Yesterday, 9 October, in 1967, Che Guevara was executed by the Bolivian Army.
We see his face used often as a symbol of revolution; a symbol of fighting the powers that be and standing up to “the man”. In fact, I’m pretty sure there isn’t a person who was a part of the hippie movement in the 1960s who still doesn’t have a bit of a soft spot in their heart for “Che”, and on the other side there are few who support free markets and capitalism who will say anything favorable about him.
But why the divide? Let’s take a quick look back in time and see what history has to say about Che Guevara.
Che graduated in 1959 from medical school; after all, he was born into a wealthy family in his home country of Argentina. During his time at medical school he is said to have toured much of South America from the back of his motorbike. During that time, he noticed the poor and oppressed underclass of many of these nations, and after graduating from medical school became involved in left-wing organizations.
He was an advocate of peasant revolutions, and violent uprisings against what he saw as a corrupt and dominant capitalist ruling class. Needless to say, he jumped on the chance to join Fidel Castro in his revolution against the Batista regime in Cuba.
So far, he sounds like an icon of leftist ideals with a desire to help the poor of society, and anger against the disparity he saw between the wealthy and the poor, the haves and the have nots. So far, so good!
I think we can all agree that it is right to help the poor and needy, and that governments and ruling elites can be, and usually are, corrupt. But there is a hypocrisy that unfolds for fans of “The Che”; a sad turn of events that, if history is any indication, befalls far too many revolutions. No matter how well-intentioned they begin, these violent revolutions often usher in an even worse state of affairs than ever before for the nation affected. What most people don’t know is that the truth of Che Guevara’s legacy is far from the image of the virtuous revolutionary that many adhere to.
Humberto Fontova, a Cuban-American author and critic of the Castro regime in Cuba, wrote an expose on Che Guevara in his book Exposing the Real Che Guevara: And the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him. He points out that Che, like so many other violent Marxist revolutionaries (see Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot etc.), was not just a bloodthirsty executioner, but can, in fact, be called the “Godfather of Modern Terrorism” because of the guerrilla tactics he employed against the governments of the nations he sought to “liberate”.
Michael J. Totten writes in the World Affairs Journal about a quote from a Cuban exile who, speaking to Fontova, says that Che’s fans in the West need a kick in the ass by reality:
“I’d loved to have seen those Sorbonne and Berkeley and Berlin student protesters with their ‘groovy’ Che posters try their ‘anti-authority’ grandstanding in Cuba at the time. I’d love to have seen Che and his goons get their hands on them. They’d have gotten a quick lesson about the ‘fascism’ they were constantly complaining about—and firsthand. They would have quickly found themselves sweating and gasping from forced labor in Castros and Che’s concentration camps, or jabbed in the butt by ‘groovy’ bayonets when they dared slow down and perhaps getting their teeth shattered by a ‘groovy’ machine-gun butt if they adopted the same attitude in front of Che’s militia as they adopted in front of those campus cops.”
Guevara wrote the following in his Message to the Tricontinental:
“Crazy with fury I will stain my rifle red while slaughtering any enemy that falls in my hands! My nostrils dilate while savoring the acrid odor of gunpowder and blood. With the deaths of my enemies I prepare my being for the sacred fight and join the triumphant proletariat with a bestial howl!”
“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. This is what our soldiers must become …”
When researching this article, I found that there are many pages of content praising Che. In fact, almost anywhere you look you will find a positive view of him and his struggle against oppression. Like most controversial people, I suspect the truth of the life of Che Guevara lies somewhere in the middle of the continuing debate over whether he was truly a hero or a villain. There is so much to debate from what we know of the ideals and what we see in the life of Guevara. There are aspects of what he is said to have believed that make him sound almost libertarian in desire, with statements like “The world must not only be interpreted, it must be transformed. Man ceases to be the slave and tool of his environment and converts himself into the architect of his own destiny.” and “Our youth must always be free, discussing and exchanging ideas concerned with what is happening throughout the entire world.” If only he had followed the philosophy of individual liberty to its conclusion, we might have a very different story to tell.
History, however, has shown that his thoughts and intentions were quite the opposite, preferring collectivism to individual liberty, and continuing the typical Marxist principle of silencing voices of dissent through any means necessary. Oddly enough, by doing this, he did something he previously condemned through the following words: “Cruel leaders are replaced only to have new leaders turn cruel.” He said “If any person has a good word for the previous government, that is good enough for me to have him shot.” Regarding freedom of the press and free speech, he said: “We must do away with all newspapers. A revolution cannot be accomplished with freedom of the press.”, and ironically “Youth must refrain from ungrateful questioning of governmental mandates. Instead they must dedicate themselves to study, work and military service. The very spirit of rebellion is reprehensible.”
In his seeming pursuit of freedom for the downtrodden and liberty for the oppressed, he brought many nations into the authoritarian arms of Marxism and communism. It’s sad how often the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, how often those who desire freedom and are rightly appalled by oppression and the dire needs of the poor and powerless, find themselves as the oppressors! As has been the case in most if not all of the Marxist uprisings, once the “revolutionaries” take power, there comes a time of incomprehensible oppression, murder, torture, and culling of all conflicting views.
Guevara’s own legacy continues (on a smaller scale) the legacies of other “great” Marxist revolutionaries. Revolutionaries like Joseph Stalin, whose regime is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 50 to 60 million of his own people; or Mao Zedong, whose regime was responsible for approximately 45 million more.
To me, this shows that more than ever before we as a society need the free exchange of ideas, we need more freedom not less! We need to be able to question, to discuss and debate, and to strongly oppose those institutions or ideas that would seek to oppress. If only Che Guevara had chosen to bring the downtrodden and oppressed to true freedom and individual liberty rather than leaving a legacy of pain and death in Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia. If he had, we might instead be talking about those nations as bastions of freedom and prosperity. If only!