I can’t remember the first time I ever heard of Che Guevara, but I remember that the first time I felt really interested in him was during my senior year of high school, when my Spanish class took a trip to the International Center of Photography in Manhattan. We were going to see an exhibit about the Spanish Civil War, but I ended up wandering around and finding myself in a small room lined with photos of the execution of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. I read the story of how he had been executed by Bolivian forces aided by the CIA, and of how he had bravely faced death. I saw the image of his lifeless body – preserved with formaldehyde (so that no one would doubt that he was really dead) – and I was thoroughly moved. Then, a couple of other students walked in, and one of them asked me who was this Che Guevara person? I tried to explain that he had been a leader of the Cuban revolution. But is he a good guy, or a bad guy? the student persisted. I said that it depends on your beliefs. Just then, the other student interjected, He was a communist. The first student immediately said, Oh, communism is bad, and lost interest.
I don’t feel a general hatred toward communism – I don’t approve of the violence and totalitarianism often used to achieve “pure communism” – but I don’t think that there is anything inherently evil in the ideology. I didn’t hold Che’s political leanings against him in any way. I saw the photos, I saw The Motorcycle Diaries, and, to me, Che was a hero.
A little over a year after this, I was having a conversation with a friend when the name Che Guevara came up. Immediately, we started arguing: he was as shocked at my perception of Che as a heroic revolutionary as I was at his perception of Che as a murderous terrorist.
I began this project because I had had my views questioned, and I was looking for the truth.
Originally, the intention was to do some more thorough investigation and ultimately determine for myself whether Che was a good guy or a bad guy.
However, that’s not how this works. I quickly gave up hope of discovering an objective, definitive answer: a yes, he’s good, or a no, he’s not. Soon after, though, I realized that this is not even a “decide-for-yourself” kind of issue. The answer is that Guevara did good things and he did bad things, but he was not the embodiment of either good or evil. If you say that he was one or the other, it doesn’t make you smart for having an opinion; it makes you ignorant for disregarding crucial facts.
Regardless, the fact of the matter is that in our society, when there is a struggle for interpretive power (the fight for the ability to make your perception of something into the general perception) there is a dominant narrative – the story that everyone knows – and there is an alternate narrative – the story that is less often told. The general perception of Che Guevara as an iconic hero – as proved through the media that glorify him and the people who proudly (and sometimes ignorantly) sport his image on clothing and posters – represents the dominant narrative, while the less proliferated perception of Che as a villain represents the alternate narrative.
Once I got beyond my goal of determining whether Che was good or bad, I focused more on the question of why most people think he’s good? In other words, why is the image of Che as a hero the dominant narrative, and why is the image of Che as a villain the alternate? This is the question I am attempting to answer after studying 11 films made about (or featuring) Ernesto Guevara.
As you might expect, almost all of the films had the tendency to recirculate the dominant narrative by portraying Che as a heroic figure. What I was mainly interested in were the different reasons why these films took the approach that they did. Several of them provided decent insight into how the image of Che as a hero became the dominant narrative.
An easy answer is that there are not a lot of details on Che’s crimes – it’s difficult to be sure whether Guevara actually committed the atrocities he is sometimes said to have done. It is known that he executed soldiers of his own that had committed treason or some kind of war crime – harsh, but hardly an act of terrorism – and that he had many people assassinated while he was in power under Castro’s government. Many anti-Che sources say that he executed civilians and innocent people, but I’ve yet to find real proof of this: in The True Story of Che Guevara, biographer Jon Lee Anderson makes the critical point that the only documented victims of executions performed by or authorized by Che were prisoners convicted of war crimes punishable by death to begin with – rape, treason, desertion. This is not the nail in the coffin of the anti-Che movement – Castro’s government is not known for its transparency, so who knows how many illegitimate executions went undocumented – but it is definitely something to consider. The point is that no one really knows anything concrete or specific about the supposed mass murders that Che committed, so they faded into the background while Che’s heroic performance as a soldier and a devoted revolutionary became more prominent.
