Che, Cuba and Christmas
By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
Wall Street Journal December 22, 2006; Page A13
Until yesterday Christmas shoppers at Target department stores could purchase a 24-CD carrying case decorated with the image of Che Guevara. When I heard about it, I wondered why the retailer would want to promote the memory of a mass murderer. What's next, I asked, when I spoke with a representative of the company on Wednesday, Pol Pot pajamas?
Late Wednesday evening Target sent me this statement: "It is never our intent to offend any of our guests through the merchandise we carry. We have made the decision to remove this item from our shelves and we sincerely apologize for any discomfort this situation may have caused our guests."
The fact that it took only a day for Target to make that admirable decision suggests that at least someone at the company knows who Guevara was and what Cuba is today thanks in part to him. The misstep, though, probably occurred because others at the company allowed Target to become a target itself of the Che myth.
Guevara is not just a dead white guy from a well-to-do family who terrorized a racially mixed nation and executed hundreds of innocents in the late 1950s and 1960s. He is also a symbol of the totalitarian regime that persists in Cuba, which still practices his ideology of intolerance, hatred and repression. It is not the torture and killing alone that make the tragedy. That only describes the methodology. Guevara's wider goal -- to forcibly strip a population of its soul and spirit -- is what is truly frightening and deplorable. Christians, who celebrate the birth of their Savior on Monday, have particularly suffered under Guevara's dream of revolution, which has lasted since 1959.
The fear under which Cubans have lived for 48 years was fathered by the merciless Che Guevara. The unhappy Argentine Marxist met Fidel Castro in Mexico in 1955 and later became a rebel commander. "The Black Book of Communism," published in 1999 by Harvard University Press, notes that early in his career Guevara earned a "reputation for ruthlessness; a child in his guerrilla unit who had stolen a little food was immediately shot without trial." In his will, the book says, "this graduate of the school of terror praised the 'extremely useful hatred that turns men into effective, violent, merciless and cold killing machines.'"
Peruvian-born Alvaro Vargas Llosa penned his own book this year titled "The Che Guevara Myth." Mr. Vargas Llosa documents a twisted life, such as when Che shot a comrade and made the following entry in his diary: "I ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain. . . . His belongings were now mine." After that, Mr. Vargas Llosa says, Guevara shot "a peasant who expressed the desire to leave whenever the rebels moved on." Guevara also liked to simulate executions, as a form of torture. "At every stage of his adult life, his megalomania manifested itself in the predatory urge to take over other people's lives and property, and to abolish their free will."
Guevara was an architect of Cuba's forced labor camps, which by 1965 were transformed into concentration camps for dissidents, homosexuals, people with AIDS, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Cubans of other religious sects.
All independent thought that refused to worship the communist state was an affront to Guevara. Christians were an especially difficult lot. From the earliest days after Castro took power, Che sent hundreds of men to face firing squads at the Havana prison known as La Cabaņa. His victims could be heard at dawn loudly crying "Long live Christ the King, down with communism," just before the rifle shots rang out.
Thousands of Cubans have perished in daring attempts to get off the island because they preferred the risks of flight to a life in which Christianity has been forbidden, children are the property of the state, thought is policed and spying on your neighbor is one of the few ways to earn a living. During the Mariel boat lift in 1980, witnesses told of families arriving at the pier together only to be separated by Cuban guards who enjoyed watching their misery. Weeping mothers faced the point of a gun while their distraught sons and daughters were forced to board ships. This Christmas thousands of Cuban-Americans will remember their loved ones who didn't make it out or died trying.
Defenders of Guevara can't even claim that his cruelty brought about equality. Today state policy makes it a crime for the raggedly dressed, malnourished and mostly black Cuban people to visit the beaches, museums and amply stocked stores of their own country, while well-fed tourists in fashionable cruise-wear go where they like. This amounts to de facto apartheid.
Amazingly, hope is still alive in Cuba. One reason is because although Guevara was able to kill a lot of Christians, neither he nor his successors succeeded in wiping out Christianity. The struggling Christian community, which takes seriously the religious teaching to reject fear in the face of evil, is playing a key role in the island's dissident movement.
An icon of the Christian resistance is Oscar Elias Biscet, a black physician who is serving a 25-year sentence for his peaceful activism against the regime. He has been arrested more than 26 times since he began to express his dissent; he has been beaten, tortured and locked in tiny windowless cells for days on end. Hundreds of other prisoners of conscience are in jail, under atrocious conditions; many are also devout Christians.
The Christian faith has survived Che and Fidel and decades of brainwashing. It is battered but has not been defeated. Raul Castro fears it -- which is why he takes Bibles away from his unbreakable prisoners. The moral of the story seems to be that even the all-powerful regime cannot stop Christmas from coming to Cuba.
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