Che Guevara's mask, the cold executioner
Matthew Campbell. Times
Online, September 16, 2007.
A ROMANTIC hero to legions of fans the
world over, Ernesto "Che" Guevara,
the poster boy of Marxist revolution, has
come under assault as a cold-hearted monster
four decades after his death in the Bolivian
A revisionist biography has highlighted
Guevara's involvement in countless executions
of "traitors" and counter-revolutionary
"worms", offering a fresh glimpse
of the dark side of the celebrated guerrilla
fighter who helped Fidel Castro to seize
power in Cuba.
"Attacking an almost legendary figure
is not an easy task," said Jacobo Machover,
author of The Hidden Face of Che. "He
has so many defenders. They have forged
the cult of an untouchable hero."
The Argentine-born Guevara has become ever
more fashionable, his prerevolutionary adventures
as a medical student dramatised to great
acclaim in the film The Motorcycle Diaries
and his bearded visage an icon of chic on
T-shirts and even bikinis.
Machover, a Cuban exiled in France since
1963, blames the hero worship on French
intellectuals who flocked to Havana in the
1960s and fell under the charm of the only
"comandante" who could speak their
They turned a blind eye to anything that
did not fit in with their idealised image
of Guevara. A prolific diarist, Guevara
nevertheless wrote vividly of his role as
an executioner. In one passage he described
the execution of Eutimio Guerra, a peasant
and army guide.
"I fired a .32calibre bullet into
the right hemisphere of his brain which
came out through his left temple,"
was Guevara's clinical description of the
killing. "He moaned for a few moments,
This was the first of many "traitors"
to be subjected to what Guevara called "acts
There was seldom any trial. "I carried
out a very summary inquiry and then the
peasant Aristidio was executed," he
wrote about another killing. "It is
not possible to tolerate even the suspicion
Guevara found particularly "interesting"
the case of one of his victims, a man who,
just before being executed, penned a letter
to his mother in which he acknowledged "the
justice of the punishment that was being
dealt out to him" and asked her "to
be faithful to the revolution".
Such reflections sent a chill down the
spine of the author. "The guilty, or
those presumed to be so, were expected to
recognise the benefits of their death sentence,"
Guevara also carried out mock executions
on prisoners. Relieved to discover that
he had not been shot, one of the victims,
wrote Guevara in his diary, "gave [me]
a big, sonorous kiss, as if he had found
himself in front of his father".
The cigar-chomping Guevara went on to become
head of the Cuban central bank where he
famously signed banknotes with his nickname
Che. But his first job after the rebels
marched in triumph into Havana in 1959 was
running a "purifying commission"
and supervising executions at Havana's La
"He would climb on top of a wall .
. . and lie on his back smoking a Havana
cigar while watching the executions,"
the author quotes Dariel Alarcon Ramirez,
one of Guevara's former comrades in arms,
It was intended as a gesture of moral support
for the men in the firing squad, says Machover.
"For these men who had never seen Che
before, it was something really important.
It gave them courage."
In a six-month period, Guevara implemented
Castro's orders with zeal, putting 180 prisoners
in front of the firing squad after summary
trials, according to Machover. Jose Vilasuso,
an exiled lawyer, recalled Guevara instructing
his "court" in the prison: "Don't
drag out the process. This is a revolution.
Don't use bourgeois legal methods, the proof
is secondary. We must act through conviction.
We're dealing with a bunch of criminals
Machover blames French intellectuals such
as Régis Debray, who became an acolyte
of Guevara and professor of philosophy at
Havana's university in the 1960s, for the
canonisation of this far from saintly figure.
"The legend forged around Che is first
and foremost a French creation that became
international with time," says Machover.
Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist author
who visited Havana with Simone de Beauvoir
in 1960, also played a role, describing
Guevara as "the most complete man of
Today the cult of Che is thriving. He was
recently voted "Argentina's greatest
historical and political figure" and
ceremonies will be held all over the Andes
and the Caribbean to mark the 40th anniversary
of his death on October 9. He was executed
in Bolivia where he was fomenting rebellion
against the government.
Gustavo Villoldo, a former CIA operative
who said he helped to bury Guevara, plans
to auction a scrapbook in which he kept
a strand of his hair, photographs of the
body and a map of the hunt for the guerrilla
"I'm doing it for history's sake,"
he said. Not only that, perhaps: he expects
to fetch up to £4m. Viva la revolucion.