On our last full day in Córdoba, we woke up early and walked to the bus station. About an hour outside of the city sat the little town of Alta Gracia. While the town housed notable artists and musicians over the years, the most famous (and controversial) former inhabitant was Che Guevara.
On the bus, Jimi struck up a conversation across the aisle with Philip, a fellow traveller from Austria. When we learned that Philip had also quit his job and struck out on a South American adventure, we felt it was fate. “Viva la Revolución!” Philip and I shouted as we walked up the street towards Che’s house. Jimi rolled his eyes.
The home had been left in its original state, complete with kitchenware and beds. Additional photos and mementos had been added to form a small museum. It was wonderfully intimate and provided a comprehensive look at his life, political ideology, and influence. I knew that Che Guevara was a radical political leader, but the only other thing I knew was that his face was once plastered on Jay-Z’s t-shirt.
What I learned was both helpful and thought-provoking. Che was born in Buenos Aires, but was diagnosed with severe asthma at an early age. His doctor recommended that he get fresh air in the countryside, so his family moved to Alta Gracia. Che spent his childhood just outside Córdoba in an intellectual environment. He also was quite an avid golfer. In school, he studied medicine and as a young student he traveled through South America (the museum showcased his actual motorcycle). The poverty and suffering he witnessed during these trips galvanized him to political action. He felt that capitalists (spec. the United States) were exploiting Latin America. He got involved in social reforms in Guatemala, then in the political overthrow of Batista in Cuba. Che then tried to incite revolutionist Congo and Bolivia, before being executed by CIA-backed Bolivians.
Now there is obviously some negative sentiment towards Che from informed Americans. He was a Marxist who helped bring Soviet missiles to Cuba, for goodness sakes! In his mind, capitalists were violently (albeit, a socially accepted form of violence) exploiting Latin American populations and the only recourse was to overthrow their domination violently. His guerrilla warfare tactics were particularly vicious.
In light of this, I found the museum to be relatively unbiased. They told his life story and produced large images of him in military dress. The stories did not capture him as a hero, but they did make you realize that he was an extremely intelligent, capable individual. The museum emphasized his work as a philosopher and a writer.
Our Austrian friend, Philip, photographed everything in the museum and was completely engrossed by the stories on the walls. I asked Jimi later how Argentine’s viewed Che Guevara.
“He’s not without controversy,” he answered carefully.
“But not as much controversy as in the States, right?”
“Right. There’s a bit more of a folk hero status to him here, I guess. But not all Argentine’s feel that way.”
Argentine’s have mixed sentiments on a lot of issues, I’ve found. For instance, the current elections have created a clear division between people who wish to continue in their socialist system and those who feel that a more capitalist approach would help their country. The capitalist candidate, Macri, promises change and an end to corruption. Scioli, his opponent, told voters that “Mr. Macri would end the country’s bountiful social programs if elected.” On a recent visit to Buenos Aires, I noticed a campaign poster of Macri had the word “Yankee” spelled out across his face.
When I pointed the poster out to Jimi I asked, “Is that supposed to be an insult?”
“Apparently to whoever wrote that, yes,” he responded.
The Wall Street Journal has recently published several articles clearly in favor of Macri’s capitalist agenda. The problem is, the types of things Macri says he wants to do (like immediately take the peso off its current peg) could be absolutely disastrous for the Argentine economy. Basically, the currency has been artificially propped up by the government to keep it from collapsing. Macri wants to undo this overnight and let the world market set the exchange rate. Unfortunately, with the country’s historical default in mind, this could cause the value of the peso to drop precipitously. A week ago the Argentina central bank chief said that he would quit if Macri won. He warned that “the abrupt removal of currency controls designed to protect the central bank’s foreign reserve levels would send the peso weaker and push double-digit inflation higher still.” While this particular case is not representative of capitalism as a whole, I do feel it is a clear example of how capitalism can be instituted poorly.
While this might feel like a great big tangent from my Che Guevara story, I think it’s all connected in some way. There is constant controversy surrounding the concept of capitalism here: it plays both the hero and the villain. Some citizens see Americans as prosperous and worthy of imitation; other see the U.S. through the lens of Che. Now again, the methods of capitalism could punish citizens of Latin America instead of helping them. I feel extremely convicted in my personal political views. So often I have considered movements toward a free market as just and right simply because they are under the flag of capitalism. Instead, I realize that careful thought and analysis have to be used in each individual case to determine a right course of action (amidst acute awareness of individual bias). I am interested to witness what unfolds during the next few months and pray that whatever happens will be to the betterment of life here in Argentina.