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Reconsidering Che Guevara (Washington Post)

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    Che Guevara: liberator or facilitator? Life of politically progressive activist contains shades of gray By DREW HIMMELSTEIN Friday, October 29, 2004
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      Che Guevara: liberator or facilitator?
      Life of politically progressive activist contains shades of gray

      By DREW HIMMELSTEIN Friday, October 29, 2004


      ONE OF THE most blatantly abusive legacies of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 was the labor camp system, which was established in the 1960s to �rehabilitate� people who were considered counter-revolutionary, and which ended up being used to incarcerate many people who were targeted as homosexuals.

      Although there is no evidence that Ernesto �Che� Guevara had a leading role in the establishment, management, or policy of the camps, the kind of revolution he led and the regime he helped establish arguably led to the political and cultural environment that allowed such abuse.

      The imaginative idealism of the new film �The Motorcycle Diaries� in some ways clashes with what we know of the Guevara that Ernesto became. Guevara�s image might be iconicized on T-shirts and in art galleries as an idealistic freedom fighter, but historians also remember him as a guerrilla militant who valued the primacy of the revolution above all and was unforgiving to those with divergent views.

      In �The Motorcycle Diaries,� the young Guevara (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) identifies with lepers and indigenous people, society�s weak and outcast. But his regime�s treatment of some of the most vulnerable populations in society brings into question his commitment to the underdog.

      Herb Sosa, son of Cuban exiles and director of Miami�s Unity Coalition, a minority empowerment organization, says, �In theory, [Guevara�s] intentions may have been good, but the results speak for themselves.�

      Sosa cites the �hundreds of thousands� of people who died in countries throughout Latin America as a result of Guevara�s revolutionary activities. Guevara, he says, is �not an example for the Latino or the gay Latino community.�

      Teresa Gutierrez, a gay and labor activist and co-director of the International Action Center, a New York-based group that opposes U.S. militarism, war and �corporate greed,� defended Guevara.

      �Everything in Guevara�s life was an evolution,� she says. �I feel confident that if he were here today, he would be standing beside the gay, lesbian, and trans community.�

      Gutierrez has visited Cuba 15 times and spoken to many gay Cubans, and she says the progressive policies for economic parity that alleviated the oppression of the working class have helped elevate all members of Cuban society.

      ERNESTO GUEVARA WAS born in Argentina in 1928 and originally trained to become a doctor at the University of Buenos Aires. In 1952, he embarked on the trip dramatized in �The Motorcycle Diaries� across South America. The poverty and oppression he saw among working people, indigenous people, and political dissidents during that trip had a profound impact on him.

      After returning to Buenos Aires to complete his medical degree, Guevara set off again to travel through the Americas. He participated in leftist movements in Guatemala and Mexico and became acquainted with Cuban expatriates in those countries. He joined in the rebel invasion of Cuba in 1956 and worked closely with Fidel Castro in commanding the guerrilla fighting until the government was overthrown in 1959.

      Guevara worked in the new government administration until 1965, at which point he left Cuba to work with revolutionary movements in other countries, including the Congo and Bolivia. He was assassinated in 1967 in Bolivia by government troops, who were aided by the CIA.

      Ian Lumsden�s1996 book, �Machos, Maricones, and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality� offers one of the most comprehensive analyses of gay issues in Cuba, studying sexual politics from before the revolution into the 1990s.

      Lumsden, a gay Canadian who also has spent long periods in Cuba, was unavailable for comment. But in his book, he argues that the homophobia exposed in the revolution was a continuation of the well-established culture of machismo and rigid gender roles of pre-revolutionary Cuba.

      When the revolutionaries came to power in Cuba, guerrilla fighters who had come to their positions in an extremely male-dominated, macho environment became political leaders. Additionally, the regime adopted a Marxist-Leninist philosophy that sought to, in Lumsden�s words, �transform the individual as well as society itself.�

      Guevara and other guerrillas set the model of the exemplary man of the revolution, and those who did not fit it were considered suspect by the regime from the start. In 1965, a plan was officially implemented to reform those whose behavior was perceived as being out of synch with the revolutionary model. It was known as the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), and its purpose was to fill a gap in the system by creating a program for men who were deemed unfit for the army.

      According to Lumsden, although the camps ended up targeting gay people more than most, �there is no evidence that [they] were created with homosexuals exclusively in mind.�

      Indeed, the camps also confined people from minority religious groups, conscientious objectors to military service, as well as people who did not agree with the revolutionary agenda.

      The bitter pill that caused gay people to be targeted at a greater rate than other groups was the revolutionary belief, adopted from the Soviets, that homosexuality was a phenomenon of indulgent bourgeois society that would not exist in a pure communist state, the book states.

      Barbara Weinstein, professor of Latin American history at the University of Maryland and co-editor of the Hispanic American Historical Review, says, �People who were gay were not defined as weak or sick but deviant and decadent.�

      Weinstein says that the way that the revolution came to power gave it a stronger sense of masculinity than other revolutions. The guerrilla experience pervaded the political structure and the guerrilla army itself became the nucleus of a new society.

      Lumsden points out in his book that �the reinforced �masculinization� of public life was furthered by the fact that, unlike the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the vast majority of those directly involved in Cuba�s guerrilla struggle had been male.�

      The process through which the revolution took control � guerrilla fighting � had a tremendous effect, at least during the early years, on the culture of civil administration.

      THE 1970s WERE marked by forms of official discrimination against gays, especially prominent artists and intellectuals, and the 1980s saw a mandatory quarantine of people with AIDS. But the labor camps were closed in 1968, and in recent years, some observers say life for gays and lesbians in Cuba has improved.

      �Forty-five years has created a new society � they�re hungry, they�re under the gun by the U.S., but they�re evolving,� Gutierrez says.

      She also says that, unlike the United States, Cuba has a universal health care system available to treat all people with HIV/AIDS. It also has one of the lowest HIV and AIDS rates in the world, according to the BBC, which is probably due at least in part to the early quarantine, as well as HIV-prevention programs.

      Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, editors of CounterPunch, a bi-weekly �muckraking newsletter� online, note that, �There is significant research and development resources invested in state industries such as medical instruments, and developing and producing medicines for AIDS, for curing cancer, hepatitis, malaria and other diseases. This is part of what the Cubans call biotechnology.�

      Cuba�s poverty and the U.S. embargo initially prevented Cuba from obtaining the latest HIV- and AIDS-treatment drugs from abroad. But people with AIDS in Cuba can now obtain free retroviral drugs.

      Cuba now produces its own anti-viral drugs and is about to start a drug exportation program.

      In spite of the advances Cuban society has made, Sosa still called the situation for gays and lesbians in Cuba today �hypocrisy.�

      �When you strip away all the rights of all citizens and you give them back one at a time, you should not be rewarded for doing so,� he says.



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