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Archive for Decembrie 2017

Che Guevara is maybe one of the most interesting personalities of the 20th century. He is a tragic figure, who wanted to make the world a better place and made it worse, who did many wrong, even evil things, with the best intentions, firmly convinced, until his last moment, that he is the good guy and fights the good fight. He becomes even more interesting at a closer look; one may discover unexpected aspects.

 

1. “Che” meant “Hey, you!” in Argentina – and “Argentine” outside it

Although his name is linked to the history of Cuba, Che Guevara, born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, was an Argentine. “Che” is an Argentinian interjection meaning something like “Hey, you!” or “Yo!” or “Bro!” or “Buddy” that Argentines use a lot – so much so that Hispanics from other countries called them all “Che”.  That’s why the young future Che, then only Ernesto Guevara, referred somewhere in his “Motorcycle Diaries” to his motorcycle companion and himself as “Little Che and Big Che (Alberto and I)”: they were called so by the local Chileans.

So when his Cubans friends nicknamed him “Che”,  they actually called him “Argentine”, only shortly. Che liked it – it was less derogatory than his former Argentinian nicknames, “Chancho” (“Pig”) and “El Loco Guevara”(“The Mad Guevara”) –  and adopted it as nom de guerre, signing so not only his letters, but also later the Cuban banknotes, as National Bank president. But after Che Guevara made his nickname renowned worldwide, the custom of calling all Argentines “Che” declined. Now Hispanics call Che Guevara “El Che” (“the Che”).

 

 

2. Odd Jobs: from Toilet Cleaning to Selling Christ Images

Che Guevara was a doctor, but he practiced his profession very little and admitted to know very little about it. Most of the time he sustained himself by doing all kinds of odd jobs. In Argentina, as medical student, he did research in the laboratory of an allergy clinic, but he also prepared insecticide in his family’s garage (until he got ill from it) and sold shoes door to door (but many shoes were without pair, so after he sold the paired ones and the resembling ones, he himself wore some of the totally mismatched ones). He embarked as male nurse on a ship that sailed to Trinidad and Brazil (he said he operated a sailor with a knife). He loaded furniture in Chile and unloaded barrels of tar in Guatemala. In Chile he had also his most unpleasant job: cleaning toilet on a ship (he embarked clandestinely onboard, hiding in that toilet – so the captain made him pay this way for his travel). In Panama, he published two travel articles in newspapers, about Amazon (“A View from the Banks of the Giant of Rivers”) and about “Machu-Picchu: Stone Enigma of the Americas” and he also gave a lecture on allergies. In Guatemala, he sold images of the allegedly miraculous black Christ of Esquipulas  (making up himself more stories about supposed miracles). In Mexico, he was a photographer, first on his own, itinerant photographer in parks and plazas, then for a press agency, photographing sport events at Pan American Games. Finally he found a job as doctor and researcher at a Mexican hospital – but not long after, he left it to go to Cuba with Fidel Castro and, as his biographer Jon Lee Anderson said, “In war, [Che] finally found his true métier.”

 

3. From Don Juan to Don Quixote

 

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Che Guevara and his first wife Hilda

Young Ernesto Guevara wasn’t interested in politics, but in books, travel and women. In all these, but particularly in women, he looked for novelty and diversity: he had Whites, Blacks, Indians and mestizas, rich and poor, young and older, beautiful and even ugly… His first woman (at 14 or 15) was a black maid , his first great love and fiancée, Chichina,  was a 16 years old beauty from a rich upper class family, his first wife, Hilda, was a Peruvian mestiza, older than him and quite plain, but smart and well read. And beside these main characters of his love life, there were many others in episodic roles.

