Left still be­guiled by the myth of mur­der­ous Che

Fifty years af­ter his death, it’s time for some hard truths about this rev­o­lu­tion­ary ‘hero’


I’ve never owned a Che Gue­vara T-shirt be­cause I never un­der­stood how any­body could ven­er­ate a mon­ster. But the iconic im­age of the Latin Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tion­ary — youth­ful, bearded and be­drag­gled — made him a poster boy for the Cuban rev­o­lu­tion.

This week marks 50 years since Ernesto “Che” Gue­vara was ex­e­cuted by the Bo­li­vian mil­i­tary, on Oc­to­ber 9, 1967. But the mythol­ogy of his role in the rev­o­lu­tion, and his dream of a global guer­rilla move­ment to re­place cap­i­tal­ism with com­mu­nism, is as strong as ever.

It is a leg­end wrapped in ro­man­ti­cism. Gue­vara’s im­age — he is al­ways por­trayed clad in army fa­tigues and starred beret — has be­come a sym­bol of pop­u­lar cul­ture. The fa­mous pho­to­graph of him taken by Al­berto Korda is ev­ery­where. It has come to rep­re­sent re­bel­lion and ide­al­ism, but this sym­bol­ism is di­vorced from re­al­ity.

Gue­vara’s place in his­tory has been reimag­ined as a mix of Martin Luther King Jr, Mo­han­das Gandhi and Nel­son Man­dela. He is of­ten shown hold­ing a cigar or a rose, rather than the Cris­to­bal au­to­matic ri­fle that rarely left his side in the 1950s and 60s.

His por­trait has been used to pro­mote al­most any cause, in­clud­ing go­ing to church, and as a mar­ket­ing tool to sell com­modi­ties from cig­a­rettes, mag­nets and cof­fee mugs to Smirnoff Vodka and Mag­num ice cream. Just this week, Ire­land is­sued a €1 postage stamp with Gue­vara’s im­age on it (right). What were they think­ing?

The Ar­gen­tinian-born doc­tor was, no doubt, a charis­matic man who in­spired many. But he was also a bru­tal man who jailed, tor­tured and ex­e­cuted hun­dreds of peo­ple who were en­e­mies of the Cuban rev­o­lu­tion.

Gue­vara’s ide­ol­ogy — the im­ple­men­ta­tion of com­mu­nism by force — is ut­terly dis­cred­ited. It has wrought noth­ing but mis­ery, star­va­tion, stag­na­tion, vi­o­lence and death wher­ever at­tempts were made to im­ple­ment it.

There is a strange moral su­pe­ri­or­ity that many on the left of pol­i­tics, and es­pe­cially in the union move­ment, at­tach to Gue­vara. His crimes are over­looked. In re­al­ity, he is not that far re­moved from any of the other rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies and dic­ta­tors who marked the 20th cen­tury, such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Ze­dong.

It is why I also never un­der­stood the ap­peal that so many had, and still have, for Fidel Cas­tro’s Cuba. He was no saint ei­ther. Cas­tro and Gue­vara did not be­lieve in democ­racy, hu­man rights or the rule of law. They did not tol­er­ate po­lit­i­cal dis­sent, there was no free me­dia and they banned unions from or­gan­is­ing work­ers.

While Cas­tro ran a cor­rupt and nepo­tis­tic govern­ment, hold­ing power with fear and force, many Cubans lived in mis­ery. The state-run health and ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems are no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the mur­der, tor­ture or jail­ing of thou­sands of peo­ple.

The idea of a po­lit­i­cal nov­elty tour to this Soviet-era relic, in­clud­ing lis­ten­ing to Cas­tro drone on for hours in one of his pub­lic ad­dresses and then take a 1950s pink Chevro­let for a spin, also had zero ap­peal to me. But many politi­cians, staff mem­bers and union­ists raved about it.

The story of Fidel and Che con­tin­ues to in­spire books, doc­u­men­taries and movies, along­side T-shirts, posters and ban­ners. There is some­thing about th­ese two rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies that charms politi­cos who should know bet­ter. Their ig­no­rance is stag­ger­ing.

When Cas­tro died last year, he was lauded by the likes of Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau and Bri­tish Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn. Greens se­na­tor Lee Rhi­an­non — who was once a youth­ful op­er­a­tive in the pro-Moscow So­cial­ist Party of Aus­tralia — said Cas­tro had “in­spired many” and “lib­er­ated Cuba from cor­rup­tion (and) ex­ploita­tion”. This is non­sense.

The leg­end of Gue­vara has al­ways run deeper among the left. They rave about his book, The Mo­tor­cy­cle Di­aries, chron­i­cling his for­ma­tive jour­ney across South Amer­ica with Al­berto Granado in 1952. They ad­mire his work to end poverty and dis­ease as his rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideals took shape.

In 1955-56, Gue­vara joined Cas­tro and helped to over­throw the cor­rupt regime of Ful­gen­cio Batista, who fled Cuba for the Do­mini­can Repub­lic in 1959.

Gue­vara pro­vided mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal ad­vice, waged bat­tles from the Sierra Maes­tra moun­tains and led his forces into Ha­vana as the govern­ment fell. He also ran the no­to­ri­ous La Ca­bana prison. Hun­dreds of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers were in­ter­ro­gated, tor­tured and ex­e­cuted un­der his com­mand.

Cuba, Gue­vara be­lieved, was only the be­gin­ning of a global rev­o­lu­tion. He trav­elled the world prop­a­gat­ing Marx­ist clap­trap.

In 1965, he failed to ex­cite rev­o­lu­tion in the Congo. In 1967, he spent months in Bo­livia lead­ing a cam­paign with a small band of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies try­ing to over­throw the govern­ment. It is sus­pected that Cas­tro, who en­cour­aged and sup­ported Gue­vara’s ex­pe­di­tions, wanted him out of the way.

In Oc­to­ber that year, Gue­vara met a grisly death. He was ex­e­cuted by the CIA-backed Bo­li­vian mil­i­tary in the school­house of a small vil­lage, La Higuera. He was 39.

His corpse was put on dis­play in a laun­dry room at the lo­cal hospi­tal. His hands were cut off and the body was buried in a se­cret lo­ca­tion. His re­mains were found three decades later and re­turned to Cuba. La Higuera has be­come a pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tion.

What has lived on is the stuff of Marx­ist fan­tasy sen­ti­men­talised in Korda’s pho­to­graph of Gue­vara, taken in 1960. It is one of the most re­pro­duced pho­tos. Korda was for­merly a fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher who was work­ing for a news­pa­per at the time and was close to Cas­tro. The photo hung on his wall for years be­fore it gained no­to­ri­ety.

Korda gave a copy for free to Ital­ian pub­lisher Gian­gia­como Fel­trinelli, who mass re­pro­duced it. Korda was never paid for the photo of Gue­vara and he never earned a roy­alty for its use. He later said he didn’t mind be­cause he left some­thing for “hu­man­ity”. But this is the kind of ex­ploita­tion that Marx railed against.

The irony is that all those rad­i­cal stu­dents, politi­cians and union­ists buy­ing shirts em­bla­zoned with Gue­vara’s im­age are just buy­ing a brand that serves the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem he de­voted his life to de­stroy­ing.

Cas­tro and Gue­vara did not be­lieve in democ­racy, hu­man rights or the rule of law


Rev­o­lu­tion­ary chic: Che Gue­vara with Fidel Cas­tro in the 1960s

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