Friday September 08, 2017

After 50 years of silence, Che Guevara's brother reveals the man behind the myth

(Charles Platiau/Reuters, Keystone/Getty Images )

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by Brent Bambury

The image doesn't need to be described because it's ubiquitous.

It's a 1960 photo of Che Guevara by Castro's official photographer, Alberto Korda, and it's one of the most copied and recognizable images of the past century. It even has a name, "Guerrillero Heroico," and since Guevara's execution 50 years ago, the image has become an avatar for vast and contradictory ideas.

But Che Guevara's brother says it's an inaccurate illustration of the man himself.

"It's not really representative of the person that I know. Neither Ernesto, my brother, nor Che Guevara. In all the photos that our family has of him, he's either smiling or he's looking ironic or he's looking comical."

Juan Martin Guevara, 72, is speaking to me from Buenos Aires. His eldest sibling, Ernesto Guevara was 15 when he was born. In his memoir, Che, My Brother, Juan Martin remembers Ernesto as a mercurial and prodigious figure. He was just five years old when Ernesto set out on the first of his formative motorcycle expeditions exploring South America.

    

Che Guevara's early years, in photos

     

"He was forever coming and going," Juan Martin writes.

By the time Juan Martin was 12, his brother was fighting a guerilla war alongside Fidel Castro against the Batista regime and then suddenly he was famous. He was Che.

"From 1957 onwards, I was the brother of the legendary Ernesto Guevara, Fidel Castro's companion and a fearless warrior. And then a legend. I learned to live with this."

           

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Ernesto and Juan Martin and their father Ernesto in 1943 or '44. (Courtesy Juan Martin Guevara)

The pre-Che years

Juan Martin says his family's story can be divided into the pre- and post-Che years, a line drawn by history and the fame or infamy of his brother the revolutionary. In the pre-Che years, his memoir places Ernesto at the centre of a chaotic and eccentric household.

"He was not your traditional big brother, the one that would step in as an authority figure when Dad wasn't around. He was more of a comrade, or a friend, somebody that I would play with. We would go to the soccer game together. In Spanish, there's a word compinche — you know, a buddy; a pal — somebody that's with you at all times, your sidekick."

"Some have suggested that I lived in the shadow of Che Guevara. I always say, 'No, I live in the light of what it is.'" - Juan Martin Guevara

Even before Ernesto left Argentina for good, he was frequently not at home, sleeping elsewhere as he completed his medical studies. Juan Martin admits in his memoir that Che could be distant with people he loved, but remembers an older brother who was warm to his much younger sibling.

"Irony and wordplay was our bread and butter in our family. And that is something that he kept with him throughout his life."

I ask if it was difficult to share the name Guevara with such a polarizing, powerful figure.

"I mean, some people have suggested that I lived in the shadow of what Che Guevara had been," he says. "I always say, 'No, I live in the light of what it is.'"

     

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Juan Martin, Ernesto, and their mother in 1959. (Courtesy Juan Martin Guevara)

Humanizing an icon

There's an ambivalence that runs through Juan Martin's memoir, a desire to keep distance from the mythic image of Che Guevara while still deeply admiring his brother. For years, he and other members of his family were determined not to talk about Che.

There were practical reasons to be discrete. Juan Martin was imprisoned by the Argentinian junta for eight years. During that time, thousands of political prisoners like him were "disappeared," thrown from airplanes into the ocean, or gunned down in summary executions.

He was freed in 1983.

"You have to understand, I was in prison," he tells me this week on Day 6. "So for me to go announcing that I was Che Guevara's brother was not such a good idea, being in prison under military junta. Others of my siblings fled the country in fear. There were bombings, shooting at my home because of this being Che Guevara's family.

"I decided much later in 2009, I understood that it's good to talk and that I needed to talk."

Juan Martin believes Che is relevant to the tumultuous contemporary world, that he can motivate young people and inspire change. He's not static and distant. His memoir takes on the myth of Che.

"Che will be part of the history of humanity. I think Che's ideas will continue to influence across the globe." - Juan Martin Guevara

"Myths are terribly tough to fight against. The way I approach it is try to humanize the man and you do that by providing content by giving substance and content to the man. That way you bring his feet hopefully closer to Earth; you have more understanding of who he really was and then perhaps an opportunity that you might want to follow."

Juan Martin believes contemporary idealists will find in Che a model for action if they can see beyond the totemic imagery. He complains Che's 3,000 pages of writings have been reduced by popular culture to his motorcycle diaries. He sees a dynamism and flexibility in Che and says his "thinking was changing constantly.

"Che's gift is that he can motivate people. So we must allow his influence to reach far and wide."

      

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Argentine Communist revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara in 1964 speaking at the World Commerce and Development Conference at the Palace des Nations at Geneva. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Che the executioner

The romantic image of Che as Marxist idealist is far from universal.

After the revolution, Che oversaw trials and executions at Havana's fortress-like prison La Cabaña. Opponents of Castro and fighters supporting Batista were eliminated. American writer and journalist George Plimpton witnessed executions that appeared to be extrajudicial. It was a bloody time.

Juan Martin, in his mid-teens, was in Havana in 1959. He attended a trial and admits he found it disturbing.

"That trial was the only trial of many trials that was actually made public and that was the atmosphere that bothered me very much. This was done in a stadium. There were more than 5,000 members of the general public present and to see that person who was being judged who is clearly an assassin and a murderer. But to see that person surrounded by the mob — it was disturbing and I was not the only one that was disturbed by it.

"It's important for me to say [Che] was not in charge of those trials and executions. There were lawyers on both sides. There was a jury. Che was neither one of those."

Understandably, Juan Martin's memoir will not be well received by critics of Castro or his revolution.

"My support for the Cuban revolutionary process is unwavering," he writes.

I wondered how he reconciles political repression in Cuba with his eight years as a political prisoner in Argentina. He says that experience deepened his connection to Che's philosophy.

But what about Cuba's political prisoners? I asked Juan Martin how he thinks they feel about Che.

"Well, I understand what you're saying, I hear it clearly, I've heard it from others but I wanted to say, clearly, there are no political prisoners in Cuba," he replies.

In fact, Human Rights Watch identifies dozens of political prisoners in Cuba's jails.

    

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Juan Martin Guevara, 73, poses with the book he wrote with journalist Armelle Vincent on his brother, late Cuban revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Cuba after Castro

Cuba will change as Castro's revolution recedes in time. Che is still revered on the island, though perhaps more as an icon than a thinker or writer. For now, Korda's image of Che still towers over the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana.

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of Che's death, but Juan Martin is convinced his brother's ideas will be part of the future of Cuba and beyond.

"Cuba's history is part of humanity, like the history of the USA, which I know is going through a lot of problems right now. You know, these are all parts of history, [and] you can't parcel off history.

"Che will be part of the history of humanity. I think Che's ideas will continue to influence across the globe."

     

    


To hear the full interview with Juan Martin Guevara, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.