The Real Che Guevara:

Few people still admire Lenin and Stalin. Mao Zedong also has few remaining fans in the West (though he still hasn't gotten the negative recognition he deserves for being possibly history's greatest mass murderer). One communist icon, however, still has staying power: Che Guevara. Go to any college campus or hip hangout and you'll find no shortage of Che T-shirts, Che posters, and even Che cell phone messages. The truth, however, is that Che was no less a brutal killer than other communist leaders. If he failed to rise to the same "heights" as Lenin or Mao, it was largely for lack of opportunity.

Recent books by Humberto Fontova and Alvaro Vargas Llosa describe the real Che, and will hopefully cut down the number of his admirers. Among the lowlights, partly summarized by Fontova in this two part interview with CNS News (here and here), and by Vargas here:

1. Che was responsible for the execution of thousands of political prisoners in Cuba (most of them purely for their opposition to Castro's communist policies or for no reason at all).

2. Che enjoyed torturing and abusing the prisoners, including children.

3. Che was instrumental in setting up the Castro regime's massive forced labor camps and secret police apparatus.

4. Che tried to organize campaigns of terrorism against civilians in the US and elsewhere (though he largely failed in these efforts).

5. Far from being merely a Third World nationalist or pragmatic leftist, he was a committed, hard-line Stalinist, even going so far as to call himself "Stalin II" early in his career.

However, as Vargas Llosa points out in this New Republic article, Che was no uncritical admirer of the Soviet Union. To the contrary, he thought the Soviets had not taken communist totalitarianism far enough. In his travels through the Soviet bloc, Che was, by his own account, most impressed with North Korea - not coincidentally also the most oppressively totalitarian of all communist states at the time. Later, as Vargas notes, he criticized the Soviets for giving the private sector too much scope, and for their unwillingness to take even greater risks of touching off a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In and of himself, Che Guevara was not that important. Cuban communism would probably have been comparably brutal even without him, and he failed miserably in his efforts to establish communist regimes elsewhere (eventually getting himself killed). However, Che's continuing popularity does matter as an indication of our failure to fully recognize the evil of communism and the magnitude of its atrocities. With some 100 million victims, communist regimes killed more people in the 20th century than all other forms of tyranny combined. Cuba's was not the worst communist regime, but its crimes were great nonetheless, if we take account of the country's small size. As Fontova points out, during the 1960s alone, the regime Che helped set up executed over 100,000 people, and incarcerated some 350,000 political prisoners out of a Cuban population that numbered only 6.3 million in 1960 (for more detailed figures, see the chapter on Cuba in the thorough Black Book of Communism). Undoubtedly, there would have been even more executions and political prisoners if not for the fact that so many Cubans were able to flee to the nearby United States.

It would be unthinkable, today, for hip college students to wear T-shirts praising a functionary from a right-wing authoritarian military regime, even though few if any such governments committed crimes on the same scale as Castro's. One small step towards putting the crimes of communism in proper perspective would be to finally consign Che to the ignominy he so richly deserves.