Deflating the Che Cult

One of the most annoying elements of modern urban life is the ubiquity of that one image of Che Guevara, the man who set up the forced labor camps in Cuba and established murder as the foundation of Castro’s dictatorship. Paul Berman has done a nice job of showing what a sickening and brutal killer Che was in his review of The Motorcycle Diaries.

24 Responses to “Deflating the Che Cult”

  1. Michael Hardesty

    Paul Berman’s analysis of Che is very simplistic.
    Che was guilty of some of what Berman writes but in other respects he was also a liberator fighting against the brutal US hegemony in Latin America. And he was a real inspiration in his fight against the Batista dictatorship, which was brutal beyond belief, and the old feudal land system in Cuba and all of Latin America. Also in his battle against the fascistic Roman Catholic Church in Ciba and in his courageous opposition to the criminal US policy in Indochina and throughout all of what later became known as the third world. Paul Berman is not bothered by the millions of people killed or murdered by LBJ
    and Nixon and later the Iraqi blockade which
    killed at least two million people under both
    Bush criminals and Clinton.
    Berman has never been bothered by the Israeli
    dispossession of millions of Palestinian Arabs
    and the murder of hundreds of thousands of same,
    and long before the suicide bombers too.
    No criticsm of your excellent site is intended, Mr. Palmer, but frankly Berman’s tendentious, selective condemnation of atrocities fails to
    move me, the hypocrisy of anything this weasel
    writes only sickens me.

  2. Michael Hardesty

    I didn’t say that Che was beyond criticism, but
    that Berman’s was one-sided, selective and utterly
    tendentious. Che was a much better revolutionary
    than bureaucrat. I think it is legitimate to bring
    out the larger picture, so why doesn’t Berman
    denounce Sharon as a totalitarian murderer ?
    He’s killed many more people than Che and Castro
    combined over a much longer period of time, and
    no, Israel is not a “democracy” for its Arab
    citizens even within the Green Line and not
    at all in the occupied territories.
    That’s just one example. Could give the millions
    of people killed by US Presidents since WW1, even
    if the US is not yet totalitarian.
    I do have a nuanced opinion on Che, if that makes
    me equivocal, so be it. Though I am not equivocal
    on Berman’s work, even if he isn’t a totalitarian
    Frankly, I’m tired of rightwing arguments ad
    assertion and just blowing off the old moralisms,
    you want to talk about all the rightists’ regimes
    murders, I’ll list them at length. That doesn’t
    make me an apologist for left regimes.
    I need to emphasize that no criticism of this site
    is intended, and I deeply appreciate the opportunity Tom Palmer has given us to exercise our views.

  3. Nicholas Buccola

    As someone still roaming the halls of academia, I have been tempted many times to approach the youngsters who sport Che T-shirts to ask them why the feel the need to walk around with the face of that murderous thug on their chests. Who else wants to see some t-shirts with real freedom fighters on them like Frederick Douglass or Lysander Spooner?

  4. Well said, Michael. I believe I misinterpreted your criticsim. First, I will note that you and I have definitive disagreements on international political issues (i.e. the killings perpetrated by U.S. presidents). This, of course, leads to a great deal of bias on my part.

    Second, however, my response to your comment was primarily a response to a very false and unrealistic form of argument far too prevalent over the past four years. The argument goes something like this: “Sure _______(Dictator1) is bad, but___________(Dictator2) is worse; therefore we are hypocritical to do anything about Dictator1. This is foolish. There are very good reasons you might want to remove someone like Hussein before someone like Kim Jong Il that have nothing to do with the relative severity of their crimes against humanity. One may pose a more immediate threat. One may be easier to remove for practical strategic reasons(i.e. removing Stalin from power early last century might have caused a bit more trouble than removing Hussein, i.e. nuclear war). It is far from hypocritical to deal with the dictators and tyrrants you can while you can without starting at the worst. If I attack Che before I attack Sharon (rhetorically, as Berman did), perhaps it is because the time is ripe to attack Che, i.e. a movie documenting his life is out.

    If there was a movie out portraying Hitler as some kind of savior, you can rest assured that the Che movie would cause only whispers among the right. However, seeing as there is no movie romanticizing Sharon or Arafat, writing a cultural critique of Che over those two in the present circumstanc eis not only not hypocritical. It is perfectly prudent and right.

    I just wish I would stop hearing people dispel the criticism of lesser tyrants under the logic that greater tyrants were not mentioned first. You do what you can when you can.

  5. Greg Newburn


    I still proudly wear the shirt I got at Cato University a couple years ago, which reads, under a picture of Frederick Douglass, “I am your fellow man, but not your slave.”

