In the 50 years since his death, Ernesto “Che” Guevara has grown into a mythical figure for leftists around the world. As one of the heroes of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, Che came to exemplify the quintessential Marxist guerrilla leader: fearless, uncompromising, and honest to his cause, The Nation contends.
An oddly Christ-like photo of the slain Guevara emerged and helped build the image of him as a martyr, the AP adds. An even more famous photo of the living Che, seeming to gaze into the future, has become an icon of rebellion on t-shirts, tattoos and key rings — sometimes to the consternation of Guevara’s socialist allies, who disapprove of the way it has become commercialized.
The Irish mail service, An Post, has released a special-edition stamp (above) featuring Dublin artist Jim Fitzpatrick’s iconic red, white and black rendering of Guevara, The Irish Times reports, a move which prompted a rebuke from Fine Gael Senator Neale Richmond who accused the company of immortalizing someone who committed “heinous” acts.
But as Latin America remembers Guevara’s death, the region also faces a larger reckoning with the same leftist movements that drew on him for inspiration, another Times report notes:
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the region’s largest remaining guerrilla group, came out of the jungle and gave up its arms this year in a war where no one won but Colombia lost more than 220,000 people.
The Socialist-inspired movement of the late President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela led to gains in education and health care, but the country has sunk into hunger, unrest and dictatorship. Even Cuba, which for years proudly lived under the revolutionary banner hung by Guevara, now faces an uncertain fate.
“During Guevara’s time fighting in Bolivia, not a single peasant was documented to have joined him,” the report adds.
But other media reports underline the totalitarian strength of Guevara’s political commitment.
The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time, notes Paul Berman. Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favored a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won, he writes:
Che presided over the Cuban Revolution’s first firing squads. He founded Cuba’s “labor camp” system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims. To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che’s imagination.
Guevara is known as the Butcher of La Cabaña, the prison where the opponents of Fidel Castro’s government were taken after the revolution. One priest, who was a chaplain at the prison, said he witnessed 55 executions and was so appalled by the spectacle he had to leave, The Times adds:
Opponents of Guevara point to a comment he himself made before he died about the ruthlessness needed to foment a revolution: “To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail.”
“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 is what our soldiers must become.”
A half-hundred years of solitude
In practice, Che killed almost no one on the battlefield, notes Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, a writer from Havana, Cuba, and the author of the dissident blog Lunes de Post-Revolución. (He wrote some canonical pamphlets about guerrilla warfare, but he himself was not a successful guerrillero.) His victims, in the thousands, were political opponents in Cuba after Castro’s revolution of January 1959, most of them condemned to death in kangaroo courts, their trials lasting only a few minutes.
But the real Guevara “was the prototype of a ruthless and vicious Stalinist killer; a man who exulted in repressing political dissenters, and who personally set up and ran the mass firing squad executions that took place immediately after Castro’s victory in 1959,” historian Ron Radosh has noted.
He recommends Alvaro Vargas Llosa’s The Che Guevara Myth for an “unvarnished and truthful picture of the real Che”:
Alvaro Vargas Llosa separates the myth from the reality of Che’s legacy, and shows that …..Che’s legacy—making the law subservient to the most powerful, crushing any and all dissent, and concentrating wealth under the guise of “social equality”—is not the solution to poverty and injustice but is the core of the problem.
Guevara helped free Cubans from the repressive Batista regime, only to enslave them in a totalitarian police state worst than the last, Michael Totten wrote for World Affairs:
He was Fidel Castro’s chief executioner, a mass-murderer who in theory could have commanded any number of Latin American death squads, from Peru’s Shining Path on the political left to Guatemala’s White Hand on the right. “Just as Jacobin Paris had Louis Antoine de Saint-Just,” wrote French historian Pascal Fontaine, “revolutionary Havana had Che Guevara, a Latin American version of Nechaev, the nineteenth century nihilist terrorist who inspired Dostoevsky’s The Devils. As Guevara wrote to a friend in 1957, ‘My ideological training means that I am one of those people who believe that the solution to the world’s problems is to be found behind the Iron Curtain.’…He was a great admirer of the Cultural Revolution [in China]. According to Regis Debray, ‘It was he and not Fidel who in 1960 invented Cuba’s first corrective work camp,’ or what the Americans would call a slave labor camp and the Russians called the gulag.”