Whose Che?

By Rodrigo Acuña

New Matilda  

9 October 2007

It is 40 years since Ernesto “Che” Guevara - the Argentine revolutionary who had helped Fidel Castro overthrew the US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 - was captured with the aid of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and executed by the Bolivian military.

Ceremonies commemorating Guevara's death have been held throughout Latin America, with the largest taking place in Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Nicaragua and, ironically, Bolivia - a country whose population once denounced Guevara to local troops as he attempted to ignite another revolution.

In 1967, as Guevara lay dead next to his Cuban comrades in the Vallegrande hospital, displayed before the international press like a trophy by Bolivian generals, few could have imagined that one day Cubans would return to Bolivia at the request of the country's Head of State. Since Evo Morales - an astute trade union leader of humble origins - became Bolivia's first Indigenous President in 2005, Cuban teachers and doctors have arrived in their hundreds, providing services that were much needed by the impoverished population.

Even Mario Teran - the miserable and, at the time intoxicated, Bolivian soldier who executed Guevara - is reported to have received eye surgery by Cuban doctors.

In Australia, like in many parts of the world, Guevara has been both placed on a pedestal or demonised out of all proportion. Writing earlier this year in The Australian, Cassandra Wilkinson quoted Guevara - generally, out of context - defending Cuba's right to execute Batista's former, often CIA-trained henchmen.

Wilkinson constructs her image of Guevara using a book entitled, Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolise Him by Cuban émigré Humberto Fontova. The book paints Guevara as a failed physician and psychopathic guerrilla, who killed 14,000 people, as well as puppies and was “deathly afraid to drive a motorcycle”. Fontova's work could not obtain any serious academic reviews and to say that it merits a 10-second glance at a secondhand bookshop may be too kind.

And, the Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt provides another predictable angle on his blog.

It's true that, since 1967, Guevara has been elevated to saint-like status - particularly in Cuba. After his death was announced, Castro held Guevara up as the New Man who belonged to the future - the model to which all generations should aspire.

And yet, for a supposed man of the future, Guevara looked very much like a Latin male of the 1960s. A chauvinist, it is claimed the rebel on some occasions publicly berated his wife in the harshest of terms. With his military subordinates, Che's reputation as a commander of little patience was notorious. According to Dariel Alarcón Ramírez's book Memorias de un Soldado Cubano, Guevara would often listen patiently to a soldier's account and then respond in the bluntest of terms: “Look, what you are saying is shit.” Guevara's honesty and distaste for privileges were admired but also deeply disliked - because they bordered on the puritannical.

Asked to comment on Guevara, Jeff Browitt, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Technology Sydney, said:

"Now we all know the good things about Che, but let's look at a couple of problems: the New Man had no room for the New Gay Man and besides that, Che contributed towards the silencing of critics of the Revolution … and if one thing undermines revolutionary gains it is the unwillingness to listen to internal criticism."

These points certainly tarnished Guevara - and Cuba.

Yet, for all his faults, it is not difficult to understand the factors that shaped Guevara. And one need not share his view of how the world should work (and I certainly don't).

Before Guevara became a Comandante in Castro's guerilla army and as highlighted in the recent film The Motorcycle Diaries, the medical student travelled widely throughout Latin America, coming face to face with the severe poverty endured by peasants and labourers. In 1952, Guevara and his friend Alberto Granados were arrested and interrogated in Bogotá, Colombia - at the time under the dictatorship of Laureano Gómez - simply because the authorities suspected they may be potential subversive agents. They were only released after local students convinced the authorities this was not the case.

In Guatemala in 1954, Guevara witnessed a moderate social democratic regime demonised by the local press and then violently overthrown by the United States. The country eventually plunged into a brutal dictatorship after a civil war which saw roughly 200,000 dead civilians - most murdered through US-backed State terror.

When the vagabond doctor met the Castro brothers in Mexico in the mid-1950s, Guevara found a project he could wholeheartedly support and once triumphant, would not allow to be overthrown through force.

So what can be said about Guevara's views on the use of violence? For one thing, his point on the need for progressive or Left-wing governments in Latin America to be able to resort to violence still seems relevant today - were it not, a little US-backed coup in Venezuela in 2002 could not have been repelled.

Guevara's support for the death penalty and his role in the executions at La Cabaña barracks are by far the most contentious. Writing in Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, the Mexican intellectual Jorge Castañeda states:

"Guevara's responsibility for the events at La Cabaña - though it cannot be diminished, as Che himself never tried to do - must nonetheless be seen within the context of the time. There was no bloodbath; nor were innocent people exterminated in any large or even significant numbers. After the excesses of Batista, and the unleashing of passions during those winter months, it is surprising that there were so few abuses and executions."

By 1997, the year the book was published, Castañeda had already made a Christopher Hitchens-like political conversion from Left to Right - but even he can respect certain facts.

John Lee Anderson in his biography of Guevara writes that most of Batista's thugs were “sentenced in conditions … above board, if summary affairs, with defence lawyers, witnesses, prosecutors, and an attending public”.

By the time Guevara reached Bolivia in 1967, most credible accounts have the guerrilla leader giving his captives appropriate medical attention, in a dignified manner. And he often called off attacks when he realised he was again going to be fighting a group of poorly trained 17-year-old boys.

Even though most Latin Americans today do not embrace Guevara's views of guerrilla warfare, or of a one Party State, his calls for actions are still revered because they were based on real and ongoing problems such as the region's abysmal poverty, an almost complete inability by elites to accept some degree of social accountability, or the United States' tumultuous record of interventions.

One need not be a Marxist to understand these points.

Posted on August 5, 2013 .