It is customary for followers of a cult not to know the real life story of their hero, the historical truthwrites Alvaro Vargas Llosa in The Killing Machine: Che Guevara, from Communist Firebrand to Capitalist Brand (gracias siempre para Hervé).
(Many Rastafarians would renounce Haile Selassie if they had any notion of who he really was.) It is not surprising that Guevara’s contemporary followers, his new post-communist admirers, also delude themselves by clinging to a myth—except the young Argentines who have come up with an expression that rhymes perfectly in Spanish: “Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué,” or “I have a Che T-shirt and I don’t know why.”
Consider some of the people who have recently brandished or invoked Guevara’s likeness as a beacon of justice and rebellion against the abuse of power. … The manifestations of the new cult of Che are everywhere. Once again the myth is firing up people whose causes for the most part represent the exact opposite of what Guevara was.
No man is without some redeeming qualities. In the case of Che Guevara, those qualities may help us to measure the gulf that separates reality from myth. His honesty (well, partial honesty) meant that he left written testimony of his cruelties, including the really ugly, though not the ugliest, stuff. His courage—what Castro described as “his way, in every difficult and dangerous moment, of doing the most difficult and dangerous thing”—meant that he did not live to take full responsibility for Cuba’s hell. Myth can tell you as much about an era as truth. And so it is that thanks to Che’s own testimonials to his thoughts and his deeds, and thanks also to his premature departure, we may know exactly how deluded so many of our contemporaries are about so much.
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”: “hatred as an element of struggle; 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.” His earlier writings are also peppered with this rhetorical and ideological violence. …
Guevara’s disposition when he traveled with Castro from Mexico to Cuba aboard the Granma is captured in a phrase in a letter to his wife that he penned on January 28, 1957, not long after disembarking, which was published in her book Ernesto: A Memoir of Che Guevara in Sierra Maestra: “Here in the Cuban jungle, alive and bloodthirsty.” This mentality had been reinforced by his conviction that Arbenz had lost power because he had failed to execute his potential enemies. An earlier letter to his former girlfriend Tita Infante had observed that “if there had been some executions, the government would have maintained the capacity to return the blows.” It is hardly a surprise that during the armed struggle against Batista, and then after the triumphant entry into Havana, Guevara murdered or oversaw the executions in summary trials of scores of people—proven enemies, suspected enemies, and those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In January 1957, as his diary from the Sierra Maestra indicates, Guevara shot Eutimio Guerra because he suspected him of passing on information: “I ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain.... His belongings were now mine.” Later he shot Aristidio, a peasant who expressed the desire to leave whenever the rebels moved on. While he wondered whether this particular victim “was really guilty enough to deserve death,” he had no qualms about ordering the death of Echevarría, a brother of one of his comrades, because of unspecified crimes: “He had to pay the price.” At other times he would simulate executions without carrying them out, as a method of psychological torture.