Just an example. He had a prudish aunt, Beatriz, that always locked her young maid in her room at night, but that didn’t stop young Ernesto to add one more conquest. Once, when dining with his aunt and his younger cousin, he left for a moment, went to the kitchen, had a quickie with the maid on the kitchen table  then went back to the dining room, eating like nothing happened. His aunt had no idea what happened behind her back, but the cousin saw enough through the open door…

But all this changed in the revolution, when Che became a “new man” and met Aleida, a young secret courier for the rebels who became his second wife and his “only one in the world”, as he liked to say, with a verse from the Turkish poet Nazim Hickmet. Now the women chased him and he made great efforts to resist temptations and keep them at a distance. And it wasn’t easy – the aura of revolutionary hero added to his natural handsomeness and charisma made him a magnet to women.

But not only women fell under Che’s charm. He made a most unexpected conquest: a Soviet male high official, Nikolai Metutsov, Andropov’s deputy. In a talk late in the night, when Che used all his power of persuasion and charisma to convince him that he was not a Maoist deviationist, Metutsov, an older, jowly man with big ears, fell in love with Che (although homosexuality was a crime in both their countries), lost all his official pose and melted in a risky confession about how much he liked him, especially his looks!

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Che Guevara and his second wife Aleida, after their wedding

 

4. Wannabe Poet

Che Guevara had a great passion for poetry, especially for that of Pablo Neruda, and throughout his adult life he tried to write poems, but he was always unsatisfied with the result. In his early twenties, he wrote awkward, pretentious verses like “Inconclusive tombstone of abstract garden”.  Then he became communist and his verses too received an intensely red color that once made him arrested by the police, but the police commander let the young and apparently inoffensive poet free after advising him to write about roses …

Of course he didn’t take the advice. He wrote a poem about a dead patient, “poor old Maria”, victim of asthma and poverty, promising her vengeance and that “your grandchildren will all live to see the dawn” and another about Fidel Castro, naming him “ardent prophet of the dawn”.

Even In his last days in the fatal expedition in Bolivia, he wrote a love poem for his wife Aleida,  who he left behind in Cuba with their children – a poem found among his papers after his death, in which, after images evoking their love and their children and the pain of separation, he ends up by saying: “This I give (convinced and happy) to the Revolution.”

 

5. Close to Die in His First Battle – Shot in the Neck

The Cuban revolution started with an almost complete disaster: the guerilla troop was discovered and attacked by the Cuban army and air force soon after arrival, before reaching the mountains, in Alegria de Pío, near a sugar cane field, so that out of the 82 men that came on boat, only about a dozen survived, dispersed and demoralized. All seemed lost.

Che Guevara was then the troop’s doctor (he just treated for blisters a fighter who would die that day), but, in his baptism of fire, he made a choice relevant for his nature and decisive for his future: he abandoned his medical kit to take a pack of ammunition left by another fighter.

But in the next moments he wouldn’t prove himself such a fierce, unstoppable warrior. After a bullet hit him in the neck, he lay on the ground, convinced he was going to die. Comrades passed by him, seeking refuge in the nearby cane field; he lay there, waiting for his death, thinking of a story by Jack London, about a man who, after losing any chance of survival, waits for his death in the snow, in the arctic cold.

Fortunately for him, one of their captains, Juan Almeida, saw him and ordered him to go on. Che tried to follow the order and, surprised, he discovered he could move in spite of the pain, dragging himself to the cane field, to his comrades. The neck wound wasn’t fatal in fact, the bullet didn’t hit anything vital. But without that order from Almeida, Che would have laid there until the army found him – and Cuban history would be different…

 

6. Che Guevara Disguised as a Bald Old Man

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Che Guevara’s fake passport

When Che left Cuba to fight in Congo and Bolivia, he had to travel incognito by plane through hostile countries. For Africa, it was enough to shave his beard and moustache and shorten his hair – reverting to his youth look before becoming Che – and to put on a suit, a tie, a hat and thick glasses. But in Latin America his figure was very well known, so he needed a total change. A physiognomy specialist from Cuban intelligence had to transform him in an unattractive, unremarkable businessman in his mid-fifties. He made him bald, removing all the hairs on top of his head one by one, and whitened his surviving hair at the temples. Thick glasses, false teeth and paddings around the body to make him fatter completed the change.

