Among Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s final requests before he was executed by Bolivian forces in 1967 was that a message of hope be sent back to Fidel Castro: the revolution would come to America.
Che immediately became the martyr for the radical left, with his image seized by American protestors of the 1960s. Since then another, cultural, revolution has taken place. Wikipedia catalogs references to him worldwide from restaurant names, to advertising campaigns, to music, to pop culture. His image adorned an Obama Texas campaign office in 2008. Che’s image is now displayed by average college students and even toddlers. No one blinks an eye when a student garbed in clothing bearing his iconic upward gaze takes a seat in my classroom. Students get their fashion cues from music, movie, and sports stars, and follow professors who display Che on office doors and websites, and teach courses about him. Students can find online guides to writing papers about the 2003 New York Times bestselling translation of Che’s Motorcycle Diaries, which was made into the 2004 box office hit.
Those who document the reality of the Castro regime, however, do not find themselves well received in the academy. For example, Juan J. Lopez once taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago but was denied tenure in spite of a teaching award and a well-received book published by The Johns Hopkins University Press titled Democracy Delayed: The Case of Castro’s Cuba. Lopez had escaped Cuba with his parents and moved to the United States in 1967.
Agustin Blazquez who wrote about Lopez’s predicament in 2002 also is a Cuban exile frustrated by the artistic/academic community that, while ostensibly worshiping all that is “Latino,” shuns those who expose the communist Castro regime. In Cuba, Blazquez had been apprehended twice on bogus charges, and saw the inside of El Castillo del Principe prison that he calls a “dungeon.”
In 1965, at the age of 21, he used the offer of an acting school scholarship in Canada to request an exit permit and managed with some finagling of the communist bureaucracy to leave. After living in Spain and Canada, Blazquez arrived in the U.S. in 1967. He was greeted with warmth by Americans — except those in the art world.
He learned that grants and prizes for documentaries in his series “Covering Cuba” would not be forthcoming. The latest, and seventh, titled Che: The Other Side of an Icon, was produced on a budget of $14,000. Only about $4,000 of that was from a non-profit that he had started himself. He had submitted a more typical budget of $494,000 to CPB-PBS (Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Public Broadcasting System). Blazquez had no success with the publicly supported organization, nor did he with the taxpayer-supported American Film Institute in his other projects. In fact, he could not even get an airing on POV (Point of View), the program created by PBS specifically for the purpose of airing “controversial” films.
Still, Blazquez, by changing his approach and scaling back, and doing his own editing on his own equipment, has managed to produce a compelling film that demolishes the radical heartthrob’s reputation as a brave guerrilla fighting on behalf of the oppressed.
Testimony comes from survivors, relatives of victims, and scholars. For example, Jaime Suchliki, history professor and director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, presents U.S. concerns about “many Vietnams” in the region. Antonio Jorge, chief economist of the Ministry of Treasury, from 1959 to 1960, who received Guevara’s requests for government funds in person, testifies to Che’s looting of the government as National Bank president.