Archive for January, 2009

Lenny

Some thoughts on Steven Soderbergh’s “Che”

Che

A while back I got some preview tickets to the opening of the new Steven Soderbergh two-part epic about the life of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinean blue blood guerrilla leader, starring Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro in the leading role, which has already earned him Best Actor, 2008 at the Cannes Film Festival.

Because I was away on vacation, I couldn’t go, but I do plan to see this film, as I have been an avid Guevara follower nearly all my life.


“Che Guevara” by F. Lennox Campello. Charcoal c. 2003. 6 x 15 inches
My father fought alongside Guevara during the Cuban revolution, and like most of those brave young men who fought against the Batista dictatorship both in the mountains of Oriente province and the streets of Havana and Santiago de Cuba, he never expected the Cuban Revolution to put in place a worse dictatorship than Batista’s bloody regime.

In fact, most people don’t know that the official Cuban Communist Party was part of the Batista government while the Revolution was underway and even Guevara, a Communist all along, 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, one wonders who the third Communist was (Raul Castro’s future wife, Vilma Espin was also a known Communist; 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).

Guevara was a very courageous and even reckless fighter (as opposed to Castro, who spent most of the war secluded in the relative safety of the Sierra Maestra mountains). But he was also the executioner of the Cuban Revolution, a fact that he never hid but which most Guevara admirers conveniently ignore.

It was Guevara who executed deserters and captured Batista soldiers and henchmen during the struggle, and it was Guevara who signed the tens of thousands of execution orders after the Revolution, when Cuba was bathed in blood by firing squads. See some of the documented Cubans executed by Guevara (including over a dozen shot by Che himself) here.

Because of that, 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, informants, traitors, and counter-revolutionaries.

The best known story about this period relates to how a Cuban mother went to see Che to beg for her son’s life. The son was 17 years old, and was on the firing squad list, 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 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.
Dead Che, source unknown
On the other hand, Che’s courage as a guerrilla leader and his dedication to his caused are well documented and never challenged. While Fidel Castro tightened his grip on the Cuban people and replaced the Batista dictatorship with the Castro dictatorship, Guevara put his life at risk fighting in guerrilla wars in Africa and Latin America, until he was caught in the highlands of the Bolivian mountains in 1967 and executed on the spot. Just as he would have done had the situation been reversed.

It is this side of Che’s complex character that Che’s admirers and apologists always focus upon, and I am looking forward to seeing if this film addresses both the spectacularly courageous side of this iconic figure, as well as his war crimes and 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. “Che”, claims Dariel Alarcon Ramirez, who joined the rebels in 1956 and then went with Guevara to Bolivia, “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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