Che Guevara remains, but the guerrillas have gone | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 08.10.2017
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Che Guevara remains, but the guerrillas have gone

From communist fighters to capitalist consumerism: 50 years after the death of Che Guevara, the revolutionary leader's legacy shines less brightly. Today it's social movements that are continuing the fight.

Even the FARC has bidden him farewell. Since the Colombian rebels handed over their weapons, Che Guevara no longer determines their daily lives: Until recently his image still adorned the uniforms of these fighters in the Colombian jungle. Now they must get along without him.

October 9 is the 50th anniversary of the death of Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Born in Argentina in 1928, he became a doctor, revolutionary and guerrilla fighter, achieving international fame when he led the Cuban Revolution from 1956 to 1959, alongside the future Cuban president, Fidel Castro. Che became one of the most important symbolic figures of the revolution. Later, he left his political posts in Cuba to advance the revolution in Congo and in Bolivia. In 1967 he was captured by Bolivian government troops and shot.

So what of his message still remains, after the end of the Cold War, rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, and the death of Fidel Castro? Is Che still an icon and inspiration for the political left outside Cuba itself?

From a different age

"As a political figure Che was buried long ago, but he still survives as a revolutionary leader, popular icon, and shining light of the 1968 student movement," Matthias Rüb, the Latin America correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, commented in an interview with DW.

In his recently published biography of Che Guevara, Rüb not only examines the revolutionary leader's notes; he also considers how he has been received politically. His conclusion is: "Although Che seems today to come from a different age, he's never ceased to be a powerful symbolic figure for anti-Americanism."

So is the patron of the anti-globalization movement, the hero of left-wing liberation movements in the era of Trump, also enjoying an unexpected resurrection? Guevara expert Rüb doesn't rule it out. "US President Donald Trump is doing all he can to ensure a revival of anti-Americanism and a possible afterlife-in-the-afterlife for Che."

'Christ with a gun'

In Germany, people's view of Che Guevara is colored above all by their own recent history. Whereas the East German songwriter Wolf Biermann once described Guevara as "Jesus Christ with a gun," the literary theorist Richard Herzinger saw him more as an "implacable doctrinarian whose thoughts and actions were dominated by the obsessive glorification of violence and death."

FARC delegates in Colombia hold a poster showing Che Guevara Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Cuba's Fidel Castro and Jesus Christ

Holy fathers: FARC delegates in Colombia revere Che, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Cuba's Fidel Castro and Jesus Christ

Even within the Left party opinions differ. "There's a poster of Che on the wall of our office in Karlsruhe, and recently the solidarity movement had a discussion about his homophobia," says Michel Brandt, who has entered parliament for the Left party for the first time and at the age of 27 is one of Bundestag's the youngest delegates.

Read more: From Che Guevara T-shirts to prefab houses — How the Russian Revolution changed the world

Older party members defended Che, he says, while the younger ones questioned whether the poster was still appropriate. Some were of the opinion that it didn't fit at all anymore with the Left's political orientation.

Rejecting the armed struggle

For Left party politician Heike Hänsel, 51,  Che Guevara "remains the most important advertisement for Cuba and is indispensable as a symbol within the solidarity movement." She says: "It's about the message. For the left, it's an important point not to resign oneself to exploitation and imperialism."

However, Hänsel rejects armed conflict for social justice and socialism, which was what Che Guevara once envisaged. "There are so many military interventions, centers of conflict and civil wars going on that it is irresponsible to propagate armed struggle," she states. With modern military technology, she continued, it was insane to want to use weapons in this day and age as a way of enforcing political aims.

Fidel Castro and Che in 1961

Fidel Castro and Che in 1961

Twenty years ago, Mexico's former secretary of foreign affairs, Jorge Castaneda, was the first to start dismantling the image of the restless revolutionary leader. "Guevara's ideas, his life, his work, his function as a role model all belong to the past. As such, they will never be topical again," he wrote in his biography of Che, published in 1997.

At the time, Castaneda's remarks caused a scandal in Latin America. Guevara was and still is the political inspiration for critics of the neo-liberal economic policy – supported by Washington – that took Argentina into bankruptcy. The victory of the political left in the elections in early 2000 marked a historic comeback for Guevara in the region.

Che and Pope Francis: Brothers in spirit

For Guevara biographer Matthias Rüb, it's the social movements in Latin America today that are continuing the Cuban revolutionary's fight. "There are no big individual revolutionary leaders anymore," he says. "The fight against social extremes is still alive and well in Latin America, but it's being fought today by collectives and social movements that want to claim their rights by peaceful means."

Read more: How young Cubans are learning capitalism

Rüb also sees Pope Francis – an Argentine, like Che Guevara – as part of this. "This pope is one who is trying to continue Che's legacy by peaceful means, and in Latin America that signifies, above all, overcoming blatant social injustice." Rüb concludes that: "It's only a slight exaggeration to say that the pope is the new Che Guevara."

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