“If the missiles had remained, we would have fired them against the very heart of the U.S., including New York. The victory of socialism is well worth millions of atomic victims.”
— Che Guevara, November 1962
Many of the violent protesters at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, in July were clad in standard-issue anarchist-nihilist riot gear: Black balaclavas and hoodies are de rigueur for the well-turned-out Black Bloc Molotov Cocktail-chucker. And there were, of course, the Che Guevara t-shirts. You’ll likely find your local Antifa fighter decked out in one, too.
Fifty years after his execution in Bolivia on October 9, 1967, Ernesto “Che” Guevara remains a revolutionary icon.
It’s not hard to see why. Ideological certainty mixed with dashing revolutionary derring-do is a potent cocktail. Just ask Valerio Morucci, terrorist gunman of the Italian Red Brigades:
“Guevara was mythical. In other words, he had the ideology AND the adventure. And it doesn’t get any better than that. He was a double-myth — Communism on the one side and daring on the other.”
In a way, it all comes back to one photograph, taken by fashion photographer Alberto Korda on March 5, 1960. Fidel Castro’s red right hand in the Cuban Revolution Che gazes off to our left, his eyes steely with intense resolve, a beret cocked over his lank, unkempt locks his firm-yet-sensuous mouth framed by a scraggly beatnik beard. The photograph, titled by Korda “Guerrillero Heroico,” invented guerilla chic.
That right there, taken at the very beginning of the weird and wild decade of the 1960s, is a rock star.
The photograph hung on Korda’s studio wall until 1967. In the tumultuous year of 1968 Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick’s brilliantly stylized the shot into an image titled “Viva Che!” and it became an icon on revolutionary posters and college dorm walls, where the Guerrillero Heroico’s smoldering gaze might compete with, say, Jim Morrison’s.
Such is the power of an image. What of Che the man?
Che was born and raised in Argentina, to a middle class family. His political awakening was genuine; it would be hard to overstate the poverty and misery that plagued South America in the first half of the 20th century, and the U.S. was guilty as charged when it came to the exploitation of resources and cheap labor and meddling in the politics and economies of our southern neighbors. Revolutionary communism offered an alternative. At the time, it must have looked like justice.
But, of course, communism didn’t offer justice, but another round of oppression and repression. It did offer a measure of revenge, though, and for revolutionaries like Che, that was on its own a fine, stiff drink.
Che was among Fidel Castro’s handful of guerilla fighters who, against all odds sailed across the Gulf of Mexico to shipwreck on Cuba’s shores, survived in the Sierra Maestra mountains and managed to overthrow the U.S.(and Mob)–backed regime of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. He was a puritan and a fanatic. He was an iron disciplinarian and disdained individualism in all its forms. He had little tolerance for anybody who had less pure revolutionary zeal than he did.
Che favored the exceptionally bloodthirsty Chinese variant of Communism; he despised rock-and-roll, which he considered decadent and delinquent, and he hated homosexuals, whom he rounded up and put in work camps. He did not tolerate rebels. Hell, he didn’t tolerate dissent at all.
He was not “cool,” no matter how he wore his beret.
He wasn’t much of a guerilla tactician, either, as his disastrous campaign in Bolivia demonstrated. And he was an absolute catastrophe as Minister of Industry and the head of the Cuban National Bank, contributing mightily to Cuba becoming a Soviet-dependent economic basket case.
What Che was best at was killing. He was a very capable executioner. He handled the setting up of secret police in Cuba and rounded up enemies of the Revolution for wholesale shootings up against la paredón (the wall). He liked it. It is a delicious historical irony that he was captured alive and met the same fate at the hands of the Bolivian Special Forces Rangers.
Which brings us to the point — because Che is not a mere historical figure from a different era, an era of dirty proxy wars in the hinterlands of the world. He is with us still. It is commonly said that the “rebels” and celebrities who wear their Che t-shirts just don’t know who the man really was. They just like the image. And that may be largely true. His ideology and career certainly don’t jibe with anti-authoritarian, pro-gay, anti-racist, tolerant co-existence.
But I submit to you that many of those who wave the banner of Che Guevara DO know who and what he was. They know he was a stone killer — and they dig it. Black Bloc anarchists and their fellow travelers are nihilists. They’d be perfectly comfortable with Che’s statement that “The victory of socialism is well worth millions of atomic victims.” Hell, it doesn’t even require the victory of socialism to get them off, as long as The System comes crashing down.
We would do well to remember that. Give that “Antifa” kid in the Che t-shirt the chance and he might just be delighted to push you up against la paredón and exact a little revenge for whatever evils he thinks The System has inflicted upon him.