|Che Guevara: An Icon But Not A Hero
Evie Rose, Dickson College, 2011
This essay was submitted as part of the Revolutions in the Modern World unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2011. It was written in response to the question: “Does Che Guevara deserve his iconic status?”
Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is a 20th century icon, who symbolises rebellion, justice and equality. Born on 14th May, 1928, the Argentine lead the life of a revolutionary and is perhaps most famous for his instrumental role alongside Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution of 1956 to 1959. He has come to represent many ideals such as freedom and resistance to oppression, and heroic images of a Che Guevara adorn merchandise across the globe. However, it is unclear whether many truly understand the reality behind the icon. Since his death the facts of Che’s life have become further and further blurred through history; his actions are not altogether consistent with his famous image. There is a difference between an icon and a hero, and as Che Guevara demonstrates, the two do not always go hand in hand.
The beliefs and political ideologies that fuelled Guevara’s revolutionary action before the Cuban Revolution were based on an intense dislike for the US. For some, his motives seem justified and understandable, even honourable. Throughout Che’s early-life, Argentina had been “a hot-bed of antipathy for the U.S.”, and contempt for capitalism (Gibbs, 2008). This anti-American sentiment is unsurprising, given the power of US corporations in Latin America, their monopolization and exploitation of the economy, and unrelenting interference in political affairs of that region (Gibbs, 2008. Anderson, 1997). It is only to be expected therefore that Che would come to share that sentiment, further deepened by his experiences travelling through South America. Che Guevara was appalled by the inequality of wealth and injustice he saw. In his journal, Motorcycle Diaries, Che documents this journey and how he came into close contact;
… with poverty, with hunger, with disease, with the inability to cure a child because of a lack of resources, with the numbness that hunger and continued punishment cause [to the point that] losing a child is an unimportant incident (Guevara, 1952).
Che’s “distended nostrils inhaled the poverty with sadistic insensity” and the most important thing to him became “helping those people” (Guevara, 1952). His disgust at this inequality and strong desire to fight for its abolition is undeniably both an honourable and admirable cause. However, Che attributed this gross inequality and injustice to US imperialism and capitalism, leading him to a greater acceptance of communist doctrine (Gibbs, 2008. Guevara, 1952. Galloway, 2006).
There are also various explanations for Che’s desire for revolt against Fulgencio Batista. Batista was the tyrannical, fascist dictator of Cuba prior to the Cuban Revolution. He had gained power through a coup on March 10th 1952 and secured it through a mock election in in which he was the only legal candidate, becoming president of Cuba in 1954 (Sierra, 2005. Anderson, 1997). Apart from the fact he had risen undemocratically, Batista ruled with an iron-fist. He opened the way for large-scale gambling in Havana, and he reorganized the Cuban state so that he and his political appointees could harvest the nation's riches (Lowy, 1973. Sierra, 2005). By 1995 his military police would patrol the streets and pick up anyone suspected of insurrection, as anti-Batista movements had become frequent. The military police had grown more prone to “violent acts of brutality and torture, with no fear of legal repercussions” (Sierra, 2005). Opposition to Batista was therefore certainly justified, and the revolutionaries’ motives can be further explained by his support from America. America was afraid of the spread of socialist and communist ideals, and saw Batista not only as a stabilizing force within the area, but one who had respect for American interests (Gibbs, 2008). Guevara’s hatred for “the great enemy of mankind: the United States of America” (Guevara 1976), meant that whatever they liked, he did not: furthering his desire to overthrow Batista. Che, therefore, evidently had justifiable reasoning behind his dislike for capitalism and desire for overthrowing Batista. Indeed, his passion for balancing inequalities throughout Latin America is potentially honourable and worthy of praise. However, it is Che’s revolutionary action and his role following the Cuban Revolution that undermines the idea of Che as a freedom fighter.
