In recent years, Che’ Guevara has regained popularity. His image adorns t-shirts and posters on college campuses. Barack Obama was even embarrassed by a Che’ flag that a supporter had placed in one of his campaign offices. Who is Che’ Guevara? Is he really someone that people in a modern, progressive and free society should place on a pedestal?
Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara Lynch de la Serna was born in Rosario, Argentina on June 14, 1928. He was the eldest child in a liberal, middle class family. His nickname, ‘Che,’ translates as “buddy,” “pal,” or “the kid.”
Che’ studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires. While in school there, he spent breaks traveling around South America on a motorcycle with a friend. On such trips in 1951 and 1952, Che’ spends time at a leper colony in Peru. His experiences there convince him that equality can only be realized through socialism. He later writes about his travels in his book, the Motorcycle Diaries. In 2004, the Motorcycle Diaries was made into a movie produced by Robert Redford.
After participating in riots against Argentine President Juan Peron in 1952, Che’ travels to Bolivia and then Guatemala. In Guatemala, he aids in resistance against a coup backed by the CIA (and authorized by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower). After the coup, Che’ flees to Mexico.
While in Mexico, Che’ meets Fidel Castro. Castro is in exile after a failed coup attempt against Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Che’ quickly joins Castro’s band of revolutionaries as a medic and trains in guerilla warfare. In December 1956, Castro launches an attack on the Batista regime, which fails dramatically. Only twelve guerillas, including Che,’ Fidel, and Raul Castro, survive and escape.
The defeat is a defining moment for Che.’ He later writes, “I was confronted with the dilemma of dedicating myself to medicine or my duty as a revolutionary soldier. I had in front of me a rucksack full of medicine and an ammunition case, the two weighed too much to carry together. I took the ammunition and left the rucksack behind." The healer had become the killer.
Che’ becomes Castro’s chief lieutenant and then the comandante of one of the largest guerilla bands. He is ruthless, frequently executing suspected traitors quickly and dispassionately. In a 1957 letter to his first wife (he remarried to a fellow guerilla in 1959), Che’ writes, “I'm here in Cuba's hills, alive and thirsting for blood." In a letter to his father, he writes, “I really like killing.” Che’s instructions to a subordinate are simple: “If in doubt, kill him.”
By 1959, with US aid cut off, the Batista regime is finished. Batista flees the country on New Years Day and the US recognizes the interim government six days later. After a vacation through Africa, Asia, and Yugoslavia, Che’ returns to Cuba where he is placed in charge of Comision Depuradora, which includes the military courts and killing squads for former Batista supporters and government officials. All defendants are considered murderers and the appellate court automatically confirms all sentences. Habeas corpus rights are abolished. Che’ says that rules of evidence are an “archaic bourgeois detail.”
He is placed in charge of La Cabana prison, where the majority of the executions take place. According to the Black Book of Communism, by the mid-1960s, 14,000 Cubans have been executed without fair trials. 500,000 Cubans were incarcerated in labor camps. At one point, in 1961, one of every 19 Cubans was a political prisoner. Che’ plays a major role in developing Castro’s penal system and defends the executions publicly in 1964 after he had ceased to command the prison. He even dismisses his victims as “all CIA agents” before his death in 1967.
During the 1960s, Che’ is instrumental in aligning Cuba with the Soviet Union. Che’ begins meeting with GRU (Soviet military intelligence) operatives, mostly Spanish communists who had fled to the Soviet Union after the Spanish Civil War, soon after the fall of Havana. Soviet agents help to establish Cuba’s G-2 secret police force. As Cuba draws closer to the Soviet Union, the US imposes trade restrictions and, finally, an embargo and travel ban.
Che’ holds several posts in the new Cuban government. He begins as head of the National Bank of Cuba and of the Department of Industry of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform in 1959. In 1961, he becomes Cuba’s Minister of Industry. His economic policies include price controls, heavy taxes on the wealthy, and restrictions on private capital. Land is seized from the rich and given to the government. Virtually everything is nationalized in a war on capitalism and personal property.
Che’s authoritarian economic policies, together with the US trade embargo, cause the once powerful Cuban economy to decline. Che’s plans at industrialization fail, sugar production collapses, and rationing is introduced. Che’s economic deputy, Ernesto Betancourt, later says that Che was “was ignorant of the most elementary economic principles.” Eventually, Cuba relies on sugar exports and Soviet subsidies (the equivalent of eight Marshall Plans, $72 billion) to survive. As the Cuban economy falters, Che’s popularity begans to wane.
Che’ also writes Guerra de Guerilla (Guerilla War). This book serves as a guide for revolutionaries throughout Latin America and the Third World. In Latin America, only one of these movements, in Nicaragua, is ultimately successful. Che’s goal is to spread his brand of Marxism to other countries. After touring the world, he resigns from his duties in Cuba in 1965.
