Che to Che

Sexual Politics in Chile

by | Oct 8, 2009

Che impersonator Victor Hugo Robles demands Pinochet be brought to justice. Photo courtesy of Carmen Oquendo-Villar.

An unlikely couple monopolized Chilean headlines about the 16th Festival de Cine de Viña del Mar in 2004: international superstar Mexican actor Gael García Bernal and local Chilean Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) activist Víctor Hugo Robles, who also focuses on HIV/AIDS issues. Despite the sharp contrast in their spheres of influence and stardom status, García Bernal and Robles had something in common. They had both joined the crew of Che Guevara impersonators including, most notably, Omar Sharif, Antonio Banderas, Madonna, Cher and, more recently, Benicio del Toro. (For an extensive list of Che Guevara impersonators see Trisha Ziff, ed., Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon, New York: Abrams Image, 2006.)

García Bernal had come to Chile to promote one of the blockbuster films of the festival, The Motorcycle Diaries by Brazilian director Walter Salles and executive producer Robert Redford. The Viña del Mar Motorcycle Diaries screening at the festival was the official premiere of the film in Chile. In addition to actor García Bernal, Alberto Granado, the actual Argentine-Cuban doctor who accompanied Che around Latin America, flew to Chile. Amidst all the media hype with Gael and Salles’ film, a discreet, until then practically obscure Chilean documentary began to make headlines. The short documentary El Che de los gays, directed by Arturo Álvarez and produced by Pamela Sierra in the short-film category, achieved sudden notoriety because of the dialogue that Víctor Hugo Robles, a charismatic and media savvy figure himself, attempted to establish with the superstar through the local media in Viña del Mar.

Both films were presenting a different spin on the historical figure of Ernesto Che Guevara. Having spawned an iconic poster and taken on a life of its own, Che’s image had become both a fashionable de-politicized logo as well as a potent anti-establishment symbol used by a wide spectrum of human rights movements and individuals affirming their own liberation. Salles’ film presents a return to an early Ernesto Guevara free of beard, beret and fatigues, before becoming Che and fully articulating his revolutionary ideology. In A Turbulent Decade to Remember: Scenes from the Latin American Sixties(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007: 51), Diana Sorensen argues that Salles’ Che represents the “incarnation of a promise without the burden of its radical implications.” The choice of a pre-revolutionary Che may very well be one of the secrets behind the film’s blockbuster success, exceeding even the studio Focus Features’ box-office expectations. This idea is backed by the fact that, even after making considerable profits with The Motorcycle Diaries, Focus Features refused to buy Steven Soderbergh’s Che (2008), which featured a decidedly “bearded” and “iconic” incarnation of Che, certainly burdened with radical implications. In fact, Soderbergh’s film faced difficulties in finding an audience both domestically ($1,497,109 in box office in a film that some speculate cost as much as 30 million) and abroad (figures vary, but 9 million as the most generous).

Nothing is further from Gael García Bernal’s blockbuster impersonation of a pre-ideological Ernesto Guevara than Víctor Hugo Robles’ rendition of Che. Unlike the Hollywood stars who glamorously impersonated Guevara, Robles, with his trademark guerrillero look, had a specific queer left-wing political agenda. In fact, the founding members of Chile’s LGBT movement, MOVILH (Movimiento de Liberación Homosexual de Chile), to which Robles belonged, situated the movement in opposition to Pinochet’s dictatorship, even if left-wing political movements tacitly excluded queer folk. A practicing journalist, Robles flirted with mass media outlets to draw attention to Chilean human rights demands, broadly defined, but also to specific LGBT demands, like the defense of lesbian motherhood and the derogation of article 365 of the Chilean Penal Code that penalized sodomy between homosexual men. El Che de los gays was Robles’ response to this tension between left-wing politics and gay life:

“Escogí la figura del Che porque es la máxima metáfora del revolucionario contemporáneo y al asumir parte de su figura representacional (estrella, boina y actitud guerrillera), busco politizar la homosexualidad y/o homosexualizar la política, demostrando que es posible ser homosexual y ser revolucionario; ser homosexual y ser de izquierda; ser homosexual y luchar por los cambios y la transformación de la sociedad.”

(“I chose the figure of Che because it is the maximum metaphor for the contemporary revolutionary. By assuming part of his representational figure (star, beret and guerrilla stance), I sought to politicize homosexuality and/or homosexualize politics, demonstrating that it is possible to be homosexual and to be revolutionary; to be homosexual and fight for change and the transformation of society.”)

Victor Hugo’s choice of Che Guevara to challenge the separation between homosexuality and revolution places his performance in a unique position, given that many gay rights activist and intellectuals consider Che Guevara a homophobic figure within the Cuban Revolution. In Gay Cuban Nation, Emilio Bejel refers to Che Guevara as “one of the staunchest homophobic leaders of the revolutionary period” (100). Despite the UMAPs (forced labor camps to rehabilitate “anti-social” people, including gays in Cuba), Víctor Hugo remains a loyal defender of the Cuban Revolution. During his most recent visit to the island, Mariela Castro, Cuba’s leading sexologist and director of the National Center for Sexual Education, who also happens to be Raúl Castro’s daughter, officially sanctioned Víctor Hugo’s impersonation of Che by stating “if Che were alive, he would be supporting our cause.” Víctor Hugo’s relationship with Cuba has been solid, even if during the official presentation of the documentary he was at the center of a controversy for quoting salient Cuban gay writer Reinaldo Arenas, who died of AIDS in New York after publicly distancing himself from the Revolution.

More recently, Victor Hugo engaged in a public confrontation with Chilean novelist Pedro Lemebel over the homophobia of some of Cuba’s leading revolutionary icons, namely legendary cantautor Silvio Rodríguez. In contrast to Lemebel, Victor Hugo Robles sided with Rodríguez, who in 1995 supported the Chilean LGBT movement in its attempt to derogate Article 365. (For an account of the debate between Rodíguez, Lemebel and Robles, see Daniela Escárate, “¿Lemebel contrarrevolucionario o Silvio Rodríguez homofóbico?” DisidenciaSexual, March 18, 2009, online. See also the article that sparkled the debate: Bruno Bimbi, “Cuba, la Revolución y los gays,” Actitud Gay Magazine. Jan 5, 2009, online.) It is evident that still today, Robles insists on evoking Che Guevara for his own political performance.

Alvarez’s documentary, El Che de los gays, constructs a narrative of the transformation of Víctor Hugo Robles into El Che de los gays within the context of sexual politics in Chile. This narrative is constructed through footage of interviews with Robles, his grandmother, and key figures in the Chilean left such as Gladys Marín, Tomás Moulián and Juan Pablo Sutherland, as well as through archival footage of Robles’ media appearances. This queering of Che’s image on the part of Víctor Hugo is highlighted by the documentary’s overpowering soundtrack, which swallows some of the scenes with songs by Raphael, Pettinellis and Camilo Sesto, usual soundscape of the Chilean gay scene. Alvarez’s documentary explores Víctor Hugo’s LGBT activism through the commander’s image, while also registering the reaction of Chilean audiences to a Che Guevara in drag. In fact, director Arturo Alvarez belongs to a generation of young documentarians in Chile who, having learned lessons from masters like Patricio Guzmán, are interested in recuperating stories of resistance among the Chilean youth. Documentaries likeActores secundarios by Pachi Bustos and Jorge Leiva, about politicized secondary school students, Malditos: La historia de los Fiskales Ad-Hok by Pablo Insunza, about the Chilean musical counterculture in the 80s, and El Che de los gays challenge the so called de-politicization of Chilean youth popularized by many, including Guzmán himself in films like La memoria obstinada.

Alvarez’s documentary explores a tension in the character constructed by Robles. Though seduced by the combatant image of Che, most emblematically captured by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda’s now-legendary photograph, another image also haunts the performance of El Che de los gays, that taken by Bolivian photographer Freddy Alborta of the deceased Che Guevara as he lay dead on a table surrounded by his captors.

In the documentary, Alvarez gives particular prominence to an interview with sociologist Tomás Moulián. According to Moulián, Robles’ performance directly references that defeated Che seen in the latter image:

“Tiene un aspecto desvalido, no puede representar a Che de la carabina, entonces, él representa un cierto Che, el Che de la derrota y él usa las imágenes de la derrota. Yo creo que se inspira en el Che muerto, entonces, es un gesto interesante, es un gesto descolocante, que se vincula más al Che patético, el patetismo del profeta desarmado, al profeta semiarmado. El no representa el realismo, sino que el idealismo, el gesto. Es alguien que busca el poder abandonándolo, hay algo en la figura misma de Víctor Hugo Robles que le permite jugar bien ese papel, y donde se une la simbología cristiana con la simbología política, entonces yo creo que es una performance interesante, muy interesante.”

