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Che Lives! And Truth Dies…
Cuban Communist revolutionary Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia in 1967, but his spirit lives on to this day. Indeed, his spirit is more popular than he ever was while alive. As observed by the noted Latin American historian and journalist Alvaro Vargas Llosa, Che’s likeness “adorns mugs, hoodies, key chains, wallets, baseball caps, toques, bandannas, tank tops, club shirts, couture bags, denim jeans, herbal tea, and… T-shirts.” Nothing bespeaks revolutionary fervor like the legendary photograph “of the socialist heartthrob in his beret during the early days of the [Cuban] revolution.” Since 1997, Che has been the subject of no fewer than five books and three movies, the best known of each being The Motorcycle Diaries, which was co-produced in movie form by Robert Redford.
Llosa’s 2005 article “The Killing Machine” (reprinted in The New Republic) explored the irony behind Che’s transformation “from Communist Firebrand to Capitalist Brand.” The irony lies not merely in the fact that he is celebrated today by the capitalists whom he held in contempt during his lifetime, tried to destroy and killed in fair numbers. There is also the undoubted fact that most of his worshipful admirers are ignorant of his brutal resume and his utter lack of genuine accomplishment. Finally, there is the polar contrast between the egg-cracking school of revolution and economic development favored by Che and his disciples on the Left and the less glamorous but vastly more successful approach of the free-market Right.
The Real Che Guevara
Che Guevara was born, not in Cuba, but in Argentina. His parents upper-were middle-class Argentines. He was well-educated, graduating from medical school. In 1952, at age 23, he embarked on the tour of South America recounted in The Motorcycle Diaries. He wrote about his experiences not only in the diaries but in letters to his mother, to whom he remained close throughout his life. A 1954 letter to her was posted from Guatemala, where Guevara witnessed the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz’s leftist government. “It was all a lot of fun,” he wrote, “what with the bombs, speeches, and other distractions to break the monotony I was living in.”
It was in Guatemala that Guevara formed one of his seminal revolutionary convictions; namely, that Arbenz’s overthrow was due to his failure to execute all of his enemies when he assumed power. It was a mistake that Guevara was determined not to emulate. He spent two years with Fidel Castro in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra Mountains before helping to orchestrate the celebrated storming of Havana and takeover of Cuba’s government in 1959. In the transition following the overthrow of dictator Fulgencia Batista, Guevara assumed the role of jailer and executioner.
Castro gave Guevara command of the fortress of San Carlos de la Cabana, a onetime bulwark against pirates that had more recently functioned as a military barracks. Now it became a prison housing Batista functionaries and supporters, reporters, clerics, foreigners, suspected spies and displaced persons. As warden, Guevara followed the principle he had laid down as guerilla leader: “If in doubt, kill him.” Recipients of this maxim had included fellow guerilla Eutimo Guerra, whom he suspected of informing to Batista’s secret police. “I ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain,” he wrote matter-of-factly in his diary. There was Aristidio, a peasant who was uncomfortable with the presence of the rebels. Echevarria, brother of a comrade-in-arms, was another acknowledged victim of his pistol.
At La Cabana, formal military tribunals were held at which Guevara presided. These occupied daytime hours. Night was the time for the executions. In the evening, appeals were heard and paperwork was completed to be forwarded to the Interior Ministry. After all the formalities had been observed, in the middle of the night, the prisoners were executed.
Javier Arzuaga was a Basque chaplain at La Cabana. He witnessed many executions there. According to Arzuaga, “Che Guevara presided over the appellate court. He never overturned a sentence… I pleaded many times with Che on behalf of prisoners. Che did not budge.”
Estimates of the total number of executions at La Cabana vary widely, from as few as 200 to as high as 2000. Since Guevara commanded La Cabana only from January to June, 1959, it seems likely that only about 400 executions were carried out under his authority. “He said they were all CIA agents,” said CIA agent and Cuban exile Felix Rodriguez, who eventually hunted down Guevara in Bolivia in 1967.
In a 1967 address entitled “Message to the Tricontinental,” Guevara declared the necessity for “hatred as an element of struggle, unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine.”
This was the real Che Guevara.
The Omelette Theory of Revolutionary Socialism
Guevara’s theory of revolutionary socialism was epitomized in the old saying, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” (In its political context, the aphorism is most often attributed to New York Times‘ reporter Walter Duranty, who won a Pulitzer Prize in the 1930s for reporting now adjudged to be scandalously lax in overlooking Stalinist atrocities in Soviet Russia.) Socialism viewed society not as an aggregation of individuals but as a collective, an organic unity. Revolution consisted of a remaking of society from scratch according to a recipe, much as a cook might assemble an omelette. The remaking process began with the breaking of eggs; e.g., the killing of individual human beings who opposed the revolution. This was no more regrettable than the killing of fertilized ova inside the eggs comprising an omelette – indeed, it was a necessity that demanded the hardening of the revolutionary’s psyche to the task.
