Nearly a half-century after his death, Ernesto “Che” Guevara continues to generate a Mao-esque personality cult among youthful revolutionaries.
These youthful revolutionaries (read: co-eds who “discovered” The Communist Manifesto last week), drunk with idealism and fervor, virtually worship the Che ever so romantically portrayed in Alberto Korda’s iconic photograph. The photo features a rugged Che looking into a utopian distance of milk and honey for all. And as though Korda’s Che couldn’t be more any more stylized — the figure’s sensual, longish locks are conveniently tousled by the wind.
It seems that orgiastic Che veneration has become a criterion for admittance to the in-crowd amongst the intellectual hoi polloi — you know, those shoeless barnacles that indiscriminately cluster along the Social Science building.
And what better way of proving your devotion to Che than by brandishing a shirt, messenger bag or pin with his face on it? I suppose there’s no better method of bringing about the revolution than resorting to the “vile” lasciviousness of capitalism — Che, in marvelous irony, has become the non-conformists’ brand of choice.
But the Che portrayed by Korda, and later played by Gael Garcia Bernal in The Motorcycle Diaries, is chillingly detached from the real man.
Che’s gentle eyes were not lowered in heartbreak toward “social injustice.” On the contrary, Che was a squirrelly, bloodthirsty militant who aligned himself with the communist dictum that humans are chattel and mere means to an end.
He is reported to have said, “To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary … these procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail. This is a revolution! And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate. ”
No, Che was not an alienated dreamer stuck in the doldrums of bourgeois life — he was the figurehead that helped Castro repudiate whatever inkling of human rights Cuba’s population enjoyed before the revolution of ’59.
As commandant of the infamous La Cabana prison, for example, Che ordered nearly several thousand to be executed à la firing squad. Further, he relished doing the dirty work himself and often delivered the deathblow with a close-range pistol .
Che’s particular penchant, however, was to flaunt the very gore he sanctioned. He ordered his cronies to bring acquaintances of the recently executed to view the bullet-riddled corpse.
Oh, but it gets grislier. During his tenure as Castro’s henchman, Che even went so far as to execute young –albeit counter-revolutionary — boys. In other words, the heralded revolutionary and Hollywood heartthrob killed children .
In order to purge Cuba of counter-revolutionary fervor, Che helped Castro jail dissidents in concentration camps. Some of the prisoners’ egregious crimes included such wickedness as listening to rock ‘n’ roll music and being homosexual .
Che also managed to bungle the Cuban economy. He spewed hot air like, “The nation that buys commands, the nation that sells serves” to convey the need to diversify agriculture and break remaining commercial ties with America. Mainly, though, it remained a thorn in the fledgling communist state’s side to remain dependent on the “imperialist’s” business. In 1961, Che devised a Four-Year Plan – cough, Stalin, cough – to break away from sugar production and expand into industry .
According to Thomas H. Skidmore and Peter H. Smith, authors of Modern Latin America, sugar production plummeted from 6.8 to 4.8 million tons a year after the plan was instituted. Meanwhile, industrialization didn’t quite take off, as Cuba had neither raw materials nor industrial savoir-faire.
As Soviet support of Cuba waned, Che stepped down from his planning post in 1963. He nevertheless remained active in Castro’s administration. In the fashion of a true leftist who ignores economic truth, Che’s new approach to economic development – get this – was to take away whatever smidgen of profit motive and incentive weren’t already quelled by attempts to forcibly evolve human nature .
And yet, despite the aforementioned atrocities and errors, as well as the many others I don’t have the space to mention, Che is nevertheless revered. There are three explanations for this sad phenomenon.
The first reason is simple: The mainstream media has distorted Che’s legacy. This occurred as early as 1957 when Herbert Matthews, a journalist at the New York Times, touted Che and Castro as heroes . His reports were, in turn, splayed across the front page of the newspaper and described nothing less than acts of valiance and panache to help curry public favor for the revolutionary duo. Che was similarly described by Time magazine as a hero and icon. In addition, when figures try to convey Che as he was, as did Andy Garcia in the film The Lost City, critics and distributors react icily .
The second reason, to borrow Orwell’s phrase, is that “ignorance is bliss.” It’s more convenient and more acceptable to love a lauded figure blindly rather than investigate and make independent moral judgment.
The third reason, is that those who support Che believe in his political philosophy — the communist dictum that humans are chattel and mere means to an end — and thus accepted his means of achieving that end.
The remedy is to reveal the truth about Che in the face of the fictional, ever-popular idealism associated with his “revolution.” Perhaps then people will forgo wearing Che’s face — or that of any other populist madman — on a T-shirt or cap. And those who do not will be looked on for what they really are.