Idolizing a Murderer
Tuesday's Guardian reports on a disturbing trend in Latin America: a growing tendency to idolize the murderous totalitarian fanatic known as Che Guevara:
Bolivia's peasants spurned Che's rebellion, leaving the Bolivian army and the CIA to capture him on October 8 1967, kill him the following day, and rid South America of Cuba's revolutionary spirit. The soldiers reportedly drew straws to determine who would have the honour of shooting Che.
"And so he is dead," wrote the Guardian's Richard Gott, one of the few journalists at the scene that day. "As they pumped preservative into his half-naked, dirty body and as the crowd shouted to be allowed to see, it was difficult to recall that this man had once been one of the great figures of Latin America."
It was difficult to feel his ideas would die with him, Gott added. He was right. Forty years later the anniversary of the death is looming and the scene is transformed: the Cubans are back, socialism is back, and Che is officially a hero.
An elaborate ceremony in Vallegrande, the town where his corpse was displayed, will be just one of many government-backed rallies across the Andes and the Caribbean.
"Che is greater and more present than ever," said Oswaldo "Chato" Peredo, a Bolivian former guerrilla whose brother, Roberto, was executed alongside the communist icon.
The Richard Gott who wrote so poetically about the martyred Che is a strident leftist who was the Guardian's longtime literary editor. He resigned in 1994 after it was reported that he accepted funds from the KGB.
As for the object of Gott's affections, Nat Hentoff relates an anecdote about Che's "commitment" to democracy:
That reminded me of what Che Guevara told me at the Cuban Mission to the United Nations when I asked him if he could foresee a time — however distant — when there would be free elections in Cuba.
Guevara, who, in charge of a Havana prison, shot and killed many prisoners of conscience, didn't wait for the interpreter to finish before he burst into laughter and said to me, "Free elections — in Cuba?"
In a September 2004 piece for Slate, Paul Berman ably summarized the Guevara record:
The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favored a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads. He founded Cuba's "labor camp" system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims. To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che's imagination. In the famous essay in which he issued his ringing call for "two, three, many Vietnams," he also spoke about martyrdom and managed to compose a number of chilling phrases: "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 …"— and so on. He was killed in Bolivia in 1967, leading a guerrilla movement that had failed to enlist a single Bolivian peasant. And yet he succeeded in inspiring tens of thousands of middle class Latin-Americans to exit the universities and organize guerrilla insurgencies of their own. And these insurgencies likewise accomplished nothing, except to bring about the death of hundreds of thousands, and to set back the cause of Latin-American democracy—a tragedy on the hugest scale.
Che Guevara was not a heroic freedom fighter; he was a Latin Zarqawi. That he has become an object of hero worship is a dangerous manifestation of historical ignorance and moral blindness.