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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Che's daughter speaks out

Aleida Guevara talks of her father's influence, Japan and health care


Staff writer

Aleida Guevara, daughter of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, recently made an emotional visit to Hiroshima to follow in the footsteps of her father and address her country's humanitarian efforts to provide medical aid to other nations in need.

News photo
In his wake: Aleida Guevara, daughter of Cuban revolutionary "Che" Guevara, gives an interview Tuesday at the Cuban Embassy in Minato Ward, Tokyo. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

Guevara, 47, is the oldest daughter of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and his second wife, Aleida March. When Che Guevara was gunned down in 1967 in the Bolivian jungle where he led his guerrilla movement, his daughter was only 6 years old.

Guevara was in Japan at the invitation of Japanese citizens' groups to mark the 80th anniversary of Che Guevara's birth, delivering a string of speeches in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Okinawa and Hiroshima from May 14 until Wednesday.

Visiting Hiroshima to see what her father saw had been her longtime dream.

"It is the place my father visited, and everyone in Cuba knows about Hiroshima. Since I have also heard about the city since I was a primary school student, I really wanted to go," Guevara said.

When Che Guevara visited Japan in 1959 to ask for economic aid, he also visited Hiroshima, and was moved by the experience.

Che wrote in a postcard to his wife at the time: "If people come and visit Hiroshima, it gives you more energy to fight for world peace."

"I agree with my father from the bottom of my heart," Guevara said in a speech in Tokyo.

"The Japanese army did a big mistake during (the war), and invaded other countries," she continued. "But nothing can be justified like the massacre of the atomic bomb. We have to know it very clearly."

More than 40 years after his death, Che is still an icon in many parts of the world. Japanese college students admired the Argentina-born Marxist revolutionary as a hero during their antigovernment protests in the 1970s.

Although Guevara did not spend much time with her father, he has had a great impact on her life.

Like Che Guevara, who first joined the guerrilla movement in Cuba as a doctor, Guevara is a pediatrician, specializing in allergies. Her eyes also resemble her father's.

"Simply because I was a daughter of Che Guevara, people gave me a lot of love. When I asked myself how I could return all these that I had been given, the answer was to take care of people's health — especially children's health, because children are our future," Guevara told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

Her childhood experiences, in retrospect, may have inspired her choice of profession.

When she was 4 1/2 years old, her mother asked her to use alcohol to disinfect her stitches after her youngest brother was born by Caesarean section.

"That was the first time I thought I would become a doctor," she said.

Guevara's wish for peace comes from her experience as a doctor.

Just before graduating from medical college in Cuba, Guevara worked in Nicaragua as an intern in 1982 as the civil war was escalating. Two years later, she decided to join a mission to help war-ravaged Angola, where the harsh reality of life there made her realize there are countries with people in dire need.

At one time, she was forced to choose one of three babies suffering from hydrocephalus because there was only enough medicine to treat one.

"There is no peace in real meaning in the world, if there is poverty and death in lack of doctors and medicines," she told a press conference in Tokyo.

Cuba also has a medical school that accepts students from all nationalities for free to help regions lacking doctors in their respective countries.

But Cuba itself has faced hardship since the U.S. imposed economic sanctions in 1962, banning investment to and trade with the communist country after it overthrew the U.S.-backed government led by Fulgencio Batista and took its assets.

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The beginning: Schoolchildren attend a Havana elementary school in October 2004. All education in Cuba has been state-directed and free since 1961. HIROKO NAKATA PHOTO

Asked whether it is possible to maintain medical services in Cuba despite the sanctions, Guevara was careful to avoid criticizing the U.S.

"It is very important to maintain people's health for Cuba's safety," she said.

She also said Cuba can maintain its health-care system by reinforcing economic ties with other Latin American nations, including Venezuela, Haiti, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

Cuba has also beefed up tourism to boost its coffers, she said.

Improving health and education has been a priority in Cuba since Che and Fidel Castro overthrew Batista in 1959. Making medical services and education free to the public was in fact one of the first changes made by the new Cuban regime.

Her recent appearance, however, in the controversial documentary "SiCKO" may be viewed by some as indirect criticism of the U.S.

The movie, directed by Michael Moore, focuses on Cuba's national health-care and the universal health-care systems in Canada, Britain and France, and compares them with the machinations of the U.S. medical insurance system.

"If the nation increases productivity and becomes rich, it should take good care of the people," Guevara says in the movie. But that was just a snippet of their conversation, she said.

"We talked about many themes," Guevara told journalists of Moore's interview. "Mr. Moore said 'What you talked about (in the movie) is great. But American people won't listen to you because you're a communist.'

"It is fine that they won't listen to me. I just want them to look around and see the small neighbor country that is making this much effort," she said.



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