Che Guevara Redux

By Justin Gardner | Related entries in Cuba, History, Video

Do you know the real Che Guevara?

Reason TV digs in…

I’ve always been a bit baffled by Americans’ obsession with Che. Honestly, I just think his iconic image looks cool and so Americans think he’s cool.

Yes, it’s as shallow as that.

In the end, I wish more would see videos like this so they knew exactly who this guy was and what he did. Because a revolutionary hero he was not.


This entry was posted on Friday, December 12th, 2008 and is filed under Cuba, History, Video. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

17 Responses to “Che Guevara Redux”

  1. George Mauer Says:

    Ok, I’ll take the bait.

    In what is all too often Reason’s problem, they miss the nuance. Che’s story is quite romantic, and he is indeed in many ways inspiring. Now good should of course be taken with the bad and people who buy into the Che-Chic without knowing the full story are absurd to the extreme, but that is not to say that he’s not one of the most interesting and alluring figures in modern history.

    So the video asks, what’s the difference between Hitler and Che…well, beyond the obvious. And here it is: While many of Che’s actions were monstrous, unlike Hitler, few believe that he himself was a monster or a madman. He stood for ideas that people absolutely agree with, he was mistaken in his tactics but his ideology and his passion are completely relateable.

    And guess what? To what should be nobody’s surprise, in our society, ideals and passion are far more honored than intelligent tactics. You can witness this in the reverence for JFK, FDR, Churchill, Regan. Heck, pick a popular historical figure and chances are that the manner they went about achieving their goals is a footnote to their Vision and Drive.

    That’s the difference with Hitler by the way, no one sees him as a positive visionary. Che in the meantime stood for the fight against dictatorship (nevermind what the result of his actions was), for self-sacrifice (no matter what you think, he was not self serving), for social equality (thats what communism is all about after all), and for antidisestablishmentarianism (150 points!). Of course that he had the flair and looks of a movie-star and was overwhelmingly charismatic didn’t hurt either. Nor did it hurt him that he died in his youth uttering an iconic phrase that’s in all the famous last words books (“I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, you are only going to kill a man.” – saved you a google).

    Honestly, it makes complete sense Justin and its not all bad either.

    I am, to my great shame, less familiar with Mao, but from what I do know, he was a similarly intriguing figure. I’m actually quite interested if there will be an idolization of Mugabe in the future or if his obvious madness has tipped the scales of history against him. Should be interesting

  2. nonee moose Says:

    George. I cannot argue with anything you’ve said. You sir, are an idiot. You usefulness as such is yet to be determined, perhaps by the next monster in need of an apologist. Good luck to you.

  3. George Mauer Says:

    I would not consider it a full day of internetting without at least one “You sir, are an idiot.” My quota gets filled early in the day today.

  4. John Lenin Says:

    To me Che Guevara is one of the most heroic figures in world history who is a stoic example of what all those who speak of “revolution” should espouse to be.

    This was a man who left a bourgeoisie comfortable life of the upper class, a potential well compensated career as a medical doctor, and a high regarded governmental position — each time to slog through the jungle and fight guerrilla wars against impenetrable odds = for a better and more equitable society.

    I find his life not only fascinating but deeply inspiring.

    Guevara despite his crippling and acute asthma which would debilitate him almost daily to inches from death, directed “suicide squads” in the battle against the U.S. armed and backed Dictator Batista where with less than 300 men; he literally took on 10,000 Batista soldiers armed with tanks, jets, and U.S. weaponry, and came out victorious at and leading up to the victory at Santa Clara.

    In Bolivia, Guevara spent almost over 1 hellish year in the festering jungle battling a disease which left his hands as mounds of swollen flesh, the fact that his allergic reaction to mosquito bites would leave walnut sized welts all over his body, kept fighting even when he was without food for nearly a month, went shoeless, without blankets, and STILL with less than 30 men took on a force of 1,800 Bolivian U.S. armed rangers with an air force, green beret advisors, and CIA technology. Despite these odds Guevara’s men killed 30 Bolivian troops before they even lost their first Guerrilla. Moreover, displaying his character, despite all these hardships, when Guevara could have simply taken the food of Bolivian campesinos to eat, he insisted on paying for everything.

