Episode 19: Stories of Che

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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.


Episode 18: The True Believer

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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.

After a few more heavy episodes, it’s once again time for us to look into the darkly humorous world of Communist satire.   We will be focusing on Soviet-Russian author Vladimir Voinovich’s last major novel, “Monumental Propaganda”.   Voinovich was an interesting figure, having been born in 1932 and thus lived through most of the major eras of 20th-century Russian history, starting with the Stalin years.    He started writing humorous novels during the Khrushchev thaw of the 1960s, but once Brezhnev gained power and started a return to more traditional Communism, his books could no longer be published in his country.    He successfully continued writing secret samizdat novels and having them published in the west, but this led to harassment by authorities and his eventual exile in 1980.   He continued writing though, and returned home in 1990.

“Monumental Propaganda” focuses on a life that occurs over roughly the same time period as Voinovich’s own, but the central character is quite different from the author.   Aglaya Stepanovna Revkina is a local Communist official in the small city of Dolgov, who assisted in the mass arrest of the “kulaks”, or successful farmers, and then fought in World War II.    The book begins in the late 1940s, in the aftermath of the war.  Like many local officials, Aglaya successfully lobbies to have a large statue of Joseph Stalin put in the town square.   She is totally devoted to the great leader, and completely sincere in her desire to honor him.  The statue turns out to be very well designed— almost too good, to the point of frightening its viewers.   Of course, nobody can actually admit they are scared of him without dire consequences:

…one day an influential member of the Politburo came to Dolgov specially to see whether it would be worth transferring the monumental masterpiece to Moscow. Upon arriving in the square accompanied by Kuzhelnikov and looking at the statue, he also experienced quite evident agitation, and when he recovered, he said: “We don’t want any of that!” And once again the matter went no further than a review of personnel: Kuzhelnikov was removed from his position and sent off as an ambassador to somewhere in Africa. But a short while later this Politburo member himself disappeared mysteriously, and precisely because of that phrase “We don’t want any of that!” The phrase was reported to Stalin, and Stalin took the words “We don’t want any of that!” as a reference to himself, not the sculpture, following which the Politburo member vanished and his name was dropped from various lists, textbooks, reference works and encyclopedias, so that now not even the historians are able to say for certain whether he ever really existed or not.

Voinovich, Vladimir. Monumental Propaganda (p. 15). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

Unfortunately, after Stalin dies a few years later and Khrushchev reveals his crimes to the world, people’s attitudes towards him begin to change.   Suddenly people are openly discussing what was previously only the topic of whispers, the millions of lives destroyed and the economic devastation created by Stalin’s policies.  Aglaya suffers a moral conflict when she is asked to remove the great leader’s name from a propaganda poster— she simply can’t accept the change in attitude.  While she has happily helped erase memories of thousands of other people imprisoned or censured by the government, Stalin lives in a category of his own:

…two loves still dwelt in her heart in perfect harmony: love for Stalin and love for the Party. But now she was being urged to commit an act that she absolutely could not justify with any theories. Now everything had been said clearly and unambiguously and she faced a stark choice: to stick with the Party or stick with Stalin. An impossible, unnatural choice. For her, Stalin was the Party, and the Party was Stalin. For her, Stalin and the Party together were the people, the honor and the conscience of the entire country, and her own conscience as well.

Along the way, Voinovich includes numerous vignettes highlighting the failures and contradictions of Soviet society.    Does Communism truly eliminate social classes and make all people equal?   Well, here’s how the officials reason:

…it would have been genuinely indecent for the Party’s nomenklatura workers to live in poor-quality houses, but even more indecent for them to live in communal flats. And not just because the Party’s nomenklatura workers did not know how to coexist in crowded conditions, but because then the details of their lives would have become known to simple Soviet people and that must never happen. Living apart from other citizens, the nomenklatura of those times (just like its counterpart in these times) had to appear and did appear to be a special breed of people, superior, mysterious and possessed of the entire body of human knowledge. … They understood the secrets of our being, what was and what would be, but they had no interests apart from constant concern for the good of the motherland and our well-being. And if they needed living conditions a little better than ours, then it was exclusively in order that they might think about us without being distracted by anything irrelevant.