Che Guevara’s ambitions and honourable cause are not reflected in his solution and consequent actions. His answer to the overthrow of capitalism and Batista’s dictatorship was a violent and bloodthirsty revolution. When Fidel Castro encountered Che in Mexico in 1955 after being released from prison for previous revolutionary action (Anderson, 1997), they banded together against Batista and the revolution was born. Che was a superb guerrilla fighter, doing everything with his men and not giving up through two years of hard fighting. However, history seems to ignore that he was also known for being extremely strict and very willing to order executions, or indeed, serve as executioner (Gibbs, 2008). During the armed conflict with Batista, Che oversaw or performed the execution of scores of people, including proven and suspected enemies and some who were simply killed (Llosa, 2005. Gibbs, 2008). In his testimony, a former commander in the revolutionary army known as ‘El Catalán,’ Jaime Costa Vázquez, testifies that many of the executions attributed to Ramiro Valdés, a future minister of Cuba, were in fact Che’s direct responsibility. He declares that Valdés was under Che’s orders that directed; “If in doubt, kill him” (Llosa, 2008). Che’s guerilla fighting was not therefore as brave and honest as his iconic role would suggest, and reveals his darker, authoritarian side.
Che Guevara’s actions following the Cuban Revolution reveal his brutal and tyrannical nature at its worst. Post-Revolution, having over-thrown a brutal dictator, Che proceeded to build a new tyrannical regime with Castro. A Time article of August 1960 went so far as to say that “Che Guevara is the brain” of the Cuban Revolution (Time, 1960). His influence can be seen clearly through his various policies and roles of authority. The first of these was immediately following Batista’s sudden flight from Cuba in 1959, signifying the end of the Cuban Revolution, when Che was put in in charge of La Cabaña prison (Anderson, 1997). His active participation in the subsequent wave of executions is perhaps the most “glaring blemish in Che Guevara’s record” (Gibbs, 2008). Under the title of ‘Supreme Prosecutor’, Che performed the job of purging the old army and killing any traitors or war criminals; a process Che believed was necessary to ensure the survival of the revolution. The trials at first followed due process, with lawyers and witnesses present (Anderson, 1997). However this diminished as the executions continued, until Che was stating that, to execute war criminals, judicial proof was unnecessary (Llosa, 2005. Fontova, 2008). A chaplain who had formerly worked at the prison, Javier Arzuaga, described the nature of the trials:
There were about eight hundred prisoners in a space fit for no more than three hundred... The revolutionary tribunal was made of militiamen. Che Guevara presided over the appellate court. He never overturned a sentence. We called him “the butcher” because he enjoyed giving the order to shoot (Llosa, 2005).
Che declared when questioned about the executions that he “…will continue executing as long as it is necessary! This is a war to the death against the Revolution's enemies!" (quoted in Fontova, 2008). This policy of mass execution is nonetheless manifestly unjust. To summarily execute the number of people1 that Che did was unnecessary (Fontova, 2008). This system of trials directly contrasts with what Che was initially fighting for. In his role as Supreme Prosecutor, Che convicted men without trial, undeniably a severe injustice. Thus his actions following the Cuban Revolution hugely contradict the idea of Che Guevara as a symbol of justice.
Another influential role Che played – the second atrocity following the Cuban Revolution that can be attributed to him, is the instrumental role he played in setting up a system of labour camps in Cuba. These labour camps were part of Che’s scheme to create a new revolutionary morale (Anderson, 1997), but they were also an example of power being used to crush any form of dissent. The first forced labour camp, Guanahacabibes, was set up in the remote and rocky west of Cuba in 1960 (Anderson, 1997. Sauvage, 1973). Che declared that the only people confined at Guanahacabibes were those who had “committed crimes against revolutionary morals” (Llosa, 2005), however these ‘crimes’ were never truly defined. Before long, people were imprisoned for various reasons including so-called counter-revolutionaries; AIDS sufferers and homosexuals; or for holding religious beliefs disagreeable to the government, such as Catholicism, being a Jehova’s Witness, or an Afro-Cuban priest (Berman, 2004. Anderson, 1997). These individuals, confined for reasons beyond their control, were allegedly “raped, beaten, or mutilated; and most would be traumatized for life” (Llosa, 2005). Che however insisted, through his ‘Neustra Industria’2 of March 1962, a publication disclosing for the first time the existence of these labour camps, that they were “rehabilitation camps” and that the work was “voluntary” (Sauvage, 1973. Anderson, 1997). However the alternative was the “revolutionary” court, the consequences of which would be much harsher (Sauvage, 1997). Thus, although people chose the labour camps, it was simply the lesser of two evils and can hardly be considered ‘voluntary’. This labour camp system portrays further injustices and oppression supported by Che Guevara, and opposes freedom of expression: another key element of the icon that is Che.
