The stern photo of revolutionary Che Guevara taken by Alberto Korda in 1960 is one of the most reproduced images on the planet, appearing on posters, flags, postcards, T-shirts, and even bikinis. Sadly, the ubiquitous appearances of Che — hailed today usually by his first name only — demonstrate the near-total failure to educate people about the blood-soaked cruelty he really represented.
But there are, thankfully, some limits to the use of Che’s famous image — if people complain. A recent e-mail sent by the Environmental Protection Agency to mark Hispanic Heritage Month included Korda’s image of Che along with the slogan “Hasta la victoria siempre,” or “On to victory, always.” After facing criticism, the EPA said the e-mail had been “drafted and sent by an individual employee, and without official clearance.”
Nonetheless, it’s unsettling to see Che’s image appropriated by a government agency that has a notorious reputation for violating property rights and imposing arbitrary controls on growth. Just last March, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that an Idaho couple seeking to build on their land had their rights violated when the EPA imposed fines of $75,000 a day without giving the couple the ability to challenge its rulings.
Also this year, the EPA regional administrator Al Armendariz was forced to resign after he described his enforcement philosophy in a public speech: “Find people who are not complying with the law and you hit them as hard as you can and make examples of them.” He compared the tactic to that used by ancient Roman soldiers: “The Romans used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean. They’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they’d find the first five guys they saw, and they would crucify them. And then you know that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.”
That sounds a lot like how Che operated. After Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Che was instrumental in setting up forced-labor camps for dissidents, gays, and devout Catholics. He was put in charge of La Cabaña Fortress prison for five months. There are varying accounts of how many people were executed under his command during that time, and how many deaths are attributed directly to Che as opposed to the regime overall, but some sources say that more than 100 journalists, businessmen, and followers of the previous regime faced death by firing squad at La Cabaña, under Che’s jurisdiction.
Violence was at the core of Che’s philosophy. Shortly before his death at the hands of Bolivian troops in 1967, he wrote “Message to the Tricontinental.” In this essay he advocated the effective use of violent hatred:
Hatred as an element of the struggle; a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.
A decade earlier, when he murdered Eutimio Guerra, he recorded in his diary: “I ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain. . . . His belongings were now mine.”
Nor was Che’s violence directed only against Cubans. Author Humberto Fontova points to evidence that Guevara, the chief instigator of Castro’s revolutionary efforts overseas, was involved in a November 1962 terrorist plot to use 1,200 pounds of TNT to blow up Macy’s, Gimbels, Bloomingdale’s, and Grand Central Station on the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year. Such an act could have rivaled 9/11 in its destruction. This is hardly a man who deserves to be honored as a hero on T-shirts.
The Obama administration deserves credit for distancing itself from the EPA’s flirtation with Che. But Obama acolytes haven’t always been so sensible. During the 2008 campaign, a Houston TV station taped the inside of an Obama get-out-the-vote office that featured a large Cuban flag on the wall, with the image of Che stamped onto it.
The spokeswoman for the Obama office who sat down with the TV station for an interview repeatedly called questions about the Cuban flag “a distraction” and a “waste of time” and said, “I don’t have time to talk about the Cuban flag.” Or Che, for that matter.
But it’s time we start to talk about Che. He may have died 45 years ago, but his pernicious philosophy is still very much under debate in Latin America. On the one hand, even liberals such as Rory Carroll, the Latin American correspondent for the Guardian in Britain, acknowledge that the Cuban model would have been a “debacle” if exported to other countries. “To challenge the U.S. empire, Che dreamed of creating ‘many Vietnams,’ not least in his Argentine homeland,” Carroll wrote. “Who today can seriously wish he had succeeded? . . . Who needs Che?”
But while overt Communism isn’t on the march in Latin America, Che-style thinking is ascendant in the anti-American authoritarians who today rule Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. Che is much more than an image on a T-shirt to leaders in those countries: He is an inspiration on how to seize and maintain power. It’s for that reason that we should push back whenever and wherever Che’s image surfaces. If people wore T-shirts with images of Nazi butchers, most of us wouldn’t let them pass by without comment. The same should be the case with Che, whether his image shows up on college campuses or in EPA e-mails.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.