Thierry Henry pays homage to a killer of teenage boys
The image that glares out from T shirts and posters is a powerful one of discontent and revolution. Half rock star and half Jesus, the image of Che Guevara was as potent as it ever was as it glared out at me from a T shirt on sale at the ‘Hands Off Venezuela’ stall at the student fair.
Che Guevara beguiles westerners. In the US, Time magazine wrote that “Wearing a smile of melancholy sweetness that many women find devastating, Che guides Cuba with icy calculation, vast competence, high intelligence and a perceptive sense of humor.” (1) Benicio Del Toro, a talented actor not usually known for his historical knowledge, once said “Che was just one of those guys who walked the walk and talked the talk. There’s just something cool about people like that. The more I get to know Che, the more I respect him.” (2)
The truth is that Che Guevara was a thuggish murderer who helped install a dictatorship and wreck an economy and putting his picture on your chest or on your wall is like decorating yourself with a Swastika.
Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born in Argentina in 1928, and, as a descendant of a Viceroy of Peru, he enjoyed a privileged upbringing. It’s often said that he became a doctor but no one has ever been able to locate any record of his having qualified in medicine from Buenos Aires University. The head of its Office of Academic Affairs has suggested that the records could have been lost or stolen. Indeed, when he was captured in Bolivia he offered to tend to a wounded soldier and was asked if he was a doctor. “No,” he replied, “but I have some knowledge of medicine” (3)
In 1952 Che travelled round South America and this was turned into the enchanting, lyrical, but utterly dishonest recent film ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’. The wistful young poet depicted in the film wrote at the time “Crazy with fury I will stain my rifle red while slaughtering any enemy that falls in my hands! My nostrils dilate while savoring the acrid odor of gunpowder and blood. With the deaths of my enemies I prepare my being for the sacred fight and join the triumphant proletariat with a bestial howl!” (4) It was during this period that Che is supposed to have developed a deep affection for the poor and exploited of South America.
He ended up in Guatemala in 1954 and saw the downfall of the leftist government of Jacobo Arbenz. Che’s judgement was that “Arbenz didn’t execute enough people” (5). In 1955 he met Fidel Castro in Mexico and joined his Cuban Communist movement and later that year they led a force to Cuba.
In the next couple of years Che fought the corrupt Cuban government of Fulgencio Batista and it is here that he won a reputation as a guerrilla commander and theorist of the highest calibre.
The truth is rather different. Che made his name in December 1958 when guerrilla troops under his command defeated Batista’s forces at the Battle of Santa Clara. The New York Times breathlessly reported “One Thousand Killed in 5 days of Fierce Street Fighting” and “Guevara turned the tide in this bloody battle and whipped a Batista force of 3,000 men.” (6)
All this was fantasy. Che’s own diary records just one casualty at the ‘battle’ and Batista’s troops, who had no interest in risking their lives for a venal government, hardly fired a shot. Reflecting on the heroic accounts one veteran claims “Those of us who were there can only laugh at this stuff”
For all the excited reports of raging battles leaving thousands dead Che’s diary records just 20 deaths in his unit for the whole two years of the war against Batista. According to the US embassy in Havana, the whole war saw just 182 deaths. Quite simply, Batista’s government collapsed without a fight. Not much to hang a military reputation on.
Nevertheless, this lack of bloodshed in battle was compensated for by bloodshed after it. In January 1957 Che had enthusiastically volunteered to carry out his first killing, the execution of an alleged informer, shooting the man in the temple at close range. He recorded the incident in his diaries; “He went into convulsions for a while and was finally still. Now his belongings were mine.” (5) He wrote to his father in Buenos Aires to say “I’d like to confess, papa, at that moment I discovered that I really like killing.” (7)
Shortly afterwards Che’s men captured a 17 year old conscript. Terrified, the boy begged Che for his life. “I haven’t killed anyone, comandante, I just got out here! I’m an only son, my mother’s a widow and I joined the army for the salary, to send it to her every month…don’t kill me!”
He was tied up, shot and dumped in a ditch. (5)
After the ‘battle’ at Santa Clara Che ordered the summary execution of 27 of Batista’s men, most of them peasants who had been drafted into the army. Che’s colleague, Dr Serafin Ruiz, protested, saying “Our revolution promises not to execute without trials, without proof. How can we just….?”
Che cut him off. “Look Serafin, if your bourgeois prejudices won’t allow you to carry out my orders, fine. Go ahead and try them tomorrow morning but execute them now!”
Che’s long standing enthusiasm for killing made him the perfect man to consolidate Castro’s seizure of power. In his two days in charge of Santa Clara prison in January 1959, 23 people were summarily executed at Che’s command. (8)
Between January and November 1959 Che was placed in command of La Cabana prison. The executions here were as swift, gruesome and arbitrary as ever. Che had said “Evidence is an archaic bourgeois detail. We execute from revolutionary conviction.” (9)
In 1997 a former inmate of La Cabana described Che in revolutionary action.
“One morning the horrible sound of that rusty steel door swinging open startled us awake and Che’s guards shoved a new prisoner into our cell. He was a boy, maybe 14 years old. His face was bruised and smeared with blood. ‘What did you do?’ We asked horrified. ‘I tried to defend my papa’ gasped the bloodied boy ‘but they sent him to the firing squad’
Soon Che’s guards returned. The rusty steel door opened and they yanked the boy out of the cell. “We all rushed to the cell’s window that faced the execution pit,” recalls Mr. San Martin. “We simply couldn’t believe they’d murder him.
“Then we spotted him, strutting around the blood-drenched execution yard with his hands on his waist and barking orders – Che Guevara himself.’ Kneel down!’ Che barked at the boy.
