Remembering Che Guevara: Museum touts exploits of Marxist rebel

John MacCormack from Express-News visits the new Che Guevara museum near Córdoba, Argentina.

Known for its rich Jesuit heritage, art museums and majestic cathedrals, Argentina’s “second city,” was deservedly honored as the “Cultural Capital of the Americas” for the year 2006.

A 10-hour bus trip or short flight from Buenos Aires, Cordoba is a favorite of students of the country’s colonial past. For devotees of a more recent and controversial chapter of history, another short bus ride is required.

In the nearby farming town of Alta Gracia, the bearded Marxist revolutionary whose face appears on uncounted T-shirts and posters, now draws tens of thousands of often worshipful tourists annually.

“They all come to know Che. Above all, they admire him, including the Americans, as an idealistic leader. And they all want to know who he was,” said Betty Quintana, 48, who works the front desk of the Che Guevara Museum.

As much a shrine as a museum, it often prompts emotional reactions from visitors.

“Once, a group of Spa? niards stood out in front and began to cry because they believed the house had the energy of Che,” Quintana said.

With two immense pine trees out front, the spacious, thick-walled house was home to Guevara from 1932 to 1947 after he was brought here as a small child to find relief from asthma in the country air.

Since it opened as a museum in 2001, more than 600,000 people have visited, most from Argentina, Western Europe and the United States, a few others from as far away as Somalia, Moldavia, and Kzachstan.

After touring the site, some visitors stop for a strong cup of Cuban coffee at the café next door, run by a Cuban-Argentine couple, and decorated with Che memorabilia.

In 2006, when committed leftists Fidel Castro and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez made a pilgrimage here, more than 4,000 people jammed the residential streets.

An Argentine doctor who joined forces with Castro to overthrow the U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Guevara went on to attempt to foment Marxist uprisings in Africa and South America.

In 1967, he was shot to death in Bolivia after being captured there after failing to ignite a peasant uprising. In the decades since, the raffishly bearded Che wearing a red-starred black beret, has become a transcendent image worldwide.

In recent years, three movies have been made about his life, including the highly popular “The Motorcycle Diaries,” about his youthful journey of discovery among the South American poor that did much to form his political views.

The museum in Che’s old home offers a one-sided portrait of a committed Marxist who from his youth was a champion of the oppressed and downtrodden, and one whose name can still provoke strident ideological debate.

Huge black and white photos cover the walls, both of him as a child with his parents, and later with his own wife and four children. There is even a shot of the smiling infant Che being potty-trained.

Old report cards, letters, pages from his diaries, and photos of a teenaged Che playing rugby round out the well-drawn portrait of an adventurous, free-thinking youth, who later became a fierce guerilla fighter.

One photo shows him and his buddies working on the famous 1936 Norton motorcycle that he used on his consequential journey through South America. Also on display is a black Norton of the same year and model.

And, there is plenty of Che the radical, with photos showing him with Castro in prison in Mexico several years before the 1959 invasion of Cuba. Others taken years afterward, show him as Cuba’s “Ambassador of the Revolution,” posing with world leaders including Mao Tse-tung of China and Salvador Allende of Chile.

The most touching item is a letter found on the kitchen wall. It was written in 1997 by the longtime family cook, Doña Rosarita, when Guevara’s remains were finally repatriated from Bolivia to Cuba.

The letter, addressed to all who did not know Che, describes him as a highly intelligent and idealistic youth. It closes with “If your sin was to defend a cause called justice, then God will have you in his glory.”

But the museum story ends before the real story did, and the resulting portrait is unapologetically sympathetic.

There are no photos here of Guevara’s brutal end, when he was wounded, taken prisoner and then shot to death by a Bolivian soldier, allegedly on the orders of the CIA.

“We decided to keep those photos in the archive. We don’t want the public to see him like that,” said Quintana.

And there is nothing about his role in the application of “revolutionary justice,” after Batista’s overthrow, when, as a prison commander, Guevara oversaw the trial and execution of “war criminals.”

The slant is not lost on some of the visitors.

“All this portrays him in such a happy light. My friends tell me he was a very violent person. You don’t really see any violence here. You see a smiling intellectual,” said Daniel Yates, 24, a visiting Californian, was quick to acknowledge his own fragmentary knowledge of Guervara.

Other visitors who stopped by last year came looking for the real Che, lost somewhere in the abyss that has developed over the past half century between the Che of history and the Che of pop culture.

“I’ve always been impressed by a man who lived and died by his principles. What struck me is how he had such a privileged upbringing, yet he was a man of the people,” said Michelle Le Blanc, 38, of Coventry, England, who has seen three Che movies.

Another visitor, an Argentine university student from Cordoba, offered a measured personal assessment.

“He’s an idol of mine. I don’t agree with everything he did, but I’m a great admirer of his character and his perseverance. It’s an unusual sensation to be here,” said Marco DaDone, 25, an Argentine student at the National University of Cordoba.

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