This article was written before the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016. Like Che, Castro remains, regardless of how one felt about him, one of the twentieth century’s greatest revolutionary figures. His death and the complex legacy he leaves put the issues raised in this article into sharper focus. For more, search online for “1926–2016 Fidel Castro, Tikkun Daily” for another piece by the same author.
I HAVE BEEN THINKING a lot about Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary who, in his death perhaps even more than in his life, has achieved an iconic status. Three reasons underlie these thoughts. First, the recent opening of U.S. policy on Cuba and a photograph of a street mural of Che my husband took on a visit there late last year. The mural is faded, its paint chipped, and the wall on which it is painted is exposed and crumbling. Second is the openness of large segments of American youth to the ideas of socialism and revolutionary change, most evident in the supporters of Bernie Sanders. There is no doubt that, with this burgeoning progressive movement, the iconography of Che will experience a new resurgence in American popular culture. And third is a new book, The Politics of Che Guevara: Theory and Practice by Samuel Farber, a Marxist sociologist-historian born in Cuba. For these reasons, and after reading Farber’s book, I realized that my memories of Che are like the faded mural in my husband’s photograph, and that I need to refresh these memories. I realized that I never fully mourned Che’s death, nor really considered the meaning of his life.
One evening in 1968 I sat in my small apartment in Berkeley, recovering from a severe asthmatic attack precipitated by the tear gas used to disperse demonstrators at a “Stop the Draft” march in Oakland. Wheezing, struggling for breath, and over-stimulated by medicine containing adrenaline, I read Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, which had just been published. Che, plagued by lifelong asthma as I was, became a doctor and then a revolutionary. His youthful experiences led to his militant opposition to the oppression and imperialism he saw threatening Latin America. He joined Fidel Castro in 1955 and was part of the crew of the Granma boat which invaded Cuba in 1956, the beginning salvo which led to the overthrow of the Batista government in 1959. Eight years later in 1967, Che was killed in the mountains of Bolivia, fighting a guerilla war with tactics exported from the Cuban revolution, with often unwilling Bolivian peasants, and against a much stronger Bolivian military heavily supported by the CIA. He was alone, isolated, and gripped by severe asthma without any medication. Bolivia was a doomed effort from the start.
I was profoundly influenced by Che’s words and experiences. Reading about Che’s work as a physician and his leadership of guerillas in the Sierra Maestra mountains of Cuba, all the while suffering from asthma, I felt less alone with my own disease, and encouraged to continue my part in the anti-war struggle. My decision to become a doctor was inspired by Che, as was my later decision to specialize in infectious diseases, and particularly to work with HIV patients, guided by Che’s work with leprosy patients. Che died when he was 39. I continued to live my life, and with the passage of time, my perspective on Che became less romantic and memories faded.
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Tikkun 2017 Volume 32, Number 1: 20-23