 

Now they had to test if Che was really unrecognizable. Fidel Castro “introduced” him to some Cuban ministers (his former colleagues) as a foreign visitor and nobody recognized him. He was also “introduced” as a foreign visitor to his future soldiers prepared for Bolivia, many of whom fought in Cuba under his command, and they also didn’t recognize him until he started to curse them using his favorite expressions. The final test was his last meeting, in disguise, with his own children. They treated him like a stranger, having no idea that they see their father and for the last time. When he cuddled his 5 years old daughter Aleidita, she went to her mother and whispered to her: “I believe that this man is in love with me.

 

7. Che Guevara Suffered from Debilitating Asthma Attacks

Che suffered from severe asthma from early childhood – he had his first crisis at the age of 2. Due to his illness, he started school only when he was 9, until then being educated at home by his mother. He was even rejected at Argentina’s military draft, due to “diminished physical abilities” caused by asthma!

He arrived in Cuba sick and without asthma medicine and soon a severe asthma attack incapacitated him completely: he could barely walk, let alone fight. Another guerilla had to help him walk, carrying his pack and cursing him: “You Argentine son of a bitch! You’ll walk or I’ll hit you with my rifle butt.”  After that, the clandestine urban network that sustained them took care to provide him constantly with medicine, without which he wouldn’t have become the famous guerilla.

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Che Guevara in Bolivia

But in Bolivia the guerillas were isolated. The native peasants were afraid of the armed foreigners and even the Bolivian communist party disapproved of them. So, after the army discovered their camp and later their buried supplies, including Che’s medicine, what followed for Che was a prolonged illness drastically diminishing his ability to fight or to command. To obtain medicine for Che, the guerilla troop conquered a small town – but the local pharmacy hadn’t anything for asthma. So Che continued to suffer. One time he was so ill that his men had to carry him in a hammock. He lost consciousness; when he regained it, he found that he had soiled his pants (he also suffered from diarrhea). He could not even wash properly because water was also a big problem – so, as he noted in his diary, “my stench extends for a league”.

 

8. Che Guevara Killed Many People – and a Puppy

There is no consensus about the number of victims executed by Che Guevara. But everybody agrees that he killed.  He mentions in his own diary some executions in the mountains – informers, deserters, even revolutionaries turned robbers and rapists – a few of them ordered or done by him. And in the first months after the victory of the revolution, as commander of the prison-fortress La Cabaña, Che was officially in charge of organizing the summary trials and executions of the enemies of the Revolution: mainly officers, policemen and other officials accused of taking part part in dictator Batista’s repression, but also some informers. The prison’s priest, Javier Arzuaga, said he witnessed 55 executions there, in the first 5 months after the victory of the revolution.

His first victim, executed with his own hand, was a peasant, Eutimio Guerra, their guide in the mountains. The army captured him and promised him lots of money if he killed Fidel Castro. He made the deal, but, back in the camp, he hesitated to do it, even then, one night, he slept next to Fidel under the same blanket.   But after his treason and pact with the army were discovered, Che didn’t hesitate to shoot the traitor in the head.  “I ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 [-caliber] pistol in the right side of the brain, with exit orifice in the right temporal [lobe].” wrote Che in his diary.

His youngest victim was probably Ariel Lima, a 19 years old boy  who joined revolution at 17. Arrested, he talked to the police, giving valuable information about others. Some say he did it after the policemen threatened his mother, but his sister said he collaborated willingly after they showed him that the movement was infiltrated by communists. As in all cases from La Cabaña, it wasn’t Che who condemned the youth to death – the revolutionary tribunal gave the sentence – but Che presided the appeal, had the power to confirm it or not. Neither the pleading of the prison’s priest, nor the desperate imploration of Ariel’s mother, who threw herself at Che’s feet, could move him to spare the boy’s life.

But of course you want to know why did he kill the poor little puppy? No, the puppy wasn’t a traitor – on the contrary, its fidelity led to its death. It belonged to a young guerrilla fighter named Felix and it followed his master everywhere, so when the revolutionaries went on a mission, the faithful little dog followed them. When it started to bark, Che was worried that the army will discover them, so he ordered Felix to kill it and Felix strangled it with a rope.  Che was fond of puppies – and he also professed love for humanity – but he was ready to kill anybody, man or dog, if he thought that the revolution required it.

