Oct 9, 2012

“¡Hasta la victoria siempre!”

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the execution of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, more widely known as El Che.

El Che’s profile matches that of the romantic failed hero per excellence, in a somewhat similar vein to Egmont as portrayed by Goethe and Beethoven. Ernesto Guevara was born in Argentina and studied medicine. In late December 1951, he began his first journey through Latin America, along with his friend Alberto Granado. The account of these 7 months can be found in the Motorcycle Diaries. Later on he would repeat the trek. During that time he lived in indigenous communities, worked at a leper hospitals, and witnessed first-hand the persistent contrast between the few very rich and the most very poor in Latin America. In 1954 he went to Mexico City, where he met the Castro brothers and, along with other Cuban expatriates, planned the Revolution at the La Habana café. He became one of the rebel leaders, strictly avoiding receiving benefits that his troops could not have as well. He was made Minister of Industry in the new Cuban government, and traveled the world promoting the ideas of the Revolution. He quit his official position, apparently fostered by some disagreements with Fidel Castro about the course the Revolutionary government was taking, and left for Africa to fight for diverse guerrilla groups. Without much success, he joined the Bolivian National Liberation Army. Again he faced military failure, and was finally captured and executed in 1967, at the age of 39.

El Che’s story has many elements to inspire the youth not only from Latin America but from many other countries. He willingly exchanged a caring family, a loving girlfriend, and an apparently nice future as a doctor for a trip to the jungle to better understand the misery of his land, eventually to become one of the most visible faces of the international revolutionary movement. He firmly defended his ideals, and was ready to kill and die for them. Even more, quotations (maybe false or altered through endless repetitive citations) from his diaries, speeches, and conversations reflect his romantic personality, from his utopian mottos “¡Always until victory!” and “Let’s be realistic and ask ourselves for the impossible”, to the very last words to his executioner just before being fusilladed “Shoot, coward, that you are about to kill a man” or “Calm down, sir, you are about to kill a man.”

On the other hand, he was guerrilla, someone who preferred to wield a rifle in the sierra rather than to try to convince. Of course, it can be said that given the oppression lived in Latin America he had no other option, and that he was not the first nor the last to defend his ideas in combat. Hours before dying, a woman from the town where he was imprisoned was allowed to visit him. She said “You have come from very far away to fight in Bolivia”, receiving “I am a revolutionary and have been in many places”. She added “You have come to kill our soldiers”, and El Che retorted “Look, in war you win or you lose”. What is more, there was not a lack of volunteers to carry out the order from the Bolivian President to shoot El Che in captivity because it was too risky to put him on trial as there was a large possibility that rescue missions could be attempted and the Bolivian government could receive an unpleasant amount of international pressure during the process. The pretext these volunteers shared was that El Che had killed their friends in warfare and they wanted some kind of revenge. Violence, regardless of the idealist spirit that gives it momentum, leads to more violence. To put it differently, El Che was not the libertador Latin America had been waiting for since the death of Miguel Hidalgo, Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín. He was, as allegedly a disappointed Beethoven said of Napoleon when he invaded Austria, causing him to erase the dedication of the Eroica symphony, “just a man”.

A frequent question historians ask themselves after studying an event is “What remains?” The same inquisition can be made regarding El Che’s life. Apparently, a very large part of the answer is the hyper-famous photograph taken by Alberto Korda, where El Che appears wearing a starred beret and a messy beard watching a funeral procession pass by (this last element is out of the frame). The image by itself says nothing about the man it portrays or the historical moment in which it was taken. It could very well be another cliché in recent Latin American history, perhaps because both that persona and that time were barely something more than illusions, as shown by the resounding failure of the socialist and communist alternatives (both in their utopian and realistic fashions) and of the armed revolutionary means of action. In any case, el Che’s objectives of fighting against poverty, inequality, or injustice were not accomplished. That was not a banner just of his own. And in the surface it seems no one has seized it yet as decisively as he did.



  • You raise a good question. It reminds me of Fukuyama’s argument that the left needs a new ideology. Perhaps no one carries Che’s banner because there is no ideology to support it. The closest heir to Che is probably Hugo Chavez. However, even though he just won reelection, his ideology doesn’t really resonate because its just warmed-over failed socialism.