    Great shirt.

  6. Michael Hardesty

    Thank you very much for your comments. We disagree
    but I definitely appreciate your feedback.
    It might take us a little far afield if I were to
    go into to all the reasons for my comments, I can
    give a lot of sources and not all of them are
    leftist. Some are libertarian, some are more
    establishment. It does bother me a bit that at
    this late date people don’t realize the incredible
    number of mass murders done by US Presidents, just
    since Wilson alone, though McKinley had very bloody hands in the Philippines. Bush killed at
    least as many civilians in Afghanistan as Al Queda
    did on 9-11 here. And everything he said about
    Iraq was a flatout lie from the nonexistent Al Queda connection to Saddam as a threat to other
    countries in the region (much less the USA)to
    the WMD’s to at least 50% of the questionable
    atrocity stories. When Saddam Hussein was committing his worst atrocities in the 80s it was
    as a US ally in his attack on Iraq, backed by
    Carter and Reagan, nor did Saddam’s liquidation
    of the Communists and the Left give Reagan or
    Bush or Carter any pause. In the case of Sharon
    we can actually do something since we foot the bill. It’s the will that is missing.
    Nicholas, no one’s heard of Spooner outside
    very narrow libertarian circles. Douglass was
    accused of advocating violence himself though
    in a good cause. Che had a thuggish aspect but
    that was not the whole of his life or character.
    Life is more complicated than the Randians AND
    Rothbardians make it out to be. I will critically
    evaluate everything from all sources.
    Thanks to all for their feedback. We may agree
    to disagree but it’s a worthwhile discussion as
    well as a good intellectual exercise.

  7. Tom G. Palmer

    I’ve read through the comments above and I appreciate the dialogue, but I’ve got to say that I’m unconvinced by Mr. Hardesty that, because Ariel Sharon is arguably responsible for war crimes (the murders at the camps of Sabra and Shatila come to mind), it follows that Che was an inspiration. (And by the way, I rarely see people wearing Ariel Sharon t-shirts.)

    Pol Pot also fought against the unfair land holdings in Cambodia; his goal, as we learned, was to replace them with a much, much worse system that resulted in at least a million killings. Does the fact that what he opposed was unjust make him an inspiration?

    Che was a cold blooded murderer who died invading a foreign country. The regime he fastened on the Cuban people has killed tens of thousands of political prisoners, imprisoned many thousand more (including children; read some of the Cuban prison memoirs, such as Armando Valladares’ “Against All Hope”), impoverished a nation and then openly pimped its young girls to wealthy Europeans, forced thousands to take to the sea to escape under terrible conditions and, on a variety of occasions, sent armed ships to ram their rickety rafts and drown them and air force planes to strafe them. It’s true that “Che had a thuggish aspect but that was not the whole of his life or character.” So what? “Mussolini also had a thuggish aspect but that was not the whole of his life or character.” Take any murdering bastard and you could write that. That’s a remarkably weak apology for a life that was dripping in the blood of innocents.

    Had that one photographer not caught that one photograph on one day, nobody would remember the vicious thug whose picture is on t-shirts and posters the world over.