    Throughout his life Che tended to thousands of sick campesinos, helped construct dozens of schools throughout Cuba, worked in a Leper colony to helped those afflicted, and even when he was literally tied up in a small mud school house awaiting his own execution ! , still complained to the local teacher that in a nation where the leaders drove Mercedes … it was a travesty that the peasants were taught in a dilapidated place like he was in.

    Although I don’t believe in religious dogma (neither did Che), and view myself as an atheist, I do find it telling that the person Che was so often compared to by those who knew him was Jesus Christ. Because of his implacable character, unbending morals, and innate desire to fight in favor of the afflicted, I think that those who knew him were left with no other figure to compare him to.

    Was he perfect? Of course not. No human is. But in mind he was awfully close considering the circumstances and cards he was dealt. I also find it telling that the best “canard” his detractors and those propagandists of monopoly capitalism can come up with – was his short stint at La Cabana prison. Where Che simply reviewed the cases and convictions of war criminals convicted by revolutionary tribunal (modeled after Nuremburg). The same secret police and Batista backed torturers that killed 20,000 people and tortured tens of thousands more. The fact that Che saw to it that justice was delivered cold to the Cuban people to me only makes him more heroic. He knew that a “pedagogy of the wall” was the only thing that could cleanse a society from the thousands of goons who raped and terrorized it with impunity.

    Yet I’m amazed how people apply some sort of “perfectionist” fallacy to Guevara or more foolishly overlook his heroism on the basis of the fact that Capitalists profit from his defiant image. This is exactly what the capitalist vampires want. They will take every hero of the toilers and the left and revise them into “terrorists” … they will take every noble guerrilla who fought against imperialism and craft them into “mad men” so as to make you think that heroism and socialism/Marxism etc are antithetical concepts. If this doesn’t work … the Capitalist/Imperialists will try to make real heroes into caricatures, or “de-fanged” banal symbols of popular culture – so as to “devalue” their serious and conceptual analysis on behalf of the working class. Thus Che dawns a bikini, Mao dawns a purse, and Lenin dawns your Zippo lighter.

    I would implore those who give credence to the idea of a “revolution” … to give much deserved recognition to one of the few men in the past century who literally threw aside “the arm chair” and went out to (imperfectly) create it.

    If the world had 100 Che’s … or hell even 10 … we would be in much better shape.

    Hasta la Victoria Siempre !

  5. J. Harden Says:

    Even worse and more dangerous, as Lenin quipped, you and people like you are “useful idiots.” Che was also a useful idiot, so you do indeed have something in common with him.

  6. George Mauer Says:

    Calling someone an idiot is easy; you don’t have to make a case. It is actually not an argument at all, merely an expression of opinion to which no response can possibly be adequate.

    For the record, I think JL goes far too far, but I’d like to have an actual discussion on this if anyone is interested.

  7. kranky kritter Says:

    Justin, I agree wholeheartedly with you that this guy owes the vast majority of his attractiveness to the fact that he he achieved iconic pop culture status. Who really fuels this stuff? I’ll tell you who…college age dilettantes with disposable income, dipping their toes in the waters of the left bank. Or as Cartman would call them, “college know-it-all hippies.”

    I say this as one who probably got about waist deep back in the day. So I know for a fact that only a fraction of the populace was really into it and knowledgeable about it. It happens to be the case that young adulthood is the time in one’s life where the communitarian impulse is strongest. Because that’s when doubts and fears about making your way as a single entity are highest.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that. America is fortunate that our culture of growing up provides an avenue for serious consideration of what kind of world you want and what role you’d like to play in forging it. But the fact is that many folks aren’t really paying that close attention. Woody Allen said that 90% of life is showing up, and that’s what college dilletantes and movement hangers-on are doing…they are showing up for boutique, visceral, and subliminal reasons, like the hippies have better drugs or provide more opportunities to get laid, along with the promise of achieving the vision where you’ll be guaranteed your “fair” share.

  8. karlub Says:

    The key question here is this: Did the Romantic Guevara understand the potential consequences of the Political Guevara’s actions?

    One way we can answer that question is to determine whether he was motivated by hate, or by love, as Mr. Lenin implies. If the former, I think we can fairly say he foresaw the ugly and genocidal violence inherent in 20th Century communism and did not care. If the latter, perhaps he was a tragic idealist.

    [Aside: If someone here wants to deny the Soviet and Maoist systems were the most murderous and evil ones devised in modern history, that is another conversation, and I probably can't cure your revisionist delusion.]

    The following is a brief precis from a piece in that notoriously reactionary rag The New Republic by Alvaro Vargas Llosa. I consulted it to refresh my memory.

    #
    In April 1967, speaking from experience, he summed up his homicidal idea of justice in his “Message to the Tricontinental”: “hatred as an element of struggle; 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.”
    #
    “Revolution without firing a shot? You’re crazy.” (Tell that to Ghandi, MLK, and Havel.
    #
    “If in doubt, kill him” were Che’s instructions [to Jaime Costa Vázquez, a former commander in the revolutionary army.]
    #
    At La Cabana Che presided over the appellate body reviewing sentences. He never overturned a single one. Of course, Mr. Lenin assures us they were all guilty! I assume he is as sanguine about the court system in the US, too.
    #
    Want to put Che’s capacity for hardship in perspective? Was it love and egalitarianism that moved him? Well, he recognized a kindred soul in Pedro Valdivia, the conquistador of Chile, when he wrote “[Valdivia] belonged to that special class of men the species produces every so often, in whom a craving for limitless power is so extreme that any suffering to achieve it seems natural.”
    #
    And let’s remember Che was a key collaborator in the formation of the Cuban security apparatus that tynrannized almost all Cubans, including homosexuals, AIDS victims, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Afro-Cuban priests, and other such scum, under the banner of Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción, or Military Units to Help Production.
    #

    Now, this is setting aside the fact that he is partly responsible for the moronic economic policies Latin America is only now undigging from. That economic destruction has led to the early deaths of millions, the the impoverishment of generations. I set this aside, though, as he clearly had no idea how wrong he was.

    To defend him after learning about him is a willful excercise in denial, or a tacit admission by the person doing the defending that he or she just wants to be wearing the jackboot while it stamps on a human face forever.

  9. David Ortez Says:

    I agree with John and George.

    Cmon Justin … I thought you were a bit more intelligent than this. At least be willing to entertain the issue at hand.

    Do you know the real George Washington? He is an American revolutionary to us but a traitor to the British? Robert E. Lee vs. Ulysses Grant … both Americans who is the hero and who was the traitor?

    No one lives a pristine and perfect life … you must understand that although Che did commit “horrendous” acts so did the other individuals I have mentioned. They all had a cause that they were fighting for.

    America is guilty of committing terrible acts from covert operations in Latin America to outright removal of a foreign leader through a preemptive strike in Iraq. Does this negate America’s goal to be the City on the Hill? I think not.

  10. karlub Says:

    And Stalin was misunderstood, as the Tsars needed overthrowing for their exploitation of the kulaks. Mussolini was loved before he took it up with Hitler, really straightening Italy out. Pol Pot had no choice on technique as corrupt elections in monarchical Cambodia were a real problem, and the last Somoza had to sieze power in 1972 because the tragic earthquake that hit Managua rendered the Nicaraguan government unable to provide even basic services to rich and poor alike.

    Moral relatvism of this sort is either used to cover an insiduous agenda that cannot be expressed in polite company, or it is a pecadillo of play revolutionaries who would be the first to have their backs against the wall in a real political insurrection.

  11. George Mauer Says:

    Stop. There are two different things being discussed here.

    1) The actual pro and anti Che debate going on between JL and karlub. You very rarely get knowledgeable people willing to engage in this debate (and they are both more knowledgeable than I) so it is great to listen to.

