We’ve all seen that famous picture at one time or another. Either on television, T-shirts, posters, or anything else you can think of. The face of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara staring into the distance with great fire raging in his eyes is one of the most famous images of 20th century pop culture and has probably done more to keep the cult of Che alive then any biography or documentary could possibly do. But what is it that fascinates people about the iconic Argentine rebel? When you remove all the hype and myth surrounding him, his life story is not as simple as many would want us to believe.
The real Che Guevara was more a complex character than the famous poster permits us to believe. He was not the greatest communist guerrilla leader to have shaken the world in the previous 100 years. Mao Tse Tung and Ho Chi Minh were far more successful insurgents than the dashing Guevara. A great writer he was indeed, but he did not leave any landmark contribution to Marxism in the same manner that Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Mao Tse Tung did. In essence Che Guevara’s legend largely resonates from the romanticsm that in one way or other appeals to all of us. The story of a young lad from Argentina, who was outraged by social injustice, took matters into his own hands and changed the world before dying at a young age. The Byronic story of the tragic hero, part Christ, part James Dean, who belongs to no country yet is a man of the world, is very appealing.
All revolutionaries have a moment in their life in which the world turns upside down for them, thus driving them to try and turn the world upside down as well. For Lenin it was the death of his elder brother Aleksandr at the hands of Tsarist authorities in Russia. For Mohandas Gandhi it was the exposure to injustice and discrimination faced by Indians in South Africa, which altered the trajectory of his life. Chairman Mao’s life changed with the fall of the Chinese imperial Qing dynasty in 1911. Mao solidified his commitment as a revolutionary by cutting his pigtail, thus ending his symbolic obedience to China’s imperial past.
Even Islamic fundamentalists, like Sayyid Qutb and Ruhollah Khomeini, had moments in their life in which the game changed for them. Qutb was radicalised during his stay in the United States after being exposed to, what he felt was materialism and hedonism in American society. For Khomeini a turning point in his life was the death of his mentor Ayatullah Mohammed Boroujerdi, along with the Shah of Iran’s ‘White Revolution’, which gave women voting rights and aimed to modernise the country. Boroujerdi was a traditional cleric who believed the clergy should be subordinate to political rulers. Khomeini, would not have the same approach as his mentor whose death, allowed the ayatollah to come to national prominence and launch an opposition to the Shah’s reforms. This vocal opposition to the Shah eventually would to the old cleric’s banishment in exile and the rest, as they say, is history.
For Che Guevara a turning point in his life was his famous ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ trip, which spanned the length of South America in the early 1950’s, and was the subject of Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles 2004 biopic. Based largely on Guevara’s journals and memoirs, the film takes us to the time when the revolutionary was simply Ernesto Guevera de la Serna, a medical student who decided to embark on an adventure with his friend Albero Granado (whose memoirs were also utilised for the film). The two would-be doctors and adventurers decided on traveling from their home city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, with their ultimate destination being a leper colony in Peru. It was a long and arduous journey, which they hoped to complete on their Norton 500 motorcycle, christened La Poderosa (Mighty One). In essence both set out on a quixotic trip looking simply for fun and thrills, not realising the harsh truths that exist outside their privileged bubble.
As a young man Ernesto is an idealist, with a strong sense of right and wrong, qualities that would be with him for the rest of his existence. Alberto on the hand is more the jovial and easy-go-lucky type, a contrast to the serious Ernesto. While on their motorcycle trip, they come across gorgeous landscapes, beautiful women, shady characters and ultimately the weak and underprivileged of Latin American societies. Ever since the Spanish Conquistadors subjugated the indigenous peoples of the America’s from the 16th century onwards, the white ruling class has always been ones holding the big stick. The two travelers belonged to that white ruling class and were completely unprepared for the unjust social order that they get exposed to on the journey.
Ernesto, being a sympathetic character who was paralysed by asthma attacks along the trip, begins to relate to the helplessness that the poorer classes are trapped in. There is almost a constant contradiction as the duo travel Latin America. On the one side there are the beautiful surrounding, Machu Picchu (the famous Incan ruins) and Chuquicamata (the world largest open copper mine). But this natural beauty is shattered over by the poverty and economic depravation that plagues Latin American society, which still does to this very day. Ernesto and Alberto were both aware of it and by the end of the trip, a sense of social awareness was ignited in the two. Ernesto did not become Che Guevara at the end of the film, but the transformation had begun already. At the start of his motorcycle journey, he was the somewhat soft spoken affable young man. By the end, the focused, driven and militant radical had come into fruition. Within a few years of his journey, Ernesto would team up with Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries, arrive on the shores of Cuba and eventually enter the pages of history.