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The History of Failure
By Richard Stewart
Forty years on from his gangland style execution in the Bolivian Jungle at the hands of his CIA captors, Stephen Soderbergh’s ‘Che’ is the latest in a long celluloid trail that paints Che Guevara as the epitome of self sacrifice and valour; a cross between Mother Theresa, Florence Nightingale and Bill Gardner, zig zagging the globe dispensing social justice in his fetching beret and fatigues combo. Sounds like just the sort of chap you’d want on the firm for the business of revolution against the post war imperialism of America, but remember dear reader, it’s only a film. Hollywood’s filtered lens is notoriously selective in it’s portrayal of Guevara, and in the land of make believe, they have worked overtime to ensure he is forever eulogized as the urbane, uber-chic comrade #1, a courageous freedom fighter who devoted and lost his life in defence of noble principles.
Half a Century after the Cuban Revolution, the legacy of what the Castro Brothers along with Guevara actually achieved casts a dark shadow over today’s Cuba, a state so crippled and bankrupt that food rationing brought in as an emergency measure in 1962 remains an everyday feature for those outside of Fidel’s fiefdom. The country, much like Guevara is a mass of contradictions, its open sewers and rusting edifices a stark reminder of the damage wreaked by their failed bid to industrialize and modernise itself. The poverty and well documented human rights abuses in part explain why Cuba has the highest suicide rate in Latin America and why hundreds of thousands of their own population risked the shark infested waters to reach Miami, rather than remain under Castro’s fledgling Marxist orthodoxy.
That part of the World has a long, bloody tradition for revolution; Cuba has suffered endless repression, where one equally brutal and corrupt elite ousts the previous autocracy and the promise of a better life cynically reneged upon just as soon as they grabbed the keys to the city. When the Spanish Conquistadors led by Columbus arrived in the early 1500’s, they met resistance from the indigenous Taino Indians. Chieftain Hatuey regarded as Cuba’s first Guerrilla warrior led the resistance to the invasion inflicting several years of counter punching upon the aggressors. He was eventually captured and burned at the stake in 1512 and some fifty years later, the 3 million population of natives had been virtually eradicated, succumbing either to European disease or Spanish brutality, whichever got them first. Spain went on to rule Cuba for the next four centuries.
In this climate of uprising, Fulgencio Batista took power in 1952, and his pro US stance and corrupt regime first came under attack the following year, setting the wheels in motion for Castro’s eventual victory in 1959. By this time, Castro had amassed a huge war chest from wealthy Cuban exiles and that financial might allied to the swell of opposition to Batista’s government were what paved his way to power. Che came to prominence after his column’s strategic victory at Santa Clara over Batista troops, which saw the Dictator flee Cuba. In reality, Castro had used his wealth wisely, bribing influential military personnel, which coincided with Eisenhower’s decision to withdraw America’s support for the outgoing Batista regime. Batista’s beleaguered army had all but raised the white flag and much to his chagrin, Che’s famous victory owed more to the bourgeois peso of Castro’s prosperous backers than either bullets or ballots.
50 years on and the island’s school children still start every day with the rousing chorus, “Pioneers for Communism, we shall be like Che”. Romantic sentiments, this has been one of Cuba’s longest running PR campaigns. Compelling and complex, the man all Cuba wants to be like sparks frenzied debate and polarizes opinion more keenly than the Marmite issue. Born Ernesto Guevara to an affluent Argentine family, he was a keen sportsman who read widely, taking particular interest in Marxist/ Leninist literature. He trained as a doctor in his homeland and avoided Argentina’s military draft due to his asthma. Had he stuck with medicine, the body count following the Cuban Revolution might have been considerably lessened.
Castro wrestled control from Batista with surprisingly little claret spilled, but now that he was in power, all that was about to change. Whatever ticket Castro rode in on, once he had the country clasped in a tightening grip, he used the other hand to lock the door behind him. Five decades on, only ill health has forced him to pass the family business onto his ruthless enforcer and kid brother, Raul. If Cuba suffered under Batista, this would greatly accelerate under Castro. The La Cabana fortress quickly filled with ‘dissidents’, a label indiscriminately used by a totalitarian state to stamp out the merest sniff of dissent. Pre Revolution Cuba had 11 prisons, yet this tiny island now houses over 300 suggesting that anti US sloganeering alone was not enough in itself to keep the masses subordinate.
