Episode 19: Stories of Che
Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century. This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
You may recall that when discussing our motivations for launching this podcast, we observed our disappointment at young college students unironically wearing Che Guevara T-shirts. Che Guevara, who was Fidel Castro’s right-hand man when that regime first took control of Cuba, was a bloodthirsty mass murderer, an economic illiterate—- and a darling of American intellectual circles. Popular columnist I.F. Stone once wrote, “It was out of love, like a perfect knight, that Che had set out. In a sense he was like an early saint.” The U.S. media universally portrayed him as some kind of hero, bringing justice, freedom, and equality to Cuba— but those who had the misfortune to encounter him personally offer quite a different story. I was happy to discover a book by Cuban exile Humberto Fontova, “Exposing the Real Che Guevara”, which collects many eyewitness accounts in one place to paint a true picture of what this Communist leader brought to the Cuban people.
By the way, some of the quotes today contain an impolite word referring to human excrement. To avoid needing an “explicit” tag for this podcast, we are going to substitute the slightly more neutral word “poop” in those cases.
Anyway, it’s an indisputable fact that mass murders were a key building block of the new Cuba when Che and Castro took over. The fact that Che was proud of the thousands he ordered killed during these early years of Cuban Communism is a matter of public record. In a 1964 speech to the UN General Assembly, he bragged about it.
“Executions?… Certainly, we execute!” he declared to the claps and cheers of that august body. “And we will continue executing [emphasis his] as long as it is necessary! This is a war to the DEATH against the Revolution’s enemies!” The Spanish word for death is muerte, and Che rolled the Rs deliciously. The trilling of “mueRRRRTE!” resonated grandly throughout the hall.
Fontova, Humberto. Exposing the Real Che Guevara (p. 2). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Even in his “Motorcycle Diaries”, the self-serving autobiography that was later made into a Robert Redford movie, Che is unable to hide his love of killing. In a passage that Redford seems to have omitted, he wrote
“Crazy with fury I will stain my rifle red while slaughtering any enemy that falls in my hands! My nostrils dilate while savoring the acrid odor of gunpowder and blood. With the deaths of my enemies I prepare my being for the sacred fight and join the triumphant proletariat with a bestial howl!”
He and Castro ordered tens of thousands of Cuban citizens into prisons and concentration camps after taking over the country, and executed anyone remotely suspecting of aiding the previous regime or of defying Communist rules. One survivor named Pierre San Martin wrote of those days:
“…Dozens were led from the cells to the firing squad daily. The volleys kept us awake. We felt that any one of those minutes would be our last. “One morning the horrible sound of that rusty steel door swinging open startled us awake and Che’s guards shoved a new prisoner into our cell. He was a boy, maybe fourteen years old. His face was bruised and smeared with blood.
‘What did you do?’ we asked, horrified. ‘I tried to defend my papa,’ gasped the bloodied boy.
‘But they sent him to the firing squad.’ ” Soon Che’s guards returned. The rusty steel door opened and they yanked the boy out of the cell. “We all rushed to the cell’s window that faced the execution pit,” recalls San Martin. “We simply couldn’t believe they’d murder him. “Then we spotted him, strutting around the blood-drenched execution yard with his hands on his waist and barking orders—Che Guevara himself. ‘
“‘Kneel down!’ Che barked at the boy. “ ‘Assassins!’ we screamed from our window. “ ‘I said: KNEEL DOWN!’ Che barked again. “The boy stared Che resolutely in the face. ‘If you’re going to kill me,’ he yelled, ‘you’ll have to do it while I’m standing! Men die standing!’ ” “Murderers!” the men yelled desperately from their cells. “Then we saw Che unholstering his pistol. He put the barrel to the back of the boy’s neck and blasted. The shot almost decapitated the young boy. “We erupted, ‘Murderers!—Assassins!’ Che finally looked up at us, pointed his pistol, and emptied his clip in our direction. Several of us were wounded by his shots.”’
Another of Che’s virtues that was often praised by Western media was his supposed intellectualism and great learning. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Che is not only an intellectual, he was the most complete human being of our time—our era’s most perfect man.” Naturally, since Communist theory demands central management of the economy for the good of the people, this meant Che was the perfect choice for Castro to appoint as minister of industries. We should point out that before the Communist takeover, Cuba was quite a successful economy by world standards— not just for a few rich plutocrats, as Castro’s supporters like to claim— but for average workers. A 1957 UNESCO report pointed out that the average wage there for an 8-hour workday was larger than in Belgium, Denmark, France, or Germany. The average Cuban had the third-highest protein consumption in the Western hemisphere. Thousands of would-be immigrants were on waiting lists for permission to move to Cuba.
Once Che took over the economy, things swiftly went downhill. The formerly stable Cuban peso became nearly worthless, as Che printed pesos by the millions without concern for consequences or inflation. He made arbitrary and foolish decisions about where to focus the nation’s resources: he destroyed productive plantations to create soccer fields, built refrigerator, shovel, and pencil factories in arbitrary locations that never produced a thing, and decided a fleet of Czechoslovakian snow plows would be perfect for harvesting sugar cane. (They weren’t). Foreign investment from non-Communist countries vanished, factories closed, and productivity plummeted to the point where rationing was needed— with the average Communist Cuban food ration significantly lower than 19th-century records show slaves were given.
A good symbol of the overall economic devastation was Che’s visit to one poorly-performing shoe factory, as recalled later by worker Frank Fernandez:
Knowing his “humanistic” reputation, all the factory workers were on their best behavior. “What’s the problem here!” Che barked at the factory foreman. “Why are you turning out shoes that are pure [poop]!”