He also has a gift for anecdotes about the minor absurdities of Soviet life, as in this stomach-churning summary of the mid-century sanitation system:

On the outskirts of town people still simply relieved themselves in the open air, but nearer the center the public was a little more civilized and made use of communal facilities designed for this purpose—in the form of little planking sheds with two separate entrances and two doors that were often torn off their hinges, one of which bore the letter M and the other the letter W. Naturally, in these little sheds (the younger generations perhaps cannot even picture this) on both the M side and the W side the wooden floor was embellished with a dozen or so large holes in a long row and soft heaps deposited haphazardly around them, as though the bombardment had not been conducted point-blank, but from long-range guns, and shots had fallen short or overshot the target…
Alexei Mikhailovich Makarov, also known as the Admiral, used to say that if it was up to him to decide what monument to erect to our Soviet era, he would not have commemorated Stalin or Lenin or anyone else, but the Unknown Soviet Man squatting like an eagle on the peak of a tall mountain (Mount Communism) deposited by himself.

These issues, of course, mean nothing to Aglaya.  She never wavers in her faith in Stalin, and is horrified when the local Party committee votes to remove the statue from the town square, to be disposed of or melted down.   

“Metal?” Aglaya cried indignantly. “You call this metal? It’s a monument to Comrade Stalin. We all erected it together, all the people. We put it up when folks had no bread to eat and nothing to feed their children with. We denied ourselves everything to put it up here. And you’re dragging it through the mud like some lump of pig-iron. You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”

Rather than let the great statue of Stalin be destroyed, she insists on having it moved to her own living room.   Her neighbors are a bit concerned that the giant metal statue might be too heavy for the floor to support, in addition to being creeped out by having a giant Stalin in their midst, but still she manages to get it dragged in.   She then finds she has to pay a series of regular bribes to her building manager, local permitting inspectors, and similar figures to be allowed to keep it there, eventually melting away all her modest savings, but puts up with this without complaints.   The statue dominates her living room for the rest of her life.      She cares for the statue better than she cared for her own children:

As she washed, she spoke words that her own son had never heard from her. “Now,” she intoned, “we’ll wash your nice hair, wash your lovely eyes and nose, and then your ears, then your shoulders and your chest and back and tummy . . .” Until she reached the place where the flaps of the greatcoat were parted to reveal the lower edge of the jacket and immediately below it the spot from which the legs began. Aglaya suddenly felt embarrassed. The spot, as a matter of fact, was smooth, the way it could only have been in a being that was either female or entirely sexless. And for some reason Aglaya felt strangely perplexed by this. She suddenly wondered—and felt angry with herself for doing it, but her doubts still remained—what had the living Comrade Stalin had at this spot? She was unable to think of him as having something at that spot, but to imagine that there hadn’t been anything proved even harder. She abused herself, calling herself a fool and an old fool for having any such thoughts at all.

Despite her past willingness to destroy people’s lives for deviating from the officially dictated party line, which can change from day to day, she cannot be moved on the topic of her idol.   Stalin will forever be her hero, role model, and guide.  In an angry letter she berates her son Marat for accepting the new reality:

“When Stalin was alive, I can’t remember anyone ever saying there was anything about Stalin they didn’t like. Everyone said the same thing: A genius, a great commander. Our father and teacher. The luminary of all the sciences. Did they really not believe what they were saying? Were they all really lying? I don’t understand—when were these people being sincere, now or then?”

When her son visits and complains about the statue making him and his wife nervous, their relationship deteriorates even further:

“Mom, what’s wrong with you?” said Marat, trying to calm her down. He even held out his arms to give her a hug. “I’m not talking about Stalin himself, I mean that idiotic sculpture. It’s not a man, it’s an idol—” “Ah, it’s an idol!” Aglaya flared up. “How dare you! Take your hands off me! . . . How dare you say that about the man who means more to me than—” “Mom!” Marat appealed to her one more time. “I’m not your mom!” she yelled. “And you’re no son of mine! Clear out the pair of you and don’t let me ever see you again!” “Mom,” mumbled Marat. “I just don’t get it, why are you so—” “Get out!” said Aglaya, and pushed him in the chest…
“Get out!” Aglaya repeated, and pushed him in the back. Then she slammed the door shut, turned the key in the lock and went into the sitting room, prepared to cry her eyes out. But glancing by chance at the statue, she froze. Stalin was gazing at her so expressively that she had no difficulty in reading complete approval of her courageous act in his eyes.