    2) An explanation of how it is that the Che iconization is not really odd at all that is addressed by the posts of kranky and myself. For once kranky I actually agree with you wholeheartedly – its all about borrowing the image, very few are making any sort of real philosophical statement. Yeah Che was interesting but lots of other people are too and his fame and prominence is MOSTLY due to pure circumstance. Furthermore, I answered the question of why Che gets less indignation than Hitler or Stalin. There are key differences in public perception and no one should be surprised by that either.

    Now, the additional implication of my post that I think David picked up on and took issue with is that public perception is not entirely wrong; that – the 99% of clueless posers aside – there IS a legitimate statement that can be made on his behalf. So for the record, I have never owned anything with his face on it and I usually roll my eyes at people that do. However, aspects of the man’s life are certainly heroic, various aspirations of his are certainly to be admired, and his commitment is certainly not to be questioned. This is not as David implies, an exercise in relativism, I do not expect to get any argument to the previous sentence.

    Additionally, I would make the assertion that he was well intentioned even while being an unforgiving and temperamental man. This is a point I would actually be interested in maybe hearing some historians go at it over. But you guys feel free to discuss as well.

    There, everyone calm now?

  12. David Says:

    I read through some of the comments and respect everyone’s opinion on the matter. Instead of responding to each and every claim made on this post I will just go ahead and state my opinion on the matter.

    I believe the Che Guevarra was more of a murderer than a revolutionary, mainly because of the philosophy he used of “the ends justify the means.” My parents and grandparents are natives of Cuba and lived through the revolution. Their stories aren’t pretty and neither are the one’s of other Cuban-Americans I’ve heard from. Whether you see Che as an icon or a murderer that’s your choice. I just think that too many people wear his shirt around without truly knowing Che’s background. They should start making Che shirts with an asterisk saying “And I can tell you why I’m wearing this shirt.” Just a pointless thought but I see it more as a fad than a visionary statement.

  13. J. Harden Says:

    aspects of the man’s life are certainly heroic, various aspirations of his are certainly to be admired, and his commitment is certainly not to be questioned

    And certainly the same can be said of Osama bin Laden.

  14. George Mauer Says:

    David – That is actually one of the best shirt ideas I’ve ever heard of. I completely agree with the sentiment.

    J. – It absolutely can be said about Osama too. I believe there are plenty of Osama t-shirts being worn by poorly informed teenagers throughout the world also. This indicates perhaps not so much that Che was pure evil but that Osama has been flattened in our culture to a one dimensional character where he too is a complex human being, and his effect on the world even more complicated.

  15. Justin Gardner Says:

    First off, let’s not question people’s intelligence please. It’s an absolutely worthless exercise. People can have completely different opinions and be plenty smart, i.e. the whole point of this site.

    As I said above, my overarching point is I don’t think the guy deserves to lionized the way he has and I think it has happened out of ignorance, not out of education. Sure, his early writings and life story may be romantic, but you have to take the entire man into account and the image we see emblazoned everywhere is that of the man during his most vicious.

    And of course America is guilty of terrible acts. I wouldn’t make posters, t-shirts or movies about the people who perpetrated these things in our name either, and I frankly hate the symbolism of many political figures because they’re always simplistic and inaccurate. But the ultimate outcome of Che’s vision was total state control of thought and action, and that’s a vile notion regardless of the romantic history that led up to him becoming a revolutionary.

  16. Matt Powers Says:

    Very interesting film. Really shows a different perspective than you normally see. Love the personalization with the 2 interviews. Heck, you can even get a Bobblehead of Che now…

    http://www.thebobblehead.com/index.php?page=shop.product_details&flypage=shop.garden_flypage&product_id=33&category_id=2&manufacturer_id=0&option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=47

  17. dana Says:

    Can’t argue with all of you people. Just don’t like Mao really. I don’t know, if I was born a Chinese and much more earlier, I’d be dead during his rule. Shame on him.

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