There’s another very simple answer: overall, not that many people suffered at the hands of Che Guevara. Cuba’s a small country without much global significance. Che didn’t kill six million Jews or engage in a nuclear arms race: the people who hated Che most were the ones affected negatively by him, of which there weren’t many. The Lost City, the only film to portray Che as an antagonist, does so because director Andy Garcia was forced as a child to flee Cuba with his family because of Castro’s government. He disapproves of Che because he is part of the relatively small population that was negatively affected by him.
Another possible reason why Che’s indiscretions have gone largely unmentioned is because the bulk of them were committed while Che was in power under Castro’s government. Here, Che was not the number one man, his friend Fidel was. When people were murdered, it was blamed on Castro and on the Castro government, not that doctor-turned-revolutionary-turned-government-official Ernesto Guevara. While Che did become feared by the masses for his harshness, it was Castro who fell out of favor: before long, Che left the Cuban government and renounced his citizenship to go and spark revolutions elsewhere.
The Motorcycle Diaries – book and film – also did a lot to shape Che’s image as a hero. Before the failed revolutions in Bolivia and Congo, before Che’s stint in the Cuban government, before the Cuban revolution had ever been conceived, Ernesto Guevara was a doctor living in Argentina. He and his friend Alberto Granados bought a motorcycle and, together, rode up the coast of the continent. On this journey, Ernesto saw poverty, hunger, destitution, and true suffering for the first time. Moved by the abject conditions the people inhabited, Che became an advocate for the poor. He devoted himself to the goal of improving conditions for the working class, a goal that he had the opportunity to bring to fruition when he met Fidel Castro in Mexico. The Motorcycle Diaries shows Che-the-revolutionary’s true intentions, which, for many people, justifies (or at least makes understandable) the questionable means Che used to reach his noble ends. One of the most common themes in the movies that I watched was the power of Che’s intentions. He was a harsh, ruthless soldier, but he was driven by pure and noble intentions, which is what made him the hero rather than the villain.
While these factors notably tipped the scales of this struggle for interpretive power in Che’s favor, there is one thing that most likely sealed the deal for him. Chevolution was the most illuminating film that I saw because it gave me what I think is the number one reason why Ernesto Guevara is known primarily as a hero. The film explores the iconography of Alberto Korda’s photo of Che – the most reproduced photo in history.
Korda’s photo portrays Che looking noble and heroic, like a true leader. This image, captured in 1960, was not circulated until after Che’s assassination in 1967. People contrasted it with the lifeless photos of Che post-execution and it became a sign of revolution. In this way, the backlash from Che’s assassination became one of the main reasons that Che was immortalized as a hero. The photo was turned into a graphic, a political statement, a work of art, and finally, a commercial product. Everyone around the world saw the image of Che looking like a leader and believed what they saw.
What if Korda had captured a photo of Che executing one of his own soldiers? Of Che paired with the infamous Fidel Castro? Would the world still look at him as a hero? Or would the dominant narrative illustrate Che as a communist killer? We can’t know this, but I really believe that if Korda had portrayed Che negatively, he would not be seen as such a hero today. Either this hypothetical photo would not have reached the fame that it did in reality, leaving Che without the fame and glory he attained, or it would have exposed him as a cruel and vicious murderer, condemning him eternally.
These films helped me to determine several different factors that caused the perception of Che Guevara as a hero to become the dominant narrative and the perception of Che as a villain to become the alternate. Each reason definitely plays a role, but I think that Korda’s photo is almost undeniably the reason for Che’s worldwide fame and glory. After all of this, I haven’t decided that Che is a “good guy,” or that Che is a “bad guy;” Che is just a guy, who did good things and bad things, like the rest of us. It is unrealistic to try and squeeze him into a mold to make things easier for us to understand, because people rarely fit perfectly into the molds we create for them. All we can do is try and understand the facts and resist jumping to conclusions. Exploring the reasons behind the dominant and alternate narratives did a lot to help me understand how people’s opinions are formed and the things we have to do to make sure that we do not simply accept the dominant narrative without questioning its accuracy.