Enter Guevara with his first post of the new regime, commander of La Cabana, where it estimated he signed the death warrants of many thousand of its inmates. Prior to overthrowing Batista, Che’s blood lust impressed Castro. Rather than his exertions in battle, what caught Castro’s eye was Che’s willingness to ‘execute’ fellow revolutionaries who had fallen foul of Fidel’s doctrine. Che it seemed preferred to do his killing at close range and well out of harms way, he drew great satisfaction from his party piece; putting a bullet through the back of the heads of bound and gagged enemies of the state. With someone like Che’s finger on the trigger, it sent out a chilling message to those on the wrong side of Castro. Guevara was given free rein as he callously consigned men, women and children to shallow graves. Without the impedance of evidence or fair trials to stand in his way, the good doctor set about stacking the bodies high for all to see, including those ‘traitors’ who refused to follow his orders.
Combat however was a different proposition. During America’s monumentally botched Bay of Pigs invasion, the covert nature of the operation severely hampered the US bid to topple Castro. The badly planned attempt deeply embarrassed Kennedy’s Government, although Che didn’t emerge unscathed either. With the invasion in full flow, our left wing hero has been duped by a US decoy and his army finds itself some 300 miles away from the action. With no-one to fight he somehow managed to shoot himself in the face. His biographers say accidental, but plausible evidence indicates that Che paralyzed by a fear that Yankee Imperialism was about to over-run the Island, turned the pistol on himself, and didn’t even get that right. Either way, this episode characterized the cowardice and incompetence of the Guerrillero Heroico on the battlefield, as he blundered his way from one disaster to the next towards his final demise. Whatever he turned his hand to would result in progressively greater catastrophe and as documented in his own deluded ramblings, ambition clearly outweighed ability for young Che. Still, such shortcomings never stopped him from striving to shape the ‘new socialist’ in his own myopic image.
His other two positions of note came as Minister of Economics in 1960, and then Minister of Industries a year later. A joke goes around that at one of his rallies, Castro asked if there were any economists present. Mistakenly hearing it as communists, Che raised his hand, to which he was promptly handed the presidency of Cuba’s National Bank. The not so funny punch line was that during the two year period, the Cuban Peso which had parity with the US Dollar became worthless and his Soviet styled programme for Industries shattered Cuba’s once prosperous economy.
Yet, this was more than economic mismanagement borne out of communist ideology. Castro’s rationale was that a prosperous nation would be harder to control and he was quick to realise having his subjects wholly dependant upon the state gave them little opportunity to buck the system. When the scheming master of double think needed something fucking up, he knew just who to call upon and once more, Che was on hand to do Castro’s bidding. Fidel meanwhile, having witnessed Batista’s Achilles heel at close quarters, signalled his intentions clearly by ensuring that Cuba’s most effective institution would be its military. He used it to ruthlessly crush internal protest, particularly against the rural farmers from whom he had confiscated their land.
Yet amongst the wreckage, Cuba’s embers of success can be fleetingly glimpsed. Literacy rates in modern day Cuba are reported at almost 100%, although when the state controls what you can read or write, the impressive statistic becomes somewhat blunted. Health care is similarly good, but here too, ambiguity is at the heart of the figures as food rationing and an active lifestyle account for the low incidence of obesity, diabetes or heart attacks; put simply, Cubans are too poor to suffer from these affluent diseases.
From the moment Castro assumed power in January ’59, the Cuban Revolution followed the communist script; this was ‘Animal Farm’ writ large. Within 2 months, Che had his snout in the trough, taking up residence in a beautiful beachfront mansion outside Havana. Orwell’s line about all men are equal but some are more equal than others springs to mind, and Che’s justification could have been penned by Orwell himself, “I am ill with my revolutionary work, doctors advised a house at distance to avoid too many visitors and I was lent this one by the Ministry of Property Recovery.” Guevara was by no means alone in this state sponsored pillage. In the sweetshop that was the newly ‘liberated’ Cuba, Che became drunk with the influence that army commandante’s wielded. An air of ‘my wish is your command’ pervaded, representing a human tragedy for those who dared to dream of a brighter future. This broken promise serves as a damming indictment on the socialist utopia’s shortcomings with regard to managing whole economies, but the capitalists too should be concerned. With an entire global collapse of the financial system Barrack and Brown are overseeing an alarming nationalisation by stealth programme, seizing control of the banking system and taking stakes in many key industries. Rather than the polar opposites these state structures symbolize, take a closer look; overly bureaucratic and riddled with cronyism, a penchant for deception, the misappropriation of funds and fundamentally, the employing of serfs to fight wars and provide cheap labour necessary to keep the party going, are they really so different?
