Che Guevara: the killing machine
Che Guevara, who did so much (or was it so little?) to destroy capitalism, is now a quintessential capitalist brand. His likeness adorns mugs, hoodies, lighters, key chains, wallets, baseball caps, toques, bandanas, tank tops, club shirts, couture bags, denim jeans, herbal tea and of course those omnipresent T-shirts with the photograph, taken by Alberto Korda, of the socialist heartthrob in his beret during the early years of the revolution, as Che happened to walk into the photographer’s viewfinder — and into the image that, 38 years after his death, is still the logo of revolutionary (or is it capitalist?) chic.
Che products are marketed by big corporations and small businesses — such as the Burlington Coat Factory, which put out a television commercial depicting a youth in fatigue pants wearing a Che T- shirt, or Flamingo’s Boutique in Union City, New Jersey, whose owner responded to the fury of local Cuban exiles with this devastating argument: “I sell whatever people want to buy.”
The metamorphosis of Che Guevara into a capitalist brand is not new, but the brand has been enjoying a revival of late. This windfall is owed substantially to The Motorcycle Diaries. Beautifully shot against landscapes that have clearly eluded the eroding effects of polluting capitalism, the recent film shows the young man on a voyage of self-discovery as his budding social conscience encounters social and economic exploitation. At this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, Carlos Santana and Antonio Banderas performed the theme song from The Motorcycle Diaries, Santana showing up wearing a Che T-shirt and a crucifix.
But the current Che revival started in 1997, on the 13th anniversary of his death, when five biographies hit the bookstores and his remains were discovered near an airstrip at Bolivia’s Vallegrande airport.
It is customary for followers of a cult not to know the real life story of their hero. It is not surprising that Guevara’s contemporary followers, his new postcommunist admirers, also delude themselves by clinging to a myth.
No man is without some redeeming qualities. In the case of Che Guevara, those qualities may help us to measure the gulf that separates reality from myth. His honesty ( well, partial honesty) meant that he left written testimony of his cruelties, including the really ugly (though not the ugliest) stuff. And thanks to those testimonials to his thoughts and his deeds, we may know exactly how deluded so many of our contemporaries are about so much. In April, 1967, speaking from experience, Guevara summed up his homicidal idea of justice in his “Message to the Tricontinental”: “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.”
His earlier writings are also peppered with this rhetorical and ideological violence. At times, the young bohemian seemed unable to distinguish between the levity of death as a spectacle and the tragedy of a revolution’s victims. In a letter to his mother in 1954 from Guatemala, where he witnessed the overthrow of the revolutionary government of Jacobo Arbenz, he wrote: “It was all a lot of fun, what with the bombs, speeches and other distractions to break the monotony I was living in.”
Guevara’s disposition when he travelled with Castro from Mexico to Cuba aboard the Granma is captured in a phrase in a letter to his wife that he penned on Jan. 28, 1957: “ Here in the Cuban jungle, alive and bloodthirsty.” This mentality had been reinforced by his conviction that Arbenz had lost power because he had failed to execute his potential enemies. It is hardly a surprise that during the armed struggle against Batista, and then after the triumphant entry into Havana, Guevara murdered or oversaw the executions in summary trials of scores of people — proven enemies, suspected enemies and those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In January, 1957, as his diary from the Sierra Maestra indicates, Guevara shot Eutimio Guerra because he suspected him of passing on information: “I ended the problem with a .32 calibre pistol, in the right side of his brain ... His belongings were now mine.” Later he shot Aristidio, a peasant who expressed the desire to leave whenever the rebels moved on. While he wondered whether this particular victim “ was really guilty enough to deserve death,” he had no qualms about ordering the death of Echevarría, a brother of one of his comrades, because of unspecified crimes: “ He had to pay the price.” At other times he would simulate executions without carrying them out, as a method of psychological torture.
Luis Guardia and Pedro Corzo, two researchers in Florida who are working on a documentary about Guevara, have obtained the testimony of Jaime Costa Vázquez, a former commander in the revolutionary army known as “ El Catalán,” who maintains that many of the executions attributed to Ramiro Valdés, a future interior minister of Cuba, were Guevara’s direct responsibility. “ If in doubt, kill him” were Che’s instructions. On the eve of victory, according to Costa, Che ordered the execution of a couple of dozen people in central Cuba’s Santa Clara. Marcelo Fernándesanother former revolutionary who later became a journalist, has written that among those executed were peasants who had joined the army simply to escape unemployment.
But the “ cold- blooded killing machine” did not show the full extent of his rigour until, immediately after the collapse of the Batista regime, Castro put him in charge of La Cabaña prison. In a manner chillingly reminiscent of Lavrenti Beria, Guevara presided during the first half of 1959 over one of the darkest periods of the revolution. José Vilasuso, a lawyer and professor who belonged to the body in charge of the summary judicial process at La Cabaña, told me recently:
“Che was in charge of the Comisión Depuradora. The process followed the law of the Sierra: There was a military court and Che’s guidelines to us were that we should act with conviction, meaning that they were all murderers and the revolutionary way to proceed was to be implacable ... Executions took place from Monday to Friday, in the middle of the night, just after the sentence was given and automatically confirmed by the appellate body. On the most gruesome night I remember, seven men were executed.”