The factory foreman looked Minister of Industries Guevara straight in the face. “It’s the glue, it won’t hold the soles to the shoe. It’s that [poop]ty glue you’re buying from the Russians. We used to get it from the U.S.”
This really stung Che. So he went off on one of his habitual tirades as the factory workers quaked, fearing the worst. Many had lost relatives in La Cabana, or had relatives behind the barbed wire of Che’s pet concentration camp … “Okay, here,” and the foreman handed Che a shoe fresh from the assembly line. “See for yourself.” Che grabbed the sole, pulled, and it came right off like a banana peel. “Why didn’t you report this slipshod glue to anyone at our Ministry of Industries!” Che snapped.
“We did,” shot back the foreman, “repeatedly, but nothing happened!” Che ordered his ever-present henchmen to grab the insolent foreman. “Now you people figure out how to make these shoes better.” Che glared. “Or the rest of you will get it!” He spun away and stomped off with his captive, who was not seen again.
… It was Guevara, of course, who threw out the prerevolutionary manager of that factory, and banned glue imports from the United States.
The final part of the legend of Che was his supposedly heroic expedition to Bolivia, where he fought a brilliant guerrilla campaign to bring justice to the peasants there before sacrificing his life for them. But once again, the Western media have been mainly relying on Cuban government propaganda documents for this story. The support of the local peasantry is summarized nicely by one of the CIA officers who helped track him down:
“You hate to laugh at anything associated with Che, who murdered so many… But when it comes to Che as guerrilla you simply have to. In Bolivia he was unable to recruit one single campesino into his guerrilla ranks!—not one! I fought the Viet Cong, El Salvador’s FMLF, the Sandinistas, and with the Nicaraguan Contras. So I know about guerrilla movements. All of those—especially the Contras—recruited heavily from the rural population.
“In fact, the few Bolivians Che managed to recruit were actually tricked into joining the guerrilla band. I interviewed several of them… Che had told them to make their way to his camp and meet with him and he’d see to it that they’d be sent to Cuba—and even to Russia and China—for schooling and training. Then when they got to the camp. ‘Cuba?’ Che would frown. ‘Russia? What are you talking about? Who said anything about going there?’ Then Che would hand them a gun and say, ‘Welcome! You’re a guerrilla now. And don’t you dare try to escape or the army will kill you.’
Aside from their other problems, Che had his team had studied the wrong local language, knew little of the local area, and repeatedly got lost in the forest. His actual diaries give a good picture of the state of his group:
“We walked effectively for five hours straight, and covered from 12-14 kilometers, and came upon a campsite made by Benigno and Aniceto.” These were men in Che’s own vanguard group, evidence they had been walking in circles. “This brings up several questions,” Che asks in his diaries. “Where is the Iquiri River? Perhaps that’s where Benigno and Aniceto were fired upon? Perhaps the aggressors were Joaquin’s people?” In other words, they were not only walking in circles. They were shooting at one another. Che’s masterful Guerrilla Warfare: A Method gives no explanation for these sly guerrilla tactics. But his diaries are often astonishingly frank. “A day of much confusion about our geographic position,” he wrote on May 2. Before he could liberate the continent, Che would have to figure out where he was.
When he was finally captured, the legends say that Che bravely fought until his weapons no longer worked, and surrendered only when there was no other choice. But the Bolivian officers on the scene tell a different story— while he ordered his men to fight to the death, for which many paid with their lives, Che quickly surrendered despite having a fully loaded clip in his gun. Seeing that he was outnumbered, he saved his own life by loudly proclaiming ““Don’t shoot! I’m Che! I’m worth more to you alive than dead!” While the CIA agreed he would be worth more alive, local Bolivians had another opinion, and ordered him executed within a few days.
Che’s true nature is no mystery to his victims, the people of Cuba, who openly despise him when away from government eyes. A former Argentinian communist named Hector Navarro wrote about a visit to Cuba in 1998 where he tried to impress the locals with his Che-like origin:
“A group of young Cuban musicians were playing for us tourists on the beach at Santa Maria,” recalls Navarro. “So I went up to them and announced proudly that I was an Argentinean like Che! ” The musicians stared glumly at Navarro. So he tried again. “I even hung a picture of Che in my office!” he now proclaimed. More blank looks. So Navarro plowed ahead. “I’m from the town of Rosario itself—Che’s birthplace! ”
Now the musicians went from blank stares to outright frowns. “I certainly wasn’t expecting this kind of thing,” says Navarro. “But I continued, requesting they play a very popular song in Argentina, titled ‘And Your Beloved Presence, Comandante Che Guevara!’ Now every one of them gave me a complete cara de culo (roughly, [poop]face). Only when I whipped out ten U.S. dollars and handed it to them did they start playing, but in a very desultory manner, and still with those sullen looks.” … “This was the most important trip of my life—otherwise I might have kept believing in socialism and Che. I finally saw with my own eyes and learned that Castro’s and Che’s version was no different from Stalin’s and Ceausescu’s.”
<closing conversation with Manuel>
Anyway, if you read Fontova’s book for yourself, you will see many more stories that eliminate all doubt about the true nature of Che Guevara. Be sure to share these stories with any teenager you see wearing that notorious face on their T-shirt.
By the way, we’d like to thank listener “rinthatsit” for posting a nice review on Apple Podcasts. If you’re enjoying the podcast, be sure to post a rating or review yourself, to help us spread the word!
And this has been your story of communism for today.