Assessing Che Guevara

Alison Darby, Dickson College, 2008


Alison Darby submitted this essay as part of the Revolutions in the Modern World unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2008.

Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, born on May 14 1928, was an Argentinean-born revolutionary. He is perhaps most famous for his role fighting alongside Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution of 1956 to 1959. Since his death Che Guevara has become a symbol of revolution and the struggle for justice and equality. However, Che's actions were not altogether consistent with these ideals. In his lesser known role in assisting in re-shaping Cuba after the Revolution, some of his actions were highly questionable. His conduct as commander of La Cabana Prison and as supreme prosecutor stand out in this regard, as does his role in founding the Cuban concentration camp system. The modern image of Che obscures many of his less noble qualities. While Guevara fought against oppression, he had deep flaws that seem to have been lost in the pages of history.


Che_Guevara_1960.jpg
Che Guevara in 1960.
Che Guevara is an icon of the 20th Century, and has come to represent many varying ideals. The image of Che Guevara, captured by the lens of photographer Alberto Korda, is said to be “the most famous photograph in the world and a symbol of the 20th Century” (BBC 2001). His image has captured the imaginations of a generation and his likeness now adorns many shirts and other merchandise. He was used as the symbol of the 1960s student uprisings in America and is the face of the band Rage Against the Machine (Berman 2004; Larocha 2008). He is seen by many as a revolutionary icon, a rebel and a martyr (Anderson 1997; Korda 1998, New Internationalist, 1998, p.11). An idealist, he has come to represent images of freedom, justice and resistance to oppression; as well as the ideal of an egalitarian society and the rejection of worldly excesses (Anderson 1997; Berman 2004; Korda 1998, New Internationalist, 1998, p.11). “Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is a modern hero, a brooding powerful symbol of selfless dedication to the poor and oppressed”(Korda quoted in New Internationalist, 1998, p11). Jean Paul Sartre, a renowned philosopher who knew Che Guevara, once stated: “Che is not only an intellectual, he was the most complete human being of our time – our era’s most perfect man”(Quoted in Larocha, 2008). However, if Guevara’s actions are carefully examined it appears that they differ significantly from those qualities widely attributed to him and he seems to be far from the “perfect man".


After Fidel Castro took control of Cuba, Che Guevara played an important, and not so widely known, role in re-shaping the nation. Che was assigned as the commander of the La Cabana Prison in 1959 and was charged with prosecuting suspected war criminals. Under the title 'Supreme Prosecutor' Che was given extra-judicial powers and supreme authority over all verdicts. While, initially, the trials for war criminals were performed in front of public crowds and witnesses and some lawyers, as the trials continued the use of due process seemed to diminish (Anderson 1997; Llosa 2005; Berman 2004). The trials escalated into a purge of the remaining army of Batista and then to any Cubans considered ‘counter-revolutionary’. Many were tried by military tribunals and were not given a proper defense or trial (Anderson 1997; Llosa 2005). It is thought that between 200 and 500 people were killed by firing squad in this period (Llosa 2005). Che stated that these trials were necessary to protect the revolution and that “To send a man to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary” (Llosa 2005). Many however did not agree and the trials, often described as merciless, horrified many in Cuba at the time (Anderson 1997). They gained Guevara the title, “The butcher of La Cabana".

Related Article: Education Under Castro
The conditions at La Cabana Prison were unsavory. Javier Arzuga, a chaplain who worked at the La Cabana prison stated:

There were about eight hundred prisoners in a space fit for no more than three hundred: former military and police personnel, some journalists, a few businessmen and merchants.

He also commented on the nature of the proceedings:

The revolutionary tribunal was made of militiamen. Che presided over the appellate court. He never overturned a sentence... I pleaded many times with Che on behalf of prisoners... Che did not budge (Llosa, 2005).

Despite the stern stance displayed in this testimony it appears that Che Guevara himself had doubts about the trials. In his diary he recorded that he wondered whether one of the victims, a peasant, “was really guilty enough to deserve death” (Llosa 2005). Others Cuban leaders, such as Fidel Castro, have also expressed their doubts about the process. Fidel Castro admitted:

... that those trials were conducted... might be in conflict, and in fact was in conflict, with our own ideas of justice (Castro 2007, p. 220).

This shows that, by Castro’s own admission, the trials conducted under Che Guevara’s orders at La Cabana, when he was Supreme Prosecutor, did not follow common definitions of justice. These trials did not adhere to due process. This clearly contradicts the idea that Che Guevara is a symbol of justice. In his role as Supreme Prosecutor he convicted men without trial, clearly straying from the course of justice.


After the Revolution, Che Guevara was instrumental in setting up the labour camp system in Cuba. The first forced labour camp Guanahancabibes was opened in 1960 (Llosa 2005). Prisoners could be sent to such labor camps for a number of undefined reasons. Che Guevara stated that:

[We] only send to Guanahancabibes... people who have committed crimes against revolutionary morals (Llosa 2005).

What constituted a crime against the revolution was never defined although over the years people were imprisoned for numerous such ‘crimes’. These included; political dissidence, homosexuality, being afflicted with AIDS, being a Catholic, a Jehovah’s Witness or a priest of the African-Cuban cult religions such as Abakua (Llosa 2005; Berman 2004). The conditions at the camps were marginal at best, and many inmates were allegedly raped, beaten and mutilated (Llosa 2005).


Cuban political leaders have denied such claims however. Fidel Castro states not all camps were used as a form of punishment with some simply being a forum to present those who were not eligible for army conscription, such as homosexuals, “with an opportunity to work, to help the country” (Castro 2007 p.224). This does not change the fact however that individuals were sent to work in these camps against their will. Also, as interviewer Ignacio Ramonet points out, “there are many reports, eyewitness testimony to them [allegations of mistreatment]” (Castro 2007 p.223). One such eyewitness was Reinaldo Arenas, who records what he describes as “aggressive” and “repressive” behaviour against homosexuals in his book Before Night Falls(Arenas 1994; Castro 2007 p. 683) The labour camp system demonstrates Che Guevara’s support for policies which infringe on individual freedom. Forced labour, rather than being consistent with the image of Che Guevara as a liberator, is itself a nasty form of oppression. Furthermore, in this system, individuals were imprisoned based on their belief systems and factors outside their control, such as sexuality. This opposes fundamental ideals such as freedom of expression, and religion. Che Guevara’s support of the labour camp system is contradictory to his image as a symbol of freedom and resistance to oppression.


Che Guevara has come to symbolize many different principles and has been ascribed varying noble characteristics. These ideas however are not all consistent with the actions of his life. Che Guevara’s actions, specifically in relation to his role at the La Cabana prison and in founding the Cuban labour camp system directly oppose these attributes. Che Guevara’s actions do not seem to be consistent with his image today. One thing can be said of Che Guevara: he did die for his cause, and this in itself seems point enough to have established him a place in history. His death in Bolivia fighting futilely for revolution against their military regime made him a martyr and has ensured he shall be remembered as an idealist and a symbol, however much his actions may have differed from those characteristics that have been attributed to him.

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Bibliography



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