Ernesto "Che" Guevara has generated as much controversy as any historical figure in recent memory. The cliche Guevara and his Marxist revolutionaries liberated Cuba in 1959, overthrowing the US puppet Batista regime and kicking out the mafia and other US gringos. But Che and revolutionary Cuba has a flip side; the terrible things Che did and the repressive aspects of the society Che and Fidel Castro constructed is frequently and conveniently ignored by members of the intelligentsia.
Those sporting a trendy t-shirt emblazoned with Che's ubiquitous image probably have no idea of the Che Guevara horror stories obscured by the enduring myth of a martyred revolutionary spreading third world social justice in the Age of Aquarius. Here are some aspects of Che Guevara that may cause you to remove that t-shirt.
During the four year ordeal that culminated with the successful overthrow of the oppressive Batista government in 1959, Che Guevara administered summary justice to a lengthy list of victims. Deep in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra in eastern Cuba, which served as a sanctuary for Castro's rebel army, Guevara eagerly served as a ruthless enforcer. Of one such execution he himself wrote:
"….I ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 [caliber] pistol in the right side of the brain, with exit orifice in the right temporal. He gasped for a little while and was dead. Upon proceeding to remove his belongings I couldn’t get off the watch tied by a chain to his belt, and then he told me in a steady voice farther away than fear: 'Yank it off, boy, what does it matter…. I did so and his possessions were now mine.'
Che later described this incident to his father, adding: "I'd like to confess, papa, at that moment I discovered that I really like killing." Fellow revolutionaries or Cuban citizens accused of theft, informing, or even a lack of enthusiasm were also ruthlessly dispatched by Guevara or his hit squad.
After the Cuban revolution, Che was appointed commandant of La Cabana, a Havana fortress and army barracks immediately transformed into the new regime's political prison. From his office, Guevara supervised the perfunctory trials and mass executions performed in the immediate aftermath of Castro seizing power.
The exact number of individuals killed during this period remains a topic of historical dispute, but even historians sympathetic to Guevara acknowledge he had a hand in the killings. Estimated numbers range from a few hundred into the thousands. Eyewitness accounts, including incidents witnessed by Ernest Hemingway and George Plimpton, document Che executing individuals with his own hands.
Both Castro and Guevara felt betrayal and disappointment at the outcome of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a potential nuclear showdown between the USSR and US. When Nikita Khrushchev negotiated a solution by backing away from challenging American hegemony in the Western hemisphere, Cuban leaders felt abandoned and humiliated by their Soviet allies.
Only a month after the resolution of a crisis that had the rest of the world exhaling in relief, the Cuban government was implicated in a bomb plot that would have had catastrophic implications for American international relations and might have set off a superpower confrontation. On November 17, 1962, two Cuban envoys to the United Nations were arrested by the FBI and charged in connection with a plot to bomb New York's Macy's, Gimbel's, and Bloomingdale's department stores and Grand Central Terminal. The individuals, Cuban UN officials Elsa Montero and Jose Gomez Abad, were arrested after the FBI seized a dozen incendiary devices and a massive amount of TNT. The arrest and photos appeared on the front page of the New York Times.
The bombing was planned for Black Friday, and could have eclipsed 9/11 in magnitude. Undoubtedly, the plot was planned, conceived, and implemented at the highest levels of the Cuban government, which included Guevara. Although some dubiously attributed comments concerning Che's intent to kill Americans with nuclear weapons have never been fully vetted, this type of attack should leave no doubt as to his level of fanaticism. There are some, including Humberto Fontova, writing in the Miami Herald, who believe Castro and Guevara personally helped plan this attack.
It's dangerous to accept many of the quotes attributed to Che Guevara, as they were frequently manufactured by rabid opponents of Guevara, Castro, and communist Cuba. However, there can be no doubt that, even as an adult, Guevara had some very racist ideas rattling around his brain. For instance, in The Motorcycle Diaries, he wrote:
“The blacks, those magnificent examples of the African race who have maintained their racial purity thanks to their lack of an affinity with bathing, have seen their territory invaded by a new kind of slave: the Portuguese.”
And: “The black is indolent and a dreamer; spending his meager wage on frivolity or drink; the European has a tradition of work and saving, which has pursued him as far as this corner of America and drives him to advance himself, even independently of his own individual aspirations.”
Biographers have attempted to dismiss these statements as those of a young, less intellectually evolved man than he who criticized US discrimination against African Americans in front of the UN. Others cite Guevara's willingness to fight in the Congo, along side African rebels. Those making the Congo argument might wish to reflect on these quotes from Che's recently published Congolese diary (The African Dream), about his Congolese comrades : "... the poorest example of a fighter that I have ever come across to now."
And: "Given the prevailing lack of discipline, it would have been impossible to use Congolese machine-gunners to defend the base from air attack: they did not know how to handle their weapons and did not want to learn."
In general, Guevara paints a very bleak portrait of his time in Congo and the people he was surrounded by. Though these comments should be construed as much as commentary on the content of character, not the race, of those with whom he worked, the fact remains that he had almost nothing but negative things to say about Africans.
Guevara's comrades in arms, and others who knew him, contest the image of him as an outright racist. Freddy Ilanga, a Congolese interpreter who worked with Che in Africa, said in an interview with BBC that Guevara "showed the same respect to black people as he did to whites.” However, this doesn't mean Che's attacks on the treatment of African Americans and blacks in apartheid South Africa weren't political and calculated, or at the very least hypocritical, especially when considering how revolutionary Cuba treated people who were gay.