In the current era of American politics and culture, a book on how “branding” and images manipulate us is particularly topical. The way Fidel Castro’s totalitarian regime has always gotten a pass from those who live a safe distance from his tropical gulag is worth a fresh look, too. In Che’s Afterlife, author Michael Casey contributes to the former task but steers well clear of the latter.
In describing his work, Casey concedes that he has devoted an extraordinary bit of toil and time to discovering “Che,” the icon, not Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the man. The author clearly has a keen reporter’s eye, unusual insight, and extraordinary attention to detail. Given his apparent fond fascination for Che, the “heroic guerrilla,” Casey’s journalistic skills might have produced a credible, compelling account of the man behind the myth. The author should have been capable of producing a valuable history of a man who, worshipped by millions as a martyr for human liberation, bragged about being a “bloodthirsty,” “cold, killing machine.” Instead, Casey has plumbed the depths of a ubiquitous two-dimensional image — the famous photograph of Guevara by Alberto Korda — and made an exhaustive examination of the origins and propagation of a caricature rather than a study of the character behind it.
Casey acknowledges the crying need for reflection about whether Guevara is in fact worthy of worship, but then he pulls up short. “This is not a debate about the facts surrounding Che’s life; rather it’s a question of whether society should idolize a man with such a record,” he asserts.
He then goes on to describe the heroic, even romantic, quality that the Che myth has taken on in the service of so-called liberation movements and leftist causes around the world. The “quasi-religious adoration” Casey inventories is undeniable. But the author’s own bias is clear in his deliberate, jarring comparisons of Che to Jesus Christ, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi.
There are objective truths about that guerrilla leader, but telling them would make for a very different book, one that would expose the wrong-headedness of worshipping a man who sowed mayhem in the service of an awful cause. Instead, the author derides the “extremist” “Che-hating” “iconoclasts” who have written about Che in recent years as being “on a mission to inform” about Guevara’s past. A mission to inform — what a wonderful reason to, say, write a book. But Casey cannot bring himself to offer more than a handful of illustrations of Che’s hate-filled, violent record. Even then, the author presents these as evidence of Che’s fascinating complexity or as examples of the sore losers among Cuban exiles who are obsessed with telling the “‘true’ story” (yes, the sneer quotes are Casey’s) and throwing facts in the way of a good tale.
In a particularly overwrought passage, Casey seeks to absolve Che of his sins by comparing his foes — the likes of Chilean general Augusto Pinochet and Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner — to Hitler and Pol Pot. “These militarists made the Guevaristas look like saints and their violence seem forgivable, even justifiable,” the author concludes.
And what of “San Ernesto”? The book offers little new information or none at all on Che’s role in running forced-labor camps, presiding over summary trials and executions of political enemies and those suspected of ideological impurity, and building a totalitarian system.
It is interesting but of secondary importance that the “heroic” visage of Che obscures the true picture of a self-described “killing machine.” The greater shame is the cynical manipulation of the Che lie in order to romanticize the use of violence in the service of the most depraved sociopolitical system ever to cast its shadow over humanity.
No doubt Casey would agree that, thanks in large measure to Che Guevara, Cuba is not like any other country in Latin America. But he might prefer not to examine in what ways that is so. In terms of income per capita, caloric intake, availability of independent newspapers and radio stations, etc., Cuba has dropped from its place at the top of the list of countries in the region to the bottom. Perhaps 90,000 Cubans have died as a direct result of Castroism — either murdered deliberately or lost at sea in a desperate attempt to flee the nightmare Che worked to impose. Another 100 million men and women around the world have lost their lives in the purges, wars, and famines perpetrated in the service of Communism, Che’s ignoble cause.
Millions of Cuban schoolchildren have been indoctrinated in the dead-end, destructive ideology of Fidel Castro’s totalitarian regime. “We will be like Che,” these tots and teens are forced to cry out in unison, as they appear in public assemblies to demonstrate their unthinking loyalty to a political system that has stolen the God-given rights of 11 million Cubans.
“El Che” would be proud. Michael Casey is fascinated. The rest of us should be appalled.
– Roger Noriega has held senior Latin America policy positions in the U.S. government for two decades. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas, a Washington, D.C., firm that advises domestic and foreign clients.