppose we judge this Marxist hero by his own criteria: did he actually transform the world? The answer is yes - but for the worse. The communist Cuba he helped to forge is an undisputed and unmitigated failure, much more impoverished and much less free than it was before its "liberation." Despite the social reforms the left likes to trumpet about Cuba, its literacy rate was higher before Castro came to power, and racism against the black population was less pervasive. Indeed, Cuba's leaders today are far more likely to be white than they were in Batista's day.
Beyond Cuba, the Che myth has inspired thousands of students and activists across Latin America to lose their lives in foolhardy guerrilla struggles. The left, inspired by the siren call of Che, chose armed struggle instead of elections. By doing so, it opened the way to military dictatorship. Latin America is not yet cured of these unintended consequences of Guevarism.
Indeed, fifty years after Cuba's revolution, Latin America remains divided. Those nations that rejected Che's mythology and chose the path of democracy and the free market, such as Brazil, Peru, and Chile, are better off than they ever were: equality, freedom, and economic progress have advanced in unity. By contrast, those nations that remain nostalgic for the cause of Che, such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, are at this very moment poised on the brink of civil war.
The real Che, who spent most of his time as Castro's central banker supervising executions, deserves to be better known. Perhaps if Soderbergh's two-part Che epic succeeds at the box office, his financial backers will want to film a more truthful sequel. There is no certainly shortage of material for "Che, The Untold Story."
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