“Assassins!” we screamed from our window.
“I said: KNEEL DOWN!” Che barked again.
The boy stared Che resolutely in the face. “If you’re going to kill me,” he yelled, “you’ll have to do it while I’m standing! Men die standing!”
“Murderers!” the men yelled desperately from their cells. “Then we saw Che unholstering his pistol. He put the barrel to the back of the boys’ neck and blasted. The shot almost decapitated the young boy.”(10)
It seems fair to wonder where Che’s deep affection for the poor and exploited of South America was at that moment.
While in command at La Cabana, Che often insisted on administering the close range coup de grace personally. In case he couldn’t make it, he had a section of his office wall removed so he could watch the firing squads from his desk.
How many did Che Guevara, star of a million T shirts and posters, murder in La Cabana? One of Che’s former colleagues put the figure at 400. A priest who performed the last rites there raises this to 700 executions personally ordered by Che Guevara. Luis Ortega, a journalist who had known Che since 1954, claimed that 1,897 men were killed on Che Guevara’s orders. Che himself though outbid them all when he claimed responsibility for “a couple of thousand” executions.
Che refused the salary that his position entitled him to taking only a military commandantes wage to set a revolutionary example. However, Che probably had little need of the cash given that he had seized a residence at Tarara which a Cuban journalist described as “among the most luxurious in Cuba”. “The mansion had a boat dock, a huge swimming pool, seven bathrooms, a sauna, a massage salon and several television sets. One TV had been specially designed in the U.S. and had a screen ten feet wide and was operated by remote control. This was thought to be the only TV of its kind in Latin America. The mansion’s garden had a veritable jungle of imported plants, a pool with a waterfall, ponds filled with exotic tropical fish and several bird houses filled with parrots and other exotic birds. The habitation was something out of A Thousand and One Nights.” (5)
Under Che’s stewardship of the economy few Cubans were to share in such opulence. Che was appointed Minister of Economics in 1960 and Minister for Industries in 1961. On Che’s orders farms were collectivised and whole populations forcibly removed from their homes and herded into camps many miles away. Che began pursuing a process of rapid industrialisation by decree. According to Humberto Fontova, Che simply “ordered a refrigerator factory built in Cienfuegos, a pick and shovel factory built in Santa Clara, a pencil factory built in Havana”. Whether these factories were needed or not, viable or not or practical or not was of no concern. “None of the factories ended up producing a single product” (5)
Che took over a strong economy. Cuba’s per capita income was higher than in Austria and Japan. By 1962 the Cuban dollar, historically worth as much as the US dollar, had crashed in value, food rationing had been introduced and thousands of Cubans were scrambling to escape the Workers Paradise.
After destroying the Cuban economy Che was packed off with the mission of exporting revolution to other countries in 1965. His first experiment, in the Congo, saw him team up with a warlord called Pierre Mulele who, according to the novelist VS Naipaul, killed everyone who could read and wore a tie. The expedition ended in dismal failure.
Undeterred, Che travelled to Bolivia in 1966 and set up a ‘National Liberation Army’ which averaged about 45 members. Che bemoaned this latest failure in his diary, saying “We cannot develop any peasant support. But it looks like by employing planned terror we may at least neutralize most of them. Their support will come later.” (11)
It didn’t and the attempt to start a revolution in Bolivia was Che’s final disaster. After his ragged band had wandered round the jungle for a few months Che was captured in October 1967. He introduced himself to his captors by shouting “Don’t shoot! I’m Che! I’m worth more to you alive than dead!” (12)
Che was shot the following day. Even now this is regarded as a terrible extra judicial killing, he was “murdered in cold blood” (13) according to some. What would their views be on Che’s actions at La Cabana?
You wonder if any of the westerners who idolise Che actually know anything about this thuggish killer. The German Marxist Kai Kracht said that “1968 was the onset of a totally new age, with a new conception of how people should be: They should not to be governed by authorities from above. We studied the great revolutionaries of our century: Lenin, Mao, Che, we wanted to learn from their success. Our revolution was young, and full of groovy slogans.” She had clearly not heard when Che said “Youth must refrain from ungrateful questioning of governmental mandates. Instead, they must dedicate themselves to study, work, and military service.”
In 1968 Time magazine wrote that “Che Guevara has given rise to a cult of almost religious hero worship among radical intellectuals and students across much of the Western world”. You wonder what these radical intellectuals would have thought when Che proclaimed his aim “to make individualism disappear from Cuba! It is criminal to think of individuals!”
Even worse was Carlos Santana’s appearance at the Oscars in 2005 sporting a T shirt with Che on it. In 1960 Che had built a camp in the town of Guanahacabibes where he sent “people who have committed crimes against revolutionary morals…it is hard labor…the working conditions are harsh…” As well as homosexuals and Christians this camp was also, by the late 1960’s, the destination for people deemed “roqueros”, Cuban teenagers found guilty of the crime of listening to American musicians such as Carlos Santana.
The apparatus of brutal state repression which Che helped to establish in Cuba is still with us. In 2005 Amnesty International reported that “Cuban authorities continue to suppress any form of dissent by methods such as harassment, threats, intimidation, detention and long-term imprisonment.” The following year Human Rights Watch described Cuba as having “an undemocratic government that represses nearly all forms of political dissent.” Perhaps the Manic Street Preachers should have thought of that before fawning all over Castro like a set of teenage girls in 2001.
The basic question was well put by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen who wrote about celebrities such as Carlos Santana and Thierry Henry wearing the famous Che T Shirt. Indeed, it’s a question every single person who owns a Che Guevara T shirt or poster should ask themselves; “What was he celebrating? Firing squads?”