Monday, October 22, 2007

El Che is Dead. Long Live El Che

Everybody wanted to get to Valle Grande, Bolivia on the weekend of the seventh of October, to celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the death of Che Guevara. Hippies from around South America (often referred to as “artisans”) showed up in droves, the Venezuelan embassy sent its staff in a chartered jet, several ex-guerillas with expanding waistlines returned to the fields of their glory days and the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, took the opportunity to make a speech. It’s what presidents do.

It is the first time a Bolivian president has attended the anniversary and the first time the event has been supported and promoted by the national government. The negative reaction to Che in Bolivia is often more pronounced than it is in the Untied States because, well while we may get sick of distant gazes and star-spangled berets, Che is an Argentine guy who came to Bolivia to kill Bolivians.

But even as the revolutionary hero has finally achieved a degree of institutional support from the Government of Bolivia, and in spite of mythic – and even holy – status he has achieved in the world, the event proved just how thorough has been his ultimate downfall. The communist ideals and armed struggle he advocated were nowhere to be seen in Valle Grande. The official discourse and the chatter on the street lauded Che for his "human qualities" and his sense of justice, largely without reference to armed struggle against capitalist imperialism.

In fact, a host of people viewed the event, as well as Che, as a marketing opportunity. An army of vendors hawking Che-related knick-knacks and handicrafts invaded the plaza. A more complete appropriation of Che's image by modern capitalism could be found on a truck painted with a scantily clad beauty, posing on a beach clasping a two liter bottle painted with Che's photo. "Cuba El Che," a prepackaged rum with cola, is targeted at the rebellious age group of 15 to 20 year olds. This mating of an icon of rebellion and an entirely unoriginal sex symbol got good reviews in marketing studies.

The owner of Cuba El Che is Fernando Porras, who has worked for five years to open his company, and, though he describes himself as a leftist and admires Che's humanism, his goal is clearly to make money. "A company that is formed to make money doesn't have anything to do with socialism. And this is a company that is here to make money. I'm not an NGO for handing out gifts."

He has big plans for the company. If Cuba El Che goes well, he will move on to soft drinks: Che Cola, Che PiƱa, Che Papaya.

Not to be left out, the vice-ministry of tourism has also developed a tourist circuit called the "Ruta del Che," which includes several of the sites related to Che's ill-fated guerilla war in Bolivia. The vice-ministry hopes that this route will help foreign tourists spread their dollars a little wider within Bolivia so that the economic benefits of tourism reach poor people in remote areas.

President Evo Morales used the occasion of the anniversary to condemn "savage and inhuman capitalism," imperialism and neoliberalism, but he quickly moved on to tout his successes in gaining national control of natural resources. Rather than reminisce about the glory days of armed revolution, Morales looked forward to the more complicated struggle to control global warming. He warned that even the capitalists who benefit from the "sacking of Latin America's natural resources" won't escape the natural disasters that global climate change may be bringing.

It seems that since his visit to the UN General Assembly, the President has found an international cause to support. This is surprise in a country that regularly suffers a range of natural disasters, including floods, droughts, landslides and forest fires.

As for why the glory days of armed revolution – if not their principal icon – have gone out of style, a traveling artisan who left her home in Colombia seven years ago and goes by the name Pili offered the closest thing to an answer that the author has heard. She lamented the slow sales of handicrafts, saying simply "Communists don’t have much money."

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