“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 …” –Ernesto “Che” Guevara
This image, of Cuban Marxist revolutionary Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, often known by his nickname “Che” Guevara, is a pop culture phenomenon. We have it plastered on t-shirts, hoodies, mugs, mouse pads, bumper stickers, flags, sweatbands, you name it. I work with a guy who has Che tattooed on his forearm (not at my EMS job–my bank job. Go figure.). In Central Park there stands a life-sized Che statue atop a base that says, “viva la revolucion!” In 2004, Robert Redford made The Motorcycle Diaries, a movie about Che as a young man in South America, a work that romanticized Che’s beginnings and attempted to lend credence to Che’s beliefs and actions later in life. Last year, the movie Che was released, starring Benicio del Toro. In an interview about making the film he said, “playing Che is like playing Jesus Christ…except Christ turned the other cheek. Che didn’t.”
Che did far more than refuse to turn the other cheek. Who was this guy, and why is he so idolized? I’d read a few things here and there, but I hadn’t really delved into the subject. Until now.
I’d heard my coworker talk about Che, and I decided to read both sides of the Che legend–from viewpoints of those enamored with him and those who think he was evil. I learned quite a bit. We can learn as much about any period of time by studying myth as much as truth, and it seems the same legend that followed Che in the 1960’s follows him still today. Berkely, California, is well-known for its liberal population and extreme protests. Zombie took this one at an anti-war rally in Berkeley:
Che’s image has been captured at pro-gay rights rallies, pro-abortion demonstrations, anti-war protests and all manner of other such public displays of political leaning. His image has become even more prevalent at anti-Israel demonstrations of late. Any time there’s a protest against anything conservative, Che shows up on someone’s clothes, often accompanied with the famous “viva la revolucion” warcry. If any of these people had any idea what the truth was, they’d burn everything they have with Che’s likeness on it.
His current followers describe him as an Argentine physician and a revolutionary. That’s usually the extent of what they know. We know that Che went to medical school in Argentina, however there’s no evidence that he graduated and actually became a doctor. If you really dig into his history, you find that he pretty well failed at nearly everything he did. The only thing he seemed to be really good at was killing. After helping the Castro brothers overthrow the Batista regime in Cuba, Che was sent to govern the La Cabana prison. There, he appointed himself the magistrate and began “trials” of those accused of being counterrevolutionaries. The trials (if you can call them that) were a joke. They were short, the accused were not given the opportunity for a defense, and within hours of conviction their sentences were carried out by firing squad. Che himself liked to deliver the coup de grace (a bullet to the back of the neck) to certain prisoners. The quote at the beginning of this writing was part of Che’s “Message to the Tricontinental.” He often described himself as bloodthirsty, hateful, willing to do anything necessary to protect the revolution.
And this is the guy the culture is holding up as their hero.
In Camaguey, Che began the gulag system where those deemed “unfit” were imprisoned in concentration camps. Homsexuals and AIDS victims often populated these camps, as did anyone who had the temerity to question what was going on. These prisoners were systematically tortured, raped, and often killed. Any who survived were traumatized for life.
We’re wearing this monster on our clothes. We make movies glorifying his life and leave out the parts we don’t like. We protest in support of gay rights wearing the image of a guy who made it illegal to be gay or lesbian and imprisoned and/or killed anyone who broke that law. We protest “the Bush regime” and decry as Nazis anyone who disagrees with our liberal ideals, and we do it waving a banner proclaiming as a hero a man who made it his mission in life to execute (read: murder) anybody who disagreed with the Marxist revolution. Che’s own journals expose his violent nature where he describes in vivid detail how he put a .32 caliber pistol to a man’s head and pulled the trigger after he asked to leave the country. He even talks about staging mock executions, using it as a form of psychological torture to scare any potential dissidents into shutting up.
If I were to walk around wearing a shirt with an image of Adolf Hitler on it, I would be immediately lynched and possibly beaten to death. Hitler’s crimes are well-known and he is so despised in America that even the possibility that you may hold him up as a believable man evokes violent reactions in the public. Yet even though we have documentation coming out our ears about Che’s crimes, we’re erecting statues of him and using him as a symbol of revolution, fighting back against things we disagree with. It’s like presenting Hitler as a hero because he was a vegetarian and an animal lover. Unfortunately, he was also a mass murderer. So was Che.
Che chic has so overwhelmed America that I can’t go anywhere without seeing this guy plastered on something. I went out to dinner with my roommates earlier this week and saw at least three people wearing Che shirts. We should be taking it as a personal affront when we see people wearing his image, because he hated gays and liberals (not to mention conservatives, who were the first to be killed). The dichotomy of it mostly being liberals who wear Che paraphernalia is not lost on me.
Not long ago, a 73-year-old man in New Jersey was waiting for a bus when he spotted a street vendor selling Che t-shirts. He went and bought one, then immediately set a piece of newspaper on fire and burned the shirt. A police officer who responded asked him why, and he related the story that he was a Cuban exile whose father had been killed by Che at La Cabana. The owner of the stand where he bought the shirt openly said he thought older Cubans like him are crazy; you can take a lesson from this. The younger Latinos who idolize Che think they’re crazy, but the Cubans who survived Che’s part in the revolution are absolutely flabbergasted at the phenomenon of Che becoming a new hero. There’s a reason for that. It’s because they remember what he was like and what he stood for. I agree with them. I don’t understand why we’re not doing more to educate ourselves on the truth about Che Guevara.
So, in reality, we’re wearing Che t-shirts and we have no idea why. Vladimir Lenin had a name for people like this in America who hold violent revolutionaries up as heroes: