The Glorification of a Tyrant

Kathryn Lopez
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Posted: Jan 10, 2006 11:34 AM

Is a Che T-shirt on the Christmas wish list of someone you love? If you love truth, justice and basic human rights don't fulfill that request. Give your loved one a quick history lesson instead. It might not sound familiar, but you've probably seen it.

Ernesto "Che" Guevera is probably at your local mall, his mug likely on a T-shirt -- an idiotic fashion statement.

According to the founder of a company that sells Che products: "Che's image has a rock 'n' roll edge to it that we're looking for." Che is chic for the sophisticated baby -- actresses Jennifer Connelly and Kate Hudson reportedly dress their little ones in Guevera. One mom whose son wears Che told The New York Observer that 1-in-10 kids in her New York City neighborhood probably own a Che shirt. "Some people probably think it's an icon of what's cool."

Quick quiz for Jennifer, Kate and other Che customers: Who said this? "Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become ..." Can you say, El Che.

The henchman of Fidel Castro's "Cuban Revolution," is a romantic cult hero once described by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte as "not only an intellectual, but also the most complete human being of our age." In a just world, however, a complete Che Guevera portrait would include an executioner's soundtrack. As a biographer wrote: "... Che, as supreme prosecutor, took to his task with a singular determination, and the old walls of the fort rang out nightly with the fusillades of the firing squads."

Instead, we are gagged with Che, the young, handsome doctor, whose only fault seems to be having been born with asthma. Che Guevera was killed 38 years ago and, in death, his history has been turned into a myth that culminated in the 2004 "Motorcycle Diaries," executive produced by Robert Redford.

The movie was an ode to the young Che's South American journeys as a 20-something idealist. Never mind who he was to become. As writer Anthony Daniels has noted, "It is as if someone were to make a film about Adolf Hitler by portraying him as a vegetarian who loved animals and was against unemployment. This would be true, but ... rather beside the point."

Che Guevera attracts the same undeserved hero worship as "Uncle Fidel" Castro, who Hollywood also adores. The cult of Che only promises to grow when Oscar-winner Benicio del Toro plays him in an upcoming Steven Soderbergh movie, set to start filming in the new year.

Unfortunately, Che chic isn't a meaningless fad. It's not nothing to those who suffered or died under Che's hand. And it's not harmless when you consider those citing Che today. A presidential candidate in Bolivia -- a country where "only images of the Virgin Mary are more ubiquitous, and even then it's a close-run thing" -- recently told The New York Times Magazine, "I like Che because he fought for equality, for justice. He did not just care for ordinary people; he made their struggle his own."

Any reference to Che and "struggle" should include the labor camps and executions he inflicted on the Cuban people, and the tyranny he helped establish to oppress them. Something got severely lost in translation from firing squads to T-shirts and the Oscars.

Some people won't be fooled, though. There's a slowly growing anti-Che market out there (one that makes much more sense than fans of Marxist Che going capitalist). Hollywood even gets into the backlash a bit, with a light hand. In the January-release comedy "Grandma's Boy" (which has nothing to do with politics or revolutions), the main character is seen sporting a Che-with-Mickey-Mouse-ears T-shirt. Other Che-parody shirts on the market include one with a fake Che quote: "My ultimate goal as a socialist revolutionary was to have my face plastered on the T-shirts of rich white kids" and another with a Ronald Reagan mug in Che's place. You know, the guy who helped take down Communism instead of an avowed Communist. Counter-Che-ism, though, is still but a shadow of the pro-Che market, but it's out there.

Some smart Argentines reportedly have a saying: "Tengo una remera del Che y no se por que," or "I have a Che T-shirt and I don't know why." Next time you're at the mall, get into a discussion about why you -- or your kid -- are without one.