Four decades after his death, the visage of Che Guevara survives him as a symbol of passion, idealism, and restless discontent with the status quo. In fact, as time passes, his celebrity grows. In 2004, Robert Redford produced The Motorcycle Diaries, a film chronicling Che’s eight-month-long motorbike odyssey across South America at age twenty-three. The New York Times said the film “humanizes” Che, portraying him as a “restless, passionate bohemian with dancing eyes and a deepening core of empathy for the poor.” In 2007, a lock of hair cut from his corpse, along with photos of his dead body, sold for over $100,000, and Che-Lives.com was billed as the largest leftist site on the internet.
Hollywood is especially smitten. In 2008, Steven Soderbergh directed a two-part, four-hour biopic titled, simply, Che, with Benicio del Toro playing the lead. “Groovy name, groovy man, groovy politics!” del Toro said of his character. Johnny Depp wears a Che pendant around his neck, and Angelina Jolie reportedly sports a Che tattoo somewhere on her body, though she won’t say where. Che’s face has become an emblem of chic on everything from sarongs to coffee mugs to mouse pads. You can even say chic on your feet with a pair of Che chucks.
Born in 1928 to bohemian Argentine aristocrats, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna completed medical school in Buenos Aires in 1953, then wandered about through Latin America for the next two years. It was during this time that he adopted the nickname “Che,” an Argentine slang speech filler meaning something like “Hey you” or even “Dude.” The name fit. Up until that time, his life was just about that aimless and ill-defined.
That all changed in the summer of 1955, after a chance meeting in Mexico City with Fidel Castro, who was planning his overthrow of Cuban president Fulgencio Batista. Che, having seen poverty and lived in squalor, had by this time become convinced that only a Marxist revolution could remedy the world’s ills. In Castro and in Cuba, he found his leader to follow and his people group to liberate. A year later, Castro and Che set out on a junker yacht for Cuba.
By 1959, after two years of guerilla insurgency, a coup was achieved. Che was made comandante of La Cabana, the colonial fortress turned military prison overlooking Havana harbor, and he set about governing with ruthless intensity. He knew that for the revolution to succeed, resistance would have to be swiftly dealt with, so he put his firing squads to work on triple shifts. For the next three years, the comandante imprisoned dissidents at a higher rate than Stalin did and oversaw more executions than Hitler did during his first six years in power.
Che also took up the task of remaking Cuba according to the Marxist vision, which included assuming command of Cuba’s national bank and taking charge of industry. Within a year, the value of Cuba’s peso plummeted to almost nothing; her sugar, cattle, tobacco, and nickel industries were in shambles; and her people carried food ration cards.
Many sought to leave. Since the Cuban revolution, an estimated two million Cubans have fled the country, another eighty thousand have died trying, and suicide has become one of the highest causes of death among the adults who remained. Cuba’s abortion rate is 60 percent.
The perplexing question, especially for Cuban survivors is: Exactly what about all of this is chic?
The recasting of Che the executioner into Che the revolutionary and cause célèbre began in 1967, on the day Che died, and it illustrates the public relations finesse of Fidel Castro, a pragmatic power-seeker who knew a useful idiot when he saw one, dead or alive. Although Che had left Cuba under a cloud two years earlier, Castro responded to the news of Che’s death by declaring a three-day period of national mourning. “If you wish to express what we want our children to be,” he told a crowd in Havana’s Revolution Square, “we must say from our hearts as ardent revolutionaries, ‘We want them to be like Che!’” From then on, Cuban schoolchildren began their day saying, “Pioneers of Communism, we will be like Che!”
It makes perfect sense that Castro would want everyone to be like Che, for Che served Castro to his dying breath. It also makes sense that Cuban schoolchildren would be forced to pay tribute to this would-be role model. They have no choice. What doesn’t make sense is why anyone in the free world would follow suit.
Yet they do. A 2008 University of Arizona student paid homage to Che in the student newspaper, the Daily Wildcat: “To be a revolutionary . . . you have to cause change from the norm. It doesn’t even have to be good or be positive; it just has to be a change.” Actress Susan Sarandon expressed the allure, saying that people who dedicate themselves to a cause at the expense of everything else “are really fascinating people.” Here we have the morally vacuous idealism that venerates a mass murderer: It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you really believe it and give it your all.
