Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928-1967), the Argentina-born revolutionary who helped Castro come to power in Cuba, has long been lionized by the hard left. Guevara's posthumous popularity has accelerated in recent years -- especially since the 2004 release of "The Motorcycle Diaries," a feature film based on his early autobiographical writings -- making him a crossover superstar whose likeness appears on countless T-shirts, posters and tattoos, and who has been cited as an inspiration for political dissidents from Latin America to Lebanon to Hong Kong.
Yet the reality of Che Guevara's life is far different from the popular perception, as Independent Institute Senior Fellow Alvaro Vargas Llosa explains in a new article in the July 11 & 18 issue of THE NEW REPUBLIC.
It's safe to assume that many people now sporting radical-chic Che T-shirts oppose capital punishment, but Che Guevara served as an executioner for Castro, as Guevara himself admitted in some of his diary entries, notes Vargas Llosa, author of LIBERTY FOR LATIN AMERICA. Guevara, for example, admitted to shooting Eutimio Guerra in January of 1957 because he suspected him of passing on information. He also admitted to having shot a peasant named Aristidio, although he wasn't certain he could justify that execution, as well as a man named Echevarría, the brother of a comrade. On the eve of victory for the revolution, Guevara ordered the execution of a couple dozen people in the central Cuban region of Santa Clara, according to Jaime Costa Vázquez (a.k.a. "El Catalán"), a former commander in the Cuban revolutionary army whom Vargas Llosa interviewed for the article.
But Che Guevara's killing spree didn't reach its apex until after the corrupt Bautista regime collapsed and Castro put Guevara in charge of the San Carlos de La Cabaña prison.
José Vilasuso, a lawyer and professor in Puerto Rico who had served with the group in charge of the judicial process at La Cabaña prison, told Vargas Llosa that one night in 1959 he witnessed the execution of seven political prisoners. Another witness, Javier Arzuaga, a clergyman more inclined toward the liberation theology of Leonardo Boff than the conservatism of the former Cardinal Ratzinger, told Vargas Llosa that Che Guevara never overturned a sentence. He said he personally witnessed 55 executions, including that of a young boy named Ariel Lima. Estimates of the number of executions of political prisoners during the six months that Che Guevara was in charge of La Cabaña vary. Economist Armando Lago has compiled a list of 179 executions. Pedro Corzo, who is making a documentary about Che Guevara, puts the number at 200. Vilasuso told Vargas Llosa that 400 political prisoners were executed under Guevara's command.
Whether Che Guevara executed 400 political prisoners or "only" 200, it's hard to see how self-styled "progressives" can continue to justify their worship of the murderer. For those who refuse to blame the "idealistic" Che for these executions, which took place without regard for due process, Alvaro Vargas Llosa also notes Guevara's Taliban-like rule of the city of Sancti Spiritus in 1958, his ordering of his men to rob banks during the revolution, his rationalization of the Guanahacabibes labor camp, his negotiation with Khrushchev to acquire 42 Soviet missiles, half of them armed with nuclear warheads, his destruction of the Cuban economy, and his reckless revolutionary sojourns throughout Latin America and to the Congo, spreading violence and fostering only more misery.
Those in search of a genuinely heroic Latin American reformer, Vargas Llosa notes, will find one in Juan Bautista Alberdi of 19th century Argentina. Alberdi helped depose Argentina's tyrant of that era (Juan Manuel Rosas) and introduced his country to the ideas of constitutionalism, open trade, greater immigration, and secure property rights -- which when implemented brought 70 years of prosperity to Argentina and did so without staining Alberdi's hands with blood.
See "The Killing Machine: Che Guevara, from Communist Firebrand to Capitalist Brand," by Alvaro Vargas Llosa