October 8, 2005
Che Guevara fans are preparing to commemorate one more anniversary of the revolutionary’s death, which took place thirty-eight years ago at the Yuro ravine in Bolivia. It’s an appropriate time to address ten myths that keep Guevara’s cult alive.
The last time I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York, an American student wearing a Che Guevara T-Shirt and a beret caught my eye (the fact that Nicole Kidman happened to walk in at that very moment may have had something to do with my noticing him). I asked him politely what exactly he admired so much about that man. Here are the ten reasons he mentioned— and my response.
1. HE WAS AGAINST CAPITALISM. In fact, Guevara was for state capitalism. He opposed the wage labor system of “appropriating surplus value” (in Marxist jargon) only when it came to private corporations. But he turned the “appropriation of the workers’ surplus value” into a state system. One example of this is the forced labor camps he supported, starting with Guanahacabibes in 1961.
2. HE MADE CUBA INDEPENDENT. In fact, he engineered the colonization of Cuba by a foreign power. He was instrumental in turning Cuba into a temporary beachhead of Soviet nuclear power (he sealed the deal in Yalta). As the person responsible for the “industrialization” of Cuba he failed to end the country’s dependency on sugar.
3. HE STOOD FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE. In fact, he helped ruin the economy by diverting resources to industries that ended up in failure and reduced the sugar harvest, Cuba’s mainstay, by half in two years. Rationing started under his stewardship of the island’s economy.
4. HE STOOD UP TO MOSCOW. In fact, he obeyed Moscow until Moscow decided to ask for something in return for its massive transfers of money to Havana. In 1965 he criticized the Kremlin because it had adopted what he termed the “law of value”. He then turned to China on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, one of the horror stories of the twentieth century. He simply switched allegiances within the totalitarian camp.
5. HE CONNECTED WITH THE PEASANTS. In fact, he died precisely because he never connected with them. “The peasant masses don’t help us at all,” he wrote in his Bolivian diary before he was captured—an apt way to describe his journey through the Bolivian countryside trying to stir up a revolution that could not even enlist the help of Bolivian Communists (who were realistic enough to note that peasants did not want revolution in 1967; they had already had one in 1952).
6. HE WAS A GUERRILLA GENIUS. With the exception of Cuba, every guerrilla effort he helped set up failed pitifully. After the triumph of the Cuban revolution, Guevara set up revolutionary armies in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Haiti, all of which were crushed. He later persuaded Jorge Ricardo Masetti to lead a fatal incursion into that country from Bolivia. Guevara’s role in the Congo in 1965 was both tragic and comical. He allied himself with Pierre Mulele and Laurent Kabila, two butchers, but got entangled in so many disagreements with the latter—and relations between Cuban and Congolese fighters were so strained—that he had to flee. Finally, his incursion in Bolivia ended up in his death, which his followers are commemorating this Sunday.
7. HE RESPECTED HUMAN DIGNITY. In fact, he had a habit of taking other people’s property. He told his followers to rob banks (“the struggling masses agree to rob banks because none of them has a penny in them”) and as soon as the Batista regime collapsed he occupied a mansion and made it his own—a case of expeditious revolutionary eminent domain.
8. HIS ADVENTURES WERE A CELEBRATION OF LIFE. Instead, they were an orgy of death. He executed many innocent people in Santa Clara, in central Cuba, where his column was based in the last stage of the armed struggle. After the triumph of the revolution, he was in charge of “La Cabaña” prison for half a year. He ordered the execution of hundreds of prisoners—former Batista men, journalists, businessmen, and others. A few witnesses, including Javier Arzuaga, who was the chaplain of “La Cabaña”, and José Vilasuso, who was a member of the body in charge of the summary judicial process, recently gave me their painful testimonies.
9. HE WAS A VISIONARY. His vision of Latin America was actually quite blurred. Take, for instance, his view that the guerrillas had to take to the countryside because that is where the struggling masses lived. In fact, since the 1960s, most peasants have peacefully deserted the countryside in part because of the failure of land reform, which has hindered the development of a property-based agriculture and economies of scale with absurd regulations forbidding all sorts of private arrangements.
10. HE WAS RIGHT ABOUT THE UNITED STATES. He predicted Cuba would surpass the GDP per capita of the U.S. by 1980. Today, Cuba’s economy can barely survive thanks to Venezuela’s oil subsidy (about 100,000 barrels a day), a form of international alms that does not speak too well of the regime’s dignity.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow and director of The Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute. He is the author of Liberty for Latin America.