Whose Che?

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Che Guevara lightens up

Today marks 40 years since Ernesto ‘Che’
Guevara — the Argentine revolutionary who had helped Fidel Castro
overthrow the US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 — was
captured with the aid of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and
executed by the Bolivian military.

By the time this article goes to
print, ceremonies commemorating Guevara’s death will have been held
throughout Latin America, with the largest taking place in Cuba,
Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Nicaragua and, ironically, Bolivia — a
country whose population once denounced Guevara to local troops as he
attempted to ignite another revolution.

In 1967, as Guevara lay
dead next to his Cuban comrades in the Vallegrande hospital, displayed
before the international press like a trophy by Bolivian generals, few
could have imagined that one day Cubans would return to Bolivia at the
request of the country’s Head of State. Since Evo Morales — an astute
trade union leader of humble origins
— became Bolivia’s first Indigenous President in 2005, Cuban teachers
and doctors have arrived in their hundreds, providing services that
were much needed by the impoverished population.

Even Mario Teran — the miserable and, at the time intoxicated, Bolivian soldier who executed Guevara — is reported to have received eye surgery by Cuban doctors.

In
Australia, like in many parts of the world, Guevara has been both
placed on a pedestal or demonised out of all proportion. Writing
earlier this year in The Australian, Cassandra Wilkinson quoted
Guevara — generally, out of context — defending Cuba’s right to execute
Batista’s former, often CIA-trained, henchmen.

Wilkinson constructs her image of Guevara using a book entitled, Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolise Him
by Cuban émigré Humberto Fontova. The book paints Guevara as a failed
physician and psychopathic guerrilla, who killed 14,000 people, as well
as puppies and was ‘deathly afraid to drive a motorcycle’. Fontova’s
work could not obtain any serious academic reviews and to say that it
merits a 10-second glance at a secondhand bookshop may be too kind.

And, the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt provides another predictable angle on his blog today.

It’s
true that, since 1967, Guevara has been elevated to saint-like status —
particularly in Cuba. After his death was announced, Castro held
Guevara up as the New Man who belonged to the future — the model to
which all generations should aspire.

And yet, for a supposed
man of the future, Guevara looked very much like a Latin male of the
1960s. A chauvinist, it is claimed the rebel on some occasions publicly
berated his wife in the harshest of terms. With his military
subordinates, Che’s reputation as a commander of little patience was
notorious. According to Dariel Alarcón Ramírez’s book Memorias de un Soldado Cubano,
Guevara would often listen patiently to a soldier’s account and then
respond in the bluntest of terms: ‘Look, what you are saying is shit’.
Guevara’s honesty and distaste for privileges were admired but also
deeply disliked — because they bordered on the puritanical.

Asked
to comment on Guevara, Jeff Browitt, Senior Lecturer in Latin American
Studies at the University of Technology Sydney, said:

Now
we all know the good things about Che, but let’s look at a couple of
problems: the New Man had no room for the New Gay Man and besides that,
Che contributed towards the silencing of critics of the Revolution …
and if one thing undermines revolutionary gains it is the unwillingness
to listen to internal criticism.

These points certainly tarnished Guevara — and Cuba.

Yet,
for all his faults, it is not difficult to understand the factors that
shaped Guevara. And one need not share his view of how the world should
work (and I certainly don’t).

Before Guevara became a Comandante in Castro’s guerrilla army and as highlighted in the recent film The Motorcycle Diaries,
the medical student travelled widely throughout Latin America, coming
face to face with the severe poverty endured by peasants and labourers.
In 1952, Guevara and his friend Alberto Granados were arrested and
interrogated in Bogotá, Colombia — at the time under the dictatorship
of Laureano Gómez — simply because the authorities suspected they may
be potential subversive agents. They were only released after local
students convinced the authorities Guevara and Granados were not
subversives.

In Guatemala in 1954, Guevara witnessed a moderate
social democratic regime demonised by the local press and then
violently overthrown by the United States. The country eventually
plunged into a brutal dictatorship after a civil war which saw roughly
200,000 dead civilians — most murdered through US-backed State terror.

When
the vagabond doctor met the Castro brothers in Mexico in the mid-1950s,
Guevara found a project he could wholeheartedly support and once
triumphant, would not allow to be overthrown through force.

So
what can be said about Guevara’s views on the use of violence? For one
thing, his point on the need for progressive or Left–wing governments
in Latin America to be able to resort to violence still seems relevant
today — were it not, a little US-backed coup in Venezuela in 2002 could
not have been repelled.

Guevara’s support for the death penalty
and his role in the executions at La Cabaña barracks are by far the
most contentious. Writing in Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, the Mexican intellectual Jorge Castañeda states:

Guevara’s
responsibility for the events at La Cabaña — though it cannot be
diminished, as Che himself never tried to do — must nonetheless be seen
within the context of the time. There was no bloodbath; nor were
innocent people exterminated in any large or even significant numbers.
After the excesses of Batista, and the unleashing of passions during
those winter months, it is surprising that there were so few abuses and
executions.

By 1997, the year the book was
published, Castañeda had already made a Christopher Hitchens-like
political conversion from Left to Right — but even he can respect
certain facts.

John Lee Anderson in his biography of Guevara
writes that most of Batista’s thugs were ‘sentenced in conditions …
above board, if summary affairs, with defence lawyers, witnesses,
prosecutors, and an attending public’.

By the time Guevara
reached Bolivia in 1967, most credible accounts have the guerrilla
leader giving his captives appropriate medical attention, in a
dignified manner. And he often called off attacks when he realised he
was again going to be fighting a group of poorly trained 17-year-old
boys.

Even though most Latin Americans today do not embrace
Guevara’s views of guerrilla warfare, or of a one Party State, his
calls for actions are still revered because they were based on real and
ongoing problems such as the region’s abysmal poverty, an almost
complete inability by elites to accept some degree of social
accountability, and the United States’ tumultuous record of
interventions.

One need not be a Marxist to understand these points.

New Matilda

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