How do Cubans perceive Che Guevara today?

BBC World Service asks what the revolutionary leader's family are up to.

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“The least I can do is love him back. There is no other way.” Che Guevara’s daughter Aleida was speaking to the BBC correspondent Will Grant during a documentary about how Cubans perceive the revolutionary leader today (BBC World Service, 3 October, 1.30pm). Grant asked, “Did you resent his dedication for taking him away?” and Aleida sounded like a woman briskly, phlegmatically used to responding to that sort of question.

Grant was sure to underline the totalitarian strength of Guevara’s commitment. Whenever he returned from business trips, Che would give back each penny of any unused travel allowance – to do otherwise would amount to theft from the people. After a working week of 16-hour days, he would then go volunteering, setting an iron example to the young.

Archive audio of Che speaking revealed a middle-class voice, precise, witheringly pronouncing the phrase “por los Yankees”, ever implying that America was a slow, dumb creature that deserved to be mocked by the lithe. A voice (one imagines) well used to taking part in recondite conversations as abstruse to the non-Marxist-Leninist as discussions on scripture must sound to the irreligious.

Grant sounded, if not disappointed exactly, then somewhat blank upon hearing that Guevara’s son now runs a motorbike tour company taking people to Che landmarks on a Harley. And that his grandson works with fashion bloggers. And that original revolutionary images were recently bathed in hot pink on fridge magnets by popular Cuban designers who “wanna chill out all that propaganda” – a phrase that sounded so breezily Californian it made me laugh, thinking of that John Updike line, “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy” (and of Che, the brutal executioner- in-chief, insisting that the conspiracy bloody well wouldn’t work on him).

There was a chasmal distinction in the programme between the old and the young, the past and the present, as though time had played some sort of trick on the listener, and 60 years had been stretched to 600. How could Che’s son and daughter possibly still be alive? And the man who killed him? The year 1959 never felt so long ago. “Che is an objective,” someone insisted. I doubt it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 05 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer