Communists: The Cult of Che

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At his capture and summary execution last October by Bolivian soldiers, Cuban Guerrilla Ernesto (Che) Guevara became an instant martyr of the New Left. Fidel Castro's former second-in-command was the victim of his own botched insurgency, in which he failed to follow his own precepts for guerrilla warfare. Yet, in the seven months since his death, the Che legend has given rise to a cult of almost religious hero worship among radical intellectuals, workers and students across much of the Western world.

Placards proclaiming such slogans as "Che Is Alive" dot anti-Viet Nam and other student protest demonstrations, and portraits of Che have been carried in practically every student riot in Europe this spring. Guevara-style beards have become a fad around Milan, and students in Florence have adopted Che's dark blue Basque beret as a trademark. Handkerchiefs, sweatshirts and blouses decorated with his shaggy countenance are popular in half a dozen countries. French schoolgirls hang his photo in their boudoirs alongside those of movie idols, and students at the London School of Economics now greet each other with the salutation "Che." Peruvian grammar-school children hold hands, dance in a circle and chant a new nursery rhyme: "With a knife and a spoon, long live Che Guevara."

In the U.S., Che has become an idol of the New Left. Posters invoking his memory are carried by student demonstrators, and half a dozen books by or about Che have been published since his death. Among them are two editions of Guevara's recollections of the Cuban insurrection in the Sierra Maestra. Several publishers have tried to pry Che's 30,000-word Bolivian diary out of the hands of the Bolivian army, which seized it, but so far all such negotiations have bogged down.

On the Bandwagon. Che cultists reverently equate him with such other leftist heroes as Mao Tse-tung, Ho Chi Minh, and French Marxist Régis Debray, a captured member of Che's Bolivian guerrilla band now serving a 30-year prison sentence. "I can't think of a revolutionary in the last century who had his romantic appeal," says Tariq Ali, 24, Pakistani-born leader of London's anti-Viet Nam demonstrators.

Among Italy's emerging new breed of Roman Catholic militants, the Jacques Maritain Circle (named after the French philosopher) arranged a memorial mass in Che's honor last February, and Catholic services for him have been held in several other countries. In Brazil, mythmakers have circulated thousands of copies of a photograph of the dead Che captioned "A Saint of Our Time." Italian students have christened him Angela della Pace—"Angel of Peace."

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