HAVANA (Reuters) - “Pioneers for Communism: we will be like Che,” Cuban children chant each morning in school courtyards, hands raised in a salute to the revolutionary martyr.
Roadside billboards of the leftist icon proclaim: “Your example lives on, your ideas endure.”
Forty years after he was captured by soldiers in a Bolivian jungle and executed on October 9, 1967, Argentine-born doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara is still a national hero in Cuba, where he joined Fidel Castro in the guerrilla uprising that ousted a U.S.-backed dictator in 1959.
But as the ailing Castro, now 81, fades from the political stage after emergency intestinal surgery last year, many Cubans appear more concerned with making ends meet in an inefficient state-run economy than following Guevara’s lofty ideals.
Guevara was industry minister and central bank governor in the early years of Castro’s rule. He advocated nationalizing private businesses and dreamed of a classless society where money would be abolished and wages unnecessary.
To this day, he is the poster boy of communist Cuba, held up as a selfless leader who set an example of voluntary work with his own sweat, pushing a wheelbarrow at a building site or cutting sugar cane in the fields with a machete.
Emblazoned on T-shirts, Swatch watches and other products of the capitalist consumer society he sought to bury, the image of a long-haired Guevara with a star on his beret is a universal symbol of protest, even for some young Cubans.
“Many of us idolize Che more than Fidel. He is a symbol of rebellion in Cuba too, not just for government supporters,” said Ruth, a computing student who asked not to be named fully. “The problem is Cuban society has gone down the drain.”
Cuba will mark the 40th anniversary of Guevara’s capture on Monday in Santa Clara, the central city he captured as a guerrilla leader in 1958 and where a mausoleum was built for his bones when they were dug up from a secret grave in Bolivia and returned to Cuba a decade ago.
Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe says Guevara remains well respected “for his courage as a guerrilla fighter” but that no one advocates his economic ideas in Cuba today.
“Cubans are having a very hard time because of the economic crisis. They are no longer motivated by these ideals. Their only worry is eating three meals a day,” he said.
Acting President Raul Castro, who took over the government from his elder brother Fidel Castro 14 months ago, has launched a national debate on reforms, including proposals to allow more private enterprise and foreign investment.
Older Cubans who fought with Guevara and followed his revolutionary adventures remember him as an austere and demanding leader who drove his outnumbered men into battle with dictator Fulgencio Batista’s soldiers.
“He was marvelous. He gave his life to help the poor,” said Celida Caballero, 77, whose husband Isidoro Rodriguez was an illiterate wood-cutter when he smuggled weapons and medicine under his logs to Guevara’s rebels in the Escambray hills of central Cuba in 1958.
Rodriguez shed a tear as he recalled the day Guevara’s death was announced four decades ago. “That was such a loss for the Cuban people. He is our hero.”
Critics say there was a dark side to the revolutionary legend. Biographer John Lee Anderson describes how Guevara executed traitors during the rebel war in the Sierra Maestra mountains, a task his Cuban comrades-in-arms could not stomach.
When Batista fled Cuba and Castro’s bearded guerrillas marched into Havana, Guevara set up his office in the La Cabana fortress overlooking the city, where he oversaw the trials of Batista henchmen and executions by firing squad in the moats.
When he set off to Bolivia in 1965 to start a new guerrilla insurrection, Guevara said in his parting letter to Castro that he was leaving behind his wife and four children with no material goods.
“And I am not sorry: I‘m glad it is that way,” said Guevara, a Marxist who believed in building a “new man” who would put community needs above personal interest.
Besides the massive iron figure overlooking Havana’s Revolution Square and the famous image of Guevara gazing into the distance from posters and banknotes, one former guerrilla fighter says little else remains of him in contemporary Cuba.
“If the new man that Che wanted is what we have today, it has been a total failure,” said Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, a leader of the Escambray front until Guevara showed up.
Menoyo said he admired Guevara the guerrilla fighter but not the communist, a view that led him to break with Castro and earned him 22 years in Cuban prisons.
“If Che were alive today, he would probably be protesting against this failed system just like me.”