Editor’s note: This piece by Jay Nordlinger appeared in the December 31, 2004, issue of National Review.
It sometimes seems that Che Guevara is pictured on more items than Mickey Mouse. I’m talking about shirts and the like (but mainly shirts). One artist had the inspiration to combine the two: He put Mickey’s ears on Guevara. Guevara’s fans must not like it much.
The world is awash in Che paraphernalia, and this is an ongoing offense to truth, reason, and justice (a fine trio). Cuban Americans tend to be flummoxed by this phenomenon, and so do others who are decent and aware. There is a backlash against Che glorification, but it is tiny compared with the phenomenon itself. To turn the tide against Guevara would take massive reeducation — a term the old Communist would very much appreciate.
You find his items in the most surprising places. Or maybe they are not so surprising. The New York Public Library has a gift shop, and until just the other day, it sold a Guevara watch. The article featured Che’s face and the word “REVOLUTION.” The ad copy went like this: “Revolution is a permanent state with this clever watch, featuring the classic romantic image of Che Guevara, around which the word ‘revolution’ — revolves.” Clever, indeed.
That one of the world’s most prestigious libraries should have peddled an item puffing a brutal henchman was not big news, but some Cuban Americans, and a few others, reacted. On learning of the watch, many sent letters to the library, imploring its officials to come to their senses. One Cuban American — trying to play on longstanding American sensibilities — wrote, “Would you sell watches with the images of the Grand Dragon of the KKK?” It was also pointed out that Communist Cuba, which Guevara did a great deal to found and shape, is especially hard on librarians. The independent-library movement has been brutally repressed, and some of the most inspiring political prisoners stem from that movement.
Yet there is virtually no solidarity between Free World librarians and Cuba’s librarians, or would-be librarians. A year ago, the civil libertarian Nat Hentoff “renounced” — his word — the award given him by the American Library Association, because the ALA cold-shoulders the Cubans, preferring to stick with the loved “socialist” tyrant, Castro.
In any event, the New York Public Library withdrew the watch just before Christmas, offering no statement.
The fog of time and the strength of anti-anti-Communism have obscured the real Che. Who was he? He was an Argentinian revolutionary who served as Castro’s primary thug. He was especially infamous for presiding over summary executions at La Cabaña, the fortress that was his abattoir. He liked to administer the coup de grace, the bullet to the back of the neck. And he loved to parade people past El Paredón, the reddened wall against which so many innocents were killed. Furthermore, he established the labor-camp system in which countless citizens — dissidents, democrats, artists, homosexuals — would suffer and die. This is the Cuban gulag. A Cuban-American writer, Humberto Fontova, described Guevara as “a combination of Beria and Himmler.” Anthony Daniels once quipped, “The difference between [Guevara] and Pol Pot was that [the former] never studied in Paris.”
And yet, he is celebrated by “liberals,” this most illiberal of men. As Paul Berman summed up recently in Slate, “Che was an enemy of freedom, and yet he has been erected into a symbol of freedom. He helped establish an unjust social system in Cuba and has been erected into a symbol of social justice. He stood for the ancient rigidities of Latin-American thought, in a Marxist-Leninist version, and he has been celebrated as a freethinker and a rebel.”
Those who know, or care about, the truth concerning Guevara are often tempted to despair. The website of our own National Institutes of Health describes him this way: an “Argentine physician and freedom fighter.” Guevara was a physician roughly like Mrs. Ceausescu was a chemist. As for freedom fighter … again, the temptation to despair is great.
And yet, Cuban Americans and their friends do not succumb altogether, as we have seen in the New York Public Library episode. Here is another episode: Not long ago, Burlington Coat Factory — a giant clothing retailer — ran a television ad featuring a teenager in a Guevara shirt. The ad was called — get this — “Values.” Anti-Communists organized boycotts, picketing, and letter-writing, and the company withdrew the shirt — but not before calling the activists “provocateurs,” “fanatics,” and “extremists.” (The company should get with it: The preferred Castroite term for democrats and human-rights advocates is gusanos, or “worms.”)
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a store called La La Ling sells a Guevara shirt for babies — actually, a “onesie.” The ad text is as follows: “Featured in Time Magazine’s holiday web shopping guide, ‘Viva la revolution [sic]!’ Now even the smallest rebel can express himself in these awesome baby one-sies. This classic Che Guevara icon is also available on a long-sleeve tee in kids’ sizes … Long live the rebel in all of us … there’s no cooler iconic image than Che!”
Who could argue with that? Despite protests, the store has hung tough. Its owner told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, “[The onesie] is one of our top sellers. The Che image is just trendy right now…. I don’t think people are buying the shirt necessarily because of his exact politics. I have a baby store, and in my eyes it’s just a T-shirt.”
DEGREES OF GUILT
Some key questions are encapsulated right there. It seems obvious that some people know what they’re celebrating and some do not. Growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich., I saw Che’s face quite a bit, and, for the most part, those people knew what they were doing: They liked what he stood for. Other people are totally ignorant. Still others are perhaps semi-ignorant, wanting merely to express outrage or defiance, or to advertise their nonconformity. (Actually, in Ann Arbor, to wear Che was to conform.) The comedienne Margaret Cho pictured herself in a Guevara pose for a “Cho Revolution” tour. The boxer Mike Tyson, when he was feeling particularly aggrieved, had Guevara tattooed to his torso.
And last summer, you could find Che at the Minnesota State Fair: He was portrayed in seeds. (You mean, you’ve never heard of seed art?)
