Buzzle.com / July 2, 2009
Aleida Guevara talks to Libby Brooks about having to share her ‘Papi’ with the world – and her dislike of the commercialization of his image
Aleida Guevara was four and a half when her father left Cuba. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, iconic Argentine guerrilla leader, Marxist theorist and second-in-command of the Cuban revolution, departed the island for Africa in 1965 after falling out of political favor with Fidel Castro. She saw him only once again, before his execution by the CIA-backed Bolivian government two years later.
Castro granted the visit on condition that it was clandestine. Guevara, concerned that the children’s chatter about “Papi’s” re-appearance might endanger his family, arrived back in Havana heavily disguised. He was introduced at supper as a friend of their father.
“After supper, I fell and hit my head,” Aleida recalls. “He was a doctor, of course, so he treated me, but then he picked me up and cuddled me. I remember a feeling of complete protection and tenderness. Later I said to my mother, ‘I believe that this man is in love with me.'” She laughs at her childish grandiloquence. “I was only five. But I knew that this man loved me in a very special way. I didn’t know that it was my father, though, and he couldn’t tell me.”
Aleida, now 49 and with two daughters of her own, has come to Britain as a guest of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign to promote a year-long festival of Cuban culture. A committed Marxist and medical doctor, just as her father was, the thick, bobbed hair, broad features and deep-set eyes are immediately reminiscent of the face without which no student common room is complete. “When I see [his face] commercialized, or used for advertising,” Aleida intones sharply, “I don’t like it.”
Ensconced in a functional committee room at Unison’s north London headquarters, Aleida tugs a fine red shirt across her solid shoulders. She has inherited her father’s charisma and mellifluous exposition, but exercises it more intimately. Talking about politics, she employs the language of emotion rather than that of arid ideology.
Guevara’s legacy, she tells me, is his life. “My father knew how to love, and that was the most beautiful feature of him – his capacity to love.” She touches my arm. “To be a proper revolutionary, you have to be a romantic. His capacity to give himself to the cause of others was at the centre of his beliefs – if we could only follow his example, the world would be a much more beautiful place.”
So why is it that Cuba, an island that throughout its history has been coveted, bullied and demonised by mightier nations, continues to draw worldwide fascination? Her answer may seem simplistic, but it is instant: “Because of Cuban men and women. We’re a cultured, educated people – and possibly one of the only ones in the world to say no to the United States.”
That “no”, of course – regardless of whether it was dictated by an iron regime, as some would argue, or articulated by the populace – has manifested devastating consequences. The vicious embargo imposed on Cuba by the US the year after its revolution continues to suffocate the country. And as a practising paediatrician, Aleida is all too familiar with the daily realities of the blockade.
“There was a case of a girl, six months old,” she says. “She had a condition where the digestive system would flood with blood, and the only treatment available is patented by the US. Cuba had the money to pay, but not one company in the whole global medicine market would offer it.” She presses together her thumb and forefinger in a gesture of frustration. “Any pharmacological distributor daring to deal with Cuba would be investigated by the FBI. The government can pull out investment or boycott their goods. We couldn’t get the medicine and the baby was dying. The only sin of that girl was the fact that she was born in Cuba.”
There has been much speculation about how Barack Obama intends to alter US policy towards Cuba, following his announcement of “a new beginning” to their relationship at a recent Americas summit, and his easing of travel restrictions on Cuban Americans wishing to visit their homeland. Aleida is skeptical. “What Obama has done is to return to the policy that existed under the Clinton administration. There’s nothing new here. He promised to close Guantánamo, but that hasn’t been done. There is a lack of continuity between what he says and what he does. So far we haven’t seen anything that would indicate a change of course.
“If the blockade was lifted, things would change immeasurably. The Cuban economy would flower. That’s the missing link.”
Coincidentally, in advance of Aleida’s visit, the Cuba Solidarity Campaign has unearthed what are believed to be the earliest colour photographs of her father, taken by a British international brigade volunteer who traveled to the island in 1960, the summer before Aleida was born. The elderly woman unearthed her slides in a shoebox full of mementoes, never having realised the significance of the man she snapped on her colour camera. So how did Aleida feel when she first saw the photographs? “It was beautiful,” she says. “The woman who took the photos actually worked in Cuba building a school. So even in the old days there were people giving their solidarity. That’s the value of the photos to me.”