How many people were killed at La Cabaña? Pedro Corzo offers a figure of some 200. Vilasuso told me that 400 people were executed between January and the end of June in 1959 ( at which point Che ceased to be in charge of La Cabaña). Secret cables sent by the American Embassy in Havana to the State Department in Washington spoke of “over 500.”
Che’s lust for power had other ways of expressing itself besides murder. In 1958, after taking the city of Sancti Spiritus, Guevara unsuccessfully tried to impose a kind of sharia, regulating relations between men and women, the use of alcohol, and informal gambling — a puritanism that did not exactly characterize his own way of life. He also ordered his men to rob banks, a decision that he justified in a letter to Enrique Oltuski, a subordinate, in November of that year: “ The struggling masses agree to robbing banks because none of them has a penny in them.” This idea of revolution as a license to re- allocate property as he saw fit led the Marxist puritan to take over the mansion of an emigrant after the triumph of the revolution.
The urge to dispossess others of their property and to claim ownership of others’ territory was central to Guevara’s politics of raw power. In his memoirs, the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser recalls that Guevara asked him how many people had left his country because of land reform. When Nasser replied that no one had left, Che countered in anger that the way to measure the depth of change is by the number of people “ who feel there is no place for them in the new society.”
Che’s obsession with collectivist control led him to collaborate on the formation of the security apparatus that was set up to subjugate 6.5 million Cubans. In early 1959, a series of secret meetings took place in Tarará, near Havana, at the mansion to which Che temporarily withdrew to recover from an illness. That is where the top leaders, including Castro, designed the Cuban police state. Guevara himself took charge of G- 6, the body tasked with the ideological indoctrination of the armed forces. The U. S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 became the perfect occasion to consolidate the new police state, with the rounding up of tens of thousands of Cubans and a new series of executions. In the beginning, the revolution mobilized volunteers to build schools and to work in ports, plantations, and factories. But it was not long before volunteer work became less voluntary: The first forced labour camp, Guanahacabibes, was set up in western Cuba at the end of 1960. This is how Che explained the function performed by this method of confinement: “[ We] only send to Guanahacabibes those doubtful cases where we are not sure people should go to jail ... people who have committed crimes against revolutionary morals, to a lesser or greater degree.”
This camp was the precursor to the eventual systematic confinement, starting in 1965 in the province of Camagüey, of dissidents, homosexuals, AIDS victims, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Afro- Cuban priests and others under the banner of Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción, or Military Units to Help Production. Herded into buses and trucks, the “unfit” would be transported at gunpoint into concentration camps organized on the Guanahacabibes mold. Some would never return; others would be raped, beaten or mutilated; and most would be traumatized for life. Che’s fanatical disposition made him into a linchpin of the “Sovietization” of the Cuban revolution that had repeatedly boasted about its independent character. It was Che who was entrusted with the mission of furthering SovietCuban negotiations during a visit to Moscow in late 1960. Guevara’s second trip to Russia, in August 1962, was even more significant because it sealed the deal to turn Cuba into a Soviet nuclear beachhead. After pressing his Soviet allies on the danger that the United States might find out what was happening, Guevara obtained assurances that the Soviet navy would intervene — in other words, that Moscow was ready to go to war.
Just after the Cuban missile crisis ended — with Khrushchev reneging on the promise made in to Guevara and negotiating a deal with the United States behind Castro’s back — Guevara told a British communist daily: “If the rockets had remained, we would have used them all and directed them against the very heart of the United States, including New York, in our defence against aggression.”
The great revolutionary had a chance to put into practise his economic vision — his idea of social justice — as head of the National Bank of Cuba and of the Department of Industry of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform at the end of 1959 and, starting in early 1961, as minister of industry. The period in which Guevara was in charge of most of the Cuban economy saw the near- collapse of sugar production, the failure of industrialization, and the introduction of rationing — all this in what had been one of Latin America’s four most economically successful countries since before the Batista dictatorship. In the last few decades of the 19th century, Argentina had the second-highest growth rate in the world. By the 1890s, the real income of Argentine workers was greater than that of Swiss, German, and French workers. By 1928, it had the twelfth- highest per capita GDP in the world. That achievement, which later generations would ruin, was in large measure due to Juan Bautista Alberdi.
Like Guevara, Alberdi liked to travel: He walked through the pampas and deserts from north to south at the age of 14, all the way to Buenos Aires. Like Guevara, he opposed a tyrant, Juan Manuel Rosas. Like Guevara, he got a chance to influence a revolutionary leader in power — Justo José de Urquiza, who toppled Rosas in 1852. And like Guevara, he represented the new government on world tours, and died abroad.
But unlike the old and new darling of the left, Alberdi never killed a fly. His book, Bases y puntos de partida para la organización de la República Argentina, was the foundation of the Constitution of 1853 that limited government, opened trade, encouraged immigration and secured property rights — thereby inaugurating 70 years of astonishing prosperity. He did not meddle in the affairs of other nations, opposing his country’s war against Paraguay. And his likeness does not adorn Mike Tyson’s abdomen.