Che Guevara’s post-revolutionary action which continued on an international level further contradicts the ideals he supposedly represents. The first, and perhaps most potentially destructive, is his desire for the Soviet Union to bomb the USA, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis. In October 1963, when the Cold War was at its most tense, Che advocated a course of action that could potentially have ended life on earth (Hari, 2007). Che implored the Soviet Union to deliver a nuclear attack on US cities, because as Che stated, “as Marxists, we have maintained that peaceful coexistence among nations does not include coexistence between exploiters and the exploited” (Guevara, as quoted by Llosa, 2005). Fortunately, the Soviet Union pulled out at the last minute, however this remains the point at which the Cold War was closest to becoming a deadly nuclear conflict, and Che was behind it (Anderson, 1997), depicting his fanatical and aggressive nature. Guevara’s continued spreading of socialist ideals which gave him the appearance of being courageous and a martyr, serve to further portray his lust for power. In The Motorcycle Diaries, when writing about the conquistador of Chile, Pedro Valdivia, Guevara reflected:
He belonged to that special class of men the species produces every so often, in whom a craving for limitless power is so extreme that any suffering to achieve it seems natural (Guevara, 1952).
Che may have been describing himself. Indeed, his continued revolutionary action and attempts at gaining power around the world, particularly in Congo and Bolivia, serve to demonstrate this. As stated by Jack Gibbs in his book, ‘Colossal Control Failures’, the reason for Guevara’s failure first in Congo and then in Bolivia, which proved fatal, is the same reason he tried at all: Che was attempting an enormous expansion in his range of control. Aside from taking on new targets, they were very different to what he had previously experienced, and his power-hungry nature made him impulsive and greedy, which lead to his demise.
History, it is said, is written by the victors. This explains the somewhat strange belief that Che Guevara is both an icon and a hero. His image is worn and projected religiously on merchandise across the globe because of the ideas of freedom, justice and equality thrust upon him by the 20th Century. However, Che’s actions throughout his life contrast with these ideals and his romanticised life. Che began with an admirable passion for humanitarian aid, for equality and justice, and fighting a dictator to achieve freedom from oppression. This is the Che that history remembers, not the bloodthirsty commander of La Cabana prison and the man behind the oppressive and unjust labour camp system in Cuba. Che Guevara did instigate change and did die fighting for his beliefs, ensuring his place in history as an icon. It is however, one’s actions that define them, and thus Che Guevara should by no means be considered a hero.
Anderson, Jon Lee. 1997. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. Bantam Press, Great Britain.
Anderson’s biography of Che Guevara is extremely dense and informative. It includes every aspect of his life from his birth to death, and provided me with a lot of imperative information. This biography does not particularly analyse Che Guevara, which means it is unbiased and reliable.
Deutschmann, David 1997(editor), Che Guevara Reader: Writings on Guerilla Strategy, Politics and Revolution. Ocean Press, Melbourne, Australia.
This book is a collection of speeches and writings by Che Guevara covering the revolutionary war, his years in government and his views on major international issues of the time. This book was a great source of primary material and gave me a deeper insight into Guevara’s contribution to, and feelings towards, the Cuban Revolution.
Lowy, Michael 1973, The Marxism of Che Guevara; philosophy, economics, and revolutionary warfare. Monthly Review Press, New York, United States of America.
Lowy’s book provided an in-depth exploration and analysis of Che Guevara’s and Cuban politics the surrounding the Cuban Revolution. I found it to be quite dense and the language complicated, however it raised some interesting points.
Sauvage, Leo. 1973, Che Guevara: The Failure of a Revolutionary. Translated by Raoul Fremont. Prentice Hall, New Jersey, United States of America.
This book was both a biography and analysis of Che Guevara and his politics, particularly focusing on the post-revolution. I found it very helpful in my essay, however as the title suggests it was slightly biased against Guevara.
Gibbs, Jack P, 2008. ‘Collosal Control Failures: From Julius Caesar to 9/11’ Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, United States of America.
This book is a study of colossal control failures throughout history, covering everyone from Julius Caesar to Adolf Hitler. It only has one chapter on Che Guevara, however I found it very useful in examining his role in the Cuban Revolution. It writes from quite a sociological point of view, which means the writing can be intricate, however it was very analytical and interesting.