… But the “cold-blooded killing machine” did not show the full extent of his rigor until, immediately after the collapse of the Batista regime, Castro put him in charge of La Cabaña prison. (Castro had a clinically good eye for picking the right person to guard the revolution against infection.) San Carlos de La Cabaña was a stone fortress used to defend Havana against English pirates in the eighteenth century; later it became a military barracks. In a manner chillingly reminiscent of Lavrenti Beria, Guevara presided during the first half of 1959 over one of the darkest periods of the revolution. 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, told me recently thatChe was in charge of the Comisión Depuradora. The process followed the law of the Sierra: there was a military court and 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. My direct superior was Miguel Duque Estrada. My duty was to legalize the files before they were sent on to the Ministry. Executions took place from Monday to Friday, in the middle of the night, just after the sentence was given and automatically confirmed by the appellate body. On the most gruesome night I remember, seven men were executed.Javier Arzuaga, the Basque chaplain who gave comfort to those sentenced to die and personally witnessed dozens of executions, spoke to me recently from his home in Puerto Rico. A former Catholic priest, now seventy-five, who describes himself as “closer to Leonardo Boff and Liberation Theology than to the former Cardinal Ratzinger,” he recalls thatthere were about eight hundred prisoners in a space fit for no more than three hundred: former Batista military and police personnel, some journalists, a few businessmen and merchants. The revolutionary tribunal was made of militiamen. Che Guevara presided over the appellate court. He never overturned a sentence. I would visit those on death row at the galera de la muerte. A rumor went around that I hypnotized prisoners because many remained calm, so Che ordered that I be present at the executions. After I left in May, they executed many more, but I personally witnessed fifty-five executions. There was an American, Herman Marks, apparently a former convict. We called him “the butcher” because he enjoyed giving the order to shoot. I pleaded many times with Che on behalf of prisoners. 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. The day I left, Che told me we had both tried to bring one another to each other’s side and had failed. His last words were: “When we take our masks off, we will be enemies.”Che’s lust for power had other ways of expressing itself besides murder. The contradiction between his passion for travel—a protest of sorts against the constraints of the—and his impulse to become himself an enslaving state over others is poignant. In writing about Pedro Valdivia, the conquistador of Chile, Guevara reflected: “He belonged to that special class of men the species produces every so often, in whom a craving for limitless power is so extreme that any suffering to achieve it seems natural.” He might have been describing himself. 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.
…Che’s obsession with collectivist control led him to collaborate on the formation of the security apparatus that was set up to subjugate six and a half million Cubans. In early 1959, a series of secret meetings took place in Tarará, near Havana, at the mansion to which Che temporarily withdrew to recover from an illness. That is where the top leaders, including Castro, designed the Cuban police state. Ramiro Valdés, Che’s subordinate during the guerrilla war, was put in charge of G-2, a body modeled on the Cheka. Angel Ciutah, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War sent by the Soviets who had been very close to Ramón Mercader, Trotsky’s assassin, and later befriended Che, played a key role in organizing the system, together with Luis Alberto Lavandeira, who had served the boss at La Cabaña. Guevara himself took charge of G-6, the body tasked with the ideological indoctrination of the armed forces. The U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 became the perfect occasion to consolidate the new police state, with the rounding up of tens of thousands of Cubans and a new series of executions. As Guevara himself told the Soviet ambassador Sergei Kudriavtsev, counterrevolutionaries were never “to raise their head again.”
“Counterrevolutionary” is the term that was applied to anyone who departed from dogma. It was the communist synonym for “heretic.” Concentration camps were one form in which dogmatic power was employed to suppress dissent. History attributes to the Spanish general Valeriano Weyler, the captain-general of Cuba at the end of the nineteenth century, the first use of the word “concentration” to describe the policy of surrounding masses of potential opponents—in his case, supporters of the Cuban independence movement—with barbed wire and fences. How fitting that Cuba’s revolutionaries more than half a century later were to take up this indigenous tradition. In the beginning, the revolution mobilized volunteers to build schools and to work in ports, plantations, and factories—all exquisite photo-ops for Che the stevedore, Che the cane-cutter, Che the clothmaker. It was not long before volunteer work became a little less voluntary: the first forced labor camp, Guanahacabibes, was set up in western Cuba at the end of 1960. This is how Che explained the function performed by this method of confinement: “[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.... It is hard labor, not brute labor, rather the working conditions there are hard.”
This camp was the precursor to the eventual systematic confinement, starting in 1965 in the province of Camagüey, of dissidents, homosexuals, AIDS victims, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Afro-Cuban priests, and other such scum, under the banner of Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción, or Military Units to Help Production. Herded into buses and trucks, the “unfit” would be transported at gunpoint into concentration camps organized on the Guanahacabibes mold. Some would never return; others would be raped, beaten, or mutilated; and most would be traumatized for life, as Néstor Almendros’s wrenching documentary Improper Conduct showed the world a couple of decades ago.
