The life and times of 1960’s cultural icon Che Guevara remain a topic of heated debate, with a growing legion of modern American supporters who idolize him as a Robin Hood Revolutionary contrasted against opponents who despise him as ruthless, aspiring dictator. Extremes of each belief are heavily influenced by which period of Che’s life falls under critical scrutiny, his behavior in his early twenties could support an argument for sainthood, in his later years the evidence could support the accusations of madness.
Guevara first gained political notoriety as the right hand of Fidel Castro during the Cuban Revolution, however his career later ended while plotting a foiled coup de taut against the Bolivian government. In modern American culture in recent years his legend was reignited with recent award winning films about the journals he wrote during humanitarian mission in South America researching leprosy while studying medicine. Today his admirers envision him as a selfless revolutionary, liberating the common people from corporate exploitation, poverty and oppression.
Che’s critics suggest that he was a narcissist, power-hungry dictator, driven by his own vanity and addiction to adventure and chaos. Some critics claim that his underlying motives were only to exploit popular anti-government sentiment to build a power base in his climb toward dictatorship with empty promises for wealth to the poor as his justification for terrorist tactics.
One thing that both sides seem to agree on was that Che was focused on eliminating United States political presence in the Spanish speaking regions of the Americas, which easily made him a hero to many South Americans. The actions of his 40 year life were influential enough to land Guevara on Time Magazines “100 most influential people of the 20th Century”.
His beginnings, biographers on both sides unanimously agree that Che was born Ernesto “Che” Guevara to a prominent and politically active Argentinian family. Influenced by his father’s friends comprised of intellectuals, politicians and powerful businessmen, he showed an interest in political leadership at an early age. As a boy Ernesto overcame asthma to excel in athletics and academics. He was remembered as an aspiring medical student, fascinated with the psychological principals of Sigmund Freud and the political philosophies of Nietzsche and Machiavelli. His own father made many references to Che’s persistent lifetime conflict with authority figures and was quoted with “Ernesto was born with the blood of Irish Rebels coursing through his veins”. On several occasions Che was reprimanded by the Catholic elementary school he attended for condescending remarks he had made about the church (Guevara Che Prologue).
Guevara is most widely known in modern American culture for the diaries he kept during a 5000 mile 1951 road trip across South America to volunteer at a village of lepers in Peru which became the inspiration for a best-selling book titled “The Motorcycle Diaries”, later made into a popular film in 2004 by the same name. His area of study in medical school was on the disease of leprosy (Guevara Motorcycle 146-149). His emotionally charged speeches on poverty and the corporate exploitations of peasant workers are considered by many intellectual critics to be the wisdom of an insightful philosopher. During his now famous trip across South America he was caught up in the revolution to liberate corporate owned land in Guatemala and redistribute that land to the peasants who farmed it. The Guatemalan revolution was quickly put down by U.S. troops, which forced Guevara to leave the country (Guevara Che 24).
Near Mexico City, after his escape from Guatemala, Che was introduced to a like-minded revolutionary named Fidel Castro, who was dedicated to overthrowing the corrupt Basque leadership in Cuba. At this time, several biographers noted that Guevara seemed to grasp the importance of propaganda in their revolutionary tactics as he began to publish a newspaper that criticized the opposition to the movement and later a started radio station he called “The Voice of Free Cuba” (135). During this period he first became feared as a leader who killed any members of the revolution that deserted the cause to return home or serve as informants for the opposing government. Several military analysts credit Guevara with brilliant combat and counterintelligence tactics. His surprising successes earned the respect of his opponents of the US military, conceding that he possessed an apparently brilliant military intuition and found that Che’s unique guerilla tactics very surprisingly effective (Guevara Che 8).
The period that Guevara served with Fidel Castro building a newly communist Cuba is the period of his life that is most publicized by his critics. During his tenure in Cuban government Guevara managed to redistribute land and factories owned by capitalists to the working class of the Cuban population, however he also made it his personal goal to educate the peasant population and managed to quickly raise the rural literacy rates from 70% to 96%. The sincerity of his humanitarian gestures is uncertain, but these policies did prove effective at loaning Guevara positive image to offset the ordered executions of political prisoners that soon followed (Guevara Che 93-95).
Che’s military successes as well as administrative effectiveness led to his promotion to Cuban Finance Minister. Revered for working for days without rest, never stopping to eat or sleep, earned the respect of his followers. However his ineffectiveness as finance minister became his political undoing and is seen as the first failure of his career, undermining public support of the Cuban Revolution. Guevara’s assumption that citizens would be more productive under communism proved to be much less effective than he expected. His perceived failure governing the economy and later his own disillusion following Soviet concessions during the Cuban Missile Crisis may have been the catalyst driving Che to leave Cuba to serve as an anti-capitalist spokesman around the world. He disappeared quietly from Cuba to join a band of revolutionaries in the Congo of Africa (Guevara Che 167-176).
In Africa Guevara joined an army of Cuban-African guerilla fighters who were attempting to overthrow the government of the time. Detractors believed that Che envisioned himself becoming the Castro of the Congo if their coup was successful. However, Guevara underestimated how much the Swahili language barrier would limit his ability to lead and inspire the people. Ultimately his leadership of the Africans is universally seen as a humiliating failure that began to cast doubt even among his supporters Che’s political wisdom (Fontova 167-174).
A year and half after aborting the African campaign, Guevara disappeared into the Bolivian jungle to train an army of guerilla fighters for an attempt to overthrow the Bolivian government. Che’s critics believe his motives were to gain power needed to become the new dictator of Bolivia if the overthrow was successful. It was a fear of his future power that motivated the CIA to locate him and secretly undermine his effectiveness in Bolivia. It is believed that in his 11 month stay Bolivia that United States CIA were using traitors close to Che to sabotage his radio equipment, intercept his supplies and spread anti-Guevara propaganda to potential local supporters, all of which ultimately left the Che’s guerilla army isolated, starving and in need of medical supplies. Political theorists attribute Che’s harsh and condescending attitude to other guerilla leaders undermined his ability to gain the financial and political support needed to grow his revolutionary movement (Guevara Che 147).
Guevara’s condescending attitude toward other party leaders remains a recurring theme in his diaries, the December 31st 1966 diary entry describes a clash of egos on his first meeting with Mario Monje, head of the Bolivian communist party who was about to extend the political support of the party to Che’s revolution. Monje’s only request in the discussions was to be considered to be the leader of the revolution movement that took part on Bolivian land, however Che insisted that he was the self-appointed leader of all procommunist revolutionary activity in South America. The incident even in Guevara’s own self-delusional spin reveals his Achilles heel as a complete lack of interpersonal tact with other party leaders and hints that his true aspirations were to become the totalitarian ruler for all of South America, if indeed his revolution proved to be a success (Guevara Che 125-140).
In a story that sounds remarkably similar to the recent capture and execution of Osama Bin Laden, a group of 1800 soldiers led by US Special Forces surrounded Che’s camp and overtook it in a quick battle. Che was taken wounded, interrogated, then by order of Bolivian president, executed immediately before news of his capture could incite supporters. After he was shot he was put on public display for proof of his death and his hands were amputated and sent to Buenos Aires where fingerprints on file could confirm that it was indeed Che Guevara’s body. Much in line with the stories of Osama Bin Laden’s burial at sea, Guevara’s remains were disposed in an undisclosed location by Bolivian soldiers. Years later a Bolivian General, divulged that the body had been buried in a mass grave near an airstrip. Archeologists located the grave and confirmed remains to be Guevara and transported to Cuba for formal burial (Fontova 209).
Today Che Guevara’s legend seems to have more followers that idolize him than those who demonize his life. In 2008 the Bolivian government released several of Che’s diaries taken during his capture, these recent publications have sparked a renewed interest in the life and times of Che Guevara, the context of his final writings has caused a swing of public opinion that many view him now to be a Robin Hood martyr at best to be worthy of sainthood rather than the murderous egomaniacal dictator that his detractors believe. Regardless of his motives, it seems evident that his actions were all ultimately leading to his self-appointment to position of dictator in any country he could gain control of in effort to apply his visions of a communal utopia.
