Che Guevara’s legacy: a barrier to progress?

The long-dead Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is the icon of the Cuban Revolution, author of the exhortations to build a socialist paradise, at gun point if necessary. He is a cult figure who has attained quasi-religious status.

The city of Santa Clara, about 185 miles by road east of Havana, is the scene of  Che Guevara’s most famous victory in the war to oust the dictator Fulgencio Batista.  It was here that the rebel army derailed a troop train on the last day of 1958, and three days later Batista fled into exile.

We were in Santa Clara to visit the impressive Che Guevara memorial and museum.

The magnificent memorial to Ernesto 'Che' Guevara at Santa Clara.

I wonder what Che would think of Cuba if he re-emerged today? Were his struggles worthwhile? The main conclusion I can draw is that he did focus attention on institutionalised injustices, but by supporting the creation of rigid new institutions ensured that they in turn would become unjust.

The gun remains a central symbol of the Revolution.

Would he have contributed more with a longer life, or did his premature death, shot in Bolivia aged 39, ultimately protect his legacy? I think I see Don Quixote in Che, an enormous capacity for self-delusion and a habit of ignoring the greyly nuanced nature of life, instead seeing only white and black. The compulsive pursuit of a single philosophical idea requires the ever-changing contexts of life to be ignored. For this reason I have become more suspicious of all Grand Ideas and more inclined to see the compromises and pragmatisms of muddling through as more likely to provide better outcomes for us and the world we live in. If Che had lived longer, maybe he would have begun to think in terms of complex, flexible systems. Or maybe he would have echoed Stalin’s extreme fear and consequent vindictiveness.

'We want everyone to be like Che': exhortation to the young of Cuba.

A couple of weeks later, I was chatting to a boy of 10, relative of a Cuban friend, and he showed me the book of Che’s life and writings that is issued to every schoolchild. He spoke about Che with such reverence that I felt the dead warrior was becoming a religious figure, too revered for his legacy to be publicly analysed, let alone interrogated.

Che’s heroic, rifle-ready magnified image is all very well but I can’t help feeling that it is delaying Cuba’s adjustment to a more open and fluid world.

The book ‘Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life‘ by Jon Lee Anderson, Bantam Press 1997, is comprehensive (over 800 pages) and compelling. Che’s own diaries are also illuminating: see ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’, ‘Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War’, and ‘The Bolivian Diary’. I have the Harper Perennial editions, published in 2004, 2006 and 2009 respectively.


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