|Outline the ways in which your historical figure has been viewed as a hero AND/OR a villain.
Che Guevara has been described by the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre as “the most complete human being of our age”1. However, being also one of the most enigmatic human beings of our age, it is very difficult for us to cold-bloodedly classify him as hero or villain. Called ergatoid and idealistic, introverted and extroverted, violent and complicated, benevolent and brutal, egotistical and harmless, and many besides2345, it’s no wonder people’s personal views get in the way of cold, hard, unbiased historical analysis.
Truly, the devil is in the detail, and any assessment of heroism or villainy depends on definitions of these. If, as the Oxford Dictionary says, a villain is a 'person guilty or capable of great wickedness', then there is no doubt that Ernesto Guevara fits this description, executing hundreds personally, and perhaps tens of thousands because of his actions in the Cuban Revolution. And, if, as the Oxford Dictionary says, a hero is a 'man admired for his achievements and noble qualities', then, many historians argue, he is also a hero because of his numerous exploits against the previous dictatorship, that have led his image to be pasted across the t-shirts of many, many rebellious youths (although it is quite likely many of them have no idea who he is).
By far the most universally recognized achievement of Che Guevara is his role in the Cuban Revolution, overthrowing a dictatorship in the region led by Fulgencio Batista. The Cuban Revolution had in fact started many years before Guevara was on the scene, and was, by all accounts, failing under the constant pressure of the dictatorship. On November 1956 Guevara joined Fidel Castro and his group of Cuban revolutionaries, becoming second-in-command in a matter of months, and with Castro sympathizers, overthrew the dictatorship with guerrilla warfare that was devised and executed by Guevara.
However, many historians argue that it is not this fantastic achievement which preserved Guevara’s name in history, heroically or villainously, so much as his ideals, and the way he put them into practice. Imprimis, his strong sense of comradeship (a very Marxist ideal), which led to his nickname, ‘Che’, meaning something close to mate. According to many historians, he never gave instructions for other men to do what he himself couldn’t do. He was not afraid to lower himself to the jobs of his soldiers, and, in many cases saved the lives of his “comrades” by carrying them personally back from the front lines6. These events show humility, the second noble quality. While in the dictatorship, in food and money shortages, leaders of the dictatorship were served venison with gold spoons, Guevara went without eating. Fidel Castro, although he is rather biased on the matter, shows this by saying “emulate Che: be honest, humble, the first to volunteer, to extend a hand to a needy comrade.” (translated) “… the vast majority of young Cubans were keen to emulate Che Guevara, whose idealised image they had been raised on…”7. This noble quality of Che Guevara made many, many people admire him (see source just quoted), which, according to our definition of hero, is definitely heroic.
Tertius, his undying perseverance. In a life filled with adversity, Guevara always carried out his idealistic policies with a passion and ambition that is rare throughout history. ‘Suffering acute asthma, and having to cover huge distances on elevated terrain’ (see source below), it is difficult to imagine the pain that Guevara went through and the perseverance he must have had to stay alive when fleeing through some of the highest mountains in the world would be astronomical. Despite the imposing military might of the Batista government, Guevara persevered with his guerrilla warfare that in the end proved superior to the military might against which he was oppressed.
“CHE WAS A COURAGEOUS FIGHTER WHO HAD TO STRUGGLE UNREMITTINGLY WITH A BODY WRACKED BY ASTHMA. ONCE, WHEN I CLIMBED WITH HIM TO THE CHREA HEIGHTS OVERLOOKING THE TOWN OF BLIDA, I SAW HIM SUFFER AN ATTACK THAT TURNED HIM GREEN IN THE FACE.”8
The qualities of perseverance and humility can also be shown at his execution, and so clearly show this that many anti-Guevaran historians simply gloss over the words. Facing the firing squad as a leader of a revolutionary movement, Guevara, the martyr of his own ideals, said as his last words, to his executioner, “Shoot, coward, you’re only going to kill a man”. Everyone has romantic ideals – what made the difference and Guevara a hero is that “the people’s friend”, by his own name, not only lived both by his ideals, not only died by them, but is a figurehead for those ideals today.
However, heroic though Guevara’s ideals may seem, they cut both ways. Historians that do not fit into the above category of heroisers constantly bring up the following Guevaran ideals. Imprimis, the fact that Guevara believed hatred was the key to effective revolution, saying
“Hatred is an element of the struggle. A relentless hatred for the enemy impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy…”9
Guevara believed the only way that he could liberate his people was the use of direct violence, as lawful democratic procedures were in some way inadequate. Although he is remembered today largely as a romantically idealistic hero, his revolutionary movement was led primarily by hatred and violence, and this begins to show that this enigmatic character may be even more enigmatic than we thought.
Secundus, the fact that Guevara put the above ideal into practice liberally. Therefore, according to the Oxford definition of villain, Guevara is guilty as charged on both counts of being capable of doing extreme violence (ie wickedness) and executing those ideals extreme violence. For a short period, Guevara was commander of La Cabana Fortress in Havana, and involved himself intimately therefore in several trials, that saw at least 500 officials of the old regime executed. Quite apart from this long-term massacre, Guevara was relentless with his knife, personally responsible for hundreds of deaths and ordering hundreds more. However, despite the atrocities Guevara committed, in word if not in deed, it is important to note that most historians agree that in Guevara’s mind, this was the best path, and the only path, out of the dictatorship of Cuba. Whether it was or not, is a moot point for this essay and there would never be a final solution to that question.