From the reading and research I completed for this paper, I conclude that the anti-Guevara theorist Fontova’s book is so heavily contaminated with emotional bias and blatant anti-Castro propaganda on the life of Che that it is difficult to take his accusations against Guevara seriously. The book draws some hard character conclusions that would seem unlikely for Fontova to support with real evidence. Fontova makes little attempt to cite academically credible sources in his expose on Guevara; however I do assume that there must be some first-hand historical sources and personal interviews that lend might him some credibility on the subject to gain the support of the publisher.
The extremity of radical accusations made by Fontova prompted me to research the credibility of Fontova as a political analyst, from what I could gather, outside of a degree in political science, Fontova has spent most of his career writing for hunting and fishing magazines, later writing two fictional adventure books. Fontova’s own self-promotional website even further undermines my ability to consider his point of view as a self-declared expert. I did not find much evidence that Fontova was a qualified expert on US foreign affairs and his short childhood in Cuba does not qualify in my opinion qualify as enough first-hand experience to be the expert on Cuban politics that he claims to be.
In my opinion Fontova’s book can be criticized under the same principles that he charges Guevara with, Fontova’s book seems intended to incite hatred against supporters of socialized ideals or those who oppose democratic expansionism, just as Che sought to create fear and hatred in opposition of capitalism. Today’s society recognizes the dangers of radical idealists and fear targeted propaganda. In hopes of preventing future wars, individuals must examine emotionally charged propaganda like Fontova’s book “Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiot’s Who Idealize Him” with a critical eye and question the simple logic that millions of people supported the ideals that Che proposed were as purely evil as Fontova would like us to believe.
For the Guevara supporters, they have the luxury of Che’s first hand opinions, in his own handwriting, on those historical events. What I detect in those diaries were not the personal private thoughts of Guevara as much as his own propaganda tools, I suspect that no man in a position of power writes his beliefs down in a notebook and expect them to never be read by prying eyes. Over his lifetime, his diaries were often left behind at deserted guerilla campsites and found by opposing troops, because of this pattern I believe that the contents of those diaries were his weapons in the propaganda war.
However much that Guevara tried to spin the events to paint himself in a favorable light, it is not a far stretch to assume by reading between the lines of Guevara’s two diaries that he was driven by a manic fueled sense of self-delusion that evolved from compassionate ideals into sociopathic behaviors. I can see that it is his eloquent writing and his ability to spin events with a flattering self-delusion to portray himself as a heroic martyr that masks his underlying obsession with thrill seeking adventure and a quest to obtain legendary power and fame.
I believe that ultimately Che Guevara suffered from the grandiose delusions, often observed in cult leaders, referred to as “The Messiah Syndrome”, self-appointed leaders who believe that they were put on earth by a higher power to change the future of the world. In layman’s terms we typically label those cult leaders as “Madmen”. A clue to this personality disorder is a very revealing tale that childhood classmates at Guevara’s elementary school shared during interviews for biography on the Discovery Channel, they recited a story about an outburst Che had in a discussion about the sainthood of Jesus Christ, where Che exploded and insisted that Jesus was (in loose translation) “Overrated” and that Che planned to make Jesus’ accomplishments pale in comparison. Many years later, during a public address he is cited with one of the most damning quotes of his career when he declared: “In fact, if Christ himself stood in my way, I, like Nietzsche, would not hesitate to squish him like a worm”. To further support conclusions of madness, in Che’s Bolivian Diary he confesses to stabbing his horse in the neck for walking too slowly, two journal entries later, Che makes a reference to the horse stabbing and questions his own sanity. There is certainly an opportunity to publish a very critical view on Guevara’s life today, however Fontova’s radicalism on the topic has done very little to advance the cause of Guevara critics.
Fontova, Humberto. Exposing the Real Che Guevara: And the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him.
New York: Penguin Books, 2007. Print.
Guevara, Ernesto. Che: The Diaries of Ernesto Che Guevara. Melbourne, AU:
Ocean Press, 2008. Print.
Guevara, Ernesto. The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America.
London: 1996. Print.