It was a long fight, but the Cubans have finally conquered this forlorn Andean hamlet, four decades after Ernesto "Che" Guevara was executed in the adobe schoolhouse here.
Cuban physicians provide healthcare, Cuban educators oversee literacy classes, and the Cuban-donated library features Che-as-superhero comic books. A monumental bust of the beret-topped revolutionary who helped Fidel Castro seize power in Cuba dominates the central plaza.
"Great men like Che never die," said Ubanis Ramirez, one of hundreds of Cuban doctors and teachers imported by leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales, whose office features a likeness of Guevara crafted from coca leaves. "His lesson is with us always."
Sympathizers from across the globe will make the trek to this remote corner of Bolivia this week to mark the 40th anniversary of the capture and killing of Guevara, militant leftist icon and global brand, the radical chic face adorning countless T-shirts, posters, album covers and tattoos.
But to the legions of devotees who subscribe to his personality cult, Guevara is forever the doomed idealist, the poetry- loving guerrillero and "most complete human being of our age," in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre.
"Our side is moving forward, and we don't have to go to the mountains and fight like Che did anymore," said Osvaldo Peredo, who heads Bolivia's Che Guevara Foundation and lost two brothers in guerrilla wars, one fighting alongside Che.
Cuban doctors and petro- dollars from Hugo Chavez's Venezuela are the new arsenal in a nonviolent insurrection that Guevara, committed to armed struggle, could never have envisioned.
"Finally, Che's dream is coming true," said former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Casteñeda, a Guevara biographer who casts Che more as wayward fanatic than inspired visionary. "Cuba's export of revolution is finally succeeding in many countries in Latin America, thanks to Chavez and his oil."
Che's "dream". Che's "revolution". Romantic and emotional words that describe something and someone who believers tout as the soul of revolution and the champion of the poor and dispossessed:
"Today Che is associated in the collective conscience with values — his ethics, his principles, his willingness to lose his life for an ideal," biographer Pacho O'Donnell wrote recently in the Argentine weekly Veintitres.
But what were those "ethics, principles and ideals?"
In January 1957, as his diary from the Sierra Maestra indicates, Guevara shot Eutimio Guerra because he suspected him of passing on information: “I ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain.... His belongings were now mine.” Later he shot Aristidio, a peasant who expressed the desire to leave whenever the rebels moved on. While he wondered whether this particular victim “was really guilty enough to deserve death,” he had no qualms about ordering the death of Echevarría, a brother of one of his comrades, because of unspecified crimes: “He had to pay the price.” At other times he would simulate executions without carrying them out, as a method of psychological torture.
Luis Guardia and Pedro Corzo, two researchers in Florida who are working on a documentary about Guevara, have obtained the testimony of Jaime Costa Vázquez, a former commander in the revolutionary army known as “El Catalán,” who maintains that many of the executions attributed to Ramiro Valdés, a future interior minister of Cuba, were Guevara’s direct responsibility, because Valdés was under his orders in the mountains. “If in doubt, kill him” were Che’s instructions. On the eve of victory, according to Costa, Che ordered the execution of a couple dozen people in Santa Clara, in central Cuba, where his column had gone as part of a final assault on the island. Some of them were shot in a hotel, as Marcelo Fernándes-Zayas, another former revolutionary who later became a journalist, has written—adding that among those executed, known as casquitos, were peasants who had joined the army simply to escape unemployment.
Then there was La Cabaña prison. Castro put Che in charge of that:
José Vilasuso, a lawyer and a professor at Universidad Interamericana de Bayamón in Puerto Rico, who belonged to the body in charge of the summary judicial process at La Cabaña, told me recently that
Che was in charge of the Comisión Depuradora. The process followed the law of the Sierra: there was a military court and 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. My direct superior was Miguel Duque Estrada. My duty was to legalize the files before they were sent on to the Ministry. Executions took place from Monday to Friday, in the middle of the night, just after the sentence was given and automatically confirmed by the appellate body. On the most gruesome night I remember, seven men were executed.
