There is a character in Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de Souffle who speaks of the path to everlasting fame. "First you become immortal," he instructs, "then you die."
A prime exemplar of the "create a legend/resurrection" method of eternal iconography would be Ernesto (Che) Guevara, the Argentine-born revolutionary who was executed forty years ago today in Bolivia. Death transmogrified him into a symbol of revolution itself. Time has turned him into an empty Warholized emblem that adorns everything from T-shirts to fanny packs to bumper stickers and apparently even a soap with the slogan "Che washes whiter."
In death Guevara has certainly managed to whitewash his image. A cleansing aided by such personality cultisms as the film The Motorcycle Diaries, which portrays Guevara as a young, wide-eyed do-gooder who travels South America looking to right social wrongs. Romanticized and corporate pimped, for most who even know who Guevara was they have no idea what he stood for. They merely accept that he was the South American Martin Luther King.
He was not.
Guevara was a brutal, egotistical killer without the smarts to enact lasting economic reform nor the guile to achieve true insurgent victory. His most significant military achievement -- the taking of Santa Clara during Castro's Cuban revolution -- might have been more a matter of financial bribery than military strategy.
What is in little dispute is the savagery of his tenure as the commander of the La Cabaña Fortress prison. Think of it as Cuba's Abu Ghraib. In a mere five months Guevara oversaw and personally signed off on the execution of as many as 500 people. Men, women, children. Not all merely loyalists to overthrown Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Also executed were political prisoners, dissidents, artist, intellectuals and homosexuals. A representative number of the left the revolution was supposed to be lifting up.
His bloody handiwork should come as no surprise. Before Guvera was a soap pitchman from beyond the grave, he was the "The Butcher of la Cabaña" who preached: "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."
I'm sure Gandhi would have been proud.
As head of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, and President of the National Bank of Cuba, Guevara would institute popular reforms that would eventually lead to economic disaster. From the middle 1960s until the Soviet collapse Cuba was subsistent on their largess to a tune of $65 billion to $100 billion annually.
As a military leader Guevara was hardly more impressive. In the Congo he hooked up with a couple of bloody rebels, failed to inspire the people and accomplished little more than putting his own men through a shredder. It was a misadventure Guevara himself described as a "history of failure."
An expedition into Bolivia proved disastrous. Guevara completely misread the situation on the ground, could not incite a popular uprising, was completely abandoned by the Bolivian communists, their Soviet backers and even the Cubans.
Bolivian Rangers took him prisoner on the 8th of October, 1967. He whimpered as they came: "Do not shoot! I am Che Guevara and worth more to you alive than dead."
The Bolivian's figured otherwise. The next day Guevara was executed.
And thus began his ascendancy from abject failure to high icon. A populist, a revolutionary. A man who turned his back on material gains to give instead to the people.
And if you believe that, consider this: when Guevara was captured in Bolivia he was wearing a Rolex watch on his wrist.
Long live the revolution.