[This review was published in the Spring 2007 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 109-111.]

 

Book Review 

 

The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty

Alvaro Vargas Llosa

The Independent Institute, 2006 

 

            Our article “China’s Maoist Legacy” in this issue discusses many of the fascinating features of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s recent book Mao: The Unknown Story.  It was intriguing in that context to come upon the Llosa book on the Che Guevara myth.  Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara each occupy a prominent position among the revolutionary “icons” who loomed so large in the twentieth century.  We are bound to wonder: How much were the two men alike?

            Llosa brings a lot to his study of Guevara.  Author of eleven books on Latin American conditions and social policy, and active both in print and television media, he is now a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute.  He has supplemented his extensive background with interviews with the likes of Jose Vilasuso, an attorney and professor, who immediately after Castro’s victory in Cuba was part (along with Guevara) of the “judicial” process that resulted in many executions; and Javier Arzuaga, “the Basque chaplain who gave comfort to those sentenced to die.”  It is a pity that this book doesn’t give us the full benefit of Llosa’s scholarship; the essay on Guevara is a mere 16 pages long and necessarily far less complete than the Chang-Halliday biography of Mao.  There are two other essays in the book that deal with conditions and politics (not good!) in Latin America and with the rudimentary flickerings of individuality and of markets (seen in the enormous “informal economy”).

            The Guevara essay points to at least three major similarities between Guevara and Mao:

            1.  Each man has been the subject of a gargantuan myth, building on a “cult of personality.”  In 1997 on the thirtieth anniversary of Guevara’s death, Llosa tells us, five biographies appeared; and Che’s famous visage in beard, mustache and beret has become “the quintessential capitalist brand,” seen on tank tops, coffee mugs, and “those omnipresent T-shirts.”  His is the figure of a dashing romantic—if we may, the Horst Wessel of the leftist world and of those who are complacent toward it.

            As with Mao, the myth consists almost entirely of fictions.  Far from being a successful revolutionary, Guevara organized guerrilla armies in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Haiti—only to see each of them crushed.  His Congo expedition in 1965 was a disaster that led to his ignominious withdrawal.  And he was defeated (and killed) in Bolivia.  Part of his reputation comes from his role in Castro’s overthrow of Batista in Cuba, but Llosa tells us that Batista’s army was hardly formidable: ”Batista’s army was not an army, but a corrupt bunch of thugs with no motivation and not much organization.”  Guevara’s “greatest military achievement [was the] taking [of] the city of Santa Clara after ambushing a train with heavy reinforcements.”  But facts belie his reputation here: “Numerous testimonies indicate that the commander of the train surrendered in advance, perhaps after taking bribes.”  (It is interesting that Mao, too, enjoyed his major military successes against Chiang Kai-shek largely because of the corruption and disloyalty of opposing generals.  This is not, of course, known to the Mao worshippers in China, since it isn’t consistent with the myth.)

            2.  Guevara was like Mao in his admiration for killing and his devotion to Lenin (and to the Soviet Union during the implacable Stalin era).  In 1967, he spoke of “hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine.”  Indeed, Guevara came to see Maoist China, not the post-Stalin Soviet Union (which he saw as too soft), as the exemplar.  After the conquest of Cuba, Che was made head of La Cabana prison and presided over the “appellate court” that rubber-stamped death sentences.  While he was in charge, at least 400 people were executed, although one of Guevara’s biographers puts the figure at 700.

            The similarity in regard to blood-thirstiness may end here, at least so far as we can tell from Llosa’s account.  An execution figure in the hundreds (augmented by those that came later, such as after the Bay of Pigs) is, of course, far less than the hundreds of thousands under Mao.  One of the central features of Mao’s life history is the slaughter and purging of vast numbers of his fellow Communists, and the killing of millions (through forced starvation and otherwise) in the general population.  Such things aren’t reflected in Llosa’s essay.

            3.  Both Mao and Guevara pressed a “puritan” strictness on the public; Llosa likens it in Guevara’s case to a Taliban-like “sharpie.”  At the same time, Guevara personally had “a bohemian spirit” (which Llosa doesn’t, however, flesh out with details); and Mao indulged himself in countless villas and in the company of an unending string of young women brought to his bed.

            There is, accordingly, much that is instructive in Llosa’s essay.  It will be especially worthwhile if at some future time he decides to emulate Chang and Halliday in rendering a much more exhaustive account of Guevara’s life.

                                                                                                                                                                                                  Dwight D. Murphey