Guevara, Ernesto 2004. The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin-American Journey. Ocean Press, Melbourne, Australia.
Motorcycle Diaries, written by Che Guevara himself, follows his journey through South America on a motorbike. In it he describes all of his experiences such as the poverty and inequalities he encounters, which provided me with a primary source and deeper insight into the reasons behind his actions.
Berman, Paul 2004. ‘The Cult of Che: Don’t Applaud the Motorcycle Diaries’ Slate, online: http://www.slate.com/id/2107100/ accessed 21/6/11
This article argues against the heroic presentation of Che Guevara in the 20th Century, particularly in the new film ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ which he analyses. It is biased against Che, and it gave me further reading to support my essay.
Galloway, G. 2007, ‘Should Che be an icon? Yes,’ The Independent, 6 October, 2007. Online: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/george-galloway-should-che-be-an-icon-yes-396109.html accessed 20/06/11
A pro-Che article arguing, as the title suggests, that he deserves to be seen as an icon. Apart from being quite biased I found this helpful in showing the other side of the argument for my essay.
Guevara, Ernesto, April 16, 1967. ‘Message to the Tricontinental’ Online Version: Workers' Web, 1997. Che Guevara Internet Archive, online: http://www.marxists.org/archive/guevara/1967/04/16.htm accessed: 21/06/11
In this speech Guevara argues that hatred was something to be harnessed and used to struggle against injustices and prevent further ones. He portrays his dislike for the US, at whom he believes the hatred should be primarily directed at. I found this a very good primary source, which furthered my knowledge of Che’s anti-American sentiment.
Guevara, Ernesto, March 1965. ‘Socialism and Man in Cuba’ Online Version: The Che Reader, Ocean Press, 2005. Online: http://www.marxists.org/archive/guevara/1965/03/man-socialism.htm accessed: 21/06/11
Guevara explains in this speech his desire to create a ‘new man’ through socialism, and how everyone must work together to defeat capitalism. I found it useful for quotes and furthering my understanding regarding Che’s socialist ideas.
Hari, J. 2007, ‘Should Che be an icon? No’, The Independent, 6 October, 2007. Online: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-should-che-be-an-icon-no-394336.html accessed 20/6/2011.
Hari’s article is decidedly anti-Che, as a response to Galloway’s pro-Che article. He argues that Che should not be seen as an icon, which helped back up the ideas in my essay.
Llosa, Alvaro Vargas 2005. ‘The Killing Machine: Che Guevara from Communist Fireband to Capitalist Brand.’ Online: www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1535, accessed 20/6/11
Llosa’s article, discusses Che Guevara’s role as an icon, and challenges it through examining his role in the Cuban Revolution and after. I found it very useful when researching my essay as it had various important quotes and ideas relevant to my essay topic. It is however an opinion piece and thus quite passionate and biased against Che Guevara.
Sierra, Jerry 2005. ‘Batista’ historyofcuba.com, online: http://www.historyofcuba.com/history/batista.htm accessed 21/6/11
Sierra’s piece is a biography of Batista from the beginning to the end of his life, focusing on his actions before and during the Cuban Revolution. It looks at his policies and actions, which I found imperative when discussing his regime prior to Castro’s revolt in my essay.
Suarez, John 2008. ‘Guevara’s Lamentable Legacy’ online: http://www2.fiu.edu/~fcf/che.html accessed 21/6/11
This piece, by John Suarez, discusses Che Guevara’s actions and politics throughout his life, commenting on how inappropriate it is to see Che as a ‘good guy’. It provides lots of factual information and quotes to back up its points, adding to its persuasion and lessening its potential bias. I found it very helpful in finding quotes and ideas for my essay.
Time, 1960, ‘Cuba: Castro’s Brain’ Time, 2011. August 08, 1960. Online: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,869742-9,00.html accessed: 21/06/11
This Time article written in 1960 gives a biography of Che and Castro up to that point and describes the influence Che has in government. I found it very useful when looking for more information on Che’s policies and influence.
Trought, Brian 2006. ‘Guevara a Pop Icon? - No Che’ The Epoch Times, online: http://en.epochtimes.com/news/6-2-1/37647.html accessed: 21/06/11
Trought’s article is biased in its anti-Che discussion, however I found the information it provided on his actions and policies backed up my points and I was able to draw from it.