I am an anarchist, atheist, adopted, jewish, bilingual, woman with a degree in Latin American Latino Studies and a head crammed full of the history of the Americas. I spent a decade working in the law in Florida and another decade working for nonprofits in California and DC. I know more than your average person about the history, policies, and human rights violations related to the food system, drug prohibition, the prison industrial complex, immigration, and (inexplicably) cowboys. I believe that justice, peace, and understanding are possible. I blog at www.broadsnark.com
Che Guevara is everywhere. He is on t-shirts, sneakers, bags, bedazzled boots, and even children’s books. The bedazzled boots don’t really bother me so much. Not likely that the person wearing those has actually read any Che and they probably won’t be mistaken for someone who is about to go traipsing through the jungle to start a foco.
It is all the attention from the radical left that really irritates me. At first I thought, maybe they just don’t know what he was about. Maybe they’ve never read his work. Maybe they don’t know what he was doing in Bolivia. But as I watch some of the people who love Che, I am beginning to see that they probably like him for exactly the reasons that I don’t. Because I keep seeing people in our communities emulate all of Che’s most problematic characteristics.
Guevara was a privileged, white kid from Argentina whose parents were about as close to blue blood as you could get. He eventually became politicized, hooked up with Fidel Castro in Mexico, and joined Castro’s revolutionary movement – a movement that had lots of support, even amongst many of the middle and upper classes who now claim to have always hated Fidel. It was a revolution rooted in community, history, and cultural understanding. And it was the only thing Che was involved with that wasn’t a total failure. (I’m not romanticizing the revolution here, just acknowledging that they achieved their goal.)
After the revolution, Che was in charge of the economic policies in Cuba. And he fucked it up royally. This is not my opinion. Guevara got on Cuban television and told the people he had designed “an absurd plan, disconnected from realty, with absurd goals and imaginary resources.” (Castañeda 216). He did some other awful things in his post-revolutionary Cuba days. He was instrumental in setting up the labor camp where dissidents and homosexuals were sentenced to hard labor for their ”crimes against revolutionary morals.” (178)
Guevara decided to go back to what he thought he did best. He took off for the Congo to participate in the anti-imperialist fighting there. Che should have known better. Even as Castro’s BFF, the fact that he was not Cuban was an issue during the Cuban revolution. Now Che was off in Africa, a place he knew jack shit about, trying to lead troops of Africans. Many were incredulous at best. Egyptian President Nasser “expressed his astonishment and attempted to dissuade him, explaining that a white, foreign leader commanding blacks in Africa could only come across as an imitation of Tarzan.” (283)
The Congo mission was a failure, as Che himself admitted. But instead of learning from his mistakes, he headed to Bolivia to start a continent-wide South American revolution. Nobody seems to be sure why Bolivia was chosen. The country had a relatively popular elected president. The people had been through a revolution only fourteen years earlier. The 1952 revolution led to some land reform, a lot of food shortages, and the virtual economic takeover of Bolivia by the United States. Nobody in Bolivia wanted a revolution repeat.
The communist party in Bolivia was not supportive. Che claims they backed out. Mario Monje, Secretary of the Communist Party of Boliva, claims that the Cubans lied about Che’s intentions. Either way, when Che saw he had virtually no local support, he should have turned around and went home. But he did not. He and his group, virtually no Bolivians amongst them, planted themselves in a country not their own and determined to start a war. So here he was, some white dude from Argentina, wandering around indigenous communities in Bolivia and trying to instigate violence that would force those campesinos to take his side.
The campesinos were having none of it. Let’s try to imagine how many times in the last 500 years those people have seen some conquistador come in and claim they were there to save them. This group of outsiders knew nothing about the community. Che and his crew did not know the people or the language. They were so ignorant that they were trying to teach themselves Quechua. Too bad they were in a place that was Aymara and Guarani. And when the news got out that a bunch of outsiders were starting shit, Guevara just lied and claimed that the majority of the movement were Bolivians.
Every single month, Che’s diary of Bolivia tells how they were having no luck in recruiting locals. It tells how the people were informing on them. It tells how they took locals hostage, took their animals, forced the locals to feed them, and made the locals targets of the military. Again and again, Che describes how terrified the people were.
Not surprisingly, Guevara was turned in. He was murdered. Bolivians went on to have their own revolution, a relatively peaceful one. They elected an indigenous man, leader of the once-scorned coca growers union. And unlike with the post-Obama-election liberals in the United States, Bolivians have continued to raise hell every time they don’t like the policies that their government is supporting. Turns out those campesinos didn’t need some conquistador to come in and do it for them. Imagine that.
Every time I see some privileged person protest touring, I think of Che. Every time I hear about some insurrectionists starting shit in other people’s neighborhoods, I think of Che. Every time some twenty-something white dudes audaciously roll into a room like they have all the answers – summarily dismissing the experience and knowledge of everyone else there – I think of Che. Every time I see some supposed radicals who can’t recognize how inappropriate it is to “lead” or “save” or “help” the poor people or black people or brown people, without bothering to ask their opinion about it, I think of Che.
I do admire Che’s willingness to give up so much of his privilege, to suffer and sacrifice for his beliefs. But a person can never give up all their privileges. And he certainly didn’t lose the false sense of superiority that comes with having been told all your life that you are at the top of the food chain. We don’t need more arrogance, racism, cultural insensitivity, machismo, violence, and sexism. That might get your mug on a t-shirt someday, but it isn’t going to make the world a better place.
Imagine if Guevara had not made a new man the center of his philosophy.* What if he had stuck around to fix his fuck ups in Cuba? What if he took care of his official and unofficial kids? How cool would it have been if he had recognized that he couldn’t impose his beliefs on others? How amazing if he had said that it is time white dudes stopped trying to be in charge all the damn time? Now that would have been fucking revolutionary.
* Guevara’s pep talk to the troops, “This type of struggle gives us the opportunity to become revolutionaries, the highest form of the human species, and it also allows us to emerge fully as men; those who are unable to achieve either of those two states should say so now and abandon the struggle” (Guevara 208). Apparently, I am unable to attain the “highest form of the human species” (not being a man). Guevara seems to have put himself in that category, above all the rest of us riffraff. How nice for him.
Castañeda, J. (1997) Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara. NY, NY, Vintage Books.
Guevara, C (2206). The Bolivian Diary. NY, NY, Ocean Press.