  • Che’s other reputation:

    An Open Letter to Urban Outfitters Regarding Their Che Guevara Merchandise
    by Thor HalvorssenFounder, Human Rights Foundation

    Ted Marlow
    CEO, Urban Outfitters
    30 Industrial Park Blvd.
    Trenton, SC 29847

    Dear Mr. Marlow,

    The Human Rights Foundation recently became aware of the sale of merchandise at Urban Outfitters emblazoned with the image of communist leader Che Guevara, at times accompanied by the word “revolución.” As a nonprofit organization dedicated to the defense of human rights, we would like to bring your attention to Guevara’s bloody and anti-democratic legacy.

    Although Guevara’s image has appeared on countless items for consumption over the last few decades as a symbol of change for the better, Guevara’s actual record is that of a brutal tyrant who suppressed individual freedom in Cuba and murdered those who challenged his worldview.

    A romanticized poster of Che Guevara currently for sale on the Urban Outfitters website
    Guevara undoubtedly played a key role in the overthrow of the dictatorial Batista regime in January of 1959. However, despite promises of a new democratic government, within a few months he and Fidel Castro had designed and installed a full-blown police state that deprived the overwhelming majority of Cuban citizens of democracy and human rights.

    From 1959 to 1960, the new government carried out summary executions of at least 1,118 people by firing squad. Guevara himself presided over the notorious La Cabaña prison, where hundreds of the executions took place. For comparison’s sake, the Batista regime was responsible for 747 noncombatant deaths between 1952 and 1959. The Cuban revolution under the direction of Guevara also saw the rise of forced labor camps which gave way a few years later to full-scale concentration camps. These were filled with dissidents, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Afro-Cuban priests, and anyone else who had committed “crimes” against the new moral revolution.

    Despite the mountain of evidence for these abuses, much of which comes directly from Guevara’s own meticulous journals, popular culture still largely views him as a revolutionary of the people. Urban Outfitters is certainly not the only company to take advantage of Guevara’s fame to sell merchandise.

    We urge you to consider that the image of Guevara represents tyranny and repression for the millions of people who have suffered under communism. Fifty-three years after Guevara’s rise to power, Cuba is still ruled by the Communist party, while all alternative political parties and dissenting civil society groups are outlawed. Any expression of dissent is considered a subversive act, a free press does not exist, and the government regularly imprisons those who speak out. Mr. Marlow, the Cuban government of today, a legacy of Guevara, is the most repressive regime in the Western hemisphere.

    These facts forced Polish lawmakers to recently propose a ban on t-shirts with Guevara’s image, as part of a previous law banning fascist and totalitarian propaganda. HRF does not advocate the banning of an image — no matter how offensive. Freedom of expression is a human right, and of course Urban Outfitters is free to choose how to design its merchandise.

    However, HRF does question the motives of Urban Outfitters in lionizing a murderer who did not even make an attempt to hide his bloody ideology. In a speech in front of the United Nations in 1964, Guevara proudly admitted that “yes, we have executed, we are executing, we will continue to execute.” He boasted of murdering Eutimio Guerra, bragging in his diary how he “ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain.” He believed in doing anything it took to achieve “the greater good” he envisioned for Cuba — including nuclear annihilation of the United States.

    During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Guevara favored engaging in nuclear war to “build a better world.” After the crisis was averted he lamented Soviet inaction, stating that if the missiles had been under Cuban control, he would have fired them. There is evidence that Guevara was involved in a November 1962 terrorist plot to use 1,200 pounds of TNT to blow up Macy’s, Gimbels, Bloomingdale’s, and Grand Central Station on the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year. “At every stage of his adult life,” one historian noted of Guevara, “his megalomania manifested itself in the predatory urge to take over other people’s lives and property, and to abolish their free will.”

    Is this really someone that Urban Outfitters wants to emblazon and celebrate on its products?

    For the sake of the 1.47 billion people still living under the yoke of communist rule, for the sake of the thousands who perished in the Cuban revolution, and for the sake of the 11 million Cubans who still endure a totalitarian system, we hope Urban Outfitters will reconsider its marketing strategy and set a moral example for the apparel industry.

    Sincerely yours,

    Thor Halvorssen

    Human Rights Foundation


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