The Real Che Is No Poster Boy

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - March 18, 2009
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The very long movie Che opens Friday at Consolidated’s Kahala Theatres.

There’s exquisite timing here. Release of the movie nationwide, the new Obama presidency and hints that we might drop our unproductive embargo on - and diplomatic shun of - Cuba.

Hugo Chavez of Venezuela hates us, but we have an embassy there. China jails dissidents, but we sell it our debt. Syria’s been no friend, but last year $650 million in trade passed between us. Cuba? We embargo most trade and travel and closed our embassy. That makes no sense to me.

But this article is about Che, the IFC Films of New York story of Cuba’s late Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Described this way in The New York Times: “Benicio Del Toro, wearing a jaunty beret and wispy tufts of beard, wages war against Yankee-supported states in Steven Soderbergh’s 257-minute (with a 30-minute bladder break) historical epic.”


It bothers me as a social progressive as much as it probably does conservatives that we’ve had a know-little generation that defined cool as wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. A lot of people don’t read much anymore. The best book on Che, with the least nonsense, is the eponymous one by Jon Lee Anderson.

Che became a star in Cuba who matched or even outshone Fidel Castro (Che’s on billboards, Castro’s not) and is revered in leftist circles in South America. But he was much more dangerous and sadistic than the T-shirt wearers seem to know.

He had a troubled youth in Argentina and was never satisfied with his life even after he finished medical school. He wanted adventure. He finally found it in helping foment the revolution in Cuba. He lost his life because he was bored when it was apparent that Castro would always be No. 1 but insufficiently left by Che’s measure. Che went off on a doomed effort to start an armed uprising in Bolivia. He was shot in a firefight with the Bolivian army and his bullet-riddled corpse displayed for the world on a morgue table.

Guevara came to revolution with a good ideological heart, but became a dictator and executioner once he had power. He had dissidents, Catholics and homosexuals killed. Author Anderson says Che saw himself as “Cuba’s revolutionary avenging angel and ultimate political commissar” and put many citizens in labor rehabilitation camps “to create a new revolutionary morale.” He had no tolerance for public input or dissenting ideas from advisers. What Che thought was best for the country was what was done. He was obsessed with the idea that all the poor nations could follow Cuba’s lead and throw off their ties with richer countries he considered to be imperialists. Alas, he didn’t live to see how impoverished Cuba would become once it lost its freebies from the Soviet Union. It had to ration basic food. He set up firing squads to deal with those dragging their feet in his new world and would have continued had not Castro ordered a halt and temporarily demoted him.

I don’t know how these myths get started that somebody (in their time Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao) is a to-be-admired leader for taking on and defeating the old order somewhere. We’ve seen what horrors often accompany the new order, but we haven’t gotten our critical minds around Che Guevara.

When some of his Revolutionary Council colleagues suggested that he was basically proposing a dictatorship, he shouted back: “All right, this is a dictatorship. It’s criminal to think of the needs of the individual.” It’s good to hope that poor countries get out from under the grip of maniacs like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. But beware: Trading one dictator for another has not been helpful.

All that said, we should be at least engaging Cuba and its new dictator, Raul Castro. George Bush called Cuba a “dungeon” and said no way he’d lift the economic embargo or exchange embassies. I’m hoping for something better from Barack Obama at next month’s Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

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