One of the most nauseating recent celebrations of Guevara took the form of a movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, whose executive producer was Robert Redford (one of the most dedicated Castro apologists in Hollywood, which is saying something). The movie received a standing ovation at the Sundance Festival. About this obnoxious hagiography and whitewash, I will confine myself to quoting Tony Daniels: “It is as if someone were to make a film about Adolf Hitler by portraying him as a vegetarian who loved animals and was against unemployment. This would be true, but rather beside the point.” There is another movie coming out about Guevara, directed by Steven Soderbergh. We can guess at its contents by the publicity material: “He fought for the people.” Sure he did. A prominent Cuban American recently lunched with a famous and powerful actor to discuss a movie that tells the truth about Guevara. The actor was entirely sympathetic, but said it simply could not be done — Hollywood would not permit it.
Beyond the occasional protest or boycott, there is some of that Guevara backlash: in the form of T-shirts, or counter-T-shirts, if you like. (Yes, anti-Communism is countercultural, in a sense.) One shirt shows Guevara with a diagonal line drawn through him and the words, “Commies Aren’t Cool.” Another has Guevara in crosshairs (violent — too Che-like). Still another has the statement — underneath the image — “I have no idea who this is”! A fourth shirt is an exercise in camp, festooning Guevara in rhinestones and calling him “Liberache” (linking him to the late, flamboyant pianist).
A far more serious shirt is purveyed by the Center for a Free Cuba, in Washington, D.C. It does many things, one of which is to put “Cuba Libre” in Guevara’s hair, and another of which is to list Cuban political prisoners on the back, complete with the lengths of their sentences.
In France, the remarkable group Reporters Without Borders took an image well known in that country: that of a policeman wielding a truncheon and a shield. But it put Guevara’s face in place of the policeman’s and cried, “Welcome to Cuba, the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” A woman named Diane Diaz Lopez objected: She is the daughter of “Korda,” the late Cuban photographer who snapped the “iconic image” of Che. She seems to be a bitter-end Marxist. She took Reporters Without Borders to court, and won — they had to abandon that particular tactic.
SADDENING AND MADDENING
There are some who will always have romantic feelings about Guevara, and the Cuban revolution. For this type, Guevara was a true man, not a namby-pamby liberal, but hardcore — pure in his willingness to do the necessary. An anti-Communist of my acquaintance asked a friend of his why she admired Guevara. She answered, “He never sold out.” Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, says, “Yes, Guevara was ‘courageous’ and ‘committed.’ So are many bank robbers.” In the run-up to the Iraq War, I asked Bernard Kouchner — the great French humanitarian and politician — why so many of his countrymen seemed enthusiastic about Saddam Hussein. He said their enthusiasm for Saddam was akin to their attachment to Che: It was a way of expressing anti-Americanism (in brief), the facts about the two men aside.
But facts are not unimportant to Cuban Americans. Imagine being one of them and seeing celebratory images of Guevara all around you. Imagine — even further — being the son or daughter of someone whom Guevara personally executed. There are such people in the United States. Or imagine — further yet — being a Cuban political prisoner, and knowing that masses in free countries were wearing Che on their chests.
If you talk to Cuban Americans about how they feel, they will first mention Hitler and the Nazis: No one would sell or sport items celebrating those beasts; what’s the difference, other than scale? Otto Reich is a Cuban American who has thought keenly about all this. He has been an official under the last three Republican presidents, and he was a refugee from the island; his father had been a refugee from Nazi Austria. Says Reich, “The first reaction [on seeing a piece of Che-wear] is revulsion. The second is more like pity, because these people have no idea what they’re doing.”
Ronald Radosh has written about a democracy activist in Hong Kong. In his innocence, this fellow — Leung Kwokhung, nicknamed “Long Hair” — goes around in a Guevara T-shirt. As Radosh points out, Guevara would be appalled at this use of his image, and would “favor [Long Hair’s] immediate imprisonment as a counterrevolutionary, if not his quick execution by firing squad.” And I heard from an acquaintance in Japan, who teaches at an American school: “Imagine my shock when I saw a four-year-old student of mine come to class last week wearing a brand-name sweatshirt with that image of Che superimposed on an American flag. He’s a great kid, and he obviously had no idea what it was, but just being in the same room as that shirt made me uneasy. Heck, just knowing the fact that that shirt exists in a size that fits four-year-olds made me uneasy.” Obviously, my acquaintance had never seen the onesie.
A final story: A few weeks ago, the Hartford Courant ran a photo of a Trinity College freshman who was protesting the execution of a serial killer. He carried a sign that said, “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?” — and he was wearing a Che Guevara hat! Talk about sending mixed messages.
Some people take comfort in the fact that Guevara, the Communist who wanted to destroy everything capitalist, has become a commodity. But that comfort is cold — because the unending glorification of this henchman is, yes, an offense to truth, reason, and justice. Think of those who might take his place on those shirts — for instance, Oscar Elias Biscet, one of Castro’s longtime prisoners. He is a democrat, a physician — a true one — and an Afro-Cuban (for those who care). He has declared his heroes and models to be Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Not only does he deserve celebration, he could use the publicity — but nothing.
Part of the Guevara cult, no doubt, has to do with pulchritude (although I suppose Biscet is good-looking enough, despite years of sadistic abuse). More than one anti-Communist has lamented that Che’s cheekbones have caused millions of hearts to flutter, and millions of consciences to crater. Tony Daniels quotes an awed British journalist who met Guevara at the Soviet embassy in Havana in 1963: “He was incredibly beautiful.” Poor Stalin, so stumpy and pockmarked. He could have been a star.
Guevara has a little competition, however, in that some American celebrities have been seen with Subcomandante Marcos T-shirts. Who is Subcomandante Marcos? The Mexican Che, roughly, although it seems unlikely that he will ever overtake Guevara, whose perpetual exaltation is one of the most heartbreaking and infuriating phenomena of the modern age.