The Mystique of Marxism
How Che became a windfall for global capitalists
By Sean M. Smith

I knew I could begin counting myself among the aged once I started rolling my eyes in bemused disgust at the behavior of people in their teens and early 20s. This preceded even my first gray hairs, which conspire and win converts as I write. One such episode occurred last week as a friend and I entered a hip boutique at a high- rent local shopping mall to purchase some shoes. The store also featured several iterations of the now-ubiquitous T-shirts sporting a stylized portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine-born Marxist guerilla leader most widely known as Fidel Castro’s right hand during the overthrow of the Fulgencio Batista regime in 1959. Alternating with the Che T-shirts were various other retro-revolutionary items, including a shirt with a hammer and sickle and the letters “CCCP”—the Russian initials for “USSR” —printed on it in a manner designed to make us imagine it had been done with spray paint and a stencil in some insurgent’s basement.

None of these shirts could be had for anything less than $18. But for robust capitalism, it seems, a middle-class teenager would be unable to afford his official commie garb.

In the annoying fashion I have of pretending to speak to the person next to me while making sure I’m loud enough for all to hear, I said to my friend, “Well, I see that despite the overwhelming evidence of history, communism persists in being cool. Oh, and look, Che Guevara, quite possibly the worst shithead of them all!”

The heavily pierced youth behind the counter wasn’t about to take this. “Oh, yeah,” he said sarcastically, “he only went to South America and stole from the government to build schools for peasant children so they wouldn’t be peasants their whole lives before the CIA murdered him.”

In addition to history, our children are being shortchanged in their education about run-on sentences. When I asked him if his idolatry toward Che would be dampened in any way were he aware Che liked to torture and execute political prisoners for fun, he looked at his feet and muttered something on the order of, “Well, anyone can change.”

I suppose I should grant that. Che definitely changed for the better at the precise moment a Bolivian sergeant put a bullet through his skull in 1967.

When captured by the Bolivian army and their CIA advisors, Che and his band of Cuban mercenaries were trying to foment a revolution in that country. Their efforts failed to enlist the support of even one rural peasant. Contrary to the two principal myths promulgated by Che apologists—alternatively that he escaped death, or that he was brave and defiant to the end—the only documented and widely accepted version of his fate is that Guevara died groveling and attempting to bargain for his life. Guevara died fittingly given that a bullet to the head, preferably delivered to men and boys who had their hands and feet bound, was his preferred means of execution.

Credible accounts of Che’s atrocities are manifest. Indeed, the man himself made no bones about being a hate-fueled murderer. In one of the most oft-cited passages from his 1967 Message to the Tricontinental, Che declares: “Hatred is an element of struggle; relentless hatred of the enemy that impels us over and beyond the natural limitations of man and transforms us into effective, violent, selective and cold killing machines. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.”

Some of the earliest known instances of Che’s brutality came in 1956, shortly after he landed in Cuba with Fidel and Raul Castro. With some 80 guerillas in tow, the three had sailed from Mexico, where the Castro brothers were living in exile for their opposition to the Batista regime. Their Marxist insurgency frequently had trouble with desertions, and Che ordered that recaptured deserters be taken to him so that he could personally blow out their brains.

By the time Castro’s troops seized Havana, Che had been promoted to “Comandante,” the highest rank in the revolutionary army. In this position, he presided over the systematic and ruthless quashing of all dissent. Given command of La Cabana prison, Che was directly responsible for the murders of over a thousand political prisoners. In addition to countless innocents hapless enough to be ensnared in the many roundups he ordered, Che’s prisoners included homosexuals, “delinquents,” anyone arbitrarily classified as an “anti-social element,” and “roqueros.” This final category included anyone caught listening to American rock and roll. Hence any twenty-something who today might sport a Che T-shirt would, in post-revolutionary Cuba, have found himself in one of Che’s torture chambers. To this day La Cabana houses dissidents, AIDS patients and other “undesirables.”

One such prisoner was the father of a Cuban-American lawyer my uncle once dated. She managed to escape Fortress Cuba at the age of 22, but not before being very personally victimized by the T-shirt icon himself. Her father was a professor of physics and mathematics at a religious school in Havana. Like many at the start of the revolution, he supported Castro and believed he heralded an emergent democracy. The Batista regime was corrupt, repressive and wildly unpopular. However, when Castro declared that he was a follower of the Marxist ideology, many of those professionals who once supported him started to conspire against him.

On October 21st , 1961, her father was taken away. His family did not know where he was taken, or if he was alive, for an entire year. With neither an attorney nor a trial, he was given 20 years in prison, escaping a longer sentence (or execution) only because of the weakness of the evidence against him. Most of his colleagues and co-conspirators were executed or given 30 years, also without anything resembling due process. During his first months in prison, he was tortured by being kept in a small closet where he could not stand up straight or sit or lay down, and without any food or water. They played tapes of a woman screaming, and he was told that it was his wife being tortured. He remained in prison for the next 18 years.

