The recent release of a film about the life of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara has prompted plenty of the usual ‘would you wear a T-shirt with a picture of Hitler on it?’ commentary: that Guevara is a thug and a murderer and should be shunned by all right-thinking people.
I’m not going to offer a conclusive position on Guevara, nor have I seen the film, which doesn’t sound very entertaining from what I’ve read. I certainly don’t have a T-shirt with his hairy face on it. But I do have a few thoughts.
The two most commonly-heard condemnations of Guevara are, firstly, that he helped set up Castro’s dictatorship, and, secondly, that he personally oversaw the execution of thousands of accused counter-revolutionaries in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban revolution.
One thing that doesn’t often get mentioned, though it seems to me like the most damning point, if his personal character is our concern, is his professed willingness to fire nuclear weapons at America (said during his reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis). Of course what a person says does not necessarily tell us what they would do, in the real situation, but the fact that he could happily express willingness to participate in what would likely end up the greatest loss of life in history is hard to look past.
I wonder why more people don’t focus on this. Perhaps it is because all the major statesmen of the period were committed to, under certain circumstances, using nuclear weapons. If that makes Guevara monstrous, it should make them monstrous as well (perhaps they were). And it’s that issue of comparison that really gets me.
Guevara is sometimes compared to Hitler (also to Pol Pot, Marilyn Manson, and others). The problem is that ‘Hitler’ occupies quite a special place in our cultural imagination: namely, he is the worst human being ever. Even if this is not explicitly said, there is, it sems to me, a widespread sense that no-one really embodies evil better than Hitler does. So putting someone in that same category seems to carry an implication that they are, in the grand scale of human beings from best to worst, really quite near the bottom.
That in turn carries the implication that others are better. In particular, it suggests that there is some large mass of heads of state and military commanders who are morally superior to Guevara. I think that is, to be honest, rather stupid.
Let’s consider the two components of the case against him. The first point is the general one, that he helped set up Castro’s Cuba. There is certainly much to criticise in that society. But there is much to criticise in every society. To be interesting we must be willing to make comparisons. On that point, political repression and limited consumption need to be weighed against security of housing and employment, free healthcare, free education, etc. Weighed against them and then compared with other countries at a similar level of development (also, compared with pre-Castro Cuba). I don’t want to claim to have done such a weighing – but if someone wants to suggest that people shouldn’t respect him or wear T-shirts of him, I want them to explain how they did that weighting.
The second point is that he murdered a lot of political opponents shortly after the revolution. This is true. But the context is also important. Very recently, just across the sea, Guevara had been in Guatemala. There, an elected president had tried to redistribute the land owned by US companies (which was a lot of it). In response, the US funded an army of mercenaries to invade the country. This wasn’t just an invasion though – it was calculated to rely on support from reactionary forces within Guatemala, principally the army. They hated the government and didn’t lift a finger to defend it. As a result, a US-backed military government took power, and over the next few decades fought a brutal counterinsurgency against the country’s rural indigenous population. In this struggle, the army regularly massacred whole villages of people, with the total death toll being in the hundreds of thousands. It has been described as a genocide. Similar things were happening in many other latin american countries – Guatemala is only the example I (and Guevara) knew best.
So Guevara had been taught by bitter experience that any government acting in the interests of the people was likely to face not just hostility but attempted invasion from the US, and that this would rely on getting support from those within the country who had opposed the revolution. He concluded that if the revolution was to survive, it would have to crush any within the country who opposed it. What did a few thousand deaths, often of genuinely guilty people, matter against the possibility of hundreds of thousands of deaths?
Again, I don’t know if this reasoning was correct. But if you think Guevara’s ‘revolutionary justice’ was a despicable crime, and if you’re not an ardent pacifist who believes killing can never be justified, then explain why this reasoning was wrong. Explain why the Bay of Pigs invasion would have been held off even in if there had been informers and sabotuers, or why an anti-revolutionary government would not have massacred as many people as it did elsewhere – moreover, explain why it would not have massacred just a few people, in order to ensure that for the next few decades the people of Cuba, while still being as repressed as they are now, would have also lived with the illiteracy, homelessness, malnutrition, and poverty that characterise so many nearby countries even today.
That is what I expect out of people who have some kind of problem with Guevara T-shirts.