While it happens fairly frequently, I am always surprised when I see someone wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. I've seen them in far-flung places abroad, and in unassuming coffee shops at home, but these sightings never cease to amaze me. For years, it has bewildered me that Guevara has garnered a seemingly growing number of admirers around the world who see his visage as a romantic and idealistic portrait of justice.
Films such as Motorcycle Diaries and Steven Soderberg’s Che — in which Guevara is played by Gael García Bernal and Benicio del Toro, respectively — have aided in perpetuating the myth among new, misinformed audiences. Unfortunately, branded merchandise and the allure of Hollywood (capitalistic forces, ironically) have made Guevara a compelling figure. We seem intent on ignoring how inglorious Guevara truly was, how many societies he fractured, the tyranny he perpetuated, and, most importantly, the many people that died under his command.
He was much more than a Robin Hood tragically killed by the CIA. Guevara was a seeker of power who convinced the world that he was a successful warrior and a visionary philosopher, when I believe he was neither.
Guevara may have had a genuine interested in and concern about poverty and the human condition when he was younger. It is also probably true that he was, for a time, a compassionate and thoughtful young man saddened by the inequality he witnessed in Latin America. But it is also true that his ideals later became corrupted by power, guerrilla tactics, and murderous rage.
This is a man who declared at a United Nations General Assembly in 1964 that executions were necessary and would continue in Cuba.
This is a man who confessed to admiring only three nations: the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and North Korea. He famously stated that he could find not one discrepancy between Mao Zedong’s view of the world and his own.
This is the man who was rumored to have schemed with the Black Liberation Army to blow up the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, and the Liberty Bell. Not only was he extreme, but also he ridiculed and often punished any kind of moderation. He created a zero-sum between capitalism and Chin communism. Those around him who expressed moderate, intermediate positions such as democracy or a mixed economy were chastised and actively criticized as inferior.
This is the man who, in 1961, declared his mission to "make individualism disappear" and who unraveled a toolkit of command and control tactics and repressive methods to persecute those he deemed as individualists and dissenters. He actively persecuted homosexuals, sending some to internment camps where they were joined by other dissenters. Artists were also a chief target. In Cuba, many saw their books and works burned before being executed at Guevara’s behest.
This is a man who assumed the role of sole jury and executioner under Fidel Castro’s regime. Over the months he was in charge of La Cabana prison in Cuba, Guevara sentenced hundreds of people without proper trials or due process. This is the same man who personally executed a teenager for attempting to defend his father in front of a firing squad, as documented by La Cabana survivors.
Ever the fanatic, Guevara advocated for the Soviet Union to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, assuming the U.S. would not tolerate such actions in its own backyard. The possibility of nuclear retaliation did not deter Guevara, claiming the population of Cuba would feel fulfilled if they were wiped out in the name of the revolution.
This is a man whose every guerrilla campaign ended in failure and the sacrifice of hundreds of lives, behind an inglorious vision.
In the face of all of this, I have often wondered if the people wearing Guevara t-shirts would not have been victims of his purges themselves. Free-thinkers, lovers of equality, seekers of a more just democracy — all of them would have been his targets. Instead, Guevara’s death at a young age, a handful of iconic portraits, and a persistent appeal to romantic rebellion have turned Guevara into a saintly symbol, bereft of the blood and sin that typically characterized his life.