From Latin America

Che Guevara; How Much do You Really Know?

Posted in Latin American History by escapedtoperu on April 23, 2010

A good friend of mine from Argentina has a great Che Guevara t-shirt. Beneath the iconic image of the revolutionary in bold letters are the words “No se quien era, pero es la moda”; I don’t know who he was, but it’s fashionable.

El Che has become the personification of rebellion and counter-culture, and you can find the world-famous photograph “Guerriero Heroico” printed on everything from posters to bikinis. Guevara no doubt would have despised the rampant consumerism built around his image having passionately pursued communist principles for most of his adult life.

We’ve all seen the photo, some have watched the movie and a few have even got the t-shirt, but how many of the following facts did you know about Ernesto Guevara?

1)Foreign Che
Despite being instrumental in the Cuban revolution and possessing saint-like status amongst the Cuban population, Mr. Guevara was actually born in Rosario, Argentina. In reference to Che’s “restless” nature, his father declared “the first thing to note is that in my son’s veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels”, putting him about as far away from Cuban roots as a cup of Starbucks coffee. When you add to the mix that the word Che comes from Argentinian slang meaning ‘pal’ or ‘dude’, you’ll wonder why you ever thought our man was ever Cuban.

2) Wheezy Che
Far from superhuman status, Guevara suffered from acute episodes of crippling asthma. In childhood, his fits were so frequent and violent that his family were forced to move from the damp coastal climate of San Isidro to the dry mountain region near Cordoba. His problems didn’t stop him from being an athlete, enjoying swimming, soccer, golf and rugby. His asthma frequently incapacitated him on famous travels, documented in the 2004 film “The Motorcycle Diaries”, and involvement in active conflict in Latin America and Africa.

3) Freebie Che
Upon capture in Bolivia, Che was reputed to have shouted, “I am Che Guevara, and I am worth more alive than dead!”

He probably knew something we didn’t, because Albert Korda, the photographer of the classic “Guerrillero Heroico” shot, never made a cent in royalties from his picture. Snapped at a memorial service, Albert was proud of the picture and hung it on his wall where it stayed until an Italian journalist asked if he could have it. Korda obliged, and the journalist dutifully used the image on a poster after Guevara’s death, setting in motion the phenomenal popularity that the photograph would eventually achieve.

4) Sober Che
Alert Korda actually received $50,000 (which he donated to charity) as a result of a successful lawsuit with a British advertising agency who used Guevara’s image to sell their vodka. He presumably saw this as the last straw following 40 years of happy-go-lucky abuse of his image because El Che was a teetotaler; despite famously chugging on cigars for most of his life, he never touched a drink.

5) No-votes Che
Before we get all frothy about revolutionary spirit and the romance of rebellion, lets not forget that if we knew the full story about life under Guevara’s administration, we probably wouldn’t be voting him into a following term in office; during his tenure as Minister of Industry Cuba was forced to begin food rationing.

Don’t expect much in the way of kissing babies and soft policies from Candidate Che either; he stood out from his peers fighting Castro’s cause in Cuba and was quickly promoted to comandante, where he enforced a zero tolerance policy toward deserters by sending execution squads to hunt them down. This was just a warm up for Guevara, and when he got into power he was appointed head of La Cabana, a court in which he played judge, jury and executioner to purge Cuba of loyalists of the previous administration. Historians estimate that he did away with as many as 2000 people, and his activities earned him the cheery name of The Butcher of La Cabana.

Love him or hate him, Ernesto Guevara’s face isn’t going anywhere; he’ll be around on merchandise for a few years yet. It’s always difficult to form opinions about a man how became famous as an image, a ghost associated with whatever people wanted to use him for, but hopefully these facts will have blown away a bit of the Cuban cigar smoke.


Coca – Root of Cocaine Evil or Lifeblood of The Andes?

Posted in Traditions and Culture by escapedtoperu on April 7, 2010

For most of us the coca leaf has negative connotations.  We imagine sunglasses wearing drug barons mowing down police officers with gigantic machine guns in order to maintain their vice-like grip on the international cocaine market.  However, aside from the most commonly known application of the leaf for the preparation of cocaine, coca has a rich and treasured history in the Latin American countries from which it originates dating back 4500 years.

