Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s legend has grown considerably in the decades since his death on October 9, 1967 at the hands of the Bolivian army, with rumors persisting – to this day – that the American C.I.A. was complicit in it. Che has become a
controversial symbol of rebellion and revolution ever since. To help keep his memory and ideals alive, The 4th Annual Vancouver International Che Guevara Conference is being held at the Russian Hall at 600 Campbell in Vancouver on November 11 and 12, 2011.
Tamara Hansen, a founding member of Vancouver Communities in Solidarity with Cuba, feels that the conference is an important way to keep Che’s memory alive.
“The famous image of Che (found on T-Shirts, and posters) is an iconic image, but people don’t necessarily know the ideals of the man behind that image,” she says. ”We want to bring the ideals of Che Guevara to Vancouver, for people to better understand how his ideas were used to create so many gains in Cuba since the Revolution.”
Hansen says the conference will include films, workshops, and lectures, and will feature many special guests, including Dr. Aleida Guevara, the daughter of Che, a Havana-based doctor and prominent human rights activist in her own right. Hansen notes that Che is as important today as he was during his life.
“Countries are coming out of recession, but many people are losing their jobs and unable to provide for their families,” says Hansen. “The cost of healthcare and of education is going up, and a lot of people are very frustrated, and feel that there is a lack of humanity in our economic system, and a lack of humanity in the world.” She adds that she feels that Che’s ideas and theories resonate especially with people in times of economic crisis. She believes that Che’s legacy lives on in Cuba today.
“The image I’ve gotten about Che really comes from [Cuban] farmers. Those people hold Che’s memory very close to their heart. These are people whose parents were farmers before the revolution,” says Hansen, “and they were essentially working for a large, multi-national corporation. These are people, that if the revolution hadn’t succeeded, wouldn’t have the option to send their children to university or college, or a lot of other opportunities that they’ve been able to find.”
It’s an idealistic version of Guevara that is not shared by every Cuban.
Alonso Gutierrez (whose name has been changed in order to preserve his anonymity), is a tour guide and translator living in Havana. He says that Che is irrelevant in today’s Cuba.
“The government talks about him all the time, but outside of Santa Clara, nobody cares.” He says that although Castro’s government uses Che as a propaganda tool, other historic Cubans like Jose Marti are more universally admired.
Controversy regarding Che’s legacy does exist. While commanding regiments during the Cuban Revolution, Guevara was known for his harsh disciplinary tactics and unflinching view towards deserters and informers. He was personally responsible for the execution of numerous men accused of those crimes, but to his credit, he never waived from his responsibility or culpability in those deaths. Although the romantic ideal of him is primarily that of a philosopher and writer, his fame as a brilliant tactician and military commander grew during this time period.
Once the revolution was over, Guevara was put in charge of La Cabana prison in Havana, where he was responsible for purging the Batista army, and for considering the appeals of those convicted during the revolutionary tribunal process. It’s unknown exactly how many people Guevara put to death both at the prison and across Cuba during this time, and the number is thought to be as low as 55 by some, but as high as 700 by others.
Paradoxically, at the same time that these executions were taking place, Che was drafting agrarian reforms that affect Cubans to this day. Although ostensibly designed to ensure that foreign corporations lost their stranglehold on the Cuban economy, what they really meant was that the state would now assume ownership over most farmland, and farmers now had strict contracts that determined how much of their crop had to be given to the state – usually all of it, until fairly recently.
Rules regarding ownership are just as stringent in cases of private homes. As Gutierrez puts it, “I have a piece of paper that says that I own my house, but I don’t really, because I’m not allowed to sell it. “
Chris Preston, an international conflict expert and Vancouver-based activist, says that differences of opinion regarding Guevara shouldn’t be surprising.
“There’s a disconnect between his life and his legacy”, says Preston. “What lives on, is the positive side [of Che’s history] and what people have grabbed on to is the image of this left-wing, revolutionary hero.”
Preston adds that in his opinion Che’s image has endured in the west because of his “unrestrained idealism,” which eventually led to his death. Preston also mentions that another reason why Che’s mass appeal exists today is because he left the Castro government early.
“Unlike Castro, Che was relatively untainted by the negativity you can get from ruling a country for so long, and he was unscathed by a lot of the controversies that have dogged Castro over the years, like putting journalists and dissidents in jail, and other human rights abuses.”
Preston says that Che was the biggest proponent of his own mythology.
“Because he was so self-aggrandizing and bombastic, and because he was part of this project in Cuba that really capitalized on his cult of personality, people see his undying devotion to revolutionary ideals as something that is positive.”
Hansen disagrees with that slightly cynical image of Guevara.
“Many Cubans hold Che very close to their hearts,” she says.
She suggests that his mantra of self-sacrifice and humility is the reason why he is so lionized today.
Hansen believes that one of Guevara’s most famous quotes sums him up perfectly: “The true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love.”