Had Che Guevara not been executed by Bolivians in 1967, he may well be celebrating his 77th birthday this week. Or he may have endured a bloody death at the hands of other enemies. Had he lived, Western college students almost certainly would not be walking around campus mindlessly displaying his likeness on flaming red T-shirts. A dead martyr is much easier to lionize than a living dictator.
Though he died nearly 40 years ago, Guevara is still sparking controversy. Rolling Stone magazine reported last week that guitar legend Carlos Santana was protested at his June 1 Miami concert. The reason? He performed while wearing a Che T-shirt at the Academy Awards. Cuban exiles, one of Guevara’s legacies, were none too happy about that.
Santana’s lame apology to the Miami residents who fled the terror state Guevara helped create illustrates the contortions Guevara’s fans have to undergo to defend their idolization. “[The shirt] was worn to honor the soulful young man portrayed in The Motorcycle Diaries and had a profound political epiphany during a journey across South America,” Santana said in a statement. “It was not meant to be an endorsement about a man who helped to establish the Castro dictatorship in Cuba.”
Revering a man who had split so many skulls requires the splitting of hairs. Without such compartmentalizing it would be impossible for those who call the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay a “gulag” to continue idolizing the man who helped create Cuba’s real gulags — the labor camps Fidel Castro used to detain, and worse, his political enemies.
That Guevara, a mass murderer and totalitarian, has generated such reverence and idolatry among the left while real heroes of democratic revolution toil in obscurity is one of the clear signs that the left wing in America still hasn’t let go of its deeply felt sympathy with Communism.
Cuban dissident Gustavo Arcos Bergnes is 78, which makes him a contemporary of Castro and Guevara. A founding member of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, Bergnes was wounded fighting with Castro during the revolution of 1959. He was Castro’s ambassador to Belgium, but he was imprisoned after he questioned the dictator’s increasing grip on power. No Western college students bear his face on their chests.
The organizers of last month’s pro-democracy rally — Felix Bonne, Marta Beatriz Roque and Rene Gomez Manzano — are not the subject of fawning Hollywood films, though they have all been imprisoned for promoting democratic revolution in Cuba. A slogan chanted at last month’s rally: “Down with Fidel!” When Oswaldo Paya Sardinas, organizer of the Varela Project, a petition to bring about civil rights in Cuba, accepted his Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Union in 2002, Oliver Stone was not there to chum up beside him.
During this week marking Che Guevara’s birthday, let’s dishonor his memory by paying respects to the people who deserve to replace him among the pantheon of liberal heroes: the pro-democracy revolutionaries who struggle every day to overcome Guevara’s legacy of oppression and totalitarianism.