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Killer Chic By: Myles Kantor
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 05, 2004


Grow a lousy beard, don’t cut your hair, commit mass murder, wreck an economy, and you too can be on the silver screen.

Leftists worldwide mourned the Argentine Ernesto “Che” Guevara after his execution in October 1967 following a failed attempt to communize Bolivia.  Historian and journalist Erik Durschmied notes:

 

(R)allies were held from Mexico to Santiago, Algiers to Angola, Cairo to Calcutta.  The population of Budapest and Prague lit candles; the picture of a smiling Che appeared in London and Paris…when a few months later, riots broker out in Berlin, Paris, and Chicago, and from there the unrest spread to the American campuses, young men and women wore Che Guevara T-shirts and carried his pictures during their protest marches.[1]

 

Guevara’s image remains widespread.  While in Tel Aviv last year, at least twice I saw people with Guevara t-shirts.[2] He has also appeared throughout Haiti’s largest slum thanks to one of former tyrant Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s thugs.[3]

 

It was just a matter of time before Hollywood celebrated Guevara, which already has a long history of affection for Fidel Castro.[4]

 

Benicio Del Toro will play Guevara in Terrence Malick’s Che, set to begin production in July and co-starring Javier Bardem, who played the persecuted Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in 2000’s Before Night Falls.  Malick has been reported as also writing the script, which focuses on Guevara’s final years.[5]

 

Robert Redford’s production, The Motorcycle Diaries, adapts Guevara journal of his travels through Latin America in his 20s and stars Gael García Bernal, a popular Mexican actor who also played Guevara in the Showtime miniseries Fidel.  García Bernal has said of Guevara, “He’s a person that changed the world and really forces me to change the rules of what I am.”[6] Redford met with Castro in January and screened the movie for Guevara’s relatives, whose widow called it “excellent.”[7]

 

Loathsome historical figures are of course legitimate film subjects.  I’m seeking to adapt Frederick Simonelli’s American Fuehrer: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party. Being a Jew, love of this pioneer of modern white supremacy isn’t the reason.

 

Guevara’s adaptation, though, will likely be characterized less by revelation than romanticism—no trivial difference given his savage sympathies and deeds.

 

In David Mamet’s House of Games, a con man refers to a “tell” or indicator of someone’s character.  Guevara showed such indicators well before he caused so much havoc in Cuba, as part of Fidel Castro’s regime.

 

In December 1953, the 25-year-old Guevara was in Costa Rica.  He wrote to his aunt from San José after seeing the United Fruit Company’s holdings in Costa Rica, “I have sworn before a picture of our old, much lamented comrade Stalin [who died in March] that I will not rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated.”[8] Guevara’s travel journal includes this passage:

 

I now feel my dilated nostrils, savoring the acrid odor of gunpowder and blood, of enemy death; I now tense my body, ready for the struggle, and I prepare my being as a sacred place so that in it resounds with new vibrations and new hopes the bestial howl of the triumphant proletariat.[9]

 

He likewise wrote to a friend in December 1957, “Because of my ideological background, I belong to those who believe that the solution of the world’s problems lies behind the so-called iron curtain....”[10]  By the middle of that year, Guevara had met the Castro brothers [11] in Mexico City and was a comandante in their military campaign to overthrow Fulgencio Batista.[12]

 

In October 1958, Guevara ordered rebel coordinator Enrique Oltuski to rob banks to finance operations.  Oltuski refused, and Guevara wrote in his diary, “When I told him to give us a report of all the banks in the towns, to attack them and take their money, they threw themselves on the ground in anguish.”[13] 

 

When a boy in Guevara’s forces stole some food, however, he ordered him shot.[14] Guevara also personally executed a peasant named Eutimio Guerra who informed on the rebels and described the act in his diary:

 

I ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 pistol in the right side of the brain, with exit orifice in the right temporal.  He gasped for a little while and was dead.  Upon proceeding to remove his belongings I couldn’t get off the watch tied by a chain to his belt, and then he told me in a steady voice farther away than fear: “Yank it off, boy, what does it matter…”  I did so and his possessions were now mine.[15]

 

Accordingly, Guevara became “supreme prosecutor” at Havana’s La Cabaña fortress after Batista fled Cuba.  Here he presided over hundreds of executions in proceedings that even a sympathetic biographer notes “were carried out without respect for due process.”[16]

 