In 1958, after taking the city of Sancti Spiritus, Guevara unsuccessfully tried to impose a kind of sharia, regulating relations between men and women, the use of alcohol, and informal gambling—a puritanism that did not exactly characterize his own way of life. He also ordered his men to rob banks, a decision that he justified in a letter to Enrique Oltuski, a subordinate, in November of that year: “The struggling masses agree to robbing banks because none of them has a penny in them.” This idea of revolution as a license to re-allocate property as he saw fit led the Marxist Puritan to take over the mansion of an emigrant after the triumph of the revolution.
The urge to dispossess others of their property and to claim ownership of others’ territory was central to Guevara’s politics of raw power. In his memoirs, the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser records that Guevara asked him how many people had left his country because of land reform. When Nasser replied that no one had left, Che countered in anger that the way to measure the depth of change is by the number of people “who feel there is no place for them in the new society.” This predatory instinct reached a pinnacle in 1965, when he started talking, God-like, about the “New Man” that he and his revolution would create.
Che’s obsession with collectivist control led him to collaborate on the formation of the security apparatus that was set up to subjugate six and a half million Cubans. In early 1959, a series of secret meetings took place in Tarará, near Havana, at the mansion to which Che temporarily withdrew to recover from an illness. That is where the top leaders, including Castro, designed the Cuban police state. Ramiro Valdés, Che’s subordinate during the guerrilla war, was put in charge of G-2, a body modeled on the Cheka. Angel Ciutah, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War sent by the Soviets who had been very close to Ramón Mercader, Trotsky’s assassin, and later befriended Che, played a key role in organizing the system, together with Luis Alberto Lavandeira, who had served the boss at La Cabaña. Guevara himself took charge of G-6, the body tasked with the ideological indoctrination of the armed forces. The U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 became the perfect occasion to consolidate the new police state, with the rounding up of tens of thousands of Cubans and a new series of executions. As Guevara himself told the Soviet ambassador Sergei Kudriavtsev, counterrevolutionaries were never “to raise their head again.”
Champion of forced labor and concentration camps:
In the beginning, the revolution mobilized volunteers to build schools and to work in ports, plantations, and factories—all exquisite photo-ops for Che the stevedore, Che the cane-cutter, Che the clothmaker. It was not long before volunteer work became a little less voluntary: the first forced labor camp, Guanahacabibes, was set up in western Cuba at the end of 1960. This is how Che explained the function performed by this method of confinement: “[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.... It is hard labor, not brute labor, rather the working conditions there are hard.”
This camp was the precursor to the eventual systematic confinement, starting in 1965 in the province of Camagüey, of dissidents, 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. Herded into buses and trucks, the “unfit” would be transported at gunpoint into concentration camps organized on the Guanahacabibes mold. Some would never return; others would be raped, beaten, or mutilated; and most would be traumatized for life, as Néstor Almendros’s wrenching documentary Improper Conduct showed the world a couple of decades ago.
Yes, quite a dream to which to aspire, isn't it? And yet the real Che is buried within the mythological Che. He was a thug not unlike the thugs we're presently battling among the terrorists. Ironic, isn't it, that two of the world's worst were and are doctors. Che more rightly belongs in a comparison with Dr. Zawahiri of al Qaeda fame than the rosy myth which has grown up around him in these 40 years.
So when the deluded masses show up to mark the day, 40 years ago, when Che was killed, this phrase in Spanish will most likely describe them best:
“Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué".
For those who don't speak Spanish it means, "“I have a Che T-shirt and I don’t know why.”
My grandparents lived through this ’glorious revolution’. My Grandfather saw his brother executed for refusing to hand over his farm. He had another brother taken into one of his prisons, where he was tortured for months before release, only to be shot on his way out of the prison by the guards under Che’s orders.
My grandparents left everything they ever knew, all their worldly possessions and a good portion of their family behind and sought (and were given) political asylum in this country, an act that has forever left my family deeply indebted to this great nation. My grandparents (on both sides of the family) did this with two small children, came to this country and worked their asses off. To this day, my grandmother (who’s almost 70), who speaks broken english after decades of trying says her greatest accomplishment was becoming an American Citizen, and doing so in English.
My family lived through Che, and unlike many others, were able to survive.
For those of you who follow him: you can take him, those like him, his ideologies, poems, philosophies and that ridiculous beret and choke on it. You’re no better than modern day Neo-Nazis and Holocaust Deniers.
