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Che: The Man Behind the Myth

How did Fidel Castro's ruthless lieutenant during the Cuban Revolution become such a hip icon?

By David Gonzalez

Ernesto "Che" Guevara has been dead for 40 years, but his face is everywhere. An iconic image of the beret-wearing guerrilla, who helped Fidel Castro seize power in Cuba in 1959, has become both a provocative symbol of resistance and a hip fashion statement: from banners at protest rallies around the world, to T-shirts, bandannas, and knickknacks for sale at gift shops and on Web sites like thechestore.com. In fact, the classic Che portrait is thought by media experts to be the world's most reproduced photograph.

"I idolize him as far as helping me build myself," says Tanya Gonzalez, a 17-year-old senior at El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn, N.Y., who helped paint a mural of the Argentine-born revolutionary. "When we studied Cuban history, our focus was how Che Guevara helped free Cuba."

But for those who have actually lived under Fidel Castro's dictatorial rule and struggled to survive in Cuba's barely functioning economy—including the million Cubans who have escaped to the U.S.—Che and the Cuban revolution did anything but free the island's people. Far from being a romantic warrior, historians say, Che was a revolutionary zealot who presided over executions and helped lead Cuba down a ruinous economic and social path. He was himself executed in the Bolivian jungle 40 years ago while leading a doomed expedition to incite a peasant revolt, after a manhunt aided by the C.I.A.

"I think the Che [mythology] is connected to some weird ideas people have about Latin America," says Paul Berman, a writer in residence at New York University. "Like Cubans do not care about their lack of human rights because they are selfless and fighting for justice. So what if they have been ruled by a dictator since 1959?"

The popular version of Che was fueled in recent years by The Motorcycle Diaries, a film based on Che's account of a trip he and a friend took through South America in their 20s, when they saw the poverty in many countries there. In the movie, Che was portrayed as a sensitive rebel who stood up for the poor and weak.

U.S. Role in Latin America

Born to a well-off family in Argentina, Che was a sickly child, suffering from severe asthma. He went on to study medicine, then embarked on the motorcycle journey that spurred his political awakening. He was also deeply affected by U.S. actions in Latin America during the Cold War.

To prevent the spread of Communism in the Americas, the U.S. helped install friendly governments (which usually meant they were unfriendly to the Soviet Union) and took action against leftist governments and rebel movements—often in secret, through the C.I.A. Che was particularly angered by a C.I.A.-aided coup that toppled the democratically elected President of Guatemala in 1954.

Che was living in Mexico and working as a doctor at a hospital in 1955, when some Cuban exiles introduced him to Castro, who was planning an armed invasion of Cuba to overthrow the corrupt, authoritarian regime of Fulgencio Batista.

Che joined the Cuban rebels when they sailed back to Cuba's eastern coast to launch their invasion in 1956, attacking government forces from camps in the mountains. According to scholars of the revolution, Che did not shrink from violence—he was said to have executed a young man who stole food from his guerrillas. Though he was not Cuban, he gained Castro's trust, leading the assault on the city of Santa Clara in December 1958 in one of the final rebel victories that sent Batista into exile.

After Castro came to power in January 1959, Che presided over the prison at La Cabana in Havana, where hundreds of Cuban soldiers, officials, and so-called "enemies of the revolution" were executed, often after little more than show trials. Che himself was said to have done the killing in some cases—including, according to historians, shooting a teenager after the boy protested his father's execution.

Maria Werlau, founder of the Cuba Archive, which collects data on the Cuban revolution, estimated that Che had a role in more than 200 executions.

Castro also appointed Che to several key government posts in banking and industry, and by most accounts the results were disastrous. Under Che's direction, the government nationalized entire industries and expropriated small businesses and homes. Cuba's economy sank, and was propped up for decades by massive subsidies from the Soviet Union.

By the mid 1960s, Soviet officials feared that Che was too eager to support armed uprisings throughout Latin America—no matter the political consequences—and that he might also be favoring Communist China, a Soviet rival. He became a liability to Castro, who pushed him aside.

Castro sent him to Africa to help an uprising in the Congo, and later to Bolivia, where he led a small Communist rebel group but failed to enlist any peasants to his cause. Instead, he was betrayed by a visitor to his secret jungle hideout, and was tracked down by Bolivian soldiers and C.I.A. agents on Oct. 8, 1967. Though he told his captors he was more valuable to them alive, he was executed by the Bolivians the following morning.

Yet after his death, he came to symbolize the rebellion that swept through the world in the late 1960s. He was seen as a martyr who willingly gave his life so others could enjoy a more just world.

Off Target

In Cuba today, he is officially celebrated. Every morning, schoolchildren pledge that as "pioneers for Communism, we will be like Che."

Outside Cuba, the popularity of Che's image is usually more of a pop culture phenomenon than a political one, which angers Cuban-Americans whose relatives died or went into exile rather than live under Castro. The image of the idealistic revolutionary, they say, is nothing more than a myth.

That's why last year a group of Cuban-Americans persuaded Target to stop selling a CD carrying case with Che's image; a few years earlier, they protested when the New York Public Library offered Che watches for sale.

"Che represents something that he wasn't," says Joe Garcia, former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, the largest Cuban exile organization, which is based in Miami.

"In the end, he becomes the symbol for someone who was willing to engage in a struggle against all odds," Garcia adds. "That myth is stronger than the reality of someone who in his personal life was destructive, non-caring, and left everyone behind because he was completely committed to this thing. It's revolution without a moral context."