Viewed in this light, Guevara takes on the same moral coloration as other revolutionary killers who preceded and followed him, such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Guevara’s boss, Castro. (Guevara was a follower, not a leader, so we might better compare him to Goebbels, Beria and Chou En-Lai.) They justified their crimes against humanity in a similar manner. The needs of “society” outrank those of any individual. The only individuals who stand above the crowd are those who promote societal needs by fomenting revolution. Thus, the mass murder of counter-revolutionaries is not a crime but rather a prophylactic.
True to the omelette approach, the Castro regime began reassembling Cuban society in a completely different form. Prior to the revolution, the political structure of the Batista regime was crony-ridden and thoroughly corrupt. But the Cuban economy was one of the strongest in Latin America. That didn’t stop Castro, et al from breaking it up and playing with the pieces.
Che’s first economic portfolio was the dual leadership of the National Bank (Cuba’s central bank) and the National Institute for Agrarian Reform. His effectiveness as central banker was somewhat hindered by the fact that, according to his subordinate Ernesto Betancourt, he “was ignorant of the most elementary economic principles.” He oversaw the redistribution of land from the wealthy sugar growers to – no, not to the peasants but instead to bureaucrats in the Cuban government.
During Che’s tenure, Cuba’s powerful sugar industry collapsed. Total land under cultivation was reduced. Real incomes of Cubans began a decline that had continued to the present day. By 1997, the average Cuban subsisted on a monthly diet of five pounds of rice, one pound of beans, one pound of soybean paste, four eggs and less than one ounce of meat.
In 1963, Guevara was promoted to Minister of Industry. By this time, Cuba was internally producing virtually no raw materials at all and had to export its entire sugar crop to the Soviet Union as partial payment for the massive cash and oil subsidies (equivalent to billions of U.S. dollars annually) that kept the island alive. Consequently, it could not support any local industry.
Cubans began defecting in steady streams to the U.S., only ninety miles away. An ordinary person might have ascribed this to the failure of his policies. Guevara saw it as a victory. He told Egypt’s President Nasser that the success of land reform and similar policies should be measured in the number of people “who feel there is no place for them in the new society.” He began talking of the “New Man” that the revolution would create.
Exporting Revolution: the Author of Guerilla Warfare as Military Leader
One of the great internal debates among the world Communist movement was over the issue of “socialism in one country” – the Soviet Union – versus the export of revolution throughout the world. At first, the expense and difficulty of keeping a military establishment kept the focus internal. As the Russian economy grew steadily worse and after the ghastly toll taken by World War II on Russia’s population and resources, Communists turned abroad as a means of recruiting resources and converts to the cause.
Guevara was the most ideologically loyal of Cuba’s leaders. Castro was an opportunist who saw Communism primarily as a means to power, while his brother Raul fell in between Fidel and Guevara on the political spectrum. Che had made a name for himself as a guerilla leader during the years in the Sierra Maestra, although today his military victories and tactical skills have been disputed by the recollections of surviving comrades. Still, he was the logical choice as spearhead of the Soviet revolutionary salient into Latin America.
The results of Che’s military campaigns supported the revisionist skeptics who doubted his abilities. In the immediate aftermath of the victory over Battista, beginning in late 1959, Guevara took his guerilla show on the road to Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Haiti. Each of the guerilla forces he led was soundly defeated and scattered. Chastened, Guevara was content merely to act as advisor to Jorge Ricardo Masetti’s efforts to overturn the newly elected democratic government in Che’s home country of Argentina. Masetti failed just as miserably as Guevara had and was killed in the bargain.
In the Belgian Congo, a ghastly war had raged for years during the 1950s and early 1960s. The United States, South Africa and Cuban exiles on one side and Soviet Russia on the other sponsored local factions that warred for the dubious privilege of supplanting the Belgians. The United Nations strove incapably to mediate among these belligerents. Guevara mounted a 1965 expedition to aid Cuban (i.e., Russian) guerilla contingents on opposite sides of the country. On a continent whose blood-drenched history is approached only by that of Eastern Europe and Asia, the Cuban Communists left a bloody trail of death and destruction whose remnants are etched in local memories still. But Guevara himself was forced to leave the country to avoid capture.