“Individualism,” Guevara told a group in August 1960, “tomorrow should be the proper utilization of the whole individual at the absolute benefit of the community.”[17] This was a far cry from Cuban founding father José Martí, who wrote, “Respect for freedom and for the ideas of others, of even the most wretched being, is my fanaticism.”[18]

 

As would befit a Stalinist, Guevara pioneered Cuba’s gulag system. Socialist scholar Samuel Farber notes:

 

Clearly, Che Guevara played a key role in inaugurating a tradition of arbitrary administrative, non-judicial detentions, later used in the UMAP [Military Units to Aid Production] camps for the confinement of dissidents and social “deviants”: homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, practitioners of secret Afro-Cuban religions such as Abakua, and non-political rebels. In the ‘80s and ‘90s this non-judicial, forced confinement was also applied to AIDS victims.[19]

 

The first of these camps was in Guanahacabibes, “at the remote, rocky, and devilishly hot westernmost tip of Cuba.”[20] Guevara spoke of those sent there as “people who have committed crimes against revolutionary morals.”[21]

 

Add to this Guevara’s efforts to wreck other countries [22] and the economic devastation he promoted while head of Cuba’s National Bank.[23] Farber observes, “Guevara's collectivism was pure, unadulterated Stalinism.”[24] Herbert Matthews, who glamorized Castro before 1959 in The New York Times, referred to Guevara as “a firm believer in maximum centralization.”[25]

 

Vladimir Nabokov once described his sentiment for the Soviet Union as “healthy contempt.”[26]  Ernesto Guevara, an architect of atrocity, subjugation, and ruin, deserves nothing less.

ENDNOTES:

[1] Erik Durschmied, Blood of Revolution: From the Reign of Terror to the Rise of Khomeini (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2002), pp. 305-306.  When leftist student leader Mark Rudd returned from a trip to Cuba in March 1968, his residence transformed into a political shrine: “Square inch by square inch, his walls became covered with posters and pictures of Che—Che smoking, Che smiling, Che smoking and smiling, Che reflecting.  In early spring Rudd had to go to a dentist, and confronted with the prospect of pain, he asked himself, What would Che do?”  Mark Kurlansky, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World (New York: Ballantine Books, 2004), pp.  193-194.  Guevara even enchanted those who would seem the strongest opponents of his totalitarian outlook.  The major libertarian economist, historian, and thinker Murray Rothbard described Guevara as “an heroic figure for our time” and referred to “his mighty heart.”  “Ernesto Che Guevara, RIP,” Left and Right, Spring-Autumn 1967, http://www.mises.org/journals/lar/pdfs/3_3/3_3_1.pdf.  

 

[2] A famous Israeli fashion designer’s last name happens to be Castro.  Guevara considered Zionism "reactionary."  Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (New York: Grove Press, 1997), p. 475.    Anderson moved with his family to Havana to write his biography.  He thanks a Cuban Communist Party Central Committee member in his acknowledgments and notes that one of his daughters “began her morning classes with the hymn ‘Seremos como el Che’: We will be like Che.”

 

[3] Andrew Gumbel, “Aristide's slumland army of enforcers prepares to defend ‘people's revolution',” The Independent (London), February 17, 2004, http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/story.jsp?story=492133.

 

[4] See James Hirsen’s chapter on Cuba in Tales from the Left Coast: True Stories of Hollywood Stars and Their Outrageous Politics (New York: Crown Forum, 2003).  I discussed Oliver Stone’s Castro-philia in “Castro Chic,” FrontPageMagazine.com, May 7, 2003, http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=7683.

 

[5] “Malick goes to work on Che,” The Guardian, February 19, 2004, http://film.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,12589,1151584,00.html.  Malick was in Bolivia in October 1967 to profile Guevara for The New Yorker.  His Oscar-winning cinematographer for Days of Heaven, Néstor Almendros, was a Cuban exile whose documentary Indecent Conduct examines the Castro’s regime persecution of homosexuals.

 

[6] Lawrence Osborne, “Che Trippers,” The New York Observer, June 16, 2003, http://www.observer.com/pages/story.asp?ID=7508.  Osborne notes that the first movie about Guevara, Che!, appeared in 1969 starring Omar Sharif, and Antonio Banderas played Guevara in 1996’s Evita.  Brett Sokol’s “Myth Makers,” Miami New Times, February 5, 2004, http://www.miaminewtimes.com/issues/2004-02-05/kulchur.html/1/index.html also discusses the Guevara productions.   