Cuba’s was not brought to its knees simply because they adopted communism over capitalism. It was not the political orthodoxy that let them down as much as the people who governed it. When we study someone like Che it forces us to examine our own darkened soul and question were we in his shoes, would we behave any better? Without the fear of consequence, are we so sure that our own moral compass would remain true? Power seduces and celebrity turns heads, and proffered ‘untouchable’ status, witness human nature at it’s ugliest. This thought is as terrifying as it is depressing as Che may well have started with the best of intentions in creating a fair and just society, only to be undone by an awakening blood lust, rampant narcissism and an all to common range of personal vices; a promiscuous misogynist, drunken, racist homophobe, when it came to the ism’s, Mr G had the full deck. Such is the complexity of the human condition, driven as we are to always want more and history dutifully records man’s innate ability to create paradise only to then shit all over it.
Under Che’s tutelage, Cuba became wholly dependant upon and subsidized by the Soviet Union, signing a trade agreement with them in 1960. Without fully grasping the nuances of Castro’s real agenda, Che was enraged when the Soviets backed down in the Cuba Missile Crisis. In a speech delivered while visiting Algeria in December of ’64, he bit the hand that fed Cuba by labelling the Soviets, ‘accomplices of imperialist exploitation’. This was also the hand that protected Castro from interference by the US, and Che returned to the deeply unimpressed Castro brothers to find it an extremely dangerous hand to bite. Che knew better than most that Fidel didn’t take bad news well, and this failure to stay on the same page as Castro well and truly marked his card. He was stripped of all government posts and his prized citizenship of Cuba and then sent on the road as a travelling sales rep for insurgency, helping other countries with his own ‘modest efforts’ as he called them.
Quite how modest his efforts turned out to be surprised even Che. Having singularly failed to spread revolution to the Belgian Congo, succeeding only in getting most of his rebel army wiped out, he eventually abandoned his Congo folly. His diary entry was at least honest enough to record it as ‘a history of failure’, which by this stage were really beginning to blight his CV. The final chapter was to be his swan song in Bolivia, which would mark a new low in military bungling; time to smell the coffee.
Based on a catalogue of misconceptions, Che was betrayed by everyone. Castro, under manners from the Soviets to sever ties with all rebel activity cut Che adrift, whilst the peasants he endeavoured to recruit sided instead with the Bolivian army. Fans of ‘The Wire’, TV’s sharpest dissector of black hearts and political machinations could draw parallels with the storyline where ruthless gang leader Avon Barksdale sold out his trusted lieutenant Stringer Bell, after the latter, following his own agenda had became increasingly powerful. Replace Barksdale & Bell for Castro & Guevara and cast Omar Little and Brother Mouzone as Gonzales & Rodriguez, the CIA hit- men sent in to go get Che. Right down to Stringer Bell’s snivelling attempts to save his neck, the plotline played out an uncannily similar dramatic arch in Bolivia and Baltimore. When you have outlived your usefulness to the likes of Barksdale or Castro you really are on your own and Che’s simpering plea for clemency “Don’t shoot, I’m worth more to you alive than dead”, fell on deaf ears. The Bolivian Government sanctioned the hit and he faced the firing squad the next day, where the myth of Che Guevara was born. In a final act of treachery, the cunning Castro announced 3 days of mourning for Cuba’s fallen hero, giving a posthumous Che the credibility that so eluded him in his lifetime.
The pen is mightier than the sword, but it’s hard to tell which one did more damage to the reputation of Che Guevara. With his less than saintly views and every foible recorded first hand and in painful detail, the vanity of his own written work exposed him far more than his enemies could hope to. Despite this, the revisionists continue to triumph magnificently with their re-branding of Che. If Hell has Broadband, you’ll find a delusional, Stalin worshipping, self obsessed, bloated whopper in a black beret hunched in the corner googling himself and changing the entries on Wikipedia, whilst checking how many T-shirts are in his shopping cart. Abject failure- yes, we now have that in an Extra Large.
Somewhere between the Yankee anti commy haters of the right and the sycophantic myth makers to the left, lies the real truth behind Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and his aspirations to turn South America red with a twisted blend of poetry and butchery. To canonise and whitewash Guevara sets him on a pedestal that he neither deserved nor could live up to. In a celebrity obsessed world, does this matter? Well, it matters when the glare of the camera highlight the virtues of public figures but brushes the grubby aspects under a red carpet. If the gaze of time reflects as kindly on our own generation of world improvers, then the Bushes and Blair’s will have their litany of crimes pardoned, airbrushed out with the passing of time. Whatever your political hue, that is too high a price for any democracy to pay.
By all means enjoy the film, but as you munch your way through the popcorn, keep one thing in mind; even in widescreen, you aint getting the full picture.
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