I jum into a Coco taxi, a Cuban turtle shell on fast wheels, and call to my Havana driver, “El Mural de Che, por favor.” He knows immediately what I want. After all, Che’s face is everywhere in this Caribbean country – emblazoned across billboards, silk-screened onto gazillions of T-shirts and for sale as postcards at every kiosk.
As we zoom up the Paseo towards Revolution Square, Che’s imposing silhouette looms into view. I recognize this image from Korda’s famous photograph. The heroic revolutionary gazes out from under the beret decorated with a five-point star. But here, the face is outlined in black metal and riveted onto a large building. His salutatory slogan, “To Victory Forever,” is written in Spanish below.
“Stop, aqui,” I shout and hop out with my camera. But as I train my lens on Che, three policemen appear. One blows his whistle and waves at me. Another in sunglasses tweets and motions for us to come over. Oh, no. Isn’t this the most photographed building in Havana
and isn’t Che Guevara one of the most beloved figures in Cuba?
It turns out that we have wandered into forbidden territory. The building is the Ministry of the Interior. Fidel Castro has his
office in this very edifice and might indeed be looking out a window. We were not allowed
to stop. The driver received a warning and soon, we were off again at fast speed for other Che sightings.
As a student of the 60s, I knew Che, or at least his image as it made its way across college campuses. Like the radical freethinking revolutionary, the Woodstock generation believed in Power to the People and love for humanity. Che’s philosophies
appealed to our romantic idealism. But that was over 30 years ago.
So I was intrigued to see that here in 21st- Century Cuba, Che was still alive. Ask Cubans and they will rhyme off dates as we would a
nursery rhyme. Che’s birth? June 14, 1928. The year he successfully fought off Batista’s armed soldiers and set up camp in the hills –
December, 1958. The morning he arrived triumphant in Havana to help Castro with the Cuban revolution – January 2, 1959. The dark day he was murdered in Bolivia – October 9, 1967. As one Cuban friend explains, “For us,
Che is still very much alive.”
Indeed, school kids pledge every morning to “Be like Che.” Citizens at bus stops pull out coins or stamps with his picture to tell the story of the Argentinian doctor, who came to Cuba, fought for justice and became a hero. And tourists, from all corners of the
world, make the pilgrimage to follow the trail of Che, from the south where he first landed on Cuban soil to the west where
he commanded from caves to the town
of Santa Clara, where a huge mausoleum protects his remains.
My quest begins at the Museo de la Revolución y Memorial Granma in Old Havana. Behind glass and guarded by three soldiers is Granma, the powerboat that in 1956, brought Castro and 82 comrades from
Mexico to fight the dictator atista. Most were killed. But eleven men including Guevara escaped into the nearby Sierra
Maestra hills where the fight continued.
The dated but interesting museum
displays include Che’s sandals, radio tapes and a lock of his hair. Most shocking is a photo of him in Bolivia with a face so altered by plastic surgery that even his six-year-old daughter did not recognize him. Further Havana stops along the Che Trail include the Museo del Aire exhibiting the hero’s personal
Cessna and the Fortress San Carlos de La Cabana where Che executed counter-revolutionaries. Visitors can examine the bullet-holes, his office, his weapons of choice
and Nikon camera.
Outside Havana are the Cuevas de los Portales, a series of caves on the western edge of Parque Nacional La Guira. A guide will lead you from the 30-metre-high room
where Che commanded the western army
during the 1962 Missile Crisis to the tiny niche for his narrow iron bed. Most tourists, however, head straight to Santa Clara for the Monumento Ernesto Che Guevara, the
Mausoleum containing his ashes and the huge bronze fighting soldier statue. According to one tour guide, people visiting here often dissolve into tears.
In the end, Che remains an enigma, a man who passionately fought injustice and yet meted it out with no regrets. A hero who had
his own car and plane and was President of the Bank of Cuba yet urged his family to take the bus. A medical doctor who suffered from asthma but tried to cure the sickness of the soul.
Back in Havana, near Cathedral Square, I spot an image of Che that I can capture. This time, his face is on a painting in a flea market on a can of Campbell’s Soup, ŕ la
Andy Warhol. Written alongside are the words, “Cuba’s Condensed Ideology Soup.” It’s $80, cash only, a fitting souvenir and
rather ironic. I mean, just how many 15 minutes of fame is one man entitled to?
I give up trying to count.