Che: Revolutionary, movie star, killing machine
- Alvaro Vargas Llosa

SF Gate        


Sunday, February 19, 2006

Click to View

Che Guevara, who did so much (or was it so little?) to destroy capitalism, is now a quintessential capitalist brand. His likeness adorns mugs, hoodies, key chains, bandannas, couture bags, jeans, herbal tea and, of course, those omnipresent T-shirts with the photograph by Alberto Korda of the socialist heartthrob in his beret during the early years of the revolution as he happened to walk into the photographer's viewfinder -- and into the image that, 38 years after his death, is still the logo of revolutionary (or is it capitalist?) chic.

The metamorphosis of Che into a capitalist brand is not new, but the brand has been enjoying a revival of late -- an especially remarkable revival, because comes years after the political and ideological collapse of all that Guevara represented.

This windfall is owed substantially to last year's Oscar-winning film "The Motorcycle Diaries," which showed the young Che on a voyage of self-discovery as he encounters social and economic exploitation: laying the groundwork for a New Wave reinvention of the man whom Sartre once called the most complete human being of our era.

It is customary for followers of a cult not to know the real-life story of their hero, the historical truth.

It is not surprising that Guevara's contemporary followers, his new post-communist admirers, also delude themselves by clinging to a myth -- a myth firing up people whose causes for the most part represent the exact opposite of what Guevara was.

Guevara might have been enamored of his own death, but he was much more enamored of other people's deaths. In April 1967, speaking from experience, he summed up his homicidal idea of justice in his "Message to the Tricontinental": "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."

During the armed struggle against Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista, and then after the triumphant entry into Havana, Guevara murdered or oversaw the executions of scores of people: proven enemies, suspected enemies and those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The "cold-blooded killing machine" did not show the full extent of his rigor until, immediately after the collapse of the Batista regime, Fidel Castro put him in charge of La Cabaña prison, where he oversaw mass executions.

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, said recently that "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."

Javier Arzuaga, a Basque chaplain who gave comfort to those sentenced to die and witnessed dozens of executions, spoke to me recently. A former Catholic priest, now 75, he recalls that Guevara "never overturned a sentence."

"I pleaded many times with Che on behalf of prisoners," said Arzuaga. "I remember especially the case of Ariel Lima, a young boy. Che did not budge. Nor did Fidel, whom I visited. I became so traumatized that, at the end of May 1959, I was ordered to leave the parish of Casa Blanca, where La Cabaña was located and where I had held Mass for three years. I went to Mexico for treatment."

How many people were killed at La Cabaña? Vilasuso told me that 400 people were executed between January and the end of June in 1959 (at which point Guevara ceased to be in charge). Secret cables sent by the American Embassy in Havana to the State Department in Washington spoke of "over 500."

Which brings us to Carlos Santana and the chic Che gear he wore to perform at last year's Academy Awards ceremony. In an open letter published in Miami's El Nuevo Herald last year, the great jazz musician Paquito D'Rivera castigated Santana for his Oscars costume and added:

"One of those Cubans [at La Cabaña] was my cousin Bebo, who was imprisoned there precisely for being a Christian. He recounts to me with infinite bitterness how he could hear from his cell in the early hours of dawn the executions, without trial or process of law, of the many who died shouting, 'Long live Christ the King!' "

Che Guevara's lust for power had other ways of expressing itself besides murder. His megalomania manifested itself in the predatory urge to take over people's lives and property. This obsession with collectivist control led him to collaborate on the security apparatus that was set up to subjugate 6.5 million Cubans.

The first forced labor camp, Guanahacabibes, was set up in western Cuba at the end of 1960. Said Guevara: 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."

This camp was the precursor to the systematic confinement of dissidents, homosexuals, AIDS patients, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses and Afro-Cuban priests. Herded into buses and trucks, the "unfit" were transported at gunpoint into concentration camps organized on the Guanahacabibes mold. Some would never return; others would be raped, beaten or mutilated; most would be traumatized for life.

The great revolutionary also had a chance to put into practice his economic vision as head of the National Bank of Cuba and of the Department of Industry of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform at the end of 1959 and, starting in early 1961, as minister of industry.

This period saw the near-collapse of Cuba's sugar production, the failure of industrialization and the introduction of rationing -- all this in what had been one of Latin America's four most economically successful countries since before the Batista dictatorship. By 1963, all hopes of industrializing Cuba were abandoned, and the revolution accepted its role as a colonial provider of sugar to the Soviet bloc in exchange for oil. For the next three decades, Cuba would survive on a Soviet subsidy.

In this harsh light, it's worth reflecting on the historic fate of another Latin American nation and the role another young idealist of the previous century had in its economic development.

In the last few decades of the 19th century, Argentina had the second-highest growth rate in the world. By the 1890s, the real income of Argentine workers was greater than that of Swiss, German and French workers. By 1928, that country had the 12th-highest per-capita GDP in the world. That achievement, which later generations would ruin, was in large measure due to Juan Bautista Alberdi.

Like Che Guevara, Alberdi liked to travel: He walked through the pampas and deserts from north to south at the age of 14, all the way to Buenos Aires.

Like Che Guevara, Alberdi opposed a tyrant, Juan Manuel Rosas.

Like Che Guevara, Alberdi got a chance to influence a revolutionary leader in power: Justo José de Urquiza, who toppled Rosas in 1852.

And like Che Guevara, Alberdi represented the new government on world tours and died abroad.

But unlike the old and new darling of the left, Juan Bautista Alberdi never killed a fly. His book, "Bases y puntos de partida para la organizacion de la Republica Argentina," was the foundation of the Constitution of 1853 that limited government, opened trade, encouraged immigration and secured property rights, thereby inaugurating a 70-year period of prosperity. He did not meddle in the affairs of other nations, opposing his country's war against Paraguay. And his likeness does not adorn Mike Tyson's abdomen.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is senior fellow and director of the Center for Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute and author of "The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty". A longer version of this article appeared in The New Republic. Contact us at


©2006 San Francisco Chronicle