  8. Michael Hardesty

    To respond to Tom Palmer’s comments above.
    First, there haven’t been tens of thousands of
    political prisoners in Cuba, much less tens of
    thousands of same killed. We can all agree that
    one political prisoner is one too many and one
    death is one too many.
    Second, to simply repeat George Bush’s nonsense
    that Castro is promoting prostitution in Cuba
    comes with ill grace from anyone in the USA
    which has enforced an illegal economic blockade
    for over 43 years that has cost far more lives
    than Castro’s firing squads. Castro in fact
    stamped out prostitution as one of the first
    acts of the Revolution. Now we can disagree
    with this from a libertarian viewpoint but Cuba
    has had far less prostitution and child poverty
    than any other Latin American country and less
    begging than same, not to mention the USA.
    There was no prostitution at all during the
    period of the Cold War and only since the partial
    reinstatement of capitalist practices in Cuba
    since 1990 has there been a partial resurgence
    of same. The customers are western tourists, including Americans, which says something about
    our culture.
    Che dripping in the blood of innocents ?
    Compared to LBJ & Nixon with 3 to 4 MILLION
    victims in Indochina, FDR & Truman with millions
    of civilian war victims from Dresden to Hiroshima,
    Bush 1, Bush 2 and Clinton with probably two million economic blockade victims in Iraq, not to mention tens of thousands of unnecessary war victims due to Bush’s lying war, Ford & Kissinger
    with 200,000 victims of the US sponsored Indonesian invasion of East Timor (THE ANALOGOUS
    A THIRD OF OUR POPULATION), Clinton for Kosovo
    War (turns the Serbs were the ones ehtnically
    cleansed), Reagan for the tens of thousands
    killed by US bought & paid for El Salvadorean Junta, (Carter too), Reagan for brutal Contra
    terrorist war which killed 50,000 in Nicaragua
    alone, which war PAUL BERMAN WAS A LEADING
    APOLOGIST FOR, and the Kennedy brothers for
    setting military dictatorships throughout Latin
    America to fight insurgencies including the NAZI
    like Guatemala regime, which killed 250,000 of
    its own citizens since 1954 and whose brutal US
    sponsored coup in 1954 was what started Che on
    his revolutionary road, no compared to all these
    TO HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS OVER THE LAST 40 YEARS. Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia,
    Colombia, Paraguay, Guatemala, El Salvador,
    Haiti, Dominican Republic and Mexico have been
    worse, in some cases far worse.
    I’m all for universality, not one ahistorical
    one-sided moralistic tirades that pander to
    widely held prejudices.
    As far as Che invading Bolivia to help those
    poor stone age Indians against the brutal
    fascist government, I say what I said to the
    chief counsel of HUAC when he told me in 1962
    that Communists were agitating disenfranchised
    blacks down south, I said, Well, I’m glad somebody is ! and I’m no more a blackophile
    than I agree with many policies of the Castro
    government. Che inspired people because he was
    a fighter against the RC Church, the large landholders, the vicious US Govt’s Latin
    American imperialism and more. Many of the
    800 people executed in those post-1959 show
    trials were vicious Batista poilice officials.
    I noticed that when the Nicaraguan govt abolished
    the death penalty in the face of a vicious
    US sponsored Contra terrorist insurgency, they
    got no credit from the Paul Bermans of the world.
    Sorry for the length of this but I’m happy to go
    to the mat with anyone on this subject. The Lew
    Rockwell site had something almost as one-sidedly
    stupid as Berman’s comments from a UK paper but
    at least Tom Palmer is gracious enough to have
    a reader response forum unlike the fascists at
    No one will ever consider Ariel Sharon or George
    Bush a hero, so you will be spared their t-shirts.
    Finally, considering all the non-Che atrocities listed above that are routinely excused by conservative & some libertarian & Randian apologists as acts of wartime, Cuba has been under
    a US war since 1961. Considering the USA invasions of Haiti, Nicaragua, Grenada, Dominican
    Republic, Mexico, etc., characterizing Che as
    invading Bolivia is high comedy (or is that low
    comedy ?)
    Guys, you need to put down your branding irons
    and start applying principles universally.
    I have absolutely no problem responding to the utterly hypocritical, one-sided, intellectually
    dishonest tirades of the Paul Bermans of the
    this world.
    Thank you, Tom Palmer, for calling this intellectual atrocity to our attention.
    Keep up your good work.

  9. What “economic blockade”?

    Mr. Hardesty cannot even tell the difference between a blockade and an embargo, so I’m not surprised by his other comments.

    Che was a brutal murderer and the cult built around him is a very sad (and dangerous) phenomenon indeed.

  10. Michael Hardesty

    Triple A misses the point, perhaps on purpose.
    Che was not a brutal murderer compared to the
    many others that I mentioned at length. If he
    was a murderer his murders were no more brutal
    and arguably less than the many others I mentioned,including several US Presidents and
    most other Latin American states.
    A blockade is just as immoral and illegal under
    international law so Triple A’s point here, if
    any, is a venture in triviality.

  11. I saw the movie last night and the political message was much more subdued than I was expecting. It’s the story of a young man traveling around South America who sees several injustices that begin to change his opinion of the world. Unfortunately, the movie ends with him announcing that, yes, the trip and changed him… but leaves it up to the viewer to figure out how exactly. The ending does have a brief synopsis of his life that mentions he was a revolutionary that helped Castro overthrow Batista and that he was eventually arrested and killed with the help of the CIA. Obviously, there is no mention of labor camps or murder that Palmer and Berman bring up.

    My question is: Can anyone recommend a biography on Che that does not glorify him but “tells it like it is” so to speak? I’ve got The Black Book of Communism which has a good page and a half on him but I was looking for something with a little more substance. Thanks…

  12. I am appauled by some comments about CHe. He certainly wasn’t an angel but compared to other right wing gvt, he wasn’t the worst. So between the two, I would chose Che. Berman and Palmer have such a one-sided view that it is sickening. They should try to read a more ‘objective’ literature and than write about it. I am not a supporter of Che, but just by reading these articles, I get a sense that they are not portraying Che in an objective light. As for Michael Hardesty, he made a good point regarding LA and how it was distroyed by the gvt instaured by the US. I studied history and read many books on it. Berman does not mention any of this. What i hope is that this discussion will enlighten those who wish to know a little bit more about Che than what Berman had to say.