Her father looks like he always did, she says; natural and with people surrounding him. “I’m very grateful to this woman for giving me a piece of him that I knew existed but had never seen. But what I am most grateful for is that she remains in solidarity with Cuba.”
Her mother will be pleased to see them too, she adds. Aleida March was a member of Castro’s guerrilla army when she met her future husband in the Cuban bush, and impressed him with her knowledge of the local terrain (Guevara was previously married to exiled Peruvian revolutionary Hilda Gadea). Now in her 70s, March has published a memoir about her life with Guevara, and how she raised their four children after his death. “You can buy it in any language you want except English,” her daughter teases. “Do you read Turkish?”
The ideals of both parents inevitably influenced Aleida’s own consciousness, but you can’t impose ideals on children, she cautions. “You can only show by example.”
It sounds far-fetched that a man intent on fomenting leftwing revolution in post-colonial Congo would find the time to make up animal stories for his faraway children, but Aleida says he did just that.
“My father didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy our childhoods. But when he was away, which was most of the time, he would send us stories and drawings on postcards. My brother Camilo was told off at nursery school for using swearwords, and my mother confronted Che because he had a habit of swearing – as all Argentinians do,” she notes archly. “He was in Africa and he wrote to Camilo telling him that he couldn’t swear at school, or Pépé the Caiman [a reptilian character invented by Guevara] would bite off Che’s leg.” She grabs my calf. “So he had to stop swearing to protect his father.”
Domestic as these reminiscences are, Che has, of course, never been solely Aleida’s Papi or property. Alberto Korda’s iconic portrait, taken at a funeral service in 1960 – jaw clenched, eyes to the horizon, unkempt locks under a red-star beret – has been reproduced on posters, T-shirts and advertising hoardings ever since. His image, if not his ideals, has entered the lexicons of adolescent rebellion and creative subversion. Last weekend, I spotted a teenager swinging a Che bag down Oxford Street and asked him why he’d bought it. Che was this cool guy who talked about revolution, he said. What revolution meant, he found harder to articulate.
“When you see a child carrying his image on a march and the child says to you, ‘I want to be like Che and fight until final victory’, then you feel elated,” Aleida says. “But the most surprising thing is that this event happened in Portugal, not in Cuba.”
But how does she feel about the use of his image in the El Commandante pub in Holloway, London, and the Che memorabilia crowding every proto-conscious market stall? She frowns. “I saw him used to advertise an optician’s in Berlin. A fashion designer showed his underwear designs in New York reprinting his face.” The thumb and forefinger connect once again. It all depends on the context. “But if a young person wears the T-shirt and starts to understand who this person was, then that’s fine.”
Aleida is similarly ambivalent about Hollywood’s recent obsession with her father. Walter Salles’s Motorcycle Diaries, which traced Guevara’s early, transformative travels throughout Latin America, was a magnificent film, she enthuses, that showed a young person learning about poverty and refusing to turn his back on it. The more recent two-part biopic Che, starring Benicio del Torro, was disappointing. She had expected a more complete presentation of the revolution.
The vocabulary of struggle, consciousness and sacrifice that Aleida uses may feel anachronistic to a British audience versed in the minor political narratives of personality conflict and fiddled expenses. But there is another story about Cuba, still to be told. As the west waits eagerly for further dispatches about Castro’s failing health, for Aleida, his demise can only usher in a new beginning.
“The US propaganda machine has dedicated itself to telling everybody that the revolution depends on just one person. But there is an inner conviction among the Cuban people. So, when the time comes when Fidel isn’t with us physically any more, they will find a way forward. And if they can’t do that, they will disappear. Pablo Milanés said once it is preferable to sink in the sea than to betray the glory that once lived. And for us that rings true.”
The Cuba Solidarity Campaign is an NGO that campaigns for an end to the US blockade of Cuba (cuba-solidarity.org.uk).