The iconic image of a mustachioed man wearing a beret over long, unkempt hair and staring off into the distance exists to many as representative of pop art. Hung on walls for decoration, screen-printed on T-shirts for fashion and the subject of the new film The Motorcycle Diaries is the image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a leader in the Cuban revolution.
Looking for a subject for a new book during the 1980s, USF Latin history professor Paul J. Dosal chose Guevara.
“I realized that he was a popular figure,” he said, also noticing a lack of biographical information about the man. “I had always been intrigued by him, fascinated by his controversy.”
Dosal wrote Comandante Che using Guevara’s diaries and letters as primary sources, which he says have been extensively published. Over the years, Dosal has developed into what he considers a Guevara expert. He describes Guevara as a guerrilla warfare theorist, who was “the architect of the guerrilla strategies that led Fidel Castro’s army to victory.”
Last Friday, Dosal saw the film about the man he knows so much about, The Motorcycle Diaries. Depicting Guevara’s political awakening during a road trip taken when he was in his early 20s.
“I liked it. It was largely based on Che’s own diary, so it is pretty factual. By and large I thought it was a fair representation,” Dosal said.
Born in Argentina, Guevara met Fidel Castro in Mexico on a second road trip, where he decided to join Castro’s army. Guevara led guerrilla wars and attacks during the Cuban revolution of the 1950s. His book, titled guerrilla Warfare, became popular with college students during the 60s.
“He proposed guerrilla warfare everywhere,” Dosal said.
Gaining in popularity, Guevara traveled to Bolivia in 1966, planning for war. When the United States learned of his presence there, “he became No. 1 on their hit list.” In 1967 he was captured and executed by U.S. military supervisors.
Lying on a stretcher, thin, half naked, and with a long beard, the picture of Guevara after his execution resembled that of another historical figure.
“The way he was killed and the way his body was displayed made him into a martyr. To some Bolivians he looked like Jesus,” Dosal said.
His life, opposition to the U.S. government and affinity for road trips may have been what attracted the attention of Americans.
“He just looks the part,” Dosal said.
In 1997, the 30th anniversary of Guevara’s death, four biographies were published, beginning a renewed interest in the revolutionary figure.
“He is a major figure that hasn’t gotten a good film treatment yet,” Dosal said, giving a possible reason for the new film. “Since the movie doesn’t stray from history, it has academic value,” he said. “As an educator, I can use it to teach.”
Dosal approves of the interest in Guevara, but said there is a fine line between interest and exploitation.
“Too often he is misused for advertising. Citibank used his image to sell credit cards,” he said, which is ironic because Guevara was a Communist. “He was opposed to everything the American middle class stood for; he was all about a Communist utopia. If they find out what he stood for, and still like him, then that’s fine.”
For students looking for more information about Guevara, Dosal suggests his book as well as Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, a biography by Jon Lee Anderson, also planned to become a film starring Benicio Del Toro.