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Che’s doctrines outdated, but idea of reforming government is not

Saturday, October 13, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:22 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008
Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism, is the moderator for the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org.

Loory: For years, we’ve seen Che Guevara’s likeness printed on T-shirts, wall posters and any kind of souvenir around the world. Che was an Argentinian who helped Fidel Castro carry out the revolution that brought Fidel to power in Cuba. The Bolivian army executed Che 40 years ago when he tried to start the same kind of revolution there. It’s safe to say that a lot of people have made money marketing the Che image. The hero of the revolution was even celebrated with bikini bathing suits carrying his likeness. But a ceremony last week at his grave at Santa Clara, Cuba, was low-key. Raul Castro, the acting president of Cuba, attended but didn’t speak. Fidel, who has not appeared in public in 14 months because of medical problems, wrote a long tribute to Che in Granma, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper. The essay was read at the service. In life, Che was a hero of the revolution that ousted the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista of Cuba in 1959. In death, he was a symbol of failed efforts by the U.S. to oust Castro from power. A lot has been made about how Che’s image has been tarnished by marketing. Is that a big problem, and how are Cubans reacting to it?

Anthony Boadle, Reuters, Havana: It isn’t a problem for Cubans, because they sell lots of goods to tourists who visit Cuba. Everyone goes away with a memento, whether it’s a key chain or a mug. Che is still a national hero in Cuba, and he represents the values of voluntary work and the spirit of the Revolution that the government has tried to keep alive. Today, those values are lost on most of the population as they struggle to get by economically in a very difficult situation. So it’s questionable whether most Cubans see him as a hero any longer.

Loory: Is Che more popular than Fidel?

Boadle: There have been more images of Che since he was the poster boy of the Cuban Revolution and still is. There hasn’t been a cult of Fidel for decades. When primary school children line up in the morning for assembly, they salute Che and say they want to be like him.

Loory: Che was Argentinean by birth. How is his image perceived in Argentina?

Lucia Newman, reporter, Al Jazeera English, Buenos Aires, Argentina: For many years, people were afraid to even talk about him, but Che’s image has been revived in Argentina since the country’s return to democracy. People see him as an idealist, and they celebrate his idealism more than his ideology. He represents the eternal rebel that didn’t give in to the establishment, and that is why he is admired.

Loory: How is he remembered in Central America and Mexico?

Malcom Beith, national & international editor, The News, Mexico City: In the last few weeks, there has been a resurgence of Che memorabilia. There are Che posters on the Metro, and online newspapers are giving video tours of where he lived when he met Fidel. Che is portrayed in an idealistic rebel light, but the general sense in Mexico is that no one cares about this guy as a person. There is a romantic image, but the reality is when it came to taking a position in government and actually getting things done he wasn’t known for that. Fidel had to actually deal with the reality on the ground.

Loory: Che’s image isn’t romantic in much of the U.S. and particularly in Miami, is it?

Helen Aguirre Ferré, opinion page editor, Diario Las Americas, Miami: The idea that Che is an idealist is really curious. It’s part of the contradictions of the Cuban regime because the real history of Che is not well known. He was a bloodthirsty man, he was very cruel and he had enormous problems dealing with Fidel. In Miami, Che is looked at as a man who was betrayed by the revolution and ultimately met the fate that he would have met had he stayed in Cuba.

Newman: That has been a recurring theme. Did the Cuban Revolution or did Fidel and his brother betray Che? They have always staunchly denied it, but a lot of people in Cuba believe it happened. Not that Fidel put a knife in Che’s back, but that he withdrew the support that Che would have needed to succeed or to have done a better job rousing a rebellion in Bolivia.

Loory: Cuba is approaching the 50th anniversary of the revolution. How is Fidel’s health now?

Boadle: His illness is a state secret, and he hasn’t appeared in public in 14 months. He was on television for an interview a few weeks ago for the first time in months. He looked very much the same, frail, thin and aged from a life-threatening intestinal surgery he had last year. The impression is that he’s out of the picture in governing the country. His brother Raul has opened the debate about where the country should be heading, while Fidel has dedicated his time to writing, publishing papers and letters from the past. It’s like he’s setting the historical record straight, but he isn’t involved in day-to-day government anymore.

Loory: Some speculate that Raul is much more of a pragmatist than Fidel and that if he succeeds to power, relations between the U.S. and Cuba could change.

Ferré: That is the impression, but there are contradictions. Last week, for example, a group of dissidents was taken to detention centers in the province of Santa Clara. A few days later, Raul told the people to openly debate problems with the government. If one protests, he is detained and imprisoned, and then a few days later the transition government says, ‘Please speak up, we need your participation.’ The government is saying participate, but don’t go against us, because imprisonment will be the consequence.

Loory: But hasn’t Raul indicated that he would be accommodating to the U.S. in the hope of having parts of the economic embargo lifted?

Boadle: Raul has offered several times to talk with the U.S. He said he would be willing to do that with the next administration on equal footing, without the U.S. setting any conditions about political change and free elections. The Cuban government is looking beyond the 2008 elections towards a Democratic administration and an easing of certain sanctions, particularly the administrative ones that President Bush introduced.

Loory: Cuba has been improving its relations with Venezuela and Bolivia, but how is it doing in the rest of Latin America?

Beith: In the majority of Latin American governments, Cuba seems to have lost its place as the symbolic socialist head of Latin America. Hugo Chavez has taken that over with his negotiations with China. He’s helped push Cuba into a second-place position as a sort of older consultant.

Loory: From what we’ve heard today, it appears that Che’s image isn’t important to revolutionaries any longer. His doctrines for overthrowing governments in the Western Hemisphere are outdated, but the whole idea of reforming government certainly is not. Ironically, it may be the regime of the Castro brothers in Cuba that next experiences that.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Devin Benton, Yue Li, Heather Perne and Catherine Wolf.


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