Bolivia in 1967 was Guevara’s last try at notching a successful guerilla operation outside Cuba. To his chagrin – as recorded in his captured diary – he found little local support and acceptance. “The peasant masses don’t help us at all,” he whined in print. But his real misfortune came at the hands of the local Communist opposition, which betrayed him by leading him into an ambush in southeast Bolivia at Yuro ravine. There he was trapped by the Bolivian military, which were soon joined by a CIA unit led by Cuban exile Felix Rodriguez.
Che Guevara’s life came to an ignominious but altogether fitting end when he was accorded the same treatment he had given to so many other human beings. He was summarily executed. His body was tied to the skids of a helicopter, taken to military headquarters and photographed. It was buried in an unmarked grave and remained lost until the location of his remains was revealed by a retired Bolivian general in 1997 and they were uncovered.
Che Guevara’s Comeback in the Movies
The 1960s were memorable in the United States for the rise of the counterculture and the New Left. This movement was well represented in Hollywood and in 1969 Che Guevara was the subject of a major motion picture, Che!, starring Omar Sharif as Guevara and Jack Palance as Fidel Castro.
Sharif, one of the great matinee idols of his day, was just off his international triumph in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and his Hollywood star turn as Nick Arnstein in Funny Girl, which featured Barbra Streisand’s Oscar-winning debut as Fanny Brice. In short, he was ensconced as a glamorous leading man. The role as Che Guevara was created in that same mold, but tailored to the left-wing revolutionary temper of the times. The movie portrayed Che as a heroic fighter against capitalist colonialism and the corrupt U.S. foreign-policy establishment. It occupied a prominent place on the list of big-budget box-office flops of the era. Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide handed it its rarely-granted rating of “BOMB,” calling the film “one of the biggest film jokes of the 1960s” for its “comic-book treatment” of its subject. Palance’s flamboyant portrayal of Castro did win some critical plaudits, however.
Resounding failure usually dampens the enthusiasm of Hollywood producers. Here, it took some three decades of time, physical exhumation and intellectual resurrection to re-ignite it. The spate of Che biographies and the rise to financial preeminence of the Hollywood left wing built the tinder and famous Hollywood personalities lit the spark. Che Guevara became a hero once again on film as he never had been in life.
The publication in English of The Motorcycle Diaries jump-started the new cycle of Che Guevara romanticism. The Diaries were apparently kept by Guevara and his friend Alfredo Granado on their 1952 journey across South America on a motorized bike. Guevara was then a 23-year-old medical student on the verge of completing his studies, while Granado was a 29-year-old doctor. The two toured Argentina, Chile, Peru and Colombia and each recorded their impressions. The trip allegedly radicalized Guevara, who vowed to devote his life to the poor.
The books were reviewed rhapsodically in literary circles, which are occupationally academic, hence left-wing in orientation. The trip was described as a voyage of self-discovery comparable to Don Quixote’s quest. Guevara was characterized as one of the leading guerilla figures of the 20th century – which, if true, certainly denigrates the revolutionary vigor of the century. Given this reception, it was only a matter of time until Hollywood renewed its interest in Che.
In 2004, aging Hollywood heartthrob and Oscar-winning director Robert Redford produced a movie version of the book. The directing chores, though, were handed off to Walter Salles. The movie captured the romantic quality of the books; Maltin awarded it its highest rating of **** and it included an Oscar-winning best song. Two Hispanic actors, Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna, played Guevara and Granado as young men who are politically awakened to the “repressive” character of “right-wing, conservative” political regimes in South America.
In 2005, American director Josh Evans produced Che Guevara on what was evidently a small budget, once again using a foreign cast devoid of familiar Hollywood names, although Sonia Braga did appear in a cameo role. The movie showed Guevara reviewing his life in flashback while languishing in a Bolivian prison. Reviews describe the production as “amateurish” and it was released straight to video without appearing in movie theaters.
In 2008, Che returned to the big-time in a major studio production. Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh produced and directed Che, which was really two two-hour-plus movies breaking Guevara’s life story into equal parts. His star was Oscar-winning actor Benicio Del Toro, who claimed to have previously known of Che Guevara only as a “bad person.” But starring in this two-part blockbuster opened his eyes to the “real man.” Soderbergh found his motivation for the project in the “bucketsful of love” expressed for Guevara by the surviving colleagues and family members whom he interviewed.