The most widely used type of coca (or Erythroxylum Coca) grows mostly in the mountainous regions of Peru and Bolivia at altitude.  Anthropologists have speculated that the word coca derives from the pre-Incan Tiwanaku word khoka – meaning “the plant”. The Aymara word q’oka means “food for travellers and workers”.  For all you chemical-heads out there, you’ll be disappointed to know that only about 0.5% of the leaf actually contains the stimulant cocaine.  This is normally activated by adding an alkaline agent, like burnt plants.  This reacts to saliva in the chewing process and releases the cocaine.  Putting the nutritionist hat on, research has shown that 100 gm of Bolivian coca leaves satisfied the dietary allowance for calcium, iron, phosphorous, vitamin A, vitamin B and vitamin E.

When the Spanish conquistadors discovered the Incan Empire in the 16th century, they found even the Emperor Atahualpa chewed the leaves. The Incan nobility had monopolized the supply and usage and as a result the Inca considered the right to chew leaves the highest prize of all, greater than material riches of silver or gold.  Aside from the spiritual significance, the practise of chewing coca brought practical benefits, including the ability to withstand the effects of altitude, suppression of hunger and the brutal hardships of a working agricultural life outdoors in all weathers the Andes.  It’s also a commonly known fact that coca leaves were used as an anaesthetic for operations such as trepanning, where big chunks of the patient’s skull were chiseled off for various reasons.

The Spanish conquistadors in fairly typical steamrollering fashion initially outlawed coca leaves, but this position was eventually reversed.  Many believe that this was done to allow the Spanish to work the natives harder, longer, and with less food in national silver mines.  The Empire also taxed the indigenous population frequently in coca leaves as this was a commodity with a very profitable turnover.

Coca made it over to Europe by the 16th Century, but things didn’t start getting interesting until 1859.  Albert Niemann, a German chemist, discovered how to process coca leaf into the alkaloid cocaine hydrochloride, a mind blowing 99% pure product.  Cocaine usage for medicinal purposes exploded in Europe and North America.  Sigmund Freud, one of the most famous figureheads of modern psychiatry, wrote about his personal experiences of use and the product’s virtues around the same time.

In one of the better known commercial successes of coca, 1886 John Pemberton launched a tonic in 1886 on the American market called Coca-Cola. The “Cola” in the name indicated the presence of an extract of kola nut, an African product that contains about 2 percent caffeine.  Although cocaine was removed from Coca Cola in 1904 following an American politician’s crusade to purify food and drink products available on the market, decocainised coca leaves are still used and caffeine prevails in the ingredients.

The modern standard on coca was established through the United Nations law in 1961, giving the leaves the same classification as opium, morphine, and heroin.  Based on a single report written in the 1950’s, the UN’s justification has been widely disputed.  The trafficking of leaves in the 1970 for the preparation of cocaine for recreational use further blackened the name of coca and today a tug of war in interests prevails.

Following an international war on drugs, support has been provided to the Colombian Government, the highest profile supplier of coca leaves in Latin America, to police the cultivation of coca.  Consequently supply increase has shifted to other countries such as Peru, in which the government is placing firm controls on growers and stamping down on production.  At the same time, movement is currently underway to allow expansion of legal markets for coca leaves, with the presidents of Bolivia and Peru openly championing the use of coca.  Even Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela stuck his oar in on the issue, proclaiming in a speech on January 2008 that he regularly chews coca. Chávez reportedly said “I chew coca every day in the morning… and look how I am” before showing his biceps to the Venezuelan assembly.  With endorsement like that, who needs advertising?

So next time you visit Colombia, Ecuador, Peru or Bolivia and someone offers you some coca tea or some leaves to chew, don’t tense up; you’ll be participating in a ritual that has lasted for millennia, spoiled only in the last one hundred years.  Who knows, it might actually do you some good!