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March 06, 2008

Alex Singleton on the two Che Guevaras: Exposing the Real Che Guevara: And the Useful Idiots who Idolize him - Humberto Fontova

Posted by Alex Singleton

Exposing the Real Che Guevara: And the Useful Idiots who Idolize him
by Humberto Fontova
Pp. 224. New York: Sentinel, 2007
Hardback, $23.95

At universities across Britain and in the United States, students can be found wearing t-shirts emblazened with the image of Ernesto "Che" Guevara. While Britain's National Union of Students has a "no platform" policy for those who support extremist ideologies, it does not seem to extend to those who idolise Guevara. The 2006 Terrorism Act made it a criminal offence to glorify terrorism, yet no one has been prosecuted for glorifying Che. This is a man who plotted to bomb New York decades before Osama Bin Laden.

Are these Che-supporting students on hallucinogenic drugs? Perhaps, but it is more likely that there are now two Guevaras. The first is is the historical figure; the second is the chic brand. Self-styled "progressive" students know little, if anything of the former: a man who put gay students in prisons and gratuitously killed tail-wagging dogs. For followers of the brand, Che has been morphed into a statement against George W. Bush, the military-industrial complex and global capitalism.

Another reason for the irrational Che-worshipping is that many of the books already on the market about Che have relied heavily on propaganda put out by the Cuban government. Moreover, anti-American ideology has blinded too many scholars to the horror of Guevera's deeds. These scholars have chosen to blot out his egregious human rights abuses, or to simply accept them as a necessary evil in the pursuit of revolutionary politics. Guevara may have been (at least largely) responsible for the murder of 14,000 of his countrymen, but unlike Milosovic's 8,000 or Pinochet's 3,000, these murders were apparently necessary for the greater good.

Fontova's book aims to challenge the mythology surrounding Guevara. At the very least, it will provide useful factual ammunition for conservatives and libertarians. Hopefully, its effect will be more significant and encourage scholars to reanalyse the conventional wisdom.

One of the clearest conclusions of the book is that in all of Guevara's major endeavours, he was a failure (contradicting the student-held belief that he was a great thorn in America's side). His economic record was such a disaster that even the Soviets, who were no strangers to economic failure, could not understand it. They eventually pressured Fidel Castro into sacking him as Cuba's Economics Minister, probably the most sensible choice Castro has ever made.

Inheriting a currency backed by gold, Che quickly made it worthless by printing money on an incredible scale. He had inherited an inflation rate of 1.4%, but in a single year increased the number of peso in circulation from 518m to 1051bn. To punish America's economic imperialism, he banned imported US glue, needed for shoe manufacturing. He simultaneously ordered the establishment of a new shoe factory in Havana. The factory produced shoes that fell to pieces. He interfered in industry and agriculture alike, causing falling output. Productivity collapsed: sugar production halved.

In the student union mythology, pre-Communist Cuba was some form of feudal society. Yet Fontova draws on data to show that Cuba had a successful, stable first world economy when Guevara took control of the economy. Average wages were higher than in Belgium, Denmark, France and West Germany. Even wages for basic agricultural workers were higher.

Guevara devastated Cuban living standards. Once Castro decided Guevara needed to disappear, he was sent on two major overseas guerilla missions, in the hope he would not return alive. The first was the Congo; the second to Bolivia. Guevera failed disastrously with both. He completely misunderstood the Congo, interpreting its civil wars, which were mainly tribal in nature, as wars against (non-existent) "capitalist oppressors". His continual routs meant that Africans quickly shunned him and he was forced, tail between his legs, back home.

His Bolivian adventure was even worse. Although he wrote the 20th century's best-selling guide to guerilla warfare, he was not competent at any form of warfare in practice. Disorganised and cowardly, he failed to win peasant backing for his "National Liberation Army". Bolivian peasants simply saw him as a trouble-maker. Instead of helping, they would report his whereabouts to the real army. Six hundred peasants formed a militia to defeat Guevara, ten times as many people as in his "National Liberation Army", even including Che's forced soldiers. Student activists often claim that voluntary employment for a multinational company is slavery, but it was their idol Guevara who used forced labour.

Lost in the Bolivian jungle, with disillusioned (and often starving) solders, Guevara would stress the importance of fighting to the death. But when involved in a shooting match with the Bolivian Army, and with a fully-loaded weapon, Guevara surrendered, saying: "I surrender! Don't shoot me! I'm worth more alive than dead!" Fontova points out that after being arrested and imprisoned, he was not shot by the CIA (as activists seem to believe), but by the Bolivian government and against the CIA's wishes.

If any of Guevara's exploits can be deemed effective, it was in his ability to abuse the human rights of those he disapproved. Fontova catalogues some of the horrific abuses including his belief that fair trials were unnecessary in the pursuit of revolutionary justice; his extensive use of torture against politician prisoners; his arrest and punishment of hippies and rock music listeners; and his sending of anyone who was a suspected homosexual to prison. This is all important detail which should discourage the likes of Nelson Mandela ridiculously claiming, as he once did, that:

Che Guevara is an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom.
Humberto Fontova is effective in his reporting of Che's life, but a little misguided in his criticism of libertarian opponents of America's Cuban embargo. The embargo has been completely ineffective but created an excuse for Cuba's poor economic performance. Nevertheless, this is an important book and is an essential addition to any free-marketeer's bookcase.

Alex Singleton is a journalist and the author of Trade Justice or Free Trade?

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Its perfectly acceptable for a student to wear a shirt celebrating a Communist terrorist but I bet if you were to wear a pro-Contra shirt (they weren't terrrorists, but bear with me) I bet there would be an outcry. As someone who supported the contras effort I can tell you I had Che adorned idiots giving me loads of flak back in the day.

Posted by: Andrew Ian Dodge at March 10, 2008 11:28 AM
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