“Che was the most complete human being of our age.”
— Jean Paul Sartre
A peasant woman lights a candle to the saint and prays that her young son will get well and the potato crop will be a big one this year. Her prayers, and the prayers of other peasants, have been answered before, claim the villagers. “He looked just like Our Lord lying there dead in the schoolhouse,” she tells the television interviewer. The name of this miracle-working saint? Ernesto Che Guevara!
Let’s not laugh at these peasants. Don’t look down upon them with “developed world” arrogance. No doubt Che “does” intervene in their poverty-stricken lives — as do all the other saints. And who are we to claim absolute knowledge of the world and human mind and all its workings?
How would Che feel about the incense and candles burnt in his name? As a militant Communist and atheist he would have dismissed it all as crude superstition from a reactionary past. How ironic for such a person to become a saint. But not only Bolivian peasants have reverence for the dead guerrilla. Thirty years after his murder, his picture is plastered on the walls of half the student residences of the world. His stern, ascetic gaze stares out at you from innumerable Tee shirts and badges. The Che Guevara mystique is all-pervasive.
One can’t help asking whether he deserves this idolatry. At first glance one could easily give an unqualified affirmative answer. Here was someone given the Number Two position in Cuba, who stepped down to fight in the jungle for what he believed was liberation. Sick with asthma and with a tiny band of followers he was hunted down and murdered by the Bolivian army. Guevara was also the perfect romantic figure — handsome, charismatic, and genuinely loved by women. No lifeless intellectual Stalin-clone he, nor a secret pervert like Mao, or a megalomaniac like his old friend Fidel, but a real man. He could have stepped out of any romantic novel.
And he does look Christ-like lying dead in that famous photograph.
Yes, it is possible to understand the fascination that many people, particularly the young, have with the man. But understanding a phenomenon is one thing, whether it presents a true picture of reality is another. For this, we must look behind the mystique.