MOMENTS before Che Guevara was executed by Bolivian troopers in a remote Andean village in 1967, he was asked if he was thinking about his own immortality. "No," replied Che, "I'm thinking about the immortality of the revolution." On the anniversary of his death three years ago this week, it is clear that the asthmatic. Argentine-born M.D. has become a far more vibrant memory than any of the causes he pursued.
"Che lives!" is the slogan for a generation of restless students and budding revolutionaries the world over. The Black Panthers, who occasionally style themselves "Che-type," have adopted his black beret. Arab guerrillas sometimes name combat operations in his honor. Posters of Che adorn dorm walls from Berkeley to Berlin, and his books have become basic-training manuals for the New Left. Writers from Graham Greene to Susan Sontag have extolled him. West German Playwright Peter Weiss (Marat/ Sade) has even compared him to "a Christ taken down from the Cross."
Mindless Action. Critics with less sympathy attribute much of the present wave of bombings, kidnapings and cop-killings to an obsession with Che's emphasis on immediate, almost mindless action. Others note that it is difficult to determine whether Che is actually a moving force or merely a symbol of a mood. Nobel-prizewinning Biologist George Wald, a staunch pacifist who is one of Harvard's most popular teachers, maintains that for all its magic, Che's memory "is embalmed in a wonderful matrix of ignorance." London mail-order companies report that most orders for Che posters are now coming from teen-age girls who find his unkempt good looks sexy. Asked what he knew about Che, one Arab guerrilla claimed that he was an important fedayeen who came "from Jaffa, I think."
Even so, the process of myth-building is continuing. At present, Che appears each evening in a new play. The Guerrillas, by German Playwright Rolf Hochhuth, whose earlier play, The Deputy, pilloried Pope Pius XII for his failure to denounce the Nazi extermination of Jews. In The Guerrillas, now playing in four German cities, a young New York Senator who is also leader of a Che-style U.S. underground movement pleads with Guevara to abandon his Bolivian battle. Che refuses. "My death herein a calculated senseis the only possible victory," he says. "I must leave a sign."
Bolivia was a great test for him. He personally chose to lead the expedition there, determined to prove the validity of his revolutionary theories that had worked so well ten years earlier in Cuba. "The legend of our guerrilla is spreading like seaspray in the wind," Che wrote, "but its true meaning will be lost unless history has a record of what we are attempting to do here." When he reached Bolivia in November 1966, minus his beard and bearing a Uruguayan passport, Che carried a supply of notebooks and diaries to keep such a record. During the next eleven months, Che filled them with the cramped handwriting that Castro once described as "the illegible letters of a doctor."