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.

Bringing Communist Human Rights Violators to Justice:

During a recent visit to Poland, I met a Cracow taxi driver who - upon learning that I was born in Russia - told me that he had spent three years as a forced laborer in the Soviet Union. Unlike in the case of Nazi war criminals, and more recent human rights violaters in Rwanda, Bosnia and elsewhere, there has been very little effort to identify and punish human rights violaters from communist regimes.

Part of the reason is that some of the greatest communist atrocities occurred many years ago, during the era of Lenin and Stalin. However, the Polish taxi driver I spoke to did his forced labor in the early 1980s. Nor was he an isolated case. Large-scale use of forced labor - both inside and outside Gulag-style concentration camp systems -was a common feature of communist states well into the 1980s, as Arch Puddington documented in this 1988 book. In Cuba and North Korea, it remains so to this day. Other massive human rights violations also occurred in quite late communism's history, notably large-scale Soviet war crimes in Afghanistan, repression and execution of dissidents in Eastern Europe, and mass murders in Cambodia and Ethiopia.

The perpetrators of many of these atrocities are still alive and their offenses are recent enough to investigate and punish. That is surely likely to be true of the Soviet and Polish communist officials who ran the forced labor program that scooped up the Cracow taxi driver.

But with the important exceptions of Romania's execution of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and some of his key henchmen, and Ethiopia's efforts to prosecute some of its former communist officials for their role in the terror famines of the 1980s (trials that I admit I don't know enough about to comment on), there has been remarkably little effort to bring the perpetrators of communist atrocities to justice. Germany has tried some former East German officials, but most of those convicted received ridiculously short sentences or no prison time at all. Far more effort has been devoted to efforts to punish much lesser offenders from right-wing regimes, such as those in Chile and Argentina.

I understand, of course, that it is not possible to punish all the offenders, and that sometimes valid political considerations weigh against doing so. Nonetheless, I think that it is surely possible to get to at least some of them. At the very least, advocates of strict enforcement of human rights norms and especially advocates of "universal jurisdiction" for major human rights violations should make far more effort to bring communist human rights abusers to justice than they have so far. Not only might doing so help bring to justice some of the world's most egregious criminals; it could also rebut claims that international human rights law is just an excuse to flagellate right-wing regimes and Western democracies, while ignoring far greater abuses by communist and other anti-Western governments.

UPDATE/CONFLICT OF INTEREST WATCH: I suppose I should mention that my own father did a few weeks of forced labor on a Soviet collective farm in the 1970s. This kind of thing was so much a part of ordinary life in the USSR - even in the relatively less oppressive post-Stalin era - that its relevance did not occur to me until after I had written the original post. Nonetheless, it was forced labor, and is a human rights violation under international law. At the same time, I should stress that my father's experience, while quite unpleasant, is not really comparable to what the Polish taxi driver endured (he spent three years in the mines of remote Magnitgorsk). And neither was as bad as what happened to people who did forced labor in Gulags and similar camps outside the USSR.

UPDATE #2: When I say that right-wing regimes such as the military governments in Chile and Argentina were guilty of "lesser" offenses than communist ones, I mean that the number of their victims was much smaller, not that each individual case of murder, torture, etc., was lesser; unfortunately my wording was not as precise as it should have been. The former governments each killed several thousand innocent people. By contrast, the communist governments I discuss in the post each killed at least ten times more than that, even if one excludes the even bloodier Stalin-era crimes. For example, the Ethiopian communist regime killed at least 500,000 people (see book linked under Ethiopia above), North Korea several million, and the Brezhnev to Gorbachev era Soviet Union at least several hundred thousand. For detailed figures, see the Black Book of Communism, and statistical analyses by political scientist Rudolph Rummel. An innocent person killed by right-wing generals was just as much a victim as one killed by the communists. But there were a great many more of the latter.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Bringing Communist Human Rights Violators to Justice:
  2. The Real Che Guevara: