Guerilla Marketing

5 Nov

40 years after his death, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara remains a ubiquitous symbol of anti-imperialism, defiant martyrdom and radical chic. Biographer Jon Lee Anderson explains Che’s ongoing appeal and the struggle to add flesh to the bones of an enduring myth.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Forty years ago, the death of Ernesto “Che” Guevara at the age of 39 marked the end of his high-profile career as a revolutionary. It also marked the beginning of his role as an icon of anti-Americanism and/or defiant martyrdom and/or countercultural chic.

Biographer Jon Lee Anderson says that Che’s enduring appeal has its roots in the universal drama of his life, beginning with his formative years as an Argentine medical student, rejecting a privileged birthright after a road trip opened his eyes.

JON LEE ANDERSON: He dreamed of doing something great for mankind. The more he traveled in Latin America, the more indignant he became over what he saw as social injustice. And many of the diseases that he had originally wanted to cure he began to trace to political domination by the United States. He became a Marxist, looking for a cause. He found that cause when he met Fidel Castro, in Mexico in 1955, and joined his revolution to overthrow the Cuban dictator Batista. He turned out to be a better fighter than he was a doctor. He went off to lead new revolutions, first in the Congo and finally in Bolivia.

It was there in Bolivia that the CIA mounted an operation, with the Green Berets and the Bolivian army, to capture Che. He was wounded, captured and then executed, thereby, creating Che, the myth.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you wrote your book about 10 years ago as a wave of Che branding was in full swing. How was he depicted then?

JON LEE ANDERSON: My book coincided with a resurgence of interest in him, and when it came out in ’97 I was in a New York bookstore; they wanted me to sign books. And when I went in there, I noticed that the cover of my book had been hung as a large poster in the window. The manager came over and virtually embraced me and said, how great that you’ve come, every day we get 20 to 30 people coming in. Some of them want to buy your book, but most of them want to buy the poster. [BROOKE LAUGHS] And he even said that he had had a guy the day before that had come in and said, I want that guy — C-H-E. He didn’t even know who he was or how to pronounce the name.

He looks hip. He looks cool. He looks like a rebel. By wearing him on your t-shirt, you’re saying that you’re not happy with the way things are in society.

I wrote my book, by and large, as a response to what I felt was a dearth of information about him. I tried to set the record straight, to try to demythify the man.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the principal myth or myths that you were trying to dispel?

JON LEE ANDERSON: One of the initial impulses that led me to Che, in the first place -— I found Che very much alive in the battlefronts of the world, this at a time when he was not on anybody’s t-shirt, back at the end of the 80s, early 90s. I found students in Burma in the jungle reading his 1961 manual on guerilla warfare. I found Afghan Mujahideen who talked admiringly of Che. These were anti-Communists.

I talked to one of the CIA men who tracked him down who said he admired him. I couldn’t think of another contemporary figure who had managed to assemble such a degree of fascination and even admiration, including from his ideological foes.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So tell me then, what do you think is the most difficult detail about the life of Che, for those who would mythologize him, to swallow?

JON LEE ANDERSON: Well, when I’m around people who get a little too warm and fuzzy over Che and who begin to talk lyrically about his humanism, I always like to point out the speech he made in which he talks about embracing the atomic cloud, if necessary, in order to change mankind. It always makes them blanch and they don’t know what to say.

The actual story of his life shows that that remained in rhetoric at a very doctrinaire moment. And, actually, in the field, and towards the end of his life, he was not as severe at all as he had been, say, in the early years of the Cuban revolution.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sounds like he lived up to the myth.

JON LEE ANDERSON: In essence, Che deserves his mythology — this questing young man who gave up his birthright in order to live what is arguably a miserable and dangerous existence, rightly or wrongly, to change the world, and then died trying to do it. Myths are made out of this. It’s not unlike the myth of Icarus.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s the myth of Icarus. It’s also the myth, in the minds of many, of Osama bin Laden.

JON LEE ANDERSON: Mm. [AFFIRMATIVE].

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, is one generation’s revolutionary another’s terrorist, or is he still as embraced as ever?

JON LEE ANDERSON: Lately I’ve noticed there’s an effort to revisit Che and to look at him with a more critical eye over his having presided over executions in Cuba and that he famously described the United States as “the enemy of humanity.”

I do find it interesting, the analogy between, say, Osama bin Laden today and Che Guevara yesterday. If you take away the Islamist content — and it’s difficult to — from Osama bin Laden, there is something uncannily reminiscent about the stories. There is one fundamental difference, and that is that Che ambushed and fired at uniformed men also carrying weapons. Osama bin Laden’s instrument of war is terrorism.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the 40th anniversary of his death, has time or distance added some nuance or depth to his story, or have they merely flattened it to make it even more suitable for posters and t-shirts?

JON LEE ANDERSON: There’s two things going on here. There’s no doubt that yes, he is merchandised, cynically. In the first world, you are what you wear, and you don’t actually have to do anything. It’s in the third world that when you see someone perhaps raising a banner with Che that there might be some actual political content or promise of action behind it.

Che has become someone who can be used at will. A friend of mine was in Berlin not long ago and came across a neo-Nazi march with a banner of Che. And she walked up, rather trepidaciously, to the lead neo-Nazi, and she asked him, you know, what in God’s name he was doing heralding Che Guevara. And he said Che was a nationalist. She said, well, no, he wasn’t. He was a Marxist. And he said, no, he wasn’t. He was a nationalist, like us. He’s our hero too.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jon, thank you very much.

JON LEE ANDERSON: You’re welcome.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jon Lee Anderson is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of Che.

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