COMMENT: by Raymond WatsonNews Weekly
Castro's legacy: the New Left
, January 31, 2004
Look it up in an old dictionary, and you'll find the word 'icon' defined as "a representation in the form of painting, low-relief sculpture or mosaic of Christ, the Virgin Mary or a saint, and held as an object of veneration in the Eastern Church". Look it up in a modern dictionary and you'll find two new meanings, one, a computer symbol, the other, "a word for a well-known person regarded as a cult figure".
While not a Christian, I can't help sympathising with the Church over the virtual disappearance of the term's original religious meaning, and its transformation into a buzz word by a media seemingly addicted to clichés.
"A great career move," pronounced some cynical American pop music journalist, who noted that Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the 1960s psychedelic rock band, The Doors, had become an icon, with sales of his records and posters of his image skyrocketing after
I'm not the first person to comment on the fact that the world of pop music seems to prefer its icons to become "martyrs" at the very height of their careers, but in a political equivalent of the phenomenon, the Left has similarly elevated Ernesto 'Che' Guevara to the pantheon of revolutionary martyrs.
Though he died 36 years ago, Che lives on, his image emblazoned on banners, posters and t-shirts, and his writings have never been out of print. Indeed, the "Che industry" is an important money-maker for the teetering Cuban economy, which needs all the help it can get.
In these pages ("Stalin's heirs live on...In Australia", News Weekly,
September 10, 2002), I wrote:
"While anti-communists may have convinced themselves that Marxism-Leninism is 'finished', Marxists are convincing themselves that the defeated Marxist regimes just 'screwed it up' or 'misapplied the ideology', and, after licking their wounds, are preparing for the next round of revolution, this time determined to 'get it right.' Maybe 'armchair anti-communists' should get out on the street more?
"Melbourne and Sydney streets are dotted with young communist newspaper sellers who have reinvented themselves as 'Green Left', or 'International Socialists', wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, conjuring up the spirit of their teachers' or parents' radical Sixties revolutionism."
It was ironical that the editor chose a photo of the "iconic" Che Guevara as one of the images illustrating my article. This is not
a criticism. This is simply an example of the powerful imagery of this revolutionary icon. In fact, the communist Cuban regime, conscious of the persistence of the Catholic faith among the populace, have placed hundreds of images of Che on buildings and hoardings, many of them doctored with subtle hints of a halo around his head, to infer a comparison of the "revolutionary martyr" with the martyred Messiah.Some unfortunate facts about Cuba
"In one of his legendary two hour-long tirades commemorating the 1959 Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro launched a blistering attack on the European Union for criticising his human rights record. He promised the long-suffering (and probably less than impressed) Cuban people that he would 'retaliate' by refusing to accept the EU's offer of humanitarian aid. That'll show 'em, Comrade!" - Casa del Troppo Home Journal
, September 2003.
"The only thing preventing mass poverty in Cuba are remittances from the despised 1.2 million Cuban exiles living in the USA, investors and tourists from the EU, and Castro's unheralded decision ten years ago to legalise the use of his arch-enemy's currency, the US dollar. In Cuba today, to have a family in Miami is more useful than to have a Communist Party card." - The Economist
, August 2, 2003.
"Cuba is conducting one of the worst crackdowns of its political dissidents in memory. More than 80 pro-democracy activists and writers were rounded up and tried for subversion. They received jail sentences of up to 28 years. Three black Cubans who had stolen a boat to try to escape to Florida were executed by firing squad." - The Age
, May 5, 2003.
"... In the mid-1970s, secret negotiations led by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger came close to ending the sanctions [against Cuba] for good. President Jimmy Carter followed by opening a legation in Havana to speed the return to normal relations. Unfortunately, whenever a deal comes close to threatening Castro's grip on power, he commits a human rights outrage which causes Americans to call the whole thing off and he limps on a little longer." - The Times
, April 21, 2003.
"Cuba's Fidel Castro, who recently imprisoned scores of political dissidents and attacked the EU for criticising his human rights abuses, has refused to allow delegates from the UN Human Rights Commission to visit Cuba." - AFP
, September 29, 2003.
