Who was the Real Che?

On the mythology of the Cuban Revolution

What's Going On? | Matt Boomer | March 23, 2016

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President Obama caught flak Monday for an unfortunate photo-op from his visit to Cuba, which took place with a mural of Che Guevara, the face that launched a thousand t-shirts, in the background. Cue outrage from all the usual suspects.


I’ll give Obama the benefit of the doubt and guess he didn’t intentionally arrange this shot, especially since failing to foresee it or find a way out of it is completely in line with his administration’s bumbling approach to foreign policy. However, there are many here at home who no doubt wish it was intentional.

Guevara, an Argentine guerrilla who made his name in Cuba but was also involved in socialist revolutions around the world, has become something of a patron saint to parts of the American Left. He is ubiquitous on t-shirts, laptop stickers, and walls of dorm rooms where starry-eyed undergrads smoke blunts and rap about how the system is totally gnarly and we need a revolution, man. His charisma has garnered him fandom in Hollywood, where radicalism is a marker of status. The example par excellence is actor and comedian Russell Brand, who adopts Che chic in crafting his image (ironically, Che-inspired t-shirts featuring Brand, who believes “profit is a filthy word,” sell for the exorbitant price of $28). In his insipid, unfunny, incandescently stupid manifesto, Revolution – a book so grievously insulting to the reader’s intelligence that 18th-century gentlemen would have started duels over it – Brand described Che as “dear, beautiful, morally unimpeachable,” praising his revolution for bringing “Education for everyone, land sharing, emancipation of women, and equal rights for black Cubans.”

We see this talk about Che and Cuba too much from the Left. Obama himself indulges it to a lesser degree, mentioning healthcare and education as areas where the United States could learn from Cuba. This was moderate praise compared to Brand and other radicals. Nonetheless, the entire genre of Cuban apologetics is misguided.

Let’s start with Che. It is an incontrovertible fact that Che Guevara founded and operated forced labor camps, imprisoning gays, political dissidents, and AIDS patients. As warden of these camps, he ordered extrajudicial killings.

Guevara advocated “Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine.” The regime he served in Cuba was and is a repressive, insular, kleptocratic totalitarian coterie. Free speech, free press, elections – these are non-starters. A member of the Revolution’s hardline pro-Soviet faction, Che pushed Castro in this direction. He also served as central economic planner, and was directly responsible for the ruin of post-revolutionary collectivization. He was a sociopathic, bloodthirsty tyrant who birthed an unjust political order, yet by the grace of ignorance and propagandistic mountebankery became a symbol of peace and liberation.

I don't always start new governments, but when I do, they're violent and despotic.
“I don’t always lead revolutions, but when I do, they’re violent and despotic.”

The achievements of the Cuban revolution are equally shrouded in myopia. “But Cuba has free education and healthcare!” is the Jedi mind trick of political rhetoric, offered with a condescending wave of the hand and the assumption that the interlocutor is weak-minded. Even if Castro provided top-notch education and healthcare (and there are heavy doses of evidence suggesting he did not), these are meaningless in the Cuban context. If free, high-quality healthcare is provided in a desperately poor country with little economic or political freedom, all that is accomplished is an extended time in which people can live in squalor and fear of the state. Likewise, education in such a society is worthless as there is no means to capitalize on the skills imparted by it, and rigid ideological constraints choke the free inquiry required for a meaningful education.

As for Brand’s “emancipation of women,” and “equality for black Cubans,” both of these have happened in the context of the complete abrogation of political rights in Cuba for the entire population. Women and blacks are equal in Cuba simply because they, too live at the mercy of a vicious dictatorship whose rule they are powerless to resist. And I do hope “land sharing” doesn’t refer to Castro’s failed agricultural collectivization scheme, which fostered malnutrition and turned Cuba’s sugar industry into a state-dominated barter arrangement with the Soviet Union.

I myself support restoring relations, especially free trade, with Cuba. The flow of goods and ideas across borders from freer, more prosperous countries is a threat to regimes like Cuba’s, which often depend on the perception that as bad as things might be, life only gets worse outside. America’s cultural freedom and economic dynamism have proven they can motivate dissident movements against totalitarian governments. Moreover, the embargo has mostly hurt ordinary Cubans without threatening Communist rule, and indeed has buttressed it for decades by allowing the Castros to blame economic stagnation on Yanqui imperialism, deflecting attention from their own failures and abuses. I welcome American tourists and investors’ “spoiling” Cuba’s antique atmosphere (feared by would-be purveyors of taste on the left), understanding as I do that poverty is not a coffee-table book, that Cuba’s gritty aesthetic is due to a half-century of isolation from economic development, and the classic cars for which it is famous are there because until recently, the only cars allowed in the country were built before 1959.

Not an indicator of technological innovation.
Not an indicator of technological prowess.

However, it is important that as we open to Cuba, we remain clear-eyed about what the Castro regime is, and support the dissidents who are striving to end its disastrous misrule – many of whom were arrested prior to Obama’s arrival. Obama visited some of them, and while that is commendable, it was undermined by his concessions the day before, which indicated a lack of seriousness and understanding of the Cuban situation epitomized by his unintentional pose with Che. Obama walked into Cuba thinking he would find a changing country, but found himself overshadowed by the face of the very real repression still at work on the island. Further indulging myths and romances to court Castro will only lend him credibility and perpetuate his tyranny.