Part 1 (The Argentine) follows Guevara’s life through the victory of the Cuban revolution. Part 2 (The Guerilla) portrays Guevara as exporter of revolution. As in Che! 40 years earlier, Che is portrayed as a sympathetic hero rather than the implacable killer he really was. Significantly, Soderbergh omitted any depiction of Guevara’s tenure as jailer and executioner at La Cabana prison. His rationalization for this decision was “there is no amount of accumulated barbarity that would have satisfied the people who hate him.” Del Toro’s marathon performance earned him Best Actor at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
The film earned many good reviews along with mediocre ones. Those reviewers who expressed dissatisfaction, however, generally were unhappy with the length of the films rather than their factual inaccuracy.
The overriding significance of Che Guevara’s career as romantic hero of motion pictures is the utter unwillingness to come to grips with the truth. Hollywood’s disposition to glamorize outlaws is legendary, yet even outrageously romanticized portrayals of murdering thugs like Jesse James, Billy the Kid and John Dillinger have acknowledged profound character flaws in their subjects. Clearly, the difference was made by politics, which not only gave filmmakers moral license to invent heroism where none existed but also to look the other way at murder.
What would happen if, say, Adolf Hitler (or Goebbels) received the same kind of artistic treatment? We don’t have to speculate about this, for we already know the answer. When historian David Irving published books purporting to treat Hitler’s actions and philosophy even-handedly, he was read out of civilized society. Despite the startling realization that Communism racked up an even bigger score of murder, famine, rapine, territorial conquest, concentration camps and political repression than did Nazism, we treat Communists with kid gloves while treating Nazis as unredeemed monsters. If there is an obvious explanation for this dissonance, it is that so many leftists are or were Communists and socialists and comparatively few were Nazis.
Obvious as this seems, it still doesn’t explain everything. The founding organ of modern conservatism, National Review magazine, began publishing in 1955. The overwhelming majority of those on its first editorial masthead were former Communists. Indeed, most of those were former Communist spies or intelligence assets. Yet they were able to not only overcome their original fanaticism but reverse its polarity.
There is no more tragic irony in the case of Che Guevara than the sort of apology made for Guevara’s destruction of Cuba’s economy. “He had to tear capitalism out by its roots; those he killed were the evil exploiters; of course he made mistakes, since he was starting all over again from scratch with nothing to guide him; he was building the New Socialist Man in a hostile world – he needed more time to show results.” This is the tiresome litany of excuses.
To hear Che Guevara’s apologists talk, one would think that nobody had ever successfully promoted economic development in Latin America. But that would be quite wrong. We need only return to the days of yesteryear, in Che Guevara’s home country of Argentina, to prove that.
Argentina from 1852 to 1928: the Influence of Juan Bautista Alberdi
In 1852, the Argentine revolutionary leader Justo Jose de Urquiza overthrew the ruling tyrant of Argentina, Juan Manual Rosas – just as Castro overthrew Batista over a century later. Urquiza had a key lieutenant who advised him on political economy, just as Guevara later advised Castro. The lieutenant’s name was Juan Bautista Alberdi.
At fourteen years of age, Alberdi walked the length of Argentina, from pampas to deserts – just as Guevara later traversed South America. When Urquiza took power, Alberdi represented his government abroad – not, to be sure, by employing Guevara’s guerilla tactics but as a diplomat and intellectual. (Like Guevara, Alberdi also died abroad.) In fact, as Llosa pointed out, “Alberdi never killed a fly,” and he opposed Argentina’s war with Paraguay.
Unlike Guevara, Alberdi believed in limited government, not totalitarianism. Alberdi supported free trade. He encouraged immigration into Argentina. He staunchly supported private property rights. Like Guevara, Alberdi wrote books. One of them, Bases y puntos de partida para la organizacion de la Republica Argentina, formed the basis for the Argentine Constitution of 1853.
Alberdi differed from Guevara diametrically not only on first principles but also in results attained. Guevara virtually destroyed the Cuban economy. In contrast, look at what Alberdi achieved. In the last half of the 19th century, Argentina had the second-highest rate of economic growth in the world. At the turn of the century, real incomes of Argentine workers exceeded those of workers in Switzerland, Germany and France (!!!). By 1928, when Argentina reversed course once more and reverted back to tyranny, Argentina had the 12th-highest per-capita GDP in the world.
And, as Alvaro Vargas Llosa noted wryly, “his [Alberdi’s] likeness does not adorn Mike Tyson’s abdomen.”
Today, the murderous totalitarian and abject failure Che Guevara is widely considered a hero. Juan Bautista Alberdi lies forgotten in his grave. This is an irony to wring tears not just from Argentina – the whole world should weep. Where is Andrew Lloyd Webber when you need him, anyway?