 

[7] “Redford’s red alert,” The Sydney Morning Herald, January 27, 2004, http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/01/27/1075088001672.html.

 

[8] Jorge Castañeda, Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara (New York: Vintage, 1998), p. 62.  Guevara signed another letter to his aunt as “Stalin II”  (Anderson, p. 167) and placed flowers at Stalin’s tomb when he visited the Soviet Union in November 1960 (Castañeda, p. 181).

 

[9] This translation is mine.  The original version is, “Ya siento mis narices dilatadas, saboreando el acre olor de pólvora y de sangre, de muerte enemiga; ya crispo mi cuerpo, listo a la pelea y preparo mi ser como a un sagrado recinto para que en él resuene con vibraciones nuevas y nuevas esperanzas el aullido bestial del proletariado triunfante.”  See http://www.oceanbooks.com.au/espanol/puntos/pun40.html.

 

[10] Carlos Franqui, Diary of the Cuban Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1980), p. 269. 

 

[11] Anderson notes of Raúl Castro, whose brother’s brutality tends to marginalize his: “…soon after occupying Santiago [in 1959], Raúl Castro directed a mass execution of over 70 captured soldiers by bulldozing a trench, standing the condemned men in front of it, and mowing them down with machine guns” (p. 388).  For further information on this Castro, see Dr. Miguel A. Faria Jr.’s two-part “Who Is Raúl Castro?”, NewsMax, August 15, 2001 and August 22, 2001, http://www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2001/8/15/224049.shtml and http://www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2001/8/22/213013.shtml.

 

[12] I suspect many think Castro’s 26th of July Movement—named after the disastrous attack he orchestrated against the Moncada barracks in eastern Cuba on July 26, 1953—was the sole anti-Batista organization.  This omits the major contribution of organizations like the Revolutionary Directorate, which almost killed Batista at the Presidential Palace on March 13, 1957.  For a discussion of the Directorate, see Miguel A. Faria Jr., Cuba in Revolution: Escape from a Lost Paradise (Macon: Hacienda Publishing, 2002), pp. 38-45 especially.  

 

[13] Anderson, p. 347.

 

[14] Mona Charen, Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2003), p. 176.

[15] Anderson, p. 237.  “Che’s narrative is as chilling as it is revealing about his personality,” Anderson remarks.  Thus, in his will Guevara endorsed “the extremely useful hatred that turns men into effective, violent, merciless, and cold killing machines.”  Pascal Fontaine, “Communism in Latin America,” in Stéphane Courtois et al., eds., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 652.

 

[16] Castañeda, p. 143.

 

[17] Anderson, p. 478.

 

[18] Carlos Ripoll, José Martí: Doctrines, Maxims, and Aphorisms (New York: Editorial Dos Ríos, 2000), p. 17.

 

[19] Samuel Farber, “The Resurrection of Che Guevara,” New Politics, Summer 1998, http://www.wpunj.edu/~newpol/issue25/farber25.htm.

 

[20] Anderson, p. 567.

 

[21] Castañeda, p. 178.  Castañeda refers to Guevara “establishing one of the most heinous precedents of the Cuban Revolution” with Guanahacabibes.

 

[22] In the index to Anderson’s biography, entries for Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, etc. include subentries on Guevara’s “plans to spread the revolution to.”  As the philosopher and former Marxist-Leninist Hilary Putnam notes, “What is wrong with the argument that ‘it will take a revolution’ to end injustice is that revolutions don’t mean an end to injustice.”  On the contrary, Cuba, Iran, etc. highlight how revolutions can exacerbate injustice.  As Martí noted, “To change masters is not to be free.”

 

[23] For a discussion of Cuba’s prosperity and development before Castro, see “Zenith and Eclipse: A Comparative Look at Socio-Economic Conditions in Pre-Castro and Present Day Cuba,” U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, http://www.state.gov/p/wha/ci/14776.htm.

 

[24] Farber, “The Resurrection of Che Guevara.”

 

[25] Herbert L. Matthews, Revolution in Cuba (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975), p. 294.

 

[26] Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), p. 58.


Myles Kantor is a columnist for FrontPageMagazine.com and editor-at-large for Pureplay Press, which publishes books about Cuban history and culture. His e-mail address is myles.kantor@gmail.com.


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