My little brother, who is 15, and I were recently on a college campus, one of the more conservative colleges in the US. We passed a young student (well, they all look young to me now, but he was probably around 19 or 20) wearing a Che T-shirt. My brother, whom I never had suspected of knowing what Cuba is, let alone who Che was, turned to me and said "do you think he has any idea of who is on that shirt? Or what he did?" I think McQ’s right, the sad answer is likely "no." I was pretty proud of my brother, though that knowledge seemingly came out of left, er, right field.
I was watching the Thirsty Traveler and he was in Cuba, visiting the birthplace of the Mojito. There was this young guy at the bar, obviously a foreign tourist, who was essentially dressed up as Che, complete with fatigues, Che T-shirt, beret, and wispy beard. No other person there, foreigner or Cuban was dressed in a costume so it wasn’t Halloween. He looked ridiculous.
Actually, he looked a bit like that Ward Churchill posed photo...
Uhmm. Because it’s cool. Obviously. Face the facts fellas, collectivist thugs revolutionaries are just cooler than libertarian heros.
Also, by celebrating Che I can avoid having to defend Castro. See, everybody wins. As for his purported crimes, I’ll paraphrase that stalwart defender of all that is good, D. Rumsfeld: Freedom is messy.
Also, by celebrating Che I can avoid having to defend Castro
So rather than defend a BIG-Time thug, you just celebrate a small-time thug? Man, you guyz on the Left are a puzzlement....so it’s like supporting one of the smaller Don’s so that way you don’t ahve to support John Gotti?
Joel C., allow me to suggest that Cuba under America’s pet dictator Batista was not the paradise you seem to think it was.
oh? I’m not arguing that Batista was a mafiaoso thug, but comparitively it’s apples and oranges. Things went from not so good to Hell on Earth in a matter of a few years. While I’m not excusing the Batista Regime, heralding Fidel Castro is also an insult and absurd.
Don’t speak of things you don’t know lest you end up looking, as you do now, like a total a@@. More people were killed by Che and Castro, more people left in destitute, more people utterly screwed and destroyed than Batista could have ever accomplished.
Joel C., allow me to suggest that Cuba under America’s pet dictator Batista was not the paradise you seem to think it was.
My understanding is that Batista initially had close relations with the Soviets. He then dropped the Soviet ties and courted the US.
Courting the US brought US money into Cuba, making Cuba the wealthiest nation in Latin America per capita.
Batista could not constitutionally run for reelection, but his chosen succesor won the election. The US felt that the election was fraudulent, and ceased arms shipments.
Batista fled, and did much of the leadership, and the government and military essentially collapsed.
None of this adds up to a US pet dictator. He played a game between the US and USSR at the beginning of the Cold War, eventually chose a side that resulted in an amazing increase in wealth for his country, and did not overstep his constitutional bonds.
I also understand Batista was supported by the Cuban communist party when he ran for election, and he had a "progressive" platform including a minimum wage. Batista would fit in well with the current crop of Democratic presidental candidates, from what I know.
But go on wearing the Che t shirt: it fits you well, and may also simplify shoot/no-shoot decisions.
i just find it amusing how people automatically call Bush evil for the Iraq War and other decisions he’s made, yet Che, who’s responsible for the death of tens of thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands) is considered a ’hero’, and the deaths explained or rationalized away.
So here’s my question to you leftys: how do you rationalize your being against communism and supporting the Democratic Party’s Agenda?
You might want to get a hold of a copy of Humberto Fontova’s book about Che (and the useful idiots that adore him) for a good explanation of how much prosperity, how much Cuba’s standard of living (highest in Latin America) etc, was pissed away by Che and Fidel.
Not to mention the obscene dictatorship Cuba has become.
Or maybe you’d rather live with your convenient myths and delusions.
Don, Batista had close relations witht he US since he first took over in 1933. He was the prefered part of the Anti-Machado (the previous strongman) coalition as opposed to Grau, for example, the leader of the academic opposition.
Sharpshooter, if you want to learn more about actual history, stop reading books blurbed by David Horowitz. At what point do you believe that Cuba’s standard of living (GDP per capita?) was the highest in Latin America? Because my data doens’t show such a point.