The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America
When, shortly after the triumph of the Castro revolution, Ernesto Guevara took over the direction of the Cuban National Bank, it became his duty to sign the newly minted ten- and twenty-peso notes. This he did with a contemptuous flourish, scrawling the bold nom de guerre “Che” on both denominations. By that gesture, which made those bills a collectors’ item in some quarters of the left, he expressed an ambition to move beyond the money economy and what used to be termed “the cash nexus.” It was a stroke, at once Utopian and puritanical, that seemed to sum up his gift both for the improvised and the determined.
Revisiting Havana recently, for the purpose of making a BBC documentary on the thirtieth anniversary of Guevara’s murder, I discovered that there are now four legal currencies in circulation. The most proud and salient, of course, is the United States dollar. Nowhere outside the Panama Canal Zone has any Latin American economy capitulated so utterly to the usefulness of this green symbol. Once the preserve of the Cuban nomenklatura and of those with access to special diplomatic “dollar stores,” the money of Tio Sam is now the preferred street-wise mode of exchange, and also the essential legal tender in hotels and newly privatized restaurants. Next in importance is the special “INTUR” money, printed by the Cuban Ministry of Tourism for the exclusive use of foreign holidaymakers. Large tracts of Cuba, especially the Varadero beach section outside Havana, have been turned into reservations for this special breed of “internationalist.” Third comes the peso convertible, a piece of scrip with a value pegged to that of the dollar. And last we find the Cuban peso, a mode of exchange so humble that windshield-washers at intersections, when handed a fistful, will wordlessly hand it back.
On this last currency appears the visage of Che Guevara. It certainly, if somewhat ironically, demonstrates the regime’s fealty to his carelessness about money. Meanwhile, under stylized poster portraits of the heroic Comandante, and within sight of banners reading—rather gruesomely, perhaps—Socialismo o Muerte, the youth of Havana sell their lissome bodies as they did in the days of the Sam Giancana and George Raft dispensation. Junk tourist artifacts are sold from stalls outside Hemingway’s old Bodeguita. The talk among the liberal members of the writers’ union, as also among the American expatriate veterans, is all of the surge in street crime and delinquency. With unintentional comic effect, these conversations mimic their “deprived or depraved?” counterparts in Los Angeles and New York. Is it the lack of jobs and opportunities? Or could it be the decline in the moral basis of society? After all, it’s not that long since Martha Gellhorn instructed her readers that mugging in Havana was unknown. The old “moral versus material” debate continues in a ghostly form, as if there were a pentimento of Che concealed behind…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.