In 1950s Cuba, inspired by Marxist communism, Argentinian-born Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara entered Cuba with a plan to unite the masses. Guevara incited the masses to a communist revolution. The medical student held strong ideals, the foremost of which was that change could only come at the hand of an armed and violent revolution. For those familiar with the man behind the most reproduced face of our time face, the battle cry “Viva La Revolución” heralds Guevara as a visionary and a revolutionary. But is he a worthy icon or a glorified thug and failure?
The following are three arguments in favor of Guevara’s iconic status, and three against it.
Thug and Failure
The Butcher of La Cabana
Post-revolution Cuba saw human rights violations at the hands of Guevara, who was backed by the Castro brothers. Opposition to the Castro regime was taken to facilities like La Cabana, where opponents were tortured and executed without trial. Guevara instituted ‘Corrective work camps’, inspired by the Chinese and Soviet model of Labor Camps. He believed that trial and judicial procedure were the tools of the democratic system, and in revolution there was only violent force. As he, himself said, “A revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate….The victory of socialism is well worth millions of atomic victims.” Guevara led Cuba out of the frying pan of classist imperialism and into the fire of violent totalitarian communism.
Charisma cannot mask across-the-board failure. As Minister of Economics, Guevara destroyed the Peso; as Minister of Industry, Cuba’s thriving economy fell; as a revolutionary in Cuba, he was not even in charge. Guevara left Cuba in 1965 bound for revolution in Congo, which, by his own admission, was also a failure. Following a brief return to Cuba, Guevara embarked on his last revolutionary attempt in Bolivia, where he was captured by the CIA.
Turned Cuba from a Player into a Pawn
Relations between Cuba, the US and the Former USSR have barely just recovered from the toxic alliance between Cuba and The Soviet Union. Guevara’s biographer recorded him as the “Scion of the Soviet Union,” and the Soviet Ambassador to Cuba called him “the vital link to Cuba.” Guevara’s vision of the future saw Cuba breaking free of its sugar export and branching out into global industry. However, the Soviets did not hold the respect for Cuba’s future that Guevara’s vision called for, using them only as a pawn for closer proximity to the US. This allowed the Soviet Union missile trade, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961 and, eventually, the Cold War. Guevara’s efforts to ally with the Soviets actually created more problems than solutions for Cuba, and in turn, the Western World.
Hero and Enduring Icon
The Latin American Story of David and Goliath
In the face of imperialism, Che Guevara fought the battle for “the little guy.” At that time, Cuba had been suffering under the violent and corrupt dictatorship of the Batista government. It was a regime that divided the people, keeping the poor, poorer and the rich, richer. Guevara, inspired by his journey across Latin America, felt impassioned to lead the Latin American people to justice through Socialism. He thus entered Cuba with his new friends, the Castro brothers, and with a people’s army of only 300, defeated the governing Batista dictatorship’s army. He heroically took control of Cuban territory for the people.
Facilitated Lasting Change
As a revolutionary physician, Guevara instituted initiatives that changed the face of healthcare and education in Cuba, which still remain in place until today. Guevara established healthcare as a human right, contrary to the capitalist view of a product for economic profit. Cuban life expectancy increased to 78 years, 18 years longer than the life expectancy of pre-revolution Cubans, and two years longer than the average American’s lifespan. Infant mortality has also been reduced by 90%. Additionally, thanks to Guevara’s Literacy Brigades that were sent all over Cuba to educate the peasants, the literacy rate in Cuba jumped from 60% to 96%.
Embodied A Universal Message
Guevara was a natural leader who gained popularity with his people and preached a universal message of revolution through love and intention. He was the purest part of revolution: a man who did what he meant and meant what he did. His talk of educating the masses and caring for them turned into real policies that still make a difference today. To a population that was weighed down by a dictatorship, he embodied – and gave voice to – hope. For university students around the world, he still remains a symbol of the romantic notion that change is possible. It’s not hard to find in news archives articles written at the time of his death, which paint Guevara as a martyr, having died with his reputation intact, that of a Liberator.
The Bottom Line: Pop history has seemed to distort the legacy of Che Guevara, turning the thug into a successful hero. While he preached the change that Cuba needed, he also left a ravaged country in his wake. Is it time to reconsider the hero status of Ernesto Che Guevara?