Jean-Paul Sartre called him the era’s most perfect man. The students of 1968 used his name as the watchword for their revolution. He was Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the communist revolutionary who was executed 40 years ago by CIA-led Bolivian rangers after trying to start another Vietnam in South America. Since he died, his image has endured as a symbol of proud idealism and youthful rebellion. Today, Che’s example is extolled by leftist governments throughout Latin America, and his famous photograph by Alexander Korda is constantly being reproduced and worn by college students, rock stars, and runway models.
The enduring popularity of this Argentine vagabond and Marxist true believer remains an enigma. Why was Che considered a great guerrilla fighter despite bungling most of his campaigns? (He botched his last adventure in Bolivia from start to finish.) Perhaps the very ineptitude of Che has helped his image: The beautiful loser is prominent in Latin iconography. He joins the child heroes of Chapultapec and José Martí on his white charger in the Pantheon of Noble Failure.
Humberto Fontova, in Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him, has pitilessly boiled Che down to his essence: a committed totalitarian—he sometimes signed his correspondence “Stalin II”—who organized and led Fidel Castro’s oppressive apparatus and headed his efforts to export revolution. The Cuban revolution drove out Fontova’s family when he was seven, but just before the family left, Che’s revolutionary militia ordered Fontova’s father detained. The family, after agonized protests, departed for the United States without him. Months later, Fontova’s father made it to the land of the free. Thousands of other Cubans were not so lucky.
Fontova’s slim volume corrects the story set out by Che’s contemporary biographers, such as former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge G. Castañeda and journalist Jon Lee Anderson, who, despite their impressive research, remain star-struck by their idol. Setting the tone for his 1997 biography, Anderson notes with pride that his daughter pledged with the other tots in her Cuban preschool, “We will be like Che!”
Let’s hope they don’t grow up to be like the real Che. His taking over a sovereign country was akin to a teenager breaking into the liquor cabinet. In The Losers, a reliable firsthand account of the Cuban revolution, Paul Bethel reports the story that Fidel asked his followers who was an economist. Che raised his hand. “Okay, as our economist, you’ll head the central bank.” Che responded, “Economist? I thought you said communist.” Nevertheless, Che took the reins, signing the currency simply “Che” and helping to ruin the Cuban economy.
Fiddling with the economy was bad enough, but Che did most of his damage by establishing Cuba’s police state and wiping out the revolution’s enemies. Biographers such as Castañeda gloss over this period, justifying Che’s executions as consistent with the brave sacrifice he made for his own beliefs. But Fontova argues that Che bears the responsibility for the estimated 14,000 executions that occurred in Cuba during the early 1960’s. “Of course we execute,” Che proclaimed proudly to the United Nations. In fact, he sometimes delivered the coup de grâce himself.
Not that Che was too handy with a gun. During the Bay of Pigs Invasion—which Che and his forces missed because a CIA decoy fooled them—Che shot himself by mishandling his own pistol. The facial scar is still visible in later photos. Nor did Che distinguish himself in other encounters with foreign foes. In one of the book’s best sections, Fontova relates how Che’s glory-seeking expeditionary force to the Congo took a beating from the legendary Mad Mike Hoare’s mercenaries, whose Cuban exile fighter pilots merrily strafed their communist countrymen.
Throughout his hard-punching book, Fontova skewers academics and others who reconfigure Che with contemporary virtues and invoke Che’s name on behalf of liberation movements. Fontova relates how Che had shocked his fellow revolutionaries, then training in Mexico, by backing Moscow’s suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Che likewise cared little for democracy. After the revolution succeeded in Cuba, journalist Nat Hentoff met with Che and respectfully asked when elections would be held. Che jumped ahead of the translation. “In Cuba?” he laughed.
Contrary to his public image, Che was no revolutionary ascetic. Like other rebel leaders, he confiscated a grand mansion in Havana. Che often indulged in love affairs even on campaign, while his troops suffered deprivations. And the haughty Argentine was no fan of the common man; he often bragged he was descended from the last Spanish viceroy. In short, Fontova spares Che nothing. He even questions whether Che had earned his medical degree in Argentina; the records are apparently murky.
Fontova believes that Che’s role in the Cuban revolution was exaggerated. A timely bribe offered by Castro to Batista’s local barracks commander probably facilitated Che’s triumphal capture of Santa Clara in the course of that uprising. Nevertheless, Che drew bold conclusions from his revolutionary experience; he penned a theory on guerrilla war, emphasizing that no preconditions for revolution were necessary—with proper leadership and dedication, it could be engendered anywhere. And he helped establish the notorious International Department of the Cuban Communist Party to test his theory throughout Latin America. Other revolutionaries who followed Che’s theories would learn to their dismay how unworkable they were. Cuba’s Soviet handlers, who knew this, saw Che as a foolhardy adventurer.
(Recently, it was reported that some Al Qaeda fighters were studying Che’s treatise on guerrilla warfare. The U.S. military should airdrop thousands of copies of that document over Iraq and Afghanistan. Assuming the insurgents adopt Che’s strategy, we should wipe them out in short order.)
Accounts of Che’s capture and execution vary, but most acknowledge that the 1967 expedition to Bolivia was poorly planned and led. Convinced of his own prowess, Che didn’t bother to learn what language the indigenous population spoke. He divided his force in the face of the enemy, and the two columns soon lost contact. The local communist party, Moscow-run, did nothing to help him. All the while, Che fought off incapacitating asthma attacks.
Winged during a firefight, Che gave himself up. Sympathetic versions often omit the first words he spoke to the Bolivian rangers: “I am the Che. I’m worth more to you alive than dead!” Fontova depends on the testimony of Felix Rodriguez, a CIA officer who helped lead the Bolivians to Che’s small force. According to this account, Che clearly believed he would be put on trial, which would give him an international platform. Despite Rodriguez’s pleading that killing Che would be a mistake, the Bolivian president ordered his execution. Thus, a martyr was made.
As they do with Gandhi or Lincoln, some people grant Che Guevara contemporary sensibilities that little resemble the real man. Unlike the other two, however, Che’s cult status may never gain official respectability. Commenting on a movie about the early Che, The Motorcycle Diaries, leftist author Paul Berman excoriated the man and his legend, declaring that he was a murderous thug whose real legacy is authoritarian Cuba. Che, Berman concludes, has nothing good to teach this generation. Still, he makes for a cool T-shirt.
[Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him, by Humberto Fontova (New York: Sentinel) 256 pp., $23.95]