Those who are weak don’t fight.
Those who are stronger might fight
for an hour.
Those who are stronger still might fight
for many years.
The strongest fight
their whole life.
They are the indispensable ones.
— Bertolt Brecht
`Spoiler alert for those living in a jar: this column will reveal the fate of the hero in Soderbergh’s new movie.`
Rule number one when drinking mate: You don’t stir it. If you stir it, you ruin it. And please, stop spelling it maté. It’s mate `MA-tay, or something like that`, for Krishna’s sake.
In 1969’s hilarious Che!, the fact that Jack Palance was Fidel Castro and Omar Sharif played Che Guevara was irresistibly absurd enough. But when Sharif appeared in a scene stirring his mate (the national stimulating herb infusion of Argentina and Uruguay, also consumed in Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil and, I bet you, New Jersey), as if it were 5 o’ clock tea, that was a classic moment documenting what happens when clueless people handle touchy subjects.
By his own admission, Steven Soderbergh didn’t have too many clues about the Che Guevara beyond the poster (the most reproduced photograph in history), but at least he seems to have done his homework. I haven’t seen Soderbergh’s two-part epic starring Benicio Del Toro (who took Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival), which opened to limited release in December and nationwide (excluding, of course, San Antonio, where it’s scheduled to open February 27). The movie revives talk about the idolized guerrilla, but also reminds us that those who hate him often hate him more than they hate Fidel. Compared to Che, some say, Fidel was Mother Teresa. And, in a way, they’re probably right.
The main argument used by Che’s detractors is that he himself executed several suspected informants in his ranks. He would continue ordering massive executions of alleged torturers after Fidel took power, but many Cuban Americans say too many innocents were thrown into the mix. “He was a murderer,” they say. “Che was brave, well-educated, charismatic, but also a disciplined, merciless guerrilla fighter who wouldn’t tolerate the smallest crack in his ranks,” we Che-niacs repeat in unison.
Soderbergh chose not to include the executions part in the movie. (They must be thrilled in Miami)
“The section of his life where he basically became an administrator is kind of its own film,” Soderbergh said in Filmmaker magazine, “and it’s not one that interested me personally.” He instead concentrated on the two extremes of Che’s life — his victory in Cuba, his defeat in Bolivia.
Like most Che admirers, I think of him as an exemplary man, and I see his defects as further proof of his humanity. But I don’t blame the critics who are still scared shitless of him: If you messed with Che, you were lunch.
Why do we love him so much? The fact that he didn’t let asthma stop him from fighting a revolution? The fact that he chose ammunition over first-aid kits when the shit hit the fan in the mountains? The fact that he always fought first, showed up first at work, and was the last to leave? The fact that he cut his salary in half as soon as he was appointed Cuba’s Ministry of Industry?
He was brave, and he was no rat.
“Whenever I tried to find out how many people he had with him, where he’d come from, he would smile `at` me and he would say, ‘You know I cannot answer that,’ said Félix Rodríguez, the CIA operative who hunted him down in Bolivia, in the documentary The True Story of Che Guevara (2007).
Che didn’t squeal. And, by all accounts (including the superb critical biography by Jon Lee Anderson), he was brave at the time of his execution. Bolivian soldier Mario Terán put him down with nine bullets, seconds after Che stood in front of him and, looking straight into his eyes, told him “Shoot, coward! You’re only gonna kill a man.” Che died biting his hand to avoid crying out. But, in Latin America and many parts of the world, his ideas resonate louder and clearer than ever.
No, I didn’t have to suffer under Fidel Castro. But I am the product of a Third World U.S.-sponsored right-wing military dictatorship that today, supposedly in an age of “peace” and “freedom,” still suffers from the inequalities that pissed off Che in the first place. And even though he succeeded in Cuba but failed in changing the rest of the world through revolution, he did set the standard for surrendering oneself to a conviction, and never demanded anything from anybody that he didn’t demand of himself. He was the best in battle, the bravest, always in the front lines, and paid the highest price without breaking down. Most important, he never gave up the struggle with himself, and is the embodiment of the kind of indispensable people Brecht wrote about. And yes, he died with a notebook full of poems by Pablo Neruda and others. Che was magic and, as Jean Paul Sartre pointed out, “the most complete human being of our age.”
Perhaps if the Bolivians had helped him the way Cuban campesinos helped in Sierra Maestra, the story would have ended differently. But today, ironically, even in Bolivia, you can feel Che’s presence.
“If we had a Che Guevara `in Bolivia` we’d be easily undergoing huge transformations,” said (democratically elected) Bolivian Socialist president Evo Morales. “His principles for a life of sovereignty for Latin America, for the people, are principles we share when we go forward, not only in times of war. Now is when we need a Che, not so much for the armed force, but for the defense of humanity.”
It is Soderbergh himself, a relative newcomer to Che’s universe, who best articulates why, despite all of his imperfections, many of us still remember Che with awe and reverence.
“I realized very late that what I was drawn to in Che was not necessarily the ideology but his willingness to fully engage and his ability to sustain,” said Soderbergh. “I think most of us go through periods where we feel like engaging, and then we get tired or frustrated and then we disengage. `Che` never did.” •
Che won’t open in San Antonio until February 27, but beginning Wednesday, January 21, digital-cable users can purchase the film in two parts via video on demand. Go to ifcfilms.com for more information.