Che in mind

DEC che on my mindChe on My Mind
Margaret Randall
2013, Duke University Press
148 pages, paperback

LIKE the injustice and inequality that continue to be defining features of Latin American and Caribbean society, and the unreconstructed imperialistic reflexes of its powerful northern neighbour that continue to give them succour, the debate about Che Guevara’s legacy remains a living, breathing issue.

If why that should still be 47 years after he was murdered by the CIA and their puppets in Bolivia’s then military dictatorship is a mystery to diehard conservatives – not only in the US – this merely provides further evidence of how little they have advanced their understanding of this complex region since the end of the Cold War. Latin America’s leftward turn since 2000 is a democratic response to delayed development that had been hitherto maintained through US-backed authoritarianism.

There is no excuse for ignorance, and the unreconstructed, rightwing hatred of socialism, non-revolutionary social-democratic reformism and even mild social progressivism – of which there remains abundant evidence in American political life – tells us much more about stalled social debates in the US and its declining hegemony than about Guevara’s real role in history.

Alongside their wild exaggeration of the threat to the free world that socialist Cuba and social-democratic Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay etc are said to pose, conservatives in the US tend to reserve considerable vitriol for Che personally, as if this character’s transition to the realm of myth could somehow be reversed with enough narrative and ideological firepower.

But it cannot, no more than can be the folk tales, images and poems that have been swirling around this exceptional figure since his martyrdom and that have carried him in a form of secular ascension to a different cultural realm. It is too late.

The mistake Washington made, of course, was to kill Guevara, thereby creating a titanic protagonist in the new culture wars that were unfolding as part of the global assault on capitalism gathering force in the late 1960s. His death offered generations on the left the world over an unequalled archetype of revolutionary self-sacrifice and ideological purity.

Whether the true story, and Che’s true personality, is far more nuanced than this is, frankly, beside the point: US capitalism crucified Che on its ideological calvary and, like Pontius Pilate, its consuls in the Capitol tried to wash their hands of the consequences. In the process, a new prophet was created: Che in death has done incalculably more to further the left’s cause than Che in life, and his personal odyssey continues to inspire today.

Indeed, this character’s universal appeal is so potent that he is now routinely recruited by capitalism itself, through advertising and branding, to signal a rebellious determination, a desire to subvert seemingly impregnable norms.

There are few people better qualified to assess both aspects of Guevara’s role – as a revolutionary leader in the real world, and as a cultural icon since – than the remarkable feminist, radical, poet and activist Margaret Randall, whose Che on My Mind offers a very personal and accessible series of reflections on the life and lore of this individual. Although she did not meet him, she was a friend and acquaintance of a number of members of his family in Cuba and mixed with the poets and intellectuals of the island who knew him well.

Randall, the author of numerous books and now 77, is notable for having lived what she believed – for many years in Mexico, Cuba and revolutionary Nicaragua as well as a spell in North Vietnam towards the end of the US war against that remarkable country. She also has the unusual distinction of having been ordered deported from her own country under rightwing legislation dating from the period of the McCarthy purges against US citizens for opinions she expressed in some of her books.

Che on My Mind provides a candid assessment of Guevara’s successes and failures as well as Randall’s own views on his legacy. The author argues convincingly why his male-centred and often unilateral leadership style is no longer appropriate in a world in which radical activism has moved away from the vanguardist approach based on orthodox Marxism to a more decentred strategy that takes in the complex social contradictions of our epoch.

She suggests that the man’s concrete legacy is, instead, far more ethical in a world without a moral and ideological compass. She writes:

“I believe Che’s greatest legacy is his unerring capacity to unify words and action, to be who he said he was. His lack of hypocrisy and principles stand in every one of life’s arenas are still uniquely worthy models. And in a world increasingly ruled by official deceit, they become ever more precious.” [p130]

And alongside the empirical record, she also interprets the cultural evolution of the character of Che and especially his role in poetry, her first love, exploring why more verse has been written about this individual than perhaps any other non-religious character in history. Randall excels in drawing attention to the personal hold the figure Guevara exerts, writing:

“But there are myths and myths, and not all of them draw me. The one that does is the one that we, who want what he wanted, have woven to perpetuate his message: a red-hot flare of fire, the belief that a world of justice is possible.” [p138]

Randall, like Che himself, makes no apologies for her steadfast commitment to the ideals that generations on the left since the 1960s have fought and so often died for, and indeed this was the theme of a documentary about her in 2001, The Unapologetic Life of Margaret Randall.

In her own way she is, indeed, living proof of Che’s enduring legacy. She has unified words and action, and been who she said she was. We should also celebrate her. Venceremos.