Every so often I'll see a student walking around campus proudly sporting merchandise bearing Che Guevara's picture.
For those unfamiliar with Guevara's famous photograph, it has a green background with Guevara peering to his right and wearing a beret. I've seen this image on tote bags, posters in dorm rooms and tapestries hanging in students' apartments. Hollywood has glorified him with the movie "The Motorcycle Diaries," and celebrities often sport his image. For many, Guevara is seen as a brave freedom fighter devoted to the cause of serving his people. For people who actually experienced Guevara's influence in Cuba, he is seen as a ruthless murderer and a power-hungry oppressor.
Supporters like to view Guevara as someone who suffered with his people, a man too idyllic to concern himself with matters such as money and material possessions. Inconveniently for Guevara's followers , however, he didn't show so much discretion when it came to his own lifestyle choices. Humberto Fontova, a Cuban refugee, describes the mansion Guevara lived in only a week after entering Havana, Cuba, in his book, "Exposing the Real Che Guevara." The owner of the mansion was forced to flee Havana with his family in order to escape a firing squad. Guevara's plunder contained a yacht harbor, a huge swimming pool, seven bathrooms, a sauna, a massage salon, and five television sets. Does this really qualify Guevara a "man of the people"?
Many people consider Guevara an educated man who understood the value of education and arts. Our newspapers and biographies on the so-called "lover of literature" still contain these themes. It's a good thing these writers are operating in America, though, because under Guevara's leadership in Cuba they likely would've been put out of business or even murdered. Guevara's first judicious act was to preside over a book burning of 3,000 stolen books and sign the death warrants for many Cuban authors.
The same Argentinean man who imperialistically tried to impose his political views on the Cuban people is often lauded as someone who "finally stood up to imperialistic America." In 1964, Guevara got a hero's welcome in New York City as he spoke to the United Nations and bellowed, "Executions? Certainly, we execute! And we will continue executing as long as it is necessary!" As he was rushed from one socialite party to the next that night, New Yorkers gushed over him. Only after he left America did the New York Police Department discover his plot with the Black Liberation Army to blow up the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, and the Washington Monument.
This made perfect sense to Guevara, who said, "We must never give him a minute of peace or tranquility. This is a total war to the death ... the imperialist enemy must feel like a hunted animal wherever he moves." Perhaps New Yorkers would have been a little more hesitant to throw soft-ball media questions at him if they'd known his deadly plans for their city.
Ironically enough, the same rebellious youths who wear Che Guevara shirts most likely would've been targeted by Guevara had they grown up in Cuba. Guevara considered anyone who listened to rock and roll music, who wore his hair long, or who spoke up against him a delinquent. His very goal was to, "make individualism disappear from the nation!" He considered it, "criminal to think of individuals!" Perhaps these young American individualists should think twice before brandishing the picture of a man who persecuted "hippies, homosexuals, free-thinkers and poets," and who employed constant surveillance, control, and repression.
For some, these actions can be defended as necessary for Guevara to achieve his ultimate objective of the betterment of the people of Cuba. But I wager that supporters would have a harder job defending Guevara's position as Fidel's chief executioner. In a passage from his famous "Motorcycle Diaries," he quotes himself as saying, "My nostrils dilate while savoring the acrid odor of gunpowder and blood." At the same time, he wrote a letter to his father describing his newfound hobby, "I'd like to confess, Papa, at that moment I discovered that I really like killing."
Fidel Castro recognized this ruthlessness about Guevara, and placed him in charge of La Cabana prison in Cuba, where he was judge, jury and executioner. Although exact numbers are impossible to find given their haphazard application, Guevara is estimated to have sentenced over 500 people to execution at La Cabana prison without proper trials.
Perhaps students and celebrities would be a little less likely to support Guevara had they been present for one particularly grisly execution.
Several men who survived La Cabana prison recall a night when a 14-year-old boy was shoved into their holding cell. When asked what he did, he gasped that he had tried to defend his father from the firing squad, but was unsuccessful.
Moments later, guards dragged the boy out of the cell, and Che Guevara himself ordered the boy to kneel down.
The jailed men screamed "assassins!" and watched out of their cell window as Guevara took out his pistol, put the barrel to the back of the boy's neck, and fired.
Perhaps Carlos Santana should use a little more discretion when he defends Guevara as "all about love and compassion," and students should similarly do a little more research before buying into the hype about a man responsible for tearing apart the families and lives of so many innocent Cubans.