Term Paper: Ernesto "Che" Guevara's Identity Throughout the 1960s

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¶ … Ernesto "Che" Guevara's Identity

Throughout the 1960s, self-styled American young "revolutionaries" in the United States, especially college students, were fond of donning tee-shirts emblazoned with the image of Che Guevara based on his identity as being a popular and influential leader who was widely admired by his followers. Although it is doubtful that many of these American students knew much else about Guevara, the perception of his identity as being a popular and influential leader was accurate. This identity, though, did not emerge based on Guevara being featured on American students' tee-shirts, though, but was rather the result of his having been through a crucible of formative and frequently violent events that ultimately ended in his death in 1967. This paper provides an analysis of the most significant events and/or factors that contributed to Che Guevara's identity including how his trip through Latin America as recounted in the Motorcycle Diaries, his Marxist ideals, the revolution in Cuba, and so forth served to shape how Guevara saw himself and how others saw him as well. A summary of the research and important findings are presented in the conclusion.

Review and Analysis

For several decades, the United States has been the focus of Cuban animosity based on the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, a series of attempts on Fidel Castro's life by U.S. (especially CIA) operatives and economic and political sanctions against the island nation that remain firmly in place today. Although there are signs that things are changing based on signals being sent by both the Obama administration and that of Fidel's brother in Cuba, it is unlikely that this Cuban animosity against the United States will simply evaporate overnight. This perception of the United States was also the driving force behind Che Guevara's identity. Born in Argentina in 1928, Guevara went on to become inextricably involved in revolutionary activities throughout Latin America, including a stint as Fidel Castro's chief lieutenant following the rebel invasion in 1956 and was instrumental in his capacity as president of Cuba's national bank in severing ties with the United States.

According to Ryan, "During his short lifetime, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara fought battles on three continents, but he always considered the U.S. government and the economic oligarchy he believed supported it to be his principal enemy."

Based on his analysis of Guevara's life, including the Motorcycle Diaries,

prior to his going to Cuba, Ryan emphasizes that, "Guevara had a profound antipathy toward the United States that began in his youth and antedated even his Marxism. He considered that country a principal source of the misery he saw in his extensive travels as a young man throughout much of Latin America."

Describing Guevara as "an archetypal sixties figure whose iconic image and romantic revolutionary activities caught the imagination of successive generations," Gott reports that there has been a substantial gap in the conventional accounts of Guevara's life until recently. According to Gott, Guevara "disappeared from Cuba in March 1965, to reappear dead in the Bolivian jungle in October 1967. We know that he had arrived in Bolivia in November 1966, to start his last ill-fated campaign, and, in general terms, it has always been known that he spent time in the 'missing' year with the rebels in the Congo -- the former Belgian Congo, now Zaire."

Much like the accounts from people who may not want to truly believe that an iconic figure such as Guevara (or Jim Morrison or Elvis) has really died, Gott was in a position to provide primary evidence of Guevara's untimely death in 1967. In this regard, Gott notes that, "In October 1967, reporting for the 'Guardian' from Bolivia, I found myself present in the small provincial town of Vallegrande when Guevara's dead body -- he had been shot some five hours earlier -- was displayed to the populace on the flat basins of the local hospital's laundry shed. There was some doubt among those present as to whether this was indeed the body of Che Guevara, and since I was the only journalist present who had ever seen him alive, I was in a position to verify that this was indeed him."

According to Guevara, though, his motorcycle odyssey through Latin America caused him to die, at least metaphorically, years before this gruesome end and his experiences changed his identity in fundamental ways. For instance, in his account of this trip, the Motorcycle Diaries, Guevara writes, "The person who wrote these notes died the day he stepped back on Argentine soil. The person who is reorganizing and polishing them, me, is no longer me, at least I'm not the me I was."

The "me" that emerged following Guevara's motorcycle adventures was transformed into a "howling-like-a-man-possessed" revolutionary-styled identity, one that was more than eager to avenge what he perceived as the numerous historical transgressions committed by the United States against the nations of Latin America.

The popular identity of Guevara that emerged following his death has been powerful in shaping popular thought in a number of countries. For instance, Benavides-Vanegas reports that throughout the majority of the history of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, the central square has been designated the Plaza General Francisco de Paula Santander, in recognition of the contributions made by this leader of Colombia's independence movement in the 1800s. Following Guevara's death in the late 1960s, though, Colombia students increasingly rejected this appellation in favor of one honoring Guevara. Acccording to Benavides-Vanegas, "In a series of riots, students destroyed Santander's statue and began to call the central square Plaza Che Guevara. Although the university authorities replaced the statue several times, they gave up after students repeatedly destroyed it and relented in calling the square Plaza Che Guevara."

Indeed, the popular identity that has emerged in recent years has elevated Guevara to near-sainthood. For instance, Barbas emphasizes that, "In Cuba, devotees of Che Guevara travel along a well-worn pilgrimage path, the 'Way of Che.' Call it cultism, idol worship, or even a form of religious observance -- men and women throughout the world are engaged in modern updates of the age-old process of making saints."

Indeed, just as the students in Colombia transformed a popular university square based on their perception of the identity of Guevara, even the image of Guevara has contributed to his modern identity as well. In this regard, Barbas reports that, "The function of a single, widely reproduced image of Che Guevara -- the famous 'Korda' photograph of the leader with his gaze fixed on some distant horizon and hair flowing out from beneath his army beret -- in the making of Che as a 'culture hero' and 'secular saint.'"

Suggesting that it is possible to transform dead people into modern martyred heroes through such devices, Barbas adds that, "The ubiquitous image has been used not only to display devotion but also to legitimize and actually generate and intensify devotion."

This author also concludes that the photograph (see Figure 1 below) ". . . transformed Che Guevara from iconoclast to icon and seems to powerfully mesmerize devotees, has become real with a life of its own. The image is perhaps more venerated than the man himself."

While the image may be more venerated than Guevara himself, the fact remains that the graffito "Che lives" continues to pop up on walls everywhere and suggests that his identity remains the focus of hero-makers around the world.

Figure 1. Photograph of Che Guevara taken March 5, 1960 by Alberto Korda.

Source: http://photosthatchangedtheworld.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/che-guevara.jpg.

Conclusion

The research showed that in his 39 years on earth, Ernesto "Che" Guevara led an adventurous and colorful life that led him to take part in revolutionary activities on three continents and was instrumental in severing economic and political ties with the United States in his capacity as the president of the national… [END OF PREVIEW]

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