Che’s next move is to lead a group of Cuban fighters to aid in a communist revolt in the Congo. One of his rebel allies there, Pierre Mulele, occupied Stanleyville and was known for murdering everyone who could read or who wore a tie. The people of the Congo do not support the rebellion and Che’ eventually leaves.
Che’ briefly returned to Cuba, but quickly left for Bolivia where he joins another guerilla movement against the government. His goal is to create another Vietnam in South America. In Bolivia, Che’ found virtually no support from the peasants. The Bolivian army, with US support, was soon on his trail.
A series of tactical, strategic, and logistical errors by Che’ and his forces cause problems for the revolt. Even the Bolivian members of his guerilla band do not speak the dialect of the peasants, making recruiting difficult. Che’ wrote that “The ... masses don't help us in anything and instead they betray us." An English journalist and a French writer, Regis Debray, leave the group and are soon captured by army troops. Che’ divides his tiny army and one group is destroyed by the Bolivian army. Che’s health deteriorates in the jungle and he loses his asthma medicine to the pursuers. He is reduced to riding on a pack mule as the remainder of his army tries to escape.
Bolivian Rangers are deployed to the area and, on October 8, 1967, Capt. Gary Prado and his men surround the remainder of Che’s force in the Quebrada de Yuro, a steep ravine near La Higuera. The guerillas try to escape. In the ensuing firefight six guerillas and two soldiers are killed. Three guerillas, including Che,’ are captured. Three guerillas eventually escape to Chile and three elude capture and hide out in Bolivia.
The prisoners are held in a nearby school, and Che,’ wounded in the leg, receives medical treatment. At the time, Bolivia has no secure prison facilities and it is thought that a trial would be media circus and attract other leftists to Bolivia. Bolivian President Rene Barrientos orders the execution of the prisoners in hopes of avoiding further problems.
Che’ and the other two prisoners are executed on October 9, 1967 and buried at an airfield in Vallegrande. His remains were exhumed by the Cubans in 1997 and reburied in Santa Clara, Cuba, the site of one of his most famous battles against the forces of Batista. His summary execution is a fitting end, given his role in Cuba’s executions.
A footnote to Che’s story is that he planned terrorist attacks against New York City long before 9/11 or the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. In 1962, while Che’ headed Cuba’s Foreign Liberation Department, the FBI stopped a plot Cuban UN officials and members of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (made famous by Lee Harvey Oswald) to detonate 500 kilos of TNT (five times the amount used in the Madrid bombings) and incendiary devices in Macy’s, Gimble’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Grand Central Station. These bombings, set for the week after Thanksgiving, would have killed thousands of New Yorkers, mainly women and children.
Che’ and Castro’s goal in the New York bombing plot was probably to start a war between the US and the Soviet Union. If Cuba were implicated in the attacks, the US would retaliate. In a war, the USSR would probably intervene to protect its ally. If the conflict had gone nuclear, a distinct possibility, deaths would have numbered in the millions.
The Cuban leaders had tried to start a war the year before during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Che’ and Castro had argued for a first-strike against the US before Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, agreed to withdraw the Soviet missiles from Cuba. They dreamed of telling the Americans, “Say hello to my little friends!” as missiles rained down. In 1962, Che’ told the London Daily Worker, “If the missiles had remained, we would have used them against the very heart of the U.S., including New York City."
Che’ Guevara was a sadistic killer. He enjoyed killing and torturing. His writings preach hatred against capitalism in general and the United States in particular. He was also incompetent. He almost single-handedly destroyed the Cuban economy and his only military successes came against the Batista regime, whose army was weak and ineffective, only after the US withdrew support in 1958. According to some reports, Che’ was betrayed in Bolivia by Castro, who instructed the Bolivian Communist Party to pass information on his movements to the army.
Che’s latter day disciples fall into two categories. The first are committed socialists and anti-Americans who eagerly consumed Castro’s propaganda after Che’s death. Many of these people are Lenin’s “useful idiots,” who live in free and prosperous societies, but dream of socialist utopias and look the other way at communist atrocities. This is the same “Blame America First” crowd who cry for appeasement to dictators and Islamic radicals.
The second group is the people who don’t really know or understand who Che’ was. They see the long haired, “Guerilla Hero” image as a symbol of youthful rebellion and social change. Few, if any, fathom Che’s depravity or have any clue as to the number of lives that he destroyed.
On a per capita basis, the number of people killed and imprisoned by Che’ and Castro rivals that of Hitler and Stalin. Che’s legacy is one of mass murder, assaults on human rights, and the enslavement of entire nations. The world is a better place without Che’ Guevara in it.