Castaneda on Che: a transforming icon

October 19, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara," by Jorge G. Castaneda. Knopf. 457 pages. $30.

In 1968, a survey of American university students found that "the historical figure they most identified with was Che [Guevara]." Two weeks ago a group of students at a local university were asked if they knew who the Argentine revolutionary was. Wasn't he the character in the movie "Evita?" one asked. Another had seen books about Guevara in a bookstore, but didn't know who he was. The others sat silently.

One could make too much of this, suggest it points to a lack of historical education among Americans. But it shouldn't surprise: High schools don't teach students about the heroes of other countries. Also, Che Guevara personified a time of violent political and social revolution, not much of a factor today when everybody is struggling with the even greater potential for turmoil brought by unfettered capitalism.

Still, people of a certain age do remember Che. People like Jorge Castaneda, who has written a biography of the man killed 30 years ago in the Bolivian sierra. It is an admiring book, but hardly a hagiography. The author has interviewed many who knew Che personally. He has read all the documents, volumes of CIA reports generated from embassies around the world.

Castaneda is a specialist in the Latin American Left. A Mexican, he had his academic training in the United States (Princeton). He marshalls footnotes, quotes, statistics to present a credible picture of the man who "came to inhabit the social utopias and dreams of an entire generation through an almost mystical affinity with his era."

To Castaneda, Guevara's personal qualities - the way he physically challenged himself, his asceticism and high seriousness - derive from his lifelong struggle to overcome the disability of asthma. Guevara's worldview did not crystalize, as many think, in Guatemala in 1954, where he witnessed the CIA-sponsored overthrow of the elected government. Nor even during the Cuban revolution, when he helped hoist Fidel Castro to power.

Castaneda believes Che was not recruited to the Trotskyist idea permanent revolution until 1965, when he left Cuba - having been too often on the wrong side of the argument over how close Havana should be to Moscow - to lead an insurrection in the Congo.

The Congo was a mistake; Che barely got out alive. Bolivia was, too; he didn't. Looking for a place to ignite the Latin American revolution, Che misread the country. It was not the Andean banana republic he expected. The tin barons had been curbed years before, there was a powerful labor movement. The peasantry, not so disaffected as Che expected, turned him in.

After he was captured the Bolivian Army adduced more reasons to kill him than imprison him. (There were no high-security prisons in Bolivia, for one thing.) So they shot him in a school house in a village called Higuera. His body was cleaned, his beard trimmed; he was photographed. The photograph, almost Christlike, evolved into The Image, the icon that transfixed young people from Paris to Buenos Aires, from Prague to Berkeley. Many emulated him, and died for it.

Richard O'Mara is a features writer for The Sun. For 12 years, he was foreign editor and before that, foreign correspondent in Europe and Latin America.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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