What has surprised me most in the tales from my friends who have ventured down to Cuba since the Obama “thaw” in relations has been their descriptions of the pictures and memorials to the late Che Guevara. The exaggerated tributes everywhere on the island are reverent – it is he, not the Castro brothers, who has become Cuba’s revolutionary saint.
Indeed, there is even an elaborate museum devoted to the figure – and, yes, the fantasy – of Che, the nickname for Argentine rebel Ernesto Guevara, who rode his motor bike up the spine of the Andes in the 1950s, accidentally met Fidel Castro in Mexico City and became second only to him in overthrowing the Cuban dictatorship.
But my confused friends also noted that the predominance of the physically attractive Che, with his ironic eyes and his rebel beret tilted at just the right anti-imperialist angle, seemed strange because there were no hagiographic photos or statues of Raul or even of Fidel.
This week brings all of this to our attention because it is a special time for Cuba. Raul will formally retire from the presidency on April 19, marking the first time in 60 years that no Castro has filled that post. A new leader, most probably the current vice president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, a typical Communist Party bore, will take the position – but not the power.
The Cuban “communist” system, set up carefully by “los hermanos Castro” in 1959 to hold power forever, first elects a National Assembly, and the assembly indirectly elects the president. But the real power remains in the control of the military and the intelligence apparatus, where Raul is still king.
So we should ask at this point: Why no portraits or statues of Big Brother Fidel or Little Brother Raul? And why all this attention to the boy from Buenos Aires – El Che?
I had the chance to know Fidel somewhat well through five interviews and various talks with him many years ago, when he was at the height of his power in the Third World. After a while, it seemed clear to me that he would not countenance either statues or likenesses of himself anywhere in Cuba.
The reason was simple: He was such a brilliant destroyer-of-dictatorships, he knew the stones and bombs he could throw against statues and posters could be thrown by others, too. (Don’t give the buggers a chance!) Fidel was a master destroyer of old images and creator of new ones.
Still, Fidel’s “New Cuba” needed palpable and indestructible reminders of The Revolution, and there was Che. He had secretly left Cuba, probably in 1966, gone to Bolivia to foment other revolutions and died there in 1967 at the hands of the Bolivian military.
Che’s group of ragtag communist kids had ended up shoeless in the high jungles of Bolivia walking in circles and starving to death. Fidel could have easily sent help, but instead, he cut off radio contact and abandoned them to their fate. A dead Che was no competition – and could even be most useful.
The fact that Fidel literally left Che there to die, as I discovered in the voluminous research I did for my biography “Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro,” plus on-the-ground research into Che’s disastrous “adventure” in Bolivia, is unknown to the Cuban people. They see only the unrelieved, and even inspiring, Che hagiography – and it serves to excuse everything gone wrong since The Revolution.