The following article appeared in the Daily Mirror.
To some he’s a cold-blooded executioner. To millions, he’s the revolutionary whose face has come to symbolise their own struggles against oppression.
And to others, he’s just an image – the epitome of cool, exploited by brandmakers and fashionistas alike.
But for one woman, Ernesto “Che” Guevara was simply “Papi” – a beloved father whose dedication to the South American revolution stole him from her far too soon.
Dr Aleida Guevara, the eldest of Che’s four children with his second wife, was nearly seven when her dad was assassinated by CIA-backed agents in Bolivia 45 years ago.
Growing up in his shadow, the widespread adulation for him confused her at first.
“Up to the age of 16 I wondered, ‘Why should I love my father?” she says. “He was never beside me.’ Then I went through all the memories I have of him and realised he was a man who knew how to love.”
She shrugs: “I had to love him back.”
Aleida, now 51, is speaking in Brighton ahead of a talk she was giving at a fringe meeting at the TUC conference.
Named after her mother, she bears a strong resemblance to her father, with warm eyes, ready smile and fierce passion evident in her hand gestures.
A series of motorcycle tours through impoverished parts of South America in the early 1950s – since made into films based on his diaries – fuelled Argentinian-born Che’s opposition to inequality.
He rose to prominence with Fidel Castro in the successful guerilla campaign to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in the late 50s.
But Che left Cuba when Aleida was just four to continue his mission to spread revolution in Latin America and beyond. He was killed almost three years later in October 1967, deep in the Bolivian jungle, aged just 39.
Che kept diaries and wrote poignant letters to his family, which he used to maintain his role as a father in a way he couldn’t physically. He made up stories to keep them in check.
When Aleida’s younger brother Camilo got in trouble for swearing at school, Che wrote to him saying he must stop otherwise Pepe the Caiman – a character he invented - “would bite off” Che’s leg.
Che disappeared from Cuba after upsetting the Soviets who backed Castro, but occasionally he would sneak back to visit his family, disguised so his children wouldn’t recognise him and give the game away.
It is those visits that form most of the scant memories Aleida has of her father. She smiles as she describes one favourite visit: “Beautiful because it’s all my own memory, not distorted by other people.
“I was about four-and-a-half, in a dark bedroom. My mother was holding my youngest brother Ernesto, a month old. There was a man behind her in military fatigues, and I saw his huge hand stroke my brother’s head and hair so delicately, just like I remember he’d do to me.
“It was my Papi. I remember that as though it was yesterday.”
A mother herself, to daughters Estefania, 23, and Celia, 22, divorced Aleida now appreciates her father’s dilemma. Tears come to her eyes as she says: “I’m a mother now, and I understand what it means to say goodbye to a baby. I cannot imagine what went through his head about this baby my father barely knew when he left Cuba.
“The most beautiful thing for a child is to know you’re loved by your parents – and there was a lot of love in this image I have in my head.”
As much as Che has been remembered for his fierce intellect and romanticism, he wrote of executing “traitors” and “spies”.
These include farmer Eutimio Guerra, who admitted betraying the revolution.
Of his death, Che wrote: “I fired a .32 calibre bullet into the right hemisphere of his brain which came out through his left temple. He moaned for a few moments, then died.”
How does Aleida reconcile her loving father with this killer? “Yes, my father killed – but revolutions are almost always violent. If you live in a country where the police are always killing and torturing its people, there will be clashes. If the enemy doesn’t give you what you want, you must take it. My father simply carried out justice decided by tribunals according to the laws of Cuba at the time.”
While she says she is not political, Aleida has dedicated herself to different causes. Part of her tour, organised by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, UK, included a vigil in London for the Miami Five – a long-running effort to free five men the CSC say were jailed by America for infiltrating anti-Castro terrorist groups.
Aleida is also a paediatrician, following in her medic father’s footsteps, to “give back all the love the Cuban people have always shown to me”, and has been instrumental in setting up children’s homes in the Cuban capital Havana.
She has also worked as a doctor in other countries, particularly Angola, and like her father, her experiences bolstered her passion for equality.
On her travels she often wears a T-shirt bearing the famous image of Che taken by Alberto Korda Díaz at a funeral rally in March 1960 that has become the most reproduced image in history. While often used to represent a fight against oppression, it has also been hijacked by fashionistas and used for commercial gain.
Aleida says if her father’s face is used “on a poster in the house of somebody who loves him, or on T-shirts worn by young people protesting about injustice”, she feels happy.
“But if his image is economically exploited, it angers me. I hate it and I’ll fight,” she said.
Among others, Che’s image has been printed on a bikini, used to advertise a German optician and on a vodka bottle.
She continues: “I don’t want money out of it – just respect for my father.”
It was the sudden appearance of Che’s image on posters in the streets of Havana that first alerted Aleida to his death.
She says: “I asked why so many photos of my daddy, but nobody answered.
“Uncle Fidel suspected my father had been killed and wanted to prepare me and my sister for the worst. He told us he’d received a letter from our daddy, saying if he died the way he wanted to die, we shouldn’t cry for him.
“The next day, I was told to take some soup to my mother. She was crying.
“She told me to sit down and read me a letter. It started, ‘If you are reading this letter, it means I am no longer around’. That final letter was when I realised I didn’t have a father any more.”
Aleida is an outspoken critic of the US blockade of Cuba, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. She acknowledges poverty faced by Cubans and is “disappointed” in the Obama administration that she had faith in to remove it.
And as Britain prepares for a TUC demonstration on October 20 against the Conservative-led coalition’s cuts on the NHS, Aleida offers her support.
“Defend your rights. Don’t let anybody take what belongs to you,” she says.
“All that you have achieved through so many years of trouble and hard work is the right of the British people – and I hope you defend it.”