In La Cabana, he witnessed firsthand the horrors of Che Guevara. Raul Castro and Che frequently called all of the prisoners to a lineup. They would both walk up and down in front of the line of men for a while until Che would stop randomly and say, “From here to the end of the line, execute them all.” Those spared were sent back to the cells to listen to the firing squad. It was often Che himself who fired the last bullet into the heads of the dying.

Writer Humberto Fontova recounts the story of Pierre San Martin, another of Che’s prisoners. San Martin and 31 prisoners were crammed into a cell. Sixteen would try to sleep on the filthy floor while the others stood. Each time the rusty steel door of the cell would open, a handful of them would be led to the firing squad. Every prisoner wondered when that door would be one of the last sounds he would hear.

One morning when the door opened, a boy of 12 or 14 was shoved into the cell. He had been brutally beaten by Che’s goons for attempting, unsuccessfully, to save his father from the firing squad. Che’s guards soon returned for the boy, leading him away to the execution yard. The remaining prisoners watched Che strutting about the yard. When the boy was led to him, Che repeatedly ordered him to kneel down. The boy refused to die on his knees, and in frustration Che put a bullet through the back of his neck, nearly decapitating him. The boy’s erstwhile cellmates screamed at Che from their window, “Coward! Assassin! Son of a bitch! How could you murder a little boy?” When Che had heard enough of this, he emptied the remainder of his pistol magazine at the window, wounding several of the prisoners.

When bearing arms against men who were not helpless and could shoot back, Che was actually quite an abject bumbler. After his relationship with Castro began to cool, Che embarked on a second career as a “revolutionary for hire.” In 1965, he traveled to the Congo and attempted to organize rebelling factions there under his brand of Marxist- Leninism. His forces were handily routed, and Che barely escaped with his life. He blamed that failure on the incompetence of his black Congolese charges, for whom he had the most bitter contempt. Indeed, his diaries from that period, released in 2002, reveal the humanitarian and liberator Guevara to be more or less a meat-and-potatoes racist.

Che and his Cuban mercenaries were similarly trounced in Bolivia, where his encirclement by government forces sealed his demise.

Even Che’s legendary victories in the Cuban revolution were mostly just that. The bulk of Batista’s troops had minimal loyalty to the dictator, and his officer corps was for sale on the cheap. Castro’s guerillas had plenty of cash to distribute from their Soviet and other leftist benefactors. Indeed, the only thing remarkable about Che’s fabled march on Havana was its bloodlessness, made possible by delivering a note and $150,000 to Batista’s military commander charged with holding the city. Most of Batista’s troops simply stood down as Che and his rebels walked past them. Che was no less a murderer than Pol Pot, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and every other tyrannical scourge of the past 60 years. But to some apparently, the disheveled Latin proto-hippie looks sexier on a T-shirt than the others.

Incidentally, my research turned up no evidence of Che setting up schools for peasants in South America or anywhere else. The books I read, however, probably contain fewer pictures than those preferred by the clerk at the boutique. As Cuban writer John Suarez notes, “Che’s legacy in Cuba is one neighbor spying an another, high suicide rates, and a generation of young Cubans risking their lives on rafts in the Florida Straights rather than continue to live under a despotic government.”

The hammer and sickle shirts should be no less offensive to patrons of a shopping mall than a big, black swastika. Why does this point continue to be lost on so many?

The ideological window dressing that forms the difference between the various totalitarian systems of the last century is both superficial and irrelevant. When individual rights are given no legal protection, or are otherwise disregarded or subordinated to the interests of the state, the result is always the same. Government power is unchecked. The number of people led to concentration camps under the swastika is roundly dwarfed by the legions herded into gulags as flags bearing “CCCP” flapped in the Siberian breeze overhead.

A friend of mine visited Krakow several years ago and struck up a conversation with an elderly gentleman at a bar. The man had lived through both the Second World War and the Cold War. When my friend asked him what differences there were between the Nazi occupation and the Soviet era that followed, he thought for a moment before answering, “Well, the Germans had swastikas on their uniforms, whereas the Russians had red stars.”

A few observers, F.A. Hayek and a handful of others, caught onto the remarkable sameness of all totalitarian systems as early as the 1940s. In 2005, the idiot youth of a prosperous, free and capitalistic society still don’t get it. Rather than let this lead us to depression, perhaps we should rejoice in the fact that a lot of capitalists are making money from Che’s appropriated image. If you’re looking for a Che T-shirt of your own, the hundred-odd Internet sites selling them will not disappoint.

BrainstormNW - June 2005

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