Monday, January 19, 2009

One Hand Clapping: Che Guevera Dominates

Che gets focused

Recently, sitting in an outdoor bar in Montezuma, Costa Rica, I met a man named Ras who claimed to have known the late revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. (Ras was no more than fifty years old, said he was Cuban and was - and hopefully still is - the town drunk). Undoubtedly he was lying. He would have told me that he'd slept with Jacqueline Kennedy if it meant my forking over a few more 'colons'. His dates were all wrong.

But I didn't care. Lying is psychotic improvisation, and good liars exude a weird charisma, stimulating on-the-spot creativity. It's to be simultaneously admired and punished.

But Ras got me thinking about Che, dead for over forty years, whose popularity was subsumed and crushed - until recently - by the shake-yer-bootie disco era - which had no time for a grumpy communist.

It was about 10 o'clock in the morning. I watched skinny, browbeaten pariah dogs sniffing their way along the main avenue. A slow parade of pale, fleshy tourists loped silently toward the beach, resigned to a fate of sunburn and diarrhea.

Ras nodded off to sleep with an unlit Derby cigarette hanging from his lips

I puffed on my Cubana and began to consider Che Guevara, and for some reason, his decapitated hands. To cut hands from a corpse for the purpose of thumbprint identification seems ghoulish - but that's what happened in Bolivia. It's as if the fourteenth century momentarily collided with the twenty-first, akin to watching funeral home operators trundle a cart by your house, yelling, "Bring out your dead!"

Since arriving in Montezuma, I'd seen at lot of 'Che' T-shirts, depicting his most famous pose, where he appears to be Jesus Christ with attitude. I had also noticed the same image tattooed onto a few arms and backs.

In fact, Che is on a plethora of junk - lighters, beer, vodka, key chains, and bottle openers - maximum capitalism. Poor guy, the most committed communist of them all, flogged on trinkets for the much-cherished U.S. dollar. In fact, Cuba itself has grown a multi-million dollar Che trinket industry. The irony is indigestible.

So how did Che get marketable while other revolutionary-types have been roasted on the pyre of yesteryear?

He did the Marketing Time Warp, jumping more than a generation of obsolescence to settle as a mega star in the pantheon of 'Dead Pop Icons', along side people like Jim Morrison, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

Brainiac scientist Stephen Hawking points out that time travel is indeed possible, but only into the future, and then with terrible consequences. So it seems.

At first, Che was promoted underground. From about 1969 to 1972, two posters dominated the walls of university dormitories - those of Che Guevara and 'Easy Rider' - the one where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper are trucking down a desert road. Both posters extol the same thing - the triumph of individualism over 'the system'.

In the movie, Fonda and Hopper meet death on the wrong end of a shotgun. As for Che, in October 1967, failing to stir Bolivian peasants in a revolt, he was captured in the jungle by the arm, and after some routine humiliation received nine bullets in the gut. It later came to light that the CIA, for all intents, pulled the trigger (and just when I was getting to like those guys!).

It took 40 years for Che to become unreal enough to market. He had to be 'disengaged' from his Mao-style communism; he had to be sheltered from the executions that he conducted against his foes; he had to sanitized, neutered, and airbrushed.
Let the Marketing begin
Yup, the marketing people finally got to Che and gave it to him good. But they didn't get all of him; they never really got his hands. It's tough to get a promotional angle on decapitated body parts. The best you can do is buddy up to the Vatican and try to spin the hands as true 'relics'. But the Catholic Church is more vicious and wary than a wounded ferret, especially where communists are concerned.

So the promoters just kept to Che's face - the face that launched a billion t-shirts.

In November 1995, a retired Bolivian general revealed the exact whereabouts of Che's remains, along with other rebels of Guevara's hapless army. A group of experts disinterred the bodies, and sure enough they found Che, but they didn't find his hands.

No, Jorge Suarez, a Bolivian journalist, had kept Che's hands under the floorboards of his house.

Bolivia's minister of the interior gave Suarez the hands eight days after Che's death. The CIA had confirmed the thumbprints were Che's, and the Bolivian government wanted the hands cremated. But the minister thought differently. He told Suarez to hide the hands - and so he did for two years. The hands were finally smuggled back to Cuba in 1969.

In July 1997, Che finally came back to Cuba. His remains, together with those of his fallen pals, were shipped to Havana, held in small coffins.

As for the hands, they currently float in formaldehyde, encased in a jar, somewhere within the Palace of the Revolution. A few visiting dignitaries say they have seen the hands: permission for a viewing must come from the big brass. It likely won't be long before they determine a ticket price for public display.

What abou the film 'The Motorcycle Diaries' based on a journal that Che kept of his 1952 rumble through South American on the back of a Norton 500. The reviews are good. Dare I say two thumbs up? Yes, Che is cool again.

Still, I think about those ghostly hands, with nails still holding the jungle dirt, uncorrupted, corporeal integrity - and fancy that one day they muster the strength to smash the glass and grab the neck of some chunky dignitary, standing by the jar in his Che t-shirt, slurping a Che beer, dangling a Che key chain from his wide-bottom Dockers.

Anyway, the beauty of money is that it never discriminates and knows no irony. It equates a dead revolutionary with Donald Trump's hairspray bill. It's all dollars, it's timeless and applause is given to him with the thickest wallet. Though Che Guevara has two hands, he'll never clap again.