- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2004

Among American undergraduates, the rebel mystique of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine-born communist revolutionary, endures. His smoldering visage turns up on overpriced T-shirts, on Madonna album covers and in vodka ads.

Imagine what it’s like for someone growing up in Latin America.

Here, Che is an ill-defined, paper superhero — a well-intentioned Robin Hood spiced with Latin American sex appeal.

In Latin America, he’s like a founding father.

“He belongs to all Latin Americans,” proclaims Gael Garcia Bernal, the Mexican actor who has now played Che twice, in a little-watched cable miniseries (2002’s “Fidel”) and in Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which opens today in area theaters.

Mr. Bernal, who turns 26 this month, is one of the heartthrobs of the new wave of Mexican film, starring in successful imports such as “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “El Crimen del Padre Amaro” and “Amores Perros.”

If anyone can humanize Che, it’s Mr. Bernal. (There’s talk of a Steven Soderbergh movie about Che starring Benecio Del Toro, whose darkly brooding persona seems more in line with the Marxist hero’s iconic image.)

Mr. Bernal is handsome, soft-spoken and serious. However, in a recent interview at a Foggy Bottom hotel, he speaks little of Che himself. Leaning on jargon like “economic structures of development,” he uses the movie as a springboard to opine on globalization and imperialism.

Ted Turner is running rampant in Patagonia, he gripes, vacuuming up indigenous Indians’ property. And the Benetton clothing company owns chunks of Argentina. The effect of all this foreign investment and movement of capital, he says, is the displacement of such indigenous Latin American peoples as the Mapuche of Chile and Argentina.

Now, just as before, he says, Latin America is a resource colony for its hemispheric neighbors to the north. Neoclassical economics “doesn’t obey language, culture, tradition, nothing. It really, really hits you. It’s like murder on five different levels.”

In the interpretation of Mr. Salles, who produced last year’s Oscar-nominated Brazilian slum drama “City of God,” that dynamic was probably the first thing that ripened the young Ernesto Guevara de la Serna’s political consciousness, sending him to the library shelves for Marxist-Leninist literature.

“The Motorcycle Diaries,” drawn from Mr. Guevara’s own writings, is a prelude to the political Che, chronicling him as a 23-year-old medical student on a road trip across the South American continent with friend Alberto Granado. He’s portrayed as a compassionate, Doctors Without Borders kind of guy, a sickly asthmatic who’s shy around girls.

The movie is “an extraordinary coming-of-age story about two young men finding their own place in the world,” gushes Mr. Salles himself in production notes.

This Kerouacian romanticization of Che Guevara has even liberals like Paul Berman and apolitical travel writers like Lawrence Osborne crying foul. Much as Leon Trotsky’s murderous role in the Bolshevik revolution is papered over, Mr. Guevara’s role in the Cuban revolution is often whitewashed by admirers.

“Che was a totalitarian,” Mr. Berman thundered recently in the online magazine Slate. “He presided over the Cuban revolution’s first firing squads. He founded Cuba’s ‘labor camp’ system — the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims.”

“The refusal to see Che for what he really was is proving to be a strangely obstinate phenomenon,” Mr. Osborne wrote in the New York Observer, trying to peel back the layers of the “Che mystique.”

Mr. Bernal contends that “Diaries” is honest in its foreshadowing of this period of Mr. Guevara’s life: “I think that’s in the movie. He comprehends that the only way out of this is an armed insurgency, which he would defend with very interesting arguments.

“The Cuban revolution was the only thing that was going to overthrow the [Cuban dictator Fulgencio] Batista regime,” he says.

Those “very interesting arguments” basically boil down to Lenin’s formulation that you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, and Mr. Bernal says he himself doesn’t subscribe to them.

“My generation said, ‘Enough of these insurgencies,’” he says. “In the end, it’s a vicious circle. That was the stigma that Latin America had for a few years. It was expected that change would only come with violence.”

Now try telling that to those suburban collegians with their Che T-shirts. And while you’re at it, ask them if they can find Argentina on a map.

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