  13. Michael Hardesty

    Thanks, Alex, for your most welcome comments.
    Peter, there is one biography of Che by Jon Lee
    Anderson that is not hagiography or a smear.
    I’m sure there are others but I’m spacing on
    the authors at the moment.
    Read The Black Book very critically, the stuff
    therein on Nicaragua was simply a joke. They
    may have other areas than Latin America analyzed
    more accurately.
    Noam Chomsky, of all people, just uncritically
    accepts their “100 million” figure !
    Of course, the good Professor tells us that a
    Black Book of Capitalism is being published in
    Germany that will give “500 million” victims
    of capitalism ! Well, there are lies and statistics………………

  14. Adolfo Centeno

    The truth is that the reason people wear “Che” t-shirts, is not beacuse they glorify che, but rather because they defy the imperialistic history of the U.S. The U.S had no reason to implement “Good neighbor policy” or “Dollar diplomacy” it just was not the government’s business to do so. The u.s by trying to force capitalistic-democracy down the throat of latin america, opened the way for brutal dictatorships and juntas. How ironic. PINOCHET anybody? Salvador allende was democratically elected, even though he was a socialist the u.s and its ubiquitous red scare overthrew him, and what happens to democracy? Oh, it does not exist. instead chile gets the junta under pinochet and as a result the desaparecidos, and mass murders.This history of “thug killers” exists in the u.s. Does andrew jackson ring a bell? Trail of tears, near genocide of native americans? Bush and thousand of innocent iraqi civilians dead,is this really liberating iraq? I would have to disagree. Again the reason why i wear my che shirt, my emiliano zapato shirt, and my ezln subcomandante marcos shirt is, i despise the imperialistic notion that the consumes the u.s. And the Motorcycle diaries” did not brainwash me, as a college student, i already had these preconceived notions, and the movie did not enhance these or hinder them. But it was a good movie.

  15. Tom G. Palmer

    I wonder if every person wearing a Che shirt or drinking out of a Che mug or wearing Che underwear shares Mr. Centeno’s views. Somehow, I doubt it.

    Let me make a serious point: although I also oppose(d) U.S. interventionism in Latin America (an unjustified set of activities the effects of which have, however, been greatly exaggerated as an excuse for the failures of Latin American politics generally, which inherited Spanish traditions of latifundia, rather than British traditions of property), I wonder if the same could be written of others who opposed U.S. interventionism, such as Mussolini and Hitler, who also claimed to be defending their own “authentic” institutions against U.S. (and British) style democracy. My point is that you can oppose interventionism without lionizing the hateful thugs and murderers against whom it is excercised, e.g., Hitler, Castro, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and yes, Che, the architect of Cuba’s secret police who personally ordered and supervised the execution of people who dared to utter criticism of him and Fidel.

  16. Adolfo Centeno

    Mr. Palmer,let us not hide that the U.S is in fact the “thug” of the world. In other words, if we wear shirts with the U.S flag on them, are we not therefore wearing an article of clothing which advocates U.S supremacy worldwide? Don’t get me wrong though,I’m not anti U.S, but i do believe that the U.S presently and in the past has acted as the thug of the world.As you yourself have said that you were against U.S interventionism, then it is blatently obvious that you also would agree that wearing shirts with an american motif on them is advocating the U.S thug. It could be argued that by wearing such shirt, one is just conveying one’s sense of patriotism for one’s nation, but the same could be said of people wearing a che shirt for example. You argue that you can defy interviontionism without lionizing a thug such as Hitler, Pol Pot etc.,but you have to realize that the U.S has done the same thing, though i would agree that probably on a smaller scale. some examples are The near genocide of the native american people,the u.s dropping the atomic bomb killing 200,000+ people(defending its views),cia killing important figures in Latin America,forcing democracy down every nations throat, the so calles liberation of iraq, even though approx 12000 innocent iraqis have died(liberation or massacre?),going to war on false premises, guantanamo bay, ignoring geneva convention policies, and the list goes on and on.But the point I’m trying to make, is that every person considered a thug by U.S “standards” could quite possibly be a distorted creep, but the truth is that not all of these so called thugs have such a history, and the U.S has matched most of the horrendous acts that such thugs commit, but a nation controlled by the media, which is in turn controlled by the government cannot possibly relay this message.Oh, and you talked about the secret police, but does the patriot act ring a bell? And the right to dissent does not exist in America, at least not in Bush’s agenda. One can go out and protest, but even if one is peacefully protesting law enforcement will remove you, and failure to do so results in a citation for “Failure to Obey a lwful order”. A lawful order to impede dissent that is.