The charisma ascribed to Che seems to be connected to his raw passion and drive. While Castro merely sought power and used whatever means necessary (including Che) to attain it, Che, a pure Marxist, actually believed. “You’ll see,” the would-be liberator predicted at the outset, “when Castro’s running things, everybody will read and have food on the table.” Confident that the rotors of revolution would churn out a purified social order, Che radically destroyed the old to make way for the new. “We are the future,” he wrote to his father in 1959.
Che sycophants utterly fail to discern the disconnection between revolutionary rhetoric and revolutionary reality. Here are five aspects of Che they either don’t know or overlook:
Blood. For all his talk about liberation, what Che apparently liked most was killing people. “I’d like to confess,” he wrote to his father after his first kill, “I really like killing.” He liked it so much that he had a section of wall cut out of his La Cabana office, to give him a better view of the execution yard. In 1961, he began the appalling practice of draining the blood from condemned prisoners before shooting them. The blood was then sold for $50 a pint, most of it to North Vietnam. An average prisoner brought in about $250.
Theft. According to the myth, Che selflessly identified with the poor, but in reality he had no problem helping himself to the accoutrements of wealth, often other people’s. When he took up residency in Havana, for example, he appropriated for himself a lovely seaside estate with seven bathrooms, a projection TV, a chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benz, and a large swimming pool.
Disregard for human rights and justice. To Che, individuals didn’t matter except to the extent that they served the revolution. He executed prisoners out of “revolutionary conviction,” without concern for “archaic bourgeois details” like due process or judicial evidence. In other words, he killed people when it suited his purposes to do so.
He particularly had his sights on America. When the Soviet Union withdrew its nuclear missiles from Cuba, Che was furious. “If the nuclear missiles had remained we would have used them against the very heart of America,” he told the London Daily Worker in 1962.
Neglect of and indifference to actual people. Despite Che’s professed goal of food and education for all, he felt no obligation to provide for his own family. When he left Cuba in 1965, this father of five children wrote, “I am not sorry that I leave nothing material to my wife and children; I am happy it is that way. I ask nothing for them, as the state will provide them with enough to live on and receive an education.” This was consistent with his political philosophy. “The revolution is what is important. Each one of us, on our own, is worthless.”
Finally, delusion—the root problem with Marxism. According to Marxist ideology, societal problems are caused by the unequal distribution of wealth. To remedy the ill, the “have-nots” are summoned to armed struggle against the “haves.” It’s a classic divide-and-conquer strategy. Carlos Eire, the son of a pre-Castro government official, records a telling scene from his childhood in his memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana. Carlos, eight years old when Castro took over, recalls the family maid, an angry woman named Caridad who loved Castro, taunting him when his parents weren’t around: “Pretty soon, you’re going to lose all this.” “Pretty soon you’ll be sweeping my floor.” “Pretty soon I’ll be seeing you at your fancy beach club, and you’ll be cleaning out the trash cans while I swim.”
But it didn’t work out that way. It never does.
Castro followed the Marxist script because it advanced his cause. But Che, like Caridad, actually believed it. Ironically, Che’s faith became his undoing. By 1964, he had outlived his usefulness to Castro, and Castro cut him loose. Che left Cuba “voluntarily,” still bent on revolution, but with no support, no leader to follow, and no people group to “liberate.” He died three years later on the receiving end of a bullet in a Bolivian mountain village. Some suspect that Castro had betrayed him. But—the revolution was what mattered. The individual was worthless.
The Arizona student was right about one thing. Che caused change. But he’s wrong about everything else. It does matter whether the change is positive or negative, and it does matter what you believe. Because Marxism is founded on falsehood, it will forever be nihilistic at its core, and it will always end badly. It holds great power to destroy, but none to create or build. This is why the utopia Che envisioned for Cuba never materialized but morphed into a nightmare. In reality, Cuba got plundered and decimated, and Che got betrayed and shot.
And all that remains of Che is the myth and the merchandise. •
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