Agustin Blazquez has produced a compelling film that demolishes the radical heartthrob’s reputation as a brave guerrilla fighting on behalf of the oppressed.
February 17, 2011 - by Mary Grabar
Ministry of Interior building, adorned with a steel sculpture of Che Guevara, a replica of the iconic image, originally shot in 1960, by the celebrated photographer Alberto Korda. Wearing his famous black beret, wild flowing hair and messianic stare, this potent image of Che came to represent the physical embodiment of the Cuban Revolution. The 30-metre tall steel effigy hangs from the building where Che served as minister, underneath, the motto “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (Always, every day revolution).
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.
The Argentinean-born Che’s contemptuous attitudes towards Cubans, blacks, and peasants are revealed by those who knew him and are backed up in his own writings. Wheelchair-bound Margot Menendez, whose brother was executed, describes the treatment she and other women received as they waited futilely to visit relatives in prison. Strip searches and arbitrary cancellations are recalled. So are the beatings by guards when the women rushed “Che’s” car as it entered the prison yard. Blanca Rojas recalls learning of her father’s execution by seeing it on television the same night she gave birth to her son. The dramatic footage is shown of Col. Cornelio Rojas — made an “example” — who stands tall and defiant up to the point when the gun shots in the head bring him down.
Journalist Humberto Fontova recounts Che’s 1962 terrorist bomb plot that would have likely exceeded the devastation of 9/11. It was planned to explode in New York City’s shopping district on the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year. The plan was foiled by the FBI.
Fontova exposes “Che” not only as a sadistic killer but as an incompetent revolutionary. Che, who had inherited his father’s social and ethnic pretensions as an Argentinean of mixed European heritage, as well as his mentally unstable mother’s radical tendencies, had severely bungled his work as the head of banking and as minister of industries in collectivizing farms. It was then that Castro sent him to what he knew would be his death in Bolivia, for Che could not even “put compass to map.”
Nevertheless, the narrative put out in a press release by the AFI for the 2008 film by Steven Soderbergh simply titled Che, describes Che “galvanizing poor peasants into a military force that can take on trained professionals.” The same AFI turned down Blazquez’s third film on Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban refugee who was forcibly sent back to Cuba under President Clinton after his mother had drowned during their escape.
Contrary to AFI’s depiction, Che’s delight was in shooting 240 defenseless victims, some as young as 15. Political prisoners say the real number is much higher. Che also delighted in having people and their children rounded up off the street and forced to watch executions.
Such facts and testimonies presented in a straightforward manner show the real “Che.” One sees the horror melded over the decades into a resigned sadness in the faces of family members of his victims. Such understated testimony should make any Che-t-shirt-clad student pause.
But to get an airing on a college campus is no easy task. The dissenting intellectual on today’s campus, if he gets past the gatekeepers, is met with stonewalling. Dead silence is what mostly greeted Blazquez when he contacted over 100 campuses for the screening of his first film. Subtle impediments in the form of last-minute room changes and announcements torn off walls were placed in his path at the two campuses where he did manage to get permission to air his documentary.
Nor could he make headway with PBS that has a division for “educational media.” The late Reed Irvine in 1996 recounted Blazquez writing directly to 65 public television stations after getting nowhere with PBS, but getting only four responses — all rejections.
Blazquez then testified at a hearing before a House of Representatives appropriations committee about PBS. Still, the censorship and bias continue. In 2007, Blazquez charged PBS with airing the documentaries of Castro-collaborator Estela Bravo, a native New Yorker, who has lived in Cuba since 1983 as a member of the pro-Castro privileged elite. He documented instances of PBS airing other documentaries that showed individuals maligning the Cuban exile community as “the right-wing fringe” and the “Miami mafia.”
Despite the hostility, Blazquez is working on his eighth documentary. It’s about an exiled Cuban-American ballad singer who has similarly found American TV and show business doors closed to her.
The DVDs in his “Covering Cuba” series are sold at http://www.cubacollectibles.com/.
Mary Grabar earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia and teaches in the Atlanta area. She is a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and published fiction writer. Visit her website and get on her mailing list at http://www.marygrabar.com/. Mary blogs at the http://www.theliteratecitizen.com/.