The Cult of Che
Don't applaud The Motorcycle Diaries.
The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favored a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads. He founded Cuba's "labor camp" system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims. To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che's imagination. In the famous essay in which he issued his ringing call for "two, three, many Vietnams," he also spoke about martyrdom and managed to compose a number of chilling phrases: "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 …"— and so on. He was killed in Bolivia in 1967, leading a guerrilla movement that had failed to enlist a single Bolivian peasant. And yet he succeeded in inspiring tens of thousands of middle class Latin-Americans to exit the universities and organize guerrilla insurgencies of their own. And these insurgencies likewise accomplished nothing, except to bring about the death of hundreds of thousands, and to set back the cause of Latin-American democracy—a tragedy on the hugest scale.
The present-day cult of Che—the T-shirts, the bars, the posters—has succeeded in obscuring this dreadful reality. And Walter Salles' movie The Motorcycle Diaries will now take its place at the heart of this cult. It has already received a standing ovation at Robert Redford's Sundance film festival (Redford is the executive producer of The Motorcycle Diaries) and glowing admiration in the press. Che was an enemy of freedom, and yet he has been erected into a symbol of freedom. He helped establish an unjust social system in Cuba and has been erected into a symbol of social justice. He stood for the ancient rigidities of Latin-American thought, in a Marxist-Leninist version, and he has been celebrated as a free-thinker and a rebel. And thus it is in Salles' Motorcycle Diaries.
The film follows the young Che and his friend Alberto Granado on a vagabond tour of South America in 1951-52—which Che described in a book published under the title Motorcycle Diaries, and Granado in a book of his own. Che was a medical student in those days, and Granado a biochemist, and in real life, as in the movie, the two men spent a few weeks toiling as volunteers in a Peruvian leper colony. These weeks at the leper colony constitute the dramatic core of the movie. The colony is tyrannized by nuns, who maintain a cruel social hierarchy between the staff and the patients. The nuns refuse to feed people who fail to attend mass. Young Che, in his insistent honesty, rebels against these strictures, and his rebellion is bracing to witness. You think you are observing a noble protest against the oppressive customs and authoritarian habits of an obscurantist Catholic Church at its most reactionary.
Yet the entire movie, in its concept and tone, exudes a Christological cult of martyrdom, a cult of adoration for the spiritually superior person who is veering toward death—precisely the kind of adoration that Latin America's Catholic Church promoted for several centuries, with miserable consequences. The rebellion against reactionary Catholicism in this movie is itself an expression of reactionary Catholicism. The traditional churches of Latin America are full of statues of gruesome bleeding saints. And the masochistic allure of those statues is precisely what you see in the movie's many depictions of young Che coughing out his lungs from asthma and testing himself by swimming in cold water—all of which is rendered beautiful and alluring by a sensual backdrop of grays and browns and greens, and the lovely gaunt cheeks of one actor after another, and the violent Andean landscapes.
The movie in its story line sticks fairly close to Che's diaries, with a few additions from other sources. The diaries tend to be haphazard and nonideological except for a very few passages. Che had not yet become an ideologue when he went on this trip. He reflected on the layered history of Latin America, and he expressed attitudes that managed to be pro-Indian and, at the same time, pro-conquistador. But the film is considerably more ideological, keen on expressing an "indigenist" attitude (to use the Latin-American Marxist term) of sympathy for the Indians and hostility to the conquistadors. Some Peruvian Marxist texts duly appear on the screen. I can imagine that Salles and his screenwriter, José Rivera, have been influenced more by Subcomandante Marcos and his "indigenist" rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico, than by Che.
And yet, for all the ostensible indigenism in this movie, the pathos here has very little to do with the Indian past, or even with the New World. The pathos is Spanish, in the most archaic fashion—a pathos that combines the Catholic martyrdom of the Christlike scenes with the on-the-road spirit not of Jack Kerouac (as some people may imagine) but of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, a tried-and-true formula in Spanish culture. (See Benito Pérez Galdós' classic 19th-century novel Nazarín.) If you were to compare Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries, with its pious tone, to the irrevent, humorous, ironic, libertarian films of Pedro Almodóvar, you could easily imagine that Salles' film comes from the long-ago past, perhaps from the dark reactionary times of Franco—and Almodóvar's movies come from the modern age that has rebelled against Franco.
The modern-day cult of Che blinds us not just to the past but also to the present. Right now a tremendous social struggle is taking place in Cuba. Dissident liberals have demanded fundamental human rights, and the dictatorship has rounded up all but one or two of the dissident leaders and sentenced them to many years in prison. Among those imprisoned leaders is an important Cuban poet and journalist, Raúl Rivero, who is serving a 20-year sentence. In the last couple of years the dissident movement has sprung up in yet another form in Cuba, as a campaign to establish independent libraries, free of state control; and state repression has fallen on this campaign, too.
These Cuban events have attracted the attention of a number of intellectuals and liberals around the world. Václav Havel has organized a campaign of solidarity with the Cuban dissidents and, together with Elena Bonner and other heroic liberals from the old Soviet bloc, has rushed to support the Cuban librarians. A group of American librarians has extended its solidarity to its Cuban colleagues, but, in order to do so, the American librarians have had to put up a fight within their own librarians' organization, where the Castro dictatorship still has a number of sympathizers. And yet none of this has aroused much attention in the United States, apart from a newspaper column or two by Nat Hentoff and perhaps a few other journalists, and an occasional letter to the editor. The statements and manifestos that Havel has signed have been published in Le Monde in Paris, and in Letras Libres magazine in Mexico, but have remained practically invisible in the United States. The days when American intellectuals rallied in any significant way to the cause of liberal dissidents in other countries, the days when Havel's statements were regarded by Americans as important calls for intellectual responsibility—those days appear to be over.
I wonder if people who stand up to cheer a hagiography of Che Guevara, as the Sundance audience did, will ever give a damn about the oppressed people of Cuba—will ever lift a finger on behalf of the Cuban liberals and dissidents. It's easy in the world of film to make a movie about Che, but who among that cheering audience is going to make a movie about Raúl Rivero?
As a protest against the ovation at Sundance, I would like to append one of Rivero's poems to my comment here. The police confiscated Rivero's books and papers at the time of his arrest, but the poet's wife, Blanca Reyes, was able to rescue the manuscript of a poem describing an earlier police raid on his home. Letras Libres published the poem in Mexico. I hope that Rivero will forgive me for my translation. I like this poem because it shows that the modern, Almodóvar-like qualities of impudence, wit, irreverence, irony, playfulness, and freedom, so badly missing from Salles' pious work of cinematic genuflection, are fully alive in Latin America, and can be found right now in a Cuban prison.
Paul Berman, a writer in residence at New York University, is the author of Power and the Idealists.
Photograph of Gael Garcia Bernal by Paula Prandini; of Rodrigo de la Serna and Gael Garcia Bernal by Eric Gautier. Photograph of Che Guevara banner on Slate's home page by Danilo Balderrama/Reuters.