In this paper, the strongest arguments for both the heroisers and the historians that believe Guevara is a villain has been put forward. According to the Oxford definition, both categories of historians are simultaneously right, but it is more difficult to judge what shade of grey Guevara is.
Question Two – assess whether Guevara is more villainous than heroic (this is more or less meant to be read in continuation with the first section.)
While deciding, the facts cannot be ignored. Although Guevara is adored in daily life, it is my argument that this adoration of “the Che” was mostly due, in its epoch, to propaganda instigated by the Castro brothers – “emulate Che: be honest, humble, the first to volunteer, to extend a hand to a needy comrade”, said Fidel Castro – this is largely what Guevara is famous today. I am not suggesting that he was not many of these things, but not to the extent he is remembered today. Could it be that Che is in part a hero under false pretences? The second section of this paper seeks to prove that the myth of the “hero”, Che Guevara, was largely a veneer manufactured by the Castro Brothers to achieve their own aims, and that Che Guevara was in fact, more of deserving of the title a bloodthirsty villain that was eager to resort to his knife to solve problems than the title of a humble role-model for today’s youth.
Of all the points shown above, the only ones with which we have irrefutable evidence for is the two points in the villainous category, and to a limited extent an event in the heroic category – for the first of those points, we have the testimony of Guevara himself, and the accounts of the people he murdered. For the second, we have several accounts of the friends and family of those he murdered and birth and death records that prove this .The points for the defense of Che Guevara are largely reliant upon
a) The testimonies of the Castro Brothers
b) The testimonies of the other revolutionaries
c) His last words (although 12 suggests that it may have been misreported or fabricated, resulting
in some doubt over the integrity of this piece of evidence)
The testimonies of the Castro Brothers are obviously extremely biased, and the other revolutionaries would have, by this time, been raised upon the image of Che Guevara, which had originally been manufactured by the Castro Brothers to make their revolution seem romantic – and for this reason I refute historians like Sandison10 and Ebon11, who use these reasons to heroise him. His last words are also in jeopardy as reliable sources – it seems just like something a news reporter would concoct, and Time Magazine suggests that it is probably concocted or misreported12. However, if it is true it provides an irrefutable source, and an interesting insight. If Che is a hero today, his last words should be the reason why.
However, after asking four of my diehard Che idolising friends why they thought Guevara was a hero, all four of them repeated almost word for word what Fidel Castro said, with the addition that “he was a rebel”. Therefore, isn’t Guevara’s claim to fame based on the propaganda of a violent and biased dictator who had everything to gain by deifying Guevara? This author thinks so, and it is one of history’s greatest faults that this “hero” as so called by the popular media has a totally different, and villainous, aspect to his life.
So, who is Ernesto “Che” Guevara, hero or villain? The obvious answer is, by looking at the second section of this paper, he is a villain with heroic traits. However, by looking deeper at today’s context, it is difficult to find someone who admits this; Che is a hero, or a villain, but not both. If you are one of the rebellious youth, he is an icon of freedom and rebellion, and an example of hope. If you are cynical, he was a guerrilla idealist who dreamt of the world, but failed in Cuba. If you are one of his surviving comrades, he is the paragon of your world and you spend the rest of your life in emulation. If you are a Cuban refugee because of his actions, he is a heartless villain who ruined your life. Whatever your opinion on Che Guevara, you will always have one.
Bibliography (10 sources, 6 books and 4 websites)
Anderson, Jon L . (1997). Che Guevara: a revolutionary life . Hampshire, United Kingdom: Grove Press. 466-70.
Dorfman, A. (1999, June 14). Time Heroes and Icons - Che Guevara. Retrieved September 6, 2009, from http://www.time.com/time/time100/heroes/profile/guevara01.html
Ebon, M. (1969). Che: the making of a legend. Austen: Universe Books.
Fontova, H. (2007). Exposing the real Che Guevara: and the useful idiots who idolize him. Richmond, VA: Sentinel.
George, E. (2005). The Cuban Intervention in Angola, 1965-1991: from Che Guevara to Cuito Cuanavale. New York: Routledge.
George, E. (2004, January 16). Consummated in Cairo. Retrieved September 6, 2009, from http://www.frontpagemagazine.com/readArticle.aspx?ARTID=14571
Guevara, E., Loveman, B., & Davies, T. M. (1997). Geurilla Warfare (3rd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowmman and Littlefield.
Sandison, D. (1998). Che Guevara. New York: St. Martin's Griffin.
Wittmann, K. (2002). Che Guevara: revolution hero. Retrieved September 6, 2009, from http://www.essortment.com/all/cheguavera_raiv.htm
Young, D. (2009, February 10). The Real Che Guevara. Retrieved September 5, 2009, from http://www.therealcuba.com/MurderedbyChe.htm