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Last Updated: Monday, 8 October 2007, 13:55 GMT 14:55 UK
Cubans honour Che as a hero
By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

An image of Che Guevara in Revolution Square, Havana
Che served as a top official in Fidel Castro's government

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine-born doctor who fought alongside Fidel Castro during the Cuban revolution.

He died in Bolivia trying to foment a similar revolution there.

To this day he remains one of Cuba's leading "heroes of the revolution" whose image can be seen on posters and walls across this communist island in the Caribbean.

Every Friday morning at primary schools across Cuba, the children line up at assembly dressed in their red and white uniforms with red neck scarves.

After standing to attention, singing the national anthem and saluting the flag, they recite together.

"Pioneers for communism," they chant in unison. "We will be like Che."

Values

In one Havana school, head teacher Lauris Perez asks the children what Che stands for. Up goes a hand.

"Honesty" is the first reply. Another child says "courage". A third hesitates, searching for the word. "Internationalism," says the 10-year-old from memory.

Primary school children in Cuba
Every Friday, children across Cuba pledge to follow Che's example

"We teach the children Che's values," Ms Perez explains.

"Most important of all is his humanity. Che came from another country to fight for our independence. We love him a lot."

After the overthrow of Cuba's US-backed military dictator Fulgencio Batista, Che went on to become Mr Castro's right-hand man in government. He was given honorary Cuban citizenship and became head of the Central Bank and then Industry Minister.

But then he vanished, giving it all up to spread the revolution to Africa and Latin America.

Retired General Harry Villegas knew Che from the earliest days in Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountains.

For Che it was about social change and justice
Gen Harry Villegas, former companion of Che

He went on to become his head of security, fighting alongside him in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as in the ill-fated campaign in Bolivia.

Today Gen Villegas is vice president of the Cuban Veteran's Association.

We met at his office in the association's headquarters in Havana. On one wall there was a large oil painting to Che, while his bookcase was full of literature, in both Spanish and English, about his former boss.

'Formidable fighter'

Gen Villegas told me of his first encounter with Che Guevara. At the time he was a young peasant farmer living close to the Sierra Maestra mountains and had decided to join Mr Castro's guerrilla fighters who were hiding from government forces.

"Che was already a legend in the villages here. He was known as a formidable fighter, who took the art of guerrilla warfare to new levels."

Gen Harry Villegas in his office in Havana, 25 September, 2007
Gen Villegas fought alongside Che Guevara in Cuba, Congo and Bolivia
"My first impressions were of admiration and respect for a man who was capable of giving his life for a people he didn't know, us Cubans."

But once Che had got to power why did he give it up? Had he become hooked on guerrilla fighting?

"I think Che was a revolutionary at heart much more than a guerrilla fighter," Gen Villegas said.

"For Che it was about social change and justice. A revolutionary fights to change the whole structure of society at once, not some gradual change. Given the conditions in Latin America at the time, Che considered the only way to achieve this was by the armed struggle.

"It was imperialism which defined Che. He wasn't a violent man, or one who liked to assassinate or kill. On the contrary, he was a loving man who wanted build socialism. That's something very difficult for capitalists to understand"

Icon

In the west Che image has become largely depoliticised. For many he has turned into an almost rock star like figure, a romantic rebel icon, far removed from a committed Marxist revolutionary fighter.

The famous photo of Che with his beard and beret is said to be one of the most reproduced pictures in the history of photography. I recently saw a doctor in Britain wearing a Che badge, on it the words "Join the stop smoking revolution".

For cash strapped Cuba, Che's image has become a much needed hard currency earner. Havana is full of tourist shops and markets selling everything from T-shirts to posters, calendar key rings and fridge magnets.

"I don't think its right to commercialise his image but we shouldn't criticise it," said Gen Villegas.

"I think the really important thing is that tourists want to use Che's image, whether they know much about him or not. If young people look up to him, there's more chance they will go on to learn about who he was and what he fought for, a more just society."

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Che remembered by those who fought alongside him



SEE ALSO
Che: The icon and the ad
05 Oct 07 |  Americas
In pictures: Che's snapshots
24 Feb 03 |  Photo Gallery
Country profile: Cuba
28 Apr 05 |  Country profiles

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