"Ruthless suppression of dissent was top of the list of the excesses of the country Joan Smith sarcastically dubbed 'plucky little Cuba.' The chairwoman of the English PEN 'writers in prison committee' also complained that it 'drastically curtails access to the Internet, gaols opponents for 20 years, and executes convicted criminals by firing squad.' Among the dissidents rounded up in a crackdown in March was economist Marta Beatriz Roque, who scored a 20-year term and lost 13.6 kg from vomiting and diarrhoea since April. Another was writer Manuel Vazquez Portal, serving 18 years, who would have starved had his family not brought him milk.
"Smith deplored the fact that a country with the potential to be one of the Caribbean's most prosperous had been 'condemned to remain a crumbling backwater, even if it does have a fine health service.' Human rights should not be 'something governments get around to once they have achieved vaccination targets.' Should Cubans go on being denied the freedoms of democracy 'just because outsiders have a foolish tendresse
for their elderly dictator'?" - Independent on Sunday
, September 21, 2003.
"In Paris, a galaxy of left-wing writers and artists attended a rally in protest at Fidel Castro's repression of dissidents." - The Economist
, October 4. 2003.The revolutionary exploits of Che
Writing in the UK Spectator's
'City and Suburban' column, it was a "revelatory discovery" for economics columnist Christopher Fildes that the iconic Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara was once the Governor of the Central Bank of Cuba. Yes, he was, for a short time. After the victory of Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, Che's first job was organising the executions of "counter-revolutionaries", a task he carried out with ruthless efficiency. However, there being far more "counter-revolutionaries" than he had imagined, he eventually tired of the job and asked Fidel for something else. Being one of the few Fidelistas
from the professions (he was a Doctor of Medicine), Fidel made Che the governor of the People's Bank, "naturally enough".
Sir Kit McMahon, former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, who has "long enjoyed the fact that that Che was a fellow member of the central banking fraternity", offers this scenario: "Seated around the camp fire in the mountains, with Havana about to capitulate, Castro and his comrades were sorting out portfolios. Castro realised he hadn't filled the post of governor of the central bank and asked the group, 'Is anyone here an economist ?' Che thought Fidel had said 'communist' and put up his hand."
Discovering that he was better at shooting people than applying Marxism to banking, he took off to Bolivia to help "liberate" the peasants - some of whom showed their gratitude by betraying him to government soldiers, who captured and executed him.
Che once said that "a revolutionary is moved by great feelings of love". I doubt that he uttered this while commanding the firing squads in Havana. I think he said it while eliminating real or imagined informers in Bolivia, a tactic that led to his denunciation by the very peasants he'd set out to "liberate". It's all there in his Bolivian Diaries.
According to The Age
Good Weekend's panegyric, Che was not particularly committed to the Cuban revolution per se,
but to any and every insurgency that contributed to the "destabilisation of the capitalist order". He had already offered his services to the left-wing Arbenz regime in Guatemala in 1954.
After playing out his role in the Cuban revolution, and tiring of the firing squads, he next took off to far away Congo in Africa, siding with one faction in the tribal-based opposition to the central government. Tiring of this, and apparently caring little for the aftermath, he returned to Central America where he plotted his next 'intervention', in Bolivia ... Where he met his fate.
The simple fact is that Che was executed by Bolivian soldiers who captured him thanks to betrayal by Bolivian peasants who, no matter how oppressed he deemed them to be, felt that this interloper had no business barging into their country and instigating a communist revolution.
Finally, for all the talk of The Age's
Good Weekend about his 'idealism', the article makes the point that when Che first landed with Castro in Cuba in 1956, his role was as a medic, but in a moment dramatised by a diary entry he wrote in 1957, Che was "confronted with the dilemma of dedicating myself to medicine or my duty as a revolutionary soldier. I had in front of me a rucksack full of medicine and an ammunition case, the two weighed too much to carry together. I took the ammunition and left the rucksack behind."
Che was not a "revolutionary idealist", he was simply a fervent revolutionary, and like all good revolutionaries, his preoccupation was the revolution itself, not the people in the revolution, who were for him, mere instruments of the revolution.
Their humanity meant little to him. As for the victims of his firing squads in Havana or the "informers" in Bolivia, he believed that, as opponents of his revolution, they deserved only death. Though hardly a mass-murderer on the scale of Stalin or a Mao, this macho murderer does not deserve his "iconic" status.
As for comparing him to a "secular Jesus", you don't have to be a Christian to find the comparison highly insulting to the memory of a martyr who, whatever else he did or didn't do, never preached violence nor took up arms in his cause - and very definitely did not execute his enemies!