February 21st, 2009 13:29 EST
Che Guevara: A History of Failure?
For millions, young and old, Che is a saint. As if hypnotized, they repeat the popular communist gospel about an Argentinian doctor who tended to the sick, helped the poor, and fought for a better life for the entire humanity. But this is only a myth. The real story of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna is a biography of a ruthless megalomaniac for whom killing a human being was no less difficult than to swat a fly.
Among those who loved him the most were European intellectuals. As it often happens, cushioned from the misery of the Third World, well-paid professors of elitist universities of France or Italy lavishly praised the man they would have detested, had he lived in their neighborhood. "Che was the most complete human being of our age," once pronounced French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the same who said that he had never felt freer in his country than during the Nazi occupation.
It was Sartre and his contemporaries that created the myth of Che Guevara the saint of the poor, a myth that by its nature had little to do with reality. But as Christians need role models to guide them through the temptations of the modern world, so do communists and leftists for whom the Argentinian rebel epitomized the perfect human being. "This secular saint was ready to die because he could not tolerate a world where the poor of the earth (...) would be relegated to its vast margins," said one professor.
According to official propaganda, the young Che had been aware of his life mission since his first breath on June 14, 1928. The eldest of five children was, in the words of his father, the final product of centuries-long interbreeding between "Irish rebels, Spanish conquistadors and Argentinian patriots." Che`s school colleagues, however, remembered him only as a good rugby player with a peculiar penchant for dirty t-shirts and an aversion to daily showers.
The real hero was born in 1952 when Che Guevara embarked on a motorcycle journey through Latin America. For his eulogists, this period was a breakthrough in his life that revealed his true vocation. "His political and social awakening has very much to do with his face-to-face contact with poverty, exploitation, illness, and suffering," said history professor Carlos M. Vilas. Without a doubt, the 23-year-old medical student was a great idealist who still believed that his destination meant helping people as a doctor rather than a fighter.
What then happened during the eight-thousand-mile trip? Like many young people who never personally experienced poverty, Che Guevara regarded himself as capable of saving the world on his own. But healing hundreds of thousands of people called for patience that the Argentinian obviously lacked - thus his decision to exchange a stethoscope for a gun. "I got the impression that Che was saying goodbye to institutional medicine," recalled his companion, Alberto Granado.
Still uncertain about what to do, Guevara traveled back and forth on the poverty-stricken continent, practicing medicine, but first and foremost, lecturing people on social inequalities. His first contact with an armed uprising came in 1954 in Guatemala where Che defended the socialist government against a CIA-sponsored coup. But when things went wrong, unlike a fearless warrior whose picture we know, Guevara fled to the Argentinian embassy that guaranteed him safety.
Also in Guatemala, Che met an individual who would become both his greatest friend and foe: Fidel Castro. At that time Castro was licking his wounds after a failed uprising in his native Cuba in 1953. "Che convinced Castro with competence, diplomacy and patience," reported Time Magazine. It took them over four years to expel the US-supported government from Cuba and start what they called a revolution but what in the eyes of many was terror.
Political executions numbered in tens every day. Che Guevara, as a newly appointed commander of the country`s largest prison, remorselessly served "revolutionary justice" to everyone who questioned the new communist government. "To build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man and woman," Guevara wrote in his Socialism and Man in Cuba. In other words, annihilate those who do not agree with you.
According to many sources, the Cuban revolution claimed over 4,000 victims during its first three years. Some 200, including women and children, were killed either by Guevara personally or by his order. "To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail. This is a revolution! And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate," stated Che in one of his speeches.
Che Guevara`s pursuit of the new man scared even his comrades. During the Cuban crisis of 1961, when the United States and Soviet Union were on the verge of a nuclear war, Guevara was among the very few who urged Moscow not to bow to American pressure. Where Kennedy and Khrushchev saw a threat of total annihilation, Che perceived a chance for a new world, free of capitalism and imperialist enemies.
In 1964, Guevara left Cuba, officially to carry the fire of communist revolution to other places; unofficially to avoid an open war with Fidel Castro. During one of his expeditions, Guevara visited the Congo where he hoped he could lead a coup similar to the one in Cuba. But after several months, the Argentinian grew increasingly disappointed with his African colleagues, calling his Congo mission "a history of a failure."
Undaunted, the 39-year-old Argentinian continued his tour. His revolutionary fervor led him in 1967 to Bolivia, where with some 50 rebels, he hoped to overthrow the legal government that happened to be pro-American. In the hostile environment and away from Cuba, however, Guevara could count on little support and soon his squad was tracked down by a US-trained special battalion. On October 9, 1967, Che Guevara was executed.
Surprisingly, the only side that wanted Guevara alive was the United States. A CIA operative stationed in Bolivia was given an order to "do everything possible to keep him alive," as a State Department document rightly predicted that Che "will be eulogized as the model revolutionary who met a heroic death." Despite warm words uttered by their leaders, both Cuba and the Soviet Union must have welcomed the news of the death of the man who could spoil their mutual relations.
Che Guevara`s legacy speaks for itself: thousands of human beings sacrificed in a failed attempt to create a new, better man. Neither did his economic policies prove right. An American intelligence officer wrote on October 18, 1965, that Guevara`s ordered industrialization of Cuba "brought the economy to its lowest point since Castro came to power." What positive remained of Che was his idealistic youth that, unfortunately, ended too soon to prevent him from becoming a ruthless murderer.
That`s all for this week`s edition of Mysteries of History. Next week: Did Winston Churchill order the assassination of his political ally, Polish Prime Minister Wladyslaw Sikorski? The exhumation of his body may soon reveal the mystery.
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*Audio by Kristin Marzec
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