“I’d like to dedicate this to the man himself, Che Guevara!” announced Benicio del Toro this May, as he received a “best actor” award for his starring role in Che, a reverent new film about the communist revolutionary. As the crowd at the Cannes Film Festival erupted in thunderous ovation, the Puerto Rico-born actor gushed that “I wouldn't be here without Che Guevara, and through all the awards the movie gets you'll have to pay your respects to the man!"
But some stubbornly refuse to pay their respects. Thus, the actor received a much cooler reception when Che, directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh, had a private screening in Miami Beach this past Thursday. Cuban-Americans, including the mayor of Miami Beach, protested the 4-and-a-half hour glorification of the man they consider a Stalinist mass-murderer.
Miami's media proved equally unwelcoming. At a press conference after the screening in Miami Beach's Byron Carlyle Theater, Marlene Gonzalez of the Spanish language America TeVe network asked del Toro about some glaring omissions in the movie. What of Che’s role in ordering the executions of ordinary Cubans? And why no mention of the forced-labor camps established on the guerilla fighter’s orders? A suddenly hurried Del Toro denied that Che bore any culpability for these horrors. He refused even to admit Che’s bitter falling out with Fidel Castro, claiming that, to the contrary, the two always got along splendidly and that Castro was genuinely heartbroken when Che was captured and killed after fighting to his last bullet.
The contrast made for a moving scene. As protestors outside the Carlyle Theater brandished pictures of relatives murdered by Che Guevara, del Toro paid tribute to their murderer. Questions about Che’s brutalities – meticulously recorded in books like Exposing the Real Che Guevara – he brushed aside as the embittered fabrications of Cuban exiles.
The following day, del Toro flew to Havana to present his film at the Havana Film Festival and hob-knob with Castro regime officials. Che was billed as the highlight of the festival and the Stalinist regime rolled out the carpet for their honored guest. “It's a privilege to be here!” effused del Toro. “I'm grateful that the Cuban people can see this movie!”
And why shouldn't Castro's subjects be allowed to view his movie? Weren't Stalin's subjects allowed to watch The Battleship Potemkin? Weren't Hitler's subjects allowed to watch Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of Will? Both were produced at the direction of the propaganda ministries of totalitarian regimes, to be sure, but then the same might well be said of Che. The screenplay was based on Che Guevara's diaries, which were published by Cuba's propaganda ministry; the diaries’ forward was written by Fidel Castro himself. The film includes several Communist Cuban actors, while other Latin American actors spent months in Cuba being prepped for their roles by members of Cuba's “Che Guevara Institute.”
The Cuban Film Institute is an arm of Stalinist Cuba's propaganda ministry. On December 7, Castro’s own press ministry announced that “Actor Benicio del Toro presented the film (at Havana’s Karl Marx Theater) as he thanked the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) for its assistance during the shooting of the film, which was the result of a seven-year research work in Cuba.”
That del Toro considers the Cuban regime a reliable source for the film is telling. Consider that the Castro government has jailed more political prisoners as a percentage of population than Stalin's and executed more people (out of a population of 6.4 million) in its first three years in power than Hitler's executed (out of a population of 70 million) in it's first six. These figures come from the human rights group Freedom House and from the Black Book of Communism, authored by French scholars and translated into English by Harvard University Press, not exactly headquarters for the vast-right wing conspiracy.
The irony is that del Toro himself is a noted advocate of artistic freedom and an outspoken opponent of the “armed struggle” that Che Guevara led, to such disastrous effect, in Cuba. But not only has he starred in a film glorifying the communist killer, but he has just deigned to be feted as guest of honor at Havana's Film Festival by a totalitarian regime that, for half a century, has jailed and tortured any Cuban movie director who strayed from Stalinist dictator's party line. Del Toro needn’t look to Cuban exiles to undermine his convictions. He has done well enough on his own.