 

9. Che Guevara’s Remains Discovered after 30 years in a Secret Mass Grave

In 1967, after the Bolivian army captured Che, they gave him a taste of his own medicine, executing him without trial. Then, proud of their victory, they exposed his corpse for a day to press and public, in a nearby town, Vallegrande, unwittingly feeding his myth with the Christ-like appearance of his bearded and emaciated corpse. But after that, they made his body disappear – keeping only his hands, as a proof, in formaldehyde. When his brother Roberto came to ask for his body, they said he was incinerated and his ashes scattered. His resting place remained a secret for 30 years.

But in 1995, an American journalist, Jon Lee Anderson, documenting for a book about Che, met a retired Bolivian general, Mario Vargas Salinas, who decades before, then a captain, fought in the anti-guerilla war. He made an unexpected revelation: Che was buried on an airstrip in Vallegrande.

So an international (Bolivian-Cuban-Argentinian) team of forensic experts began the search for Che’s remains. After lots of search and digging, finally, in 1997, they found 7 skeletons in a mass grave – one of them lacking hands!  The teeth matching his dental mold, the pronounced supraorbital ridge and the marks of bullets confirmed it was indeed Che (although some still doubt it), so they sent him to his final resting place in Cuba, in a mausoleum in Santa Clara, a city he conquered in the revolution. Fidel Castro used, of course, the occasion for some propaganda, organizing a grandiose ceremony.

 

10. Rebel Grandson Canek – Rock Guitarist, Dissident, Writer and Blogger

Canek Sanchez Guevara, named after the ancient Maya kings, born in 1974 to 18-year-old Hildita, Che’s firstborn daughter, and a rebel Mexican who hijacked a plane to land in Cuba, grew up in Italy, Spain and Mexico, always in an atmosphere of revolutionary fervor (his childhood songs were the Internationale and Bandiera Rosa). He came back to Cuba when 12 with his mother and only then, there, did he find out that he was the grandson of a legendary figure venerated on that island.

Everybody there expected him to be like Che, a perfect communist, a New Man. But he was more like Che before becoming Che. Soon he became a rebel teen with hair to his shoulders and earrings, and founded a heavy metal band named Metalizer with some friends – he was the guitarist. All this made him a suspect to the Cuban police – once they searched him in the anus for drugs!

Asked about the situation in Cuba by a foreign reporter, he answered frankly: „This revolution is in ruins” and “He [Che] never would have approved of what has become of this revolution. Let’s be honest, a young rebel like Fidel Castro in today’s Cuba wouldn’t be sent into exile. He’d be shot.” Soon, Canek went himself into exile. After leaving Cuba, he lived a nomad life, never having a fixed residence or a full time job, sometimes in Mexico, sometimes in Europe, working as a journalist and graphic artist. He also had a blog in Spanish, “Diary without Motorcycle”.

In 2015, after a heart surgery, he died unexpectedly at 40 – prematurely, like his ancestors: both his famous grandfather and his mother died at 39 (Che from bullets, Hildita from cancer). After his death, a manuscript was found among his papers and published – it was a short novel, “33 Revolutions”, about the everyday life in Cuba:

The whole country is a scratched record (everything repeats itself: every day is a repetition of the day before, every week, month, year; and from repetition to repetitions, the sound deteriorates until all that is left is a vague, unrecognizable recollection of the original recording—the music disappears, to be replaced by an incomprehensible, gravelly murmur).

***

Informatiile din articol sunt culese in primul rand din cartea  Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life” de Jon Lee Anderson (despre care am mai scris) . L-am scris in engleza pt ca am vrut sa-l public pe Listverse, dar l-au refuzat – aveau deja un articol vechi despre Che Guevara, mai slabut, cu cateva informatii eronate (incepand cu numele, „Ernesto Lynch”), dar asta este.

Fotografiile sunt de la Wikimedia Commons.

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