Aglaya’s stubbornness begins to get her into trouble when a local Party meeting takes a vote to approve the condemnation of Stalin and the party’s new direction.  For the first time ever, she dares to abstain from a vote of approval called by a local chairman:

Everyone immediately threw their hands up in the air and … cried out: “We approve! We approve! We wholeheartedly and absolutely approve!” “Whosagainstabstained?” Nechaev asked quickly, running the words together without waiting for any answer. He had already opened his mouth to utter the customary “Carried unanimously” when suddenly… he had already noticed a slim arm raised in the back row like a solitary blade of grass swaying in the breeze. … “You? Aglaya Stepanovna? How is this possible? Are you abst—are . . . you abstaining?”

The other party members are horrified at her actions, but in many cases, it’s not for exactly the reasons you would suspect:

…the whole business smacked of nothing less (how terrible even to utter the words!) than ideological sabotage. And all sorts of checks and purges would begin in the district. Involving the elucidation of who had stolen how much from where. Or taken a bribe from somebody. Or given somebody a poke in the face. Or taken and given. And although the delegates at the Dolgov conference were all to a man absolutely devoted to… the latest instructions from the highest levels of the Party, to claim that none of them had ever stolen anything, or given anybody a bribe, or taken a bribe from anybody or entered a fake item in the accounts, or written off an item and pocketed the money, would have been excessive. But the more a man stole, the more intransigent he was in the area of ideology.

As a result, everyone in the room begins to loudly condemn Aglaya.  After this, she fully expects the police to come and carry her off to a Gulag camp or something worse.   Despite having maintained for years that anyone sentenced to these harsh punishments under Stalin must have clearly deserved them for endangering the glorious future being implemented by the leadership, in her own case she suddenly sees a flaw in the system.   But as a further irony, due the post-Stalin thaw, things are no longer quite that bad:  while she loses her position and Party membership, she is not arrested.    Yet there are still numerous consequences in her personal life:  while in bed with her, her boyfriend suddenly realizes that he may be committing an ideological error, and suddenly has to loudly announce that he condemns her political position before leaving. 

The novel continues to walk us through several further eras of Soviet and Russian history, all with the great statue of Stalin staring down at Aglaya in her living room.   Out of favor during the post-Stalin period of reform, she suddenly finds herself again with friends and allies when Brezhnev takes over and attempts to restore more traditional communism.   The Party even sends her on a luxurious vacation.   Then her fortunes are again reversed in the 1980s, as the Gorbachev reforms take hold.   After Communism falls,  she finds herself courted by the new, supposedly democratic Communist Party as it gains popularity in local elections.    They find new ways to rationalize their excuses of past crimes:  

“You know, as a historian, I take an unbiased view of the figure of Stalin. Under Stalin’s leadership great mistakes were made. Mistakes, well anybody can make mistakes, but viewed against the course of the historical process, they naturally don’t appear so significant. Especially, well, you know they say Stalin killed so many millions. But we’re realists. We realize that if he hadn’t, sooner or later those millions would have died anyway.”

In the end, Aglaya and her statue die together, in an explosion caused by the wars between post-Soviet gangsters.

As always, we’ve only been able to touch on a few highlights of the story— you really need to read the book to get a full sense of the colorful and whimsical cast of Soviet neighbors who pass through the decades along with Aglaya.   We hear about Party and military officials, loyalists and dissidents, and ordinary neighbors and drunks, each of whom copes in their own way with the various changes to Soviet Communism after Stalin.   If you enjoyed this podcast, be sure to check out Vladimir Voinovich’s “Monumental Propaganda”, as well as his other novels, for yourself.

And this has been your story of communism for today.