News and Facts about Cuba

Che: Revolutionary, movie star, killing machine

** *Che: Revolutionary, movie star, killing machine
- Alvaro Vargas Llosa
Sunday, February 19, 2006

Che Guevara, who did so much (or was it so little?) to destroy
capitalism, is now a quintessential capitalist brand. His likeness
adorns mugs, hoodies, key chains, bandannas, couture bags, jeans, herbal
tea and, of course, those omnipresent T-shirts with the photograph by
Alberto Korda of the socialist heartthrob in his beret during the early
years of the revolution as he happened to walk into the photographer’s
viewfinder — and into the image that, 38 years after his death, is
still the logo of revolutionary (or is it capitalist?) chic.

The metamorphosis of Che into a capitalist brand is not new, but the
brand has been enjoying a revival of late — an especially remarkable
revival, because comes years after the political and ideological
collapse of all that Guevara represented.

This windfall is owed substantially to last year’s Oscar-winning film
“The Motorcycle Diaries,” which showed the young Che on a voyage of
self-discovery as he encounters social and economic exploitation: laying
the groundwork for a New Wave reinvention of the man whom Sartre once
called the most complete human being of our era.

It is customary for followers of a cult not to know the real-life story
of their hero, the historical truth. It is not surprising that Guevara’s
contemporary followers, his new post-communist admirers, also delude
themselves by clinging to a myth — a myth firing up people whose causes
for the most part represent the exact opposite of what Guevara was.

Guevara might have been enamored of his own death, but he was much more
enamored of other people’s deaths. In April 1967, speaking from
experience, he summed up his homicidal idea of justice in his “Message
to the Tricontinental”: “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.”

During the armed struggle against Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista, and
then after the triumphant entry into Havana, Guevara murdered or oversaw
the executions of scores of people: proven enemies, suspected enemies
and those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The “cold-blooded killing machine” did not show the full extent of his
rigor until, immediately after the collapse of the Batista regime, Fidel
Castro put him in charge of La Cabaña , where he oversaw mass
executions. José Vilasuso, a lawyer and a professor at
Interamericana de Bayamón in Puerto Rico, who belonged to the body in
charge of the summary judicial process at La Cabaña, said recently that
“Che’s guidelines to us were that we should act with conviction, meaning
that they were all murderers and the revolutionary way to proceed was to
be implacable.”

Javier Arzuaga, a Basque chaplain who gave comfort to those sentenced to
die and witnessed dozens of executions, spoke to me recently. A former
Catholic priest, now 75, he recalls that Guevara “never overturned a

“I pleaded many times with Che on behalf of prisoners,” said Arzuaga. “I
remember especially the case of Ariel Lima, a young boy. Che did not
budge. Nor did Fidel, whom I visited. I became so traumatized that, at
the end of May 1959, I was ordered to leave the parish of Casa Blanca,
where La Cabaña was located and where I had held Mass for three years. I
went to Mexico for treatment.”

How many people were killed at La Cabaña? Vilasuso told me that 400
people were executed between January and the end of June in 1959 (at
which point Guevara ceased to be in charge). Secret cables sent by the
American Embassy in Havana to the State Department in Washington spoke
of “over 500.”

Which brings us to Carlos Santana and the chic Che gear he wore to
perform at last year’s Academy Awards ceremony. In an open letter
published in Miami’s El Nuevo Herald last year, the great jazz musician
Paquito D’Rivera castigated Santana for his Oscars costume and added:
“One of those Cubans [at La Cabaña] was my cousin Bebo, who was
imprisoned there precisely for being a Christian. He recounts to me with
infinite bitterness how he could hear from his cell in the early hours
of dawn the executions, without trial or process of law, of the many who
died shouting, ‘Long live Christ the King!’ “

Che Guevara’s lust for power had other ways of expressing itself besides
murder. His megalomania manifested itself in the predatory urge to take
over people’s lives and property. This obsession with collectivist
control led him to collaborate on the security apparatus that was set up
to subjugate 6.5 million Cubans.

The first forced labor camp, Guanahacabibes, was set up in western Cuba
at the end of 1960. Said Guevara: We “only send to Guanahacabibes those
doubtful cases where we are not sure people should go to jail … people
who have committed crimes against revolutionary morals, to a lesser or
greater degree.”

This camp was the precursor to the systematic confinement of dissidents,
homosexuals, patients, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses and
Afro-Cuban priests. Herded into buses and trucks, the “unfit” were
transported at gunpoint into concentration camps organized on the
Guanahacabibes mold. Some would never return; others would be raped,
beaten or mutilated; most would be traumatized for life.

The great revolutionary also had a chance to put into practice his
economic vision as head of the National Bank of Cuba and of the
Department of Industry of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform at
the end of 1959 and, starting in early 1961, as minister of industry.

This period saw the near-collapse of Cuba’s sugar production, the
failure of industrialization and the introduction of — all
this in what had been one of Latin America’s four most economically
successful countries since before the Batista dictatorship. By 1963, all
hopes of industrializing Cuba were abandoned, and the revolution
accepted its role as a colonial provider of sugar to the Soviet bloc in
exchange for oil. For the next three decades, Cuba would survive on a
Soviet subsidy.

In this harsh light, it’s worth reflecting on the historic fate of
another Latin American nation and the role another young idealist of the
previous century had in its economic development.

In the last few decades of the 19th century, Argentina had the
second-highest growth rate in the world. By the 1890s, the real income
of Argentine workers was greater than that of Swiss, German and French
workers. By 1928, that country had the 12th-highest per-capita GDP in
the world. That achievement, which later generations would ruin, was in
large measure due to Juan Bautista Alberdi.

Like Che Guevara, Alberdi liked to : He walked through the pampas
and deserts from north to south at the age of 14, all the way to Buenos
Aires. Like Che Guevara, Alberdi opposed a , Juan Manuel Rosas.
Like Che Guevara, Alberdi got a chance to influence a revolutionary
leader in power: Justo José de Urquiza, who toppled Rosas in 1852. And
like Che Guevara, Alberdi represented the new government on world tours
and died abroad.

But unlike the old and new darling of the left, Juan Bautista Alberdi
never killed a fly. His book, “Bases y puntos de partida para la
organizacion de la Republica Argentina,” was the foundation of the
Constitution of 1853 that limited government, opened trade, encouraged
immigration and secured property rights, thereby inaugurating a 70-year
period of prosperity. He did not meddle in the affairs of other nations,
opposing his country’s war against Paraguay. And his likeness does not
adorn Mike Tyson’s abdomen.

/Alvaro Vargas Llosa is senior fellow and director of the Center for
Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute and author of “The Che
Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty”. A longer version of this
article appeared in The New Republic. Contact us at
[email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>./

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