09.03.2011

The Cult of Che

It’s like he is alive and with us, like a friend. He is kind of like a Virgin Mary for us. We say, “Che, help us with our work or with this planting,” and it always goes well.

—Manuel Cortez, a campesino who lives next to the schoolhouse where Ernesto Guevara was executed.

I am not Christ or a philanthropist, old lady, I am all the contrary of a Christ . . . I fight for the things I believe in, with all the weapons at my disposal and try to leave the other man dead so that I don’t get nailed to a cross or any other place.

—Ernesto “Che” Guevara

Each wrong idea we follow is a crime committed against future generations. Therefore we have to punish wrong ideas as we punish other crimes.

—Extract from the diary of N. S. Rubashov, on the fifth day of imprisonment, Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940).

The face of Ernesto “Che” Guevara adorns student bedrooms the world over as a symbol of justice and non-conformity. The famous image, the Guerrillero Heroica, is supposed to represent the possibility of a better world, free from injustice, racism and poverty. At the end of a decade of forceful American imperialism, the handsome face of Che stands as a timeless reminder of a new, selfless human being; the man willing to fight and die for the cause.

In the post-Cold War age, the image of the man who, in another era, called for “one, two, many Vietnams,” has also become the acceptable face of subversion, co-opted by the mainstream to sell everything from vodka to zippo lighters. At times, the idealism wrapped up in the myth of Che can seem completely at odds with his posthumous persona — a lock of hair that was cut from Guevara’s head shortly before his execution in 1967 was recently sold at auction for $100,000.

Ernesto Guevara was born into a radical yet middle-class family in Rosario, Argentina on June 14, 1928. The word Che itself is a Guarani word that Argentinians use, which translates as “Hey, you”; but it was the Cubans who gave Ernesto his recognisable nickname. Today it is the island of Cuba where his image has been adopted most enthusiastically. Children are taught from an early age to “be like Che”; and rather than being a symbol of rebellion, the Christ-like photograph taken by Alberto Korda in 1960 is a symbol of authority, the establishment and the repression.

Che’s enduring legacy also feeds on the cult of defeat. This he shares with the memory of another twentieth-century revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, although with none of Trotsky’s enduring contribution to revolutionary thought. In his introduction to a republication of Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism, Slavoj Žižek contrasts the fortunes of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara — one, the ageing leader of a decaying bureaucracy whom history has left behind rather than absolved; the other, the eternally young and handsome revolutionary for whom a single country was never enough — with those of Stalin and Trotsky:

“Imagine if, in the middle of the 1920s, Trotsky had emigrated and renounced Soviet citizenship in order to instigate permanent revolution around the world, and then died soon afterwards — after his death, Stalin would have dutifully elevated him into a cult.”

After Stalin’s death, a copy of Terrorism and Communism was found among his private papers, full of handwritten notes, apparently signalling Stalin’s wholehearted approval. Anti-communists opportunistically jumped on this, of course, as final proof that Trotsky was the precursor of Stalin and the totalitarian dystopia he built.

With the troublemaker Guevara lying dead in Bolivia, Castro dutifully elevated the cult of Che to new heights in an attempt to reassert his own revolutionary authority.

Ernesto Guevara was twenty-six years old when the US backed a coup to the overthrow Guatemalan president Jacabo Arbenz, whose government was attempting to implement a modest program of nationalisation in Washington’s backyard. A covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) program, codenamed “Operation Success”, was hatched to crush Guatemala’s brief flirtation with social democracy. Spearheaded by an ex-army colonel and furniture salesman named Castillo Armas, the paramilitary force was armed and trained in Nicaragua, and along with the CIA, planned to create a climate of tension inside Guatemala, weakening Arbenz’s resolve and provoking a coup d’etat.

Having travelled there with two friends, Gualo Garcia and Andro Herrero, Guevara wished to see at first-hand the fledgling Guatemalan revolution. However, witnessing the failure of the Arbenz regime to secure itself against US intervention, Guevara concluded that the only way to break free from the United States was through violent struggle. “The subject [of debate] was always the same,” wrote Hilda Gadea, Guevara’s future wife and a companion in Guatemala, “The only way, said Ernesto, was a violent revolution; the struggle had to be against Yankee imperialism and any other solutions . . . were betrayals.”

It was here that Guevara, in his own words, became a communist, or more specifically, a believer in the quasi-religious doctrine of Stalinism: “At which moment I left the path of reason and took on something akin to faith I can’t tell you even approximately because the path was very long and with a lot of backward steps.”Jorge Castañeda, in Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, describes how Che, writing to his aunt back in Argentina, had “sworn before a picture of our old, much lamented comrade Stalin that I will not rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated,” signing-off his letters as “Stalin II.”

