Last week, the Cuban-American Student Association at Boston College welcomed Humberto Fontova, Cuban author and renowned political commentator, to speak about his book, Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him. Mr. Fontova disproves the common myth that glorifies Che Guevara as a revolutionary hero, carefully detailing the realities behind the infamous image.
It is quite literally an “image” that has fueled Che’s fame. As Fontova smartly puts it, he is the “Kim Kardashian of Revolutionaries.” Having achieved little of true merit, Che Guevara is simply “famous for being famous.”
“If you actually study what this guy did, you’ll be mystified as to why on Earth he is famous,” said Fontova, in reference to the notorious photograph of Guevara now plastered on t-shirts and coffee mugs worldwide. “He took a cool-looking photo—and that’s it.”
Many of the heroic activities attributed to Guevara are simply misconstrued notions of what any socially minded individual would consider horrific. These facts as laid out by Fontova in his book are indisputable—the documentation is solid and has passed through translation by publishers around the world. Notwithstanding this significant proof, Guevara remains a revolutionary hero to many, among them respected celebrities like Carlos Santana and Angelina Jolie. Yet it is the same people who worship Che Guevara that should be the most appalled by his deeds.
Often hailed a “freedom fighter,” Fidel Castro’s second in command was just the opposite: he jailed political prisoners at a higher rate than Stalin’s regime did in Russia during the Great Terror of the 1930’s. Out of a population of 6.4 million, 365,000 Cubans were imprisoned in forced labor camps for “political crimes” under Guevara’s command. What exactly these political crimes entailed was often vague—Che Guevara himself called judicial evidence “an archaic bourgeois detail.” More atrocious still were his court proceedings, overseen by Guevara himself, where death sentences were often posted before a trial began.
According to the Black Book of Communism, hailed by the New York Times and many other reputable sources, an estimate of 16,000 Cuban men, women, and even children were executed under Guevara’s direct orders (as Fontova mentioned, a figure of this kind can only be estimated while a totalitarian regime is still in power. And Cuba’s has yet to fall).
The Cuban regime made no secret of its penchant for executions. At a United Nations conference in 1964, Guevara proudly proclaimed, “Certainly, we execute—and we will continue to execute.” Keeping in mind his lax judicial process and record number of executions, a more appropriate label for Che Guevara, then, is “ruthless murderer.”
Most of these murders occurred at La Cabaña prison in Havana, where Guevara regularly had prisoners sent to el paredon, “the wall,” to face the firing squad. So much did he enjoy these executions that Che had the fourth wall of his office torn down, that he might have an unrestricted view of the daily proceedings from the comfort of his desk.
At La Cabaña, both men and women prisoners were not only tortured regularly, but heard the shots fired two to three times a day, never knowing when it would be their turn. Fontova shared the account of one former female prisoner, stating that guards would often taunt the prisoners with the impending deaths of their husbands, brothers, or fathers who were also incarcerated.
With so many gaping horrors under his belt, one must wonder why Che Guevara is idolized around the world. It is not an ideological question; whether you believe in communism is another argument altogether. The fact is Che Guevara was an avid violator of basic human rights, more akin to Hitler or Mao than the Gandhi ignorant people make him out to be. And yet, when was the last time someone casually donned an Adolf t-shirt? We have propaganda to thank for that.
No totalitarian regime is complete without propaganda, a fact Che Guevara himself understood: “Propaganda is the heart of our struggle. We can never abandon propaganda.” As Fontova makes evident in his book, Castro’s propaganda ministry was excellent. They fed their lies to the foreign media in an effort to spread their Revolution’s success. “Much more important than guerilla recruits for our guerilla army,” said Guevara, “were American media recruits to spread our propaganda.”
Many misguided fans have relied on works such as Jon Lee Anderson’s book or Benicio Del Toro’s biopic Che, failing to realize that both relied on the Cuban government for support. Del Toro even thanks Cuba’s propaganda ministry in his film’s credits. Quite simply put, how can any material sponsored by a totalitarian regime be trusted as the truth? It is an absurd idea.
Fontova shared some other ironic truths about Guevara, mainly, that most of the people with his face plastered on their chests would likely be incarcerated under his regime. This “counter-cultural icon” jailed homosexuals, men sporting long hair and band t-shirts, and anyone who listened to rock and roll under the dictate that it was “imperialist” material.
As for Che Guevara’s credentials, he was no brave guerilla. Fontova names many instances where Guevara’s own men acknowledged his failures as a guerilla soldier, and his troops were often lost in the jungle, wandering around in circles and shooting at each other. Additionally, though he is hailed as a medical doctor, there is no record of Guevara’s medical degree. Even his famous last words were misconstrued. Upon being captured in Bolivia, Che Guevara immediately surrendered with a fully-loaded pistol saying, “Don’t shoot, I’m worth more to you alive than dead.”
Exposing the Real Che Guevara is an excellent read, and an important one. Fontova documents truths that are easily accessible to all, yet have been blurred over by wily propaganda. “The whole point of this book,” says Fontova, “is to talk to people. There are thousands who suffered under Castro’s regimes and in his prisons who are never sourced by mainstream, respectable media sources.”
As Mr. Fontova humorously added, he himself is neither “mainstream nor respectable,” and it is with a greater sense for truth that he gladly reached out to the primary sources available. In doing so, he has presented us with a work that successfully deconstructs the rock star façade long-since attributed to a most undeserving figure.