…This fanatical disposition made Che into a linchpin of the “Sovietization” of the revolution that had repeatedly boasted about its independent character. Very soon after the barbudos came to power, Guevara took part in negotiations with Anastas Mikoyan, the Soviet deputy prime minister, who visited Cuba. He was entrusted with the mission of furthering Soviet-Cuban negotiations during a visit to Moscow in late 1960. (It was part of a long trip in which Kim Il Sung’s North Korea was the country that impressed him “the most.”)
…Guevara distanced himself from the Soviet Union in the last years of his life. He did so for the wrong reasons, blaming Moscow for being too soft ideologically and diplomatically, for making too many concessions—unlike Maoist China, which he came to see as a haven of orthodoxy. In October 1964, a memo written by Oleg Daroussenkov, a Soviet official close to him, quotes Guevara as saying: “We asked the Czechoslovaks for arms; they turned us down. Then we asked the Chinese; they said yes in a few days, and did not even charge us, stating that one does not sell arms to a friend.” In fact, Guevara resented the fact that Moscow was asking other members of the communist bloc, including Cuba, for something in return for its colossal aid and political support. His final attack on Moscow came in Algiers, in February 1965, at an international conference, where he accused the Soviets of adopting the “law of value,” that is, capitalism. His break with the Soviets, in sum, was not a cry for independence. It was an Enver Hoxha–like howl for the total subordination of reality to blind ideological orthodoxy.
…His stint as head of the National Bank, during which he printed bills signed “Che,” has been summarized by his deputy, Ernesto Betancourt: “[He] was ignorant of the most elementary economic principles.” Guevara’s powers of perception regarding the world economy were famously expressed in 1961, at a hemispheric conference in Uruguay, where he predicted a 10 percent rate of growth for Cuba “without the slightest fear,” and, by 1980, a per capita income greater than that of “the U.S. today.” In fact, by 1997, the thirtieth anniversary of his death, Cubans were dieting on a ration of five pounds of rice and one pound of beans per month; four ounces of meat twice a year; four ounces of soybean paste per week; and four eggs per month.
Land reform took land away from the rich, but gave it to the bureaucrats, not to the peasants. (The decree was written in Che’s house.) In the name of diversification, the cultivated area was reduced and manpower distracted toward other activities. The result was that between 1961 and 1963, the harvest was down by half, to a mere 3.8 million metric tons. Was this sacrifice justified by progress in Cuban industrialization? Unfortunately, Cuba had no raw materials for heavy industry, and, as a consequence of the revolutionary redistribution, it had no hard currency with which to buy them—or even basic goods. By 1961, Guevara was having to give embarrassing explanations to the workers at the office: “Our technical comrades at the companies have made a toothpaste ... which is as good as the previous one; it cleans just the same, though after a while it turns to stone.”
…In the last few decades of the nineteenth 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 twelfth-highest per capita GDP in the world. That achievement, which later generations would ruin, was in large measure due to Juan Bautista Alberdi.
Like Guevara, Alberdi liked to travel: he walked through the pampas and deserts from north to south at the age of fourteen, all the way to Buenos Aires. Like Guevara, Alberdi opposed a tyrant, Juan Manuel Rosas. Like Guevara, Alberdi got a chance to influence a revolutionary leader in power—Justo José de Urquiza, who toppled Rosas in 1852. And like Guevara, Alberdi represented the new government on world tours, and died abroad. But unlike the old and new darling of the left, Alberdi never killed a fly. His book, Bases y puntos de partida para la organización de la República Argentina, was the foundation of the Constitution of 1853 that limited government, opened trade, encouraged immigration, and secured property rights, thereby inaugurating a seventy-year period of astonishing prosperity. He did not meddle in the affairs of other nations, opposing his country’s war against Paraguay. His likeness does not adorn Mike Tyson’s abdomen.