Soon after Guevara’s death, a large, stylised outline of his face with the phrase “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (English): “Until Everlasting Victory Always” written underneath, was added to the front of the building of the Cuban Ministry of the Interior in Havana. As if marking the transition from defiant revolutionary to cult of personality, Che’s image was fitted to the ugly obelisk just as the current of Sovietisation was engulfing Cuban society. In the year after Che’s death, while non-conformity and rebellion were breaking out across Western Europe, Castro went on television to give a long-winded speech defending the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. During the same year, the revolution summarily banned all small businesses, including the paladares, Havana’s bustling bars and restaurants.

Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, well known for his biting irony, captured the mood of the late 1960s in a piece called “Instructions for Joining a New Society”:

One: Be optimistic.
Two: Be well turned out, courteous, obedient.
(Must have made the grade in sports.)
And finally, walk
As every member does;
One step forward
and two or three back:
but always applauding, applauding.

The type of functionaries who prospered in the Cuba of the late 1960s, remarked comrades from the Eastern bloc, reported for duty with the words: “Commandante en Jefe, ordene!” (Commander-in-chief, give us your orders!).

The myth of Che Guevara’s virtue set against the decline of the Cuban revolution, however, is false. The romanticism around Che skirts over the unpalatable truths about the revolutionary’s life and conduct.

Upon the victory of Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement and the overthrow of Fulgencia Batista, Che’s entourage took charge of the La Cabaña fortress in Havana. In the foreign press, Che was the feared “international communist;” and away from the limelight at La Cabaña Guevara was given the responsibility of dealing with the henchmen of the former regime. The walls of the fortress rang out most nights with the sound of the firing squads. According to the journalist and associate of Che, Luis Ortega, Che sent 1,897 men to their deaths in the early years of the Cuban revolution; and is widely reported to have pronounced at the time that “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.” Despite the number of summary executions presided over by Guevara, the most notorious incident of the time occurred in Santiago de Cuba, at the hands of Raul Castro. Soon after occupying the city, Raul presided over the mass execution of seventy captured soldiers by “bulldozing a trench, standing the condemned men in front of it, and mowing them down with machine guns.” (Anderson, 1997)

When it came to Guevara’s big idea, that of the “New Man,” he was among those who held the belief that gay Cubans be excluded. Viewing them as the “the scum of society,” Guevara founded the forced-labor camp system that held homosexuals, dissidents and later, in the eighties and nineties, those with AIDs. As Castro himself chillingly put it several years later: “We would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true revolutionary, a true communist militant. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant communist must be.”

In an article Guevara wrote during the Cuban Missile Crisis but published posthumously, he revealed his indignation at Nikita Khrushchev for his “treachery” in refusing to start a thermo-nuclear war over the presence of a military base: “What we affirm is that we must proceed along the path of liberation even if this costs millions of atomic victims.” Castro had also been prepared to avenge the destruction of his revolution with the end of the world. It was the veteran of the Second World War, Nikita Khrushchev, who recoiled in the face of Castro’s demands, writing: “In your telex message, you suggested that we should be the first to carry out a nuclear strike against the enemy’s country. Naturally you must realise what that would have led to. It would have been not just a strike but a prelude to a thermonuclear world war . . .”

In the aftermath of the crisis, Guevara played a leading role as Cuban anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists had their printing presses closed down and militants thrown in prison. Cuban Trotskyists, who had argued for freedom of expression and an alliance of all revolutionary, working-class tendencies, were also persecuted, their printing press smashed and their newspapers driven underground. In a letter to Armando Hart, Che wrote later that “Trotsky, along with Khrushchev, belongs to the category of the great revisionists.”

Toward the end of his life, Trotsky had begun to move towards the proposition that the USSR was itself a new form of oppression, the bureaucracy usurping the Russian working class and ruling in its place — in the process creating a new form of tyranny, neither capitalist nor socialist. Guevara’s disillusionment with the Soviet Union led him instead to embrace a more hardline stance — that of Maoism, which he interpreted as truer to the legacy of Stalin.

Considering all of this material is widely available, Che Guevara’s enduring popularity on the left appears both shallow and disturbing. Oscar Wilde said somewhere that a map of the world without a utopia on it isn’t worth looking at; and that perhaps explains Che’s longevity in part. Undoubtedly Che’s charisma and willingness to live out his idealism are part of the attraction; as is his death at a relatively young age — would an elderly Che working in one of Castro’s grim bureaucracies attract such uncritical devotion?

The fanaticism embodied by the man, however, is ultimately the same fanaticism that has, at other times and in other places, led to those who have sought to remould humanity burning large proportions of it. Despite his continued popularity in consumer culture, the left should really know better.

That need not mean, of course, that hope is lost entirely. Basil Davidson, a former British officer and a leftist who fought in the Second World War with the European resistance in the Balkans, once wrote that having seen what had happened in Europe under the Nazis, he no longer believed the old argument that you couldn’t change human nature. From what he had seen with his own eyes, you could change it for the worse quite easily. He concluded that if you could change it for the worse, why then, do we give up on the idea you can change it for the better?

The posibility remains, of course, as it always has; but only if we drop the idea that millions need to perish in the process. Oh, and can we please leave Che Guevara in his grave.