  17. Tom G. Palmer

    Interesting points, all, except for that of Andrew Thomas. He may be unaware of it, but I get many dozens of ads posted on my site every day for drugs, dieting pills, and porno sites. I like to be able to keep them off my site. I also take down the occasional comment that is disgustingly obscene, hatefully abusive, or vile. Other than such cases, I’m interested in what other people think, and many of the posts manifestly don’t agree with my views (indicating that Mr. Thomas might reconsider his post). I should add, of course, that I have no obligation to publish the views of other people. I invite them.

  18. sara Rivera

    Let me tell u something, Che was a good man and I know this from experience! My name is Sara Rivera I live in Miami with my daughter and my granddaughter. I have no idea who you are talking about but the Che I remembered saved me and my family from Batista’s gangsters. My Father was killed when I was 8 just for thinking different.
    My mother and I had no wear to live nothing to eat one day when we were walking back from knocking down coconuts Batista’s gangsters grabbed me and my mother they took us into a sugar cane field were they proceeded to tear of her clothes and rape her while two others held on to me and made me watch. I was next! I screamed with all my heart and a truck pulled up I thought they were more gangster I thought I was dead but it wasn’t four of che’s men ran up and hit those pigs over their heads. Then Che himself brought over blankets to cover my mother with. Che was going to leave those Bastards their but my mother being the rageful woman that she was took the gun from Che and proceeded to shoot each man in the head. Che covered my eyes. On the back of the truck back to his camp my mother told me something I would never forget! “People one day will kill this man and drag his name through the mud but you remember today because it’s about what this man did for you today”. What happened to us after is not for me to say but let’s put it this way I became one of the youngest revolutionist in my campo and have never looked back since. So you may know the facts. But I knew the man! And I would stand up for him till the day I die! VIVA EL CHE!

  19. Tom G. Palmer

    Um, “Sara,” you “live in Miami….” Che fastened a police state on Cuba and subjected many thousands of people to the treatment you allege to have happened to you. (Don’t take my word for it; there are thousands of credible eye witnesses.) Could that be why you are writing from Miami, and not from Havana?

  20. I think Che Guevara’s actions, like all historical events, have to be placed in the context in which they occurred. In coming to power, Castro overthrew the tyrannical, gangster-ridden regime of Fulgencio Batista. He immediately appointed Che Guevara (who had secretly become a member of Cuba’s communist party, the PSP, during the revolution) as commandant of the La Cabana military fortress near Havana. In that capacity, Guevara oversaw the executions (after trial) of several hundred of Batista’s closest supporters. He did not himself conduct the trials or impose the sentences, though he reviewed the record of each case and sometimes recommended leniency. It is as unjust to blame Guevara for the executions as it would be to blame the warden of San Quentin for the executions that take place there. The truth is that the executions had the support of the vast majority of Cubans–communists and non-communists alike–at the time. It should also be noted that most of the sentences passed at La Cabana did not involve the death penalty.

    Concerning Guevara’s “pro-Sovietism”: It would have been impossible for any Cuban regime to dispossess the American firms that controlled the island’s economy without protection from abroad. There was only one country willing and able to provide such protection, and that was the Soviet Union. Guevara recognised this fact, and favoured a close alliance between Cuba and the U.S.S.R. But he also spoke out strongly against the Soviets at the Second Economic Seminar in Algiers in 1965–an act of courage that probably started the chain of events which ultimately led to his death in Bolivia.

    As President of the National Bank and Minister of Industry, Che was part of a regime that led Cuba down the road to totalitarianism. But hindsight is always 20-20. There were tremendous injustices in Cuban society that needed to be corrected, and it must have seemed to Guevara that only the strongest measures would suffice to change the situation. He was wrong in his approach–but he can perhaps be forgiven for feeling as he did. The U.S. almost totally controlled Cuba for 60 years, and did absolutely nothing to correct those injustices. Instead, it had supported the Batista tyranny, just as it supported right-wing tyrants throughout Latin America.

    I believe that history should judge Che Guevara as a flawed human being, who failed in his quest to liberate the people of Cuba (and other parts of Latin America). But it should also credit the nobility of his passionate (though ill-conceived) sense of justice.