Che Guevara, MD

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[This posting was originally published in November of 2004]

A new invitation to appreciate Ernesto “Che” Guevara-physician, writer and revolutionary-has appeared with The Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Walter Salles. The movie adapts Che’s journal notes during his 1952 “concientización” journey as a 23 year old medical student through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela accompanied by his biochemist friend, the 29-year old Alberto Granado. In a New York Times Op-Ed piece, Che’s daughter, Aleida, herself a Cuban pediatrician, says this about her father’s diaries:

“His awareness grows that what poor people need is not so much his scientific knowledge as a doctor, but rather his strength and persistence in trying to bring about the social change that would enable them to recover the dignity that had been taken from them and trampled on for centuries. With his thirst for knowledge and his great capacity to love, he shows us how reality, if properly interpreted, can permeate a human being to the point of changing his or her way of thinking. I was only 6 when my father died, 37 years ago today, so I have few memories. I got to know my father only as I grew up. My mother, Aleida March, loved him very deeply, and shared his ideals, which she passed on to her children. What I remember most is my father’s great capacity for love.” (October 9, 2004)

If you love the people of Latin America; if the Andes, the Atacama and the Amazon inspire you; if you want to perceive a medical student who has is not afraid to speak his mind and act to healing, in a way that changes others around him (getting a whole community to accept the humanity of the lepers in their midst, literally, for instance); you will appreciate The Motorcycle Diaries. You may want to read the book for yourself-a quick and good read, in Spanish or in English translation. And, you might then want to learn more about the rest of Che Guevara’s life.

There are several large biographies. I recommend three and mention another with reservation. Both Che, Ernesto Guevara, A Legend in Our Century, by Pierre Kalfon (674 pages, translation from the French) and Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson (831 pages, in excellent English) are well-written, fair and informative. A third, Ernesto Guevara, also known as Che, by Paco Ignacio Taibo II (852 pages, translated from the Spanish), is also very good-but the unbridled admiration of the author gives a one-sided portrait of the man. Finally, La Vida en Rojo: Una Biografia del Che Guevara, published later in English with the title Compañero, by Jorge G. Casteneda (560 pages), is also well-researched. Yet it is written with obvious and bitter Che-envy and could better have the title Let’s Trash Che.

Che, the man and the life he led, are not simple. The young Che thought Gandhi’s non-violent tactics were effective, and he writes of Gandhi with admiration. Later Che came to feel active opposition, including armed struggle, as a necessary step to confront structural violence and oppression. He came to this conclusion by fire, so to speak. On another trip through the Americas, this one including Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Cuba-and onto the rest of his life-Che experienced first hand the United States Government view of what to do about a people who have a different agenda than corporate wealth and US Government control.

In 1954 President Arbenz of Guatemala, elected in free and fair elections, perceiving that the people in his country were starving, and that one landowner-US-based United Fruit Company-routinely left millions of acres fallow (about half their vast holding), put forward a very modest Agrarian Reform proposal. The United Fruit head lawyer, John Dulles, was alarmed. He discussed things with the head of the US CIA, conveniently Allen Dulles, his brother. (Flown into Dulles Airport in DC lately?) A coup was quickly arranged. Arbenz-who refused to give arms to his supporters-was easily removed, and a military dictatorship begun that would last into the 1990s and be responsible for an estimated 200,000 murders of Indigenous Guatemalans.

Che was there during the coup, and the unfortunate lesson he learned in Guatemala was alas crystal clear. The only voice the US Government would listen to when itself engaged in and supporting violent oppression is the voice of violence itself. (A partial list of dictators supported by the US Government during that and subsequent times: the Somozas in Nicaragua; Stroessner in Paraguay-who made his country welcome to Nazi war criminals; Marcos in the Philippines; various military juntas in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay; Papa Doc then Baby Doc in Haiti; Batista in Cuba; and these are just the ones practically everybody knows about. Pinochet came later, put into place by the US Government in a coup that killed public health physician and the democratically elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende, on 11 September 1973. Pinochet immediately, again with CIA assistance, rounded up ten thousand Chileans and international volunteers, putting them into the Santiago soccer stadium and killing them, see the moving movie Missing for what happened to the son of a US Congressman then.) Alas that Che had evidence then on which to base his preventive-violence perspective. What conclusion would he draw from looking at the world today?

Che led a life of actively making a difference, of exchanging a privileged potential for work with the poorest of the poor in changing their own lives toward becoming more just and human. He was among the architects of the Cuban Health System, where infant mortality and other health statistics are similar and sometimes better than those of the United States, certainly neighborhood by neighborhood, at a fraction of the expense. The sacrifice toward social justice is the main reason I personally find Che such an inspiration. Che’s leadership continues to spark the imagination and convictions of persons around the world. Some persons lament the “commercialization” of Che, whether the t-shirt worn by someone who does not know about his life, or other aspects. But I think of these things-whether a t-shirt image or a well-made movie-as being subtle introductions to the spirit of Che, to the positive, inspiring aspects of his life, which endure. As Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan, said:

“A large part Che Guevara’s strength, I think, of this mysterious energy that goes so much further than his death and his errors, comes from something very simple: he was a rare kind of person who said what he thought and did what he said.” From “Celebration of the marriage of words and action,” El Libro de los Abrazos (The Book of Hugs)

Wherever we are living today, whether in the United States or another country, if we have eyes to see we know that most people in the world do not currently have lives of human dignity and social justice. Realizing this, opening ourselves to the cognitive dissonance that living and knowing can produce, what-if anything-will we actually do?

And, so, as Che said in a letter to his children, on his departure to the Congo, I leave you with his invitation:

“Above all, try always to be able to feel deeply any injustice committed against any person in any part of the world. It is the most important quality of a revolutionary.”

Lanny Smith, MD, November 2004

There are many Che-related websites. The text of this speech “On revolutionary medicine” can be found at the Che Guevara Internet Archive. The Wikipedia entry on Che is a bit dry but has many links, including CIA documents on his death and the first chapter in Jon Anderson’s book. You might also want to visit the Biography Project. One of the largest Che sites is www.che-lives.com. For those interested in medical solidarity with Cuba we recommend visiting Infomed and MEDICC, Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba.

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