Is the Cult of Che Guevara on its Way Out?

Che Guevara is one of the few communist leaders who still has a broad following in the West. Go to any college campus or hip neighborhood and you’ll see plenty of Che T-shirts, Che posters, and even the occasional Che cell phone message. This is extremely unfortunate, since Che was in fact a brutal mass murderer and terrorist, as I explained in this post. Reason editor Nick Gillespie points this out as well, but also cites evidence suggesting that Che worship may be declining:

How resilient is the ghost of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine-born Marxist revolutionary who ably assisted the Castro brothers’ sadly successful mission to turn Cuba into an island hellhole? His legend survives even a lackluster, long-winded biopic released in 2008 and now just out on DVD.

More important, Che’s legend survives the facts of his own life. Born in 1928 and gunned down in 1967 by drunken Bolivian soldiers, Che rarely missed an opportunity to make life miserable for those who opposed him. During the fight against the Batista regime, Che ordered the summary executions of dozens of real and suspected enemies, becoming the very thing he said revolutionaries must be: a “cold-blooded killing machine.” As a leader in post-Revolution Cuba, Che became known as the “butcher of La Cabaña” prison, where he oversaw hundreds of murders of political prisoners and “counter-revolutionaries.”

When he became the effective czar of the Cuban economy and attempted to create a “new man and woman,” or workers fueled by revolutionary ideals rather than conventional workplace incentives, his plans failed catastrophically and helped make Cuba the economic basket case it remains to this day. Along the way, Che did more than his share to help ban rock and jazz music as “imperialist” forms of expression….

Increasingly, one hopes, Che’s image is becoming openly mocked as the ugly reality of his life outlasts the shiny revolutionary veneer. As Alvaro Vargas Llosa reported five years ago, young Argentines have taken to sporting shirts emblazoned with the putdown, “I have a Che T-Shirt and I don’t know why.” The Australian band The Clap sings of the “Che Guevara T-Shirt Wearer” who has “no idea” of who he is. The Cuban punk band, Porno para Ricardo, which has been arrested for “social dangerousness,” openly declaims the Castro regime and its heroes such as Guevara.

Karl Marx, of all people, once remarked that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. Marx argued that history was the key to understanding the real world, and history is certainly no friend to Che Guevara. If his younger admirers study the historical Che–the one reputed to have declared “I feel my nostrils dilate savoring the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood of the enemy”–they will understand that Che’s original influence was indeed tragic, not just for Cubans but for many others as well. And they just might skip the farce phase, out of deference to the many victims of the butcher of La Cabaña.

I hope Nick is right. But I want to see more evidence before I am convinced that Che worship is really declining. Che wasn’t that important in and of himself. He was a second-rate functionary in a second-rate communist regime and later a fourth-rate guerrilla leader and terrorist who failed dismally in his efforts to spread communism beyond Cuba. Had Che never lived, Cuban communism would have been only marginally less oppressive than it actually was. Ultimately, the Cult of Che is deplorable less because of what it says about attitudes towards him than because it is the most blatant manifestation of our much broader tendency to ignore or downplay communist crimes.