An Icon of Evil

December 27, 2005
Cuba is a communist country. This will not be news to the readers of The New York Sun, but it may come as a surprise to visitors at the International Center of Photography. In the almost 400 words that make up the wall text at the entrance to "Che! Revolution and Commerce" and discuss its eponymous hero, neither "communist" nor "communism" appear. It is like explaining who Osama bin Laden is without mentioning he is Muslim.
The first paragraph of the wall text informs the visitor that the exhibition is about "Alberto Korda's 1960 portrait of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, titled 'Guerrillero Heroico,'" and that for "the last 45 years, this iconic photograph has symbolized antiestablishment thought and action." That's true enough, and for an institution that prides itself on its willingness to deal with the "transgressive," a mighty plus.
It points out approvingly that the picture was used during the 1968 student uprisings in Europe. These, however, were revolution as opera bouffe. Che's picture was certainly not displayed during the Solidarity protests in Poland in the 1980s or in the Tiananmen Square demonstration in China in 1989, when men and women genuinely hazarded their lives for freedom.
Ernesto "Che" Guevara was a sociopathic thug, a man who genuinely relished killing, a man with a passion for putting his pistol to other men's heads and blowing their brains out, preferably when they were bound, gagged, and blindfolded. Oh, and there is no record of the heroic guerrilla of "Guerrillero Heroico" actually having prevailed in real-life guerrilla battles of any consequence, and very little of his participating much in combat of any sort.
Fidel Castro, his brother Raoul, and Che were able to steer the Cuban revolution away from democracy through backroom politics, the use of fear and propaganda, and the imprisonment of genuine democratic leaders, like Huber Matos and Mario Chanes De Armas. What makes Guevara interesting is that in everything he did he was a total bungler, the Inspector Clouseau of revolution. This, too, seems to have escaped ICP's attention.
The first sentence of the second paragraph of the wall text informs the visitor that Korda's picture was taken "on March 5, 1960, at a time when Che held a position in the Cuban government overseeing the country's transformation from an agrarian to an industrial economy." Where to start with this?
In 1959 when the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista was overthrown, Cuba had one of the highest GDPs of any country in Latin America. Within months of Castro's appointment of Guevara as minister of economics, the Cuban peso, which traditionally was equal to a U.S. dollar, was virtually worthless, and so it remains. The next year, 1961, Guevara became minister of industries, and the island's factories either closed or began their steady decay. The Cubans who have prospered since the revolution are either party officials or those who made new lives for themselves in exile.
The one job Guevara excelled at was when he was commander of La Cabana prison, Havana's equivalent of Moscow's notorious Lubyanka. He liked overseeing executions and personally administering the coup de grace. Pierre San Martin, an inmate of La Cabana who made it out alive, gave the tenor of Guevara's administration in an article published in El Nuevo Herald from December 28, 1997.
A 14-year-old boy, badly beat up, was brought to the prison. When those in his cell asked why he was there, he explained that he had tried to protect his father, who was being taken to the firing squad. Che's guards soon returned and led the boy from the cell. "Then we spotted him, strutting around the blood-drenched execution yard with his hands on his waist and barking orders - Che Guevara himself," Mr. San Martin recalled.
"'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!'
"Then we saw Che unholstering his pistol. He put the barrel to the back of the boy's neck and blasted. The shot almost decapitated the young boy."
And so it goes.
ICP tells us, "Che left Cuba in 1965 with the goal of inciting revolution in the Congo and then in Bolivia," but not that those incitements were comic examples of bumbling incompetence, funny except for the dead left behind. You can look it up. The wall text refers to Guevara's "classical, even Christ-like demeanor," it says his "enigmatic gaze encompasses both determination and desire," and that he "was a young and charismatic idealist who gave up the security of his middle class world for his convictions." And Hitler was a vegetarian who became an important European statesman.
Cornell Capa founded ICP in 1966 as the International Fund for Concerned Photography, and it has always had a social mission. Not surprisingly, its political cast is leftish. Soon after the American invasion of Afghanistan, it displayed pictures of civilian casualties with an accompanying wall text that explained war was bad. When the pictures from Abu Ghraib became available, it immediately devoted a room to an exhibition titled "Inconvenient Evidence" and quoted some of Susan Sontag's inanities.
It is right that ICP should remind us of our responsibilities to innocent civilians caught in the way of battle, and even that it should be solicitous of the welfare of terrorists, but why is it indifferent to the suffering of the Cuban people over the last half century, to the poets, artists, and homosexuals who have been murdered or imprisoned, who are in prison now? Why should a major cultural institution gull its public? Or is it just inexcusably ignorant?
The examination of the uses to which one particular picture - an icon - can be put is certainly a project within the purview of the International Center of Photography's mission. Had it begun "Che! Revolution and Commerce" by explaining to the public what sort of man Ernesto Guevara was, it might have been a valuable exhibition. How successful it is, I cannot tell you. I went to the press preview, but was so affronted by the despicable wall text at the entrance, I turned around and walked out.