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Assessment: Cuba
May-June 2008

Assessment: Cuba is published bi-monthly by PRIMA-News in Moscow in cooperation with the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, based in Washington, D.C.

A Brand for a Generation

Leftists around the world will celebrate the 80th anniversary of the birth of Che Guevara, hero of the Cuban Revolution, in June. More than 20,000 Argentineans took part in the finale of the Ernesto Guevara Festival in Rosario, the place of his birth.  A day earlier in Rosario, a 4-meter-high bronze statue of him was unveiled at a ceremony to rename a square in his honor. At the Cannes Film Festival this year, actor Benicio del Toro received the Palme d’Or prize for his portrayal of Guevara in Steven Soderbergh’s film “Che.” Time magazine included Che on its 20 heroes and icons list. His fans consider Che a romantic figure — the selfless, hardworking, modest and charming seeker of revolutionary adventure. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called Che Guevara “the most perfect person of our era.”

We will leave the definition of the perfect person to Sartre, but we will note that it is not only hard-headed communists and infantile Komsomol members who succumbed to Che Guevara’s charm, not only European socialists dreaming of strength and decisiveness or American leftists jaded by freedom and democracy, nor the legions of young and middle-aged fans throughout the world who believe in the myth of the ideal revolutionary.

As a matter of fact, it is not even a myth but a brand; not a fairy tale but a pretty picture from one; not the image of a real person but a political icon for a missed generation. All that remains of the fairytale of the Argentinean dermatologist who became the Number Two man in the hierarchy of communist Cuba is the is the millions of reproductions of an image created by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, which he drew from a photo by Cuban journalist Alberto Corda. It is a familiar picture: the calm, detached gaze into the distance. “Clarity of thought, determination, severity of principles, righteousness, righteousness, righteousness,” wrote Boris Pasternak about his literary revolutionary figure, Commissar Strelnikov, in the novel Doctor Zhivago.

Che Guevara is not a literary figure, but he is larger than life. Propaganda and human passion for a good story have made him that way. Communists are masters of the fairy tale.  Before the revolution, they tell tales about the happy future; after it, about the terrible past; and after many years, about fallen heroes. The more generations pass and the farther the revolutionary events are from the reader or hearer, the sweeter and more truthful they sound to a bored audience drowning in the worries of a life completely devoid of heroism or altruism.

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born on June 14, 1928, in Argentina. In 1953, he graduated from the medical department of the National University in Buenos Aires. He traveled around South American as a ship’s physician. In 1954, he participated in military actions against the Americans, who were helping overthrow the pro-communist Arbenz regime in Guatemala. He fled to Mexico in 1955, after the fall of the Arbenz regime, and met Fidel Castro, joining his M-26-7 unit and prepared for the expedition on the yacht Granma. By 1959, he had participated in the Cuban Revolution. After the victory of the communists, he received Cuban citizenship and occupied high positions of state. He was ambassador-at-large, head of the department of industry at the National Institute for Agrarian Reform, director of the National Bank of Cuba, minister of industry, head of the Central Planning Council and head of the Cuban delegation to a session of the UN. As the head of the Cuban economic mission, he visited the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic and North Korea.

Guevara was unsuccessful in all those capacities. While he headed the National Bank, the Cuban peso went into catastrophic free-fall. Cuban industry and the economy collapsed while he was minister of industry. His efforts to establish diplomatic economic relations in order to buy weapons failed. He even managed to have a falling out with the Soviet Union, accusing it of “selling its aid to people’s revolutions.” After that, he fell out with Fidel Castro as well.

A political career was obviously not for him. The only place where he had any sort of success was in Havana’s infamous La Cabana prison – the equivalent to Moscow’s Lubyanka. As commander of La Cabana, Che Guevara liked to watch executions and personally deliver the “coup de grace,” that is, the fatal shot. One prisoner of La Cabana who managed to get out alive, Pierre San Martin, described life inside the prison when Che Guevara was its chief. (His recollections were published in the December 28, 1997, issue of El Nuevo Herald newspaper).

A savagely beaten 14-year-old boy was brought to the prison. When his cellmates asked what he had done, he said he tried to defend his father, who had been picked up to be shot. Soon they came for the boy and took him 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 wrote. “‘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.”

According to various estimates, between 500 and 2000 “counterrevolutionaries,” were shot at La Cabana prison in the half year that Che Guevara was its commander, many of the executions done the “revolutionary romantic” and “idol of progressive youth” himself. According to contemporary accounts, he had a passion for holding guns to people’s heads and beating their brains out, preferably while they were bound, gagged and blindfolded.

In the spring of 1965, Guevara, having failed in the political arena, decided to return to the life of an adventurist and stager of revolutions in other countries. He renounced his Cuban citizenship and left the country. By autumn, he had helped pro-communist anti-government rebels in the Congo and, successful there, moved on to Bolivia. There he created a partisan group with the ambitious name “The Army of National Liberation.” The “army” claimed to want to help Bolivian miners and peasants with the force of its revolutionary spirit and what weapons it had, but it did not enjoy the support of the local populace. Peasants in the village of La Higuera gave the position of Che Guevara’s fighters over to Bolivian authorities. On October 8, 1967, his fighters were defeated after a short fight. Che Guevara was taken captive and shot the next day.

It was a fitting end for someone who had made bloodshed his profession. This should be food for thought for his modern admirers, who would be unlikely to wear a T-shirt with the image of Dr. Mengele or Otto Skorzeny on it.

Alexander Podrabinek
Moscow, June 2008