(“He has a helpless appearance; he cannot represent the Che of the carbine rifle; he represents a certain Che, the defeated Che, and he uses images of defeat. I believe he is inspired by the dead Che, therefore, it is an interesting gesture, a disconsolate gesture, that links him more to the pathetic Che, the pathetic quality of a disarmed prophet, a semi-armed prophet. He does not represent realism but rather idealism, the gesture. He is someone who looks for power by abandoning it; there is something in the very figure of Víctor Hugo Robles that allows him to act this role well, a role in which Christian symbolism mingles with political symbolism, thus I think this is a very, very interesting performance.”

Himself campaign manager for Gladys Marín, a communist presidential candidate defeated time and again in elections, Tomás Moulián’s take on Víctor Hugo’s performance resonates with multiple defeats in Chilean history. These defeats include the collapse of Allende in 1973 and the ensuing crisis, studied by Carlos Altamirano in his book Dialéctica de una derrota, Pinochet’s defeat during the 1989 plebiscite, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of global capitalism, as well as the Chilean transition to democracy which marginalized the revolutionary left in Chile. In fact, Alborta’s image of a deceased Che surrounded by his military captors resonated in the Chilean imaginary with another image of defeat: the widely circulated 1973 photograph of Salvador Allende’s corpse being removed by military personnel from La Moneda after the Pinochet coup. Even if Víctor Hugo does not verbally subscribe to the notion of political defeat, by giving prominence to Moulián’s interview, the documentary brings forth such interpretations.

While Ernesto only became a pop icon upon his death, Víctor Hugo’s El Che de los gays has derived new life from Che’s cadaver. El Che de los gays framed his own persona around Che’s defeated body as well as on the ailing, martyrized, and lacerated bodies of figures such as Saint Sebastian and Jesus Christ (a figure that is often invoked in the iconography of Che, i.e. Chesucristo). Invested with iconography of contagion and contamination (of message, political views, and purity), Robles’ figure alluded to biological contagions and explored the ways in which the concept of disease had framed culturally resonant behaviors like radicalism or homosexuality.

Indeed, weakness and infirmity are a common thread in Gael García Bernal’s and Víctor Hugo Robles’ impersonations. While Salles’ film portrays an asthmatic young Ernesto, Che Guevara’s body contained a duality that Robles embraced: unbridled force drawing from his political beliefs and actions as well as a physical fragility due to asthma. Asthma marked the body of the guerrillero with frailty, turning him both into a doctor (which he was by training) of Latin American social illnesses and a patient for his own bodily condition. Living openly with HIV, the Chilean Che recognized this duality in the impersonated model and once placed a motto on his beret’s star: “CHE, TE ASMO” (changing the word “love” to one that combines asthma with love: asmo [asma+amor]).

For the moment, any existing dialogue between the two Ches will remain on the page and between the two screens. Robles attempted to establish a Che to Che dialogue with García Bernal through the Chilean media. He went “live” to invite the superstar to the screening of the documentary, hoping to begin a conversation about the politics of impersonating Che. García Bernal, however, did not attend the Viña del Mar screening of the documentary, which went on to win several awards, including best documentary in the II International Festival of Gay/Lesbian and Transsexual Films in Bilbao, Spain. The conversation between impersonators has yet to occur. It has an additional pending guest: Benicio del Toro and his hypermacho rendition of El comandante.

Fall 2009Volume VIII, Number 3

Carmen Oquendo-Villar (Harvard Ph.D.) is the Jacob Javits Fellow at New York University’s Kanbar Institute of Film and Television in Tisch School of the Arts, where she is continuing her filmmaking training, and at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, where she serves as researcher and film curator. She is completing a book on Chile’s 1973 Coup as a performance and media event, with Augusto Pinochet as its leading political icon. She is also writing on the figuration of Che Guevara’s image within Latin American political documentary cinema. As a visual artist and filmmaker (, she has focused her work around issues of gender and sexuality.

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