September 17 , 2007

Behind 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 jungle.

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 language.

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, then died."

This was the first of many "traitors" to be subjected to what Guevara called "acts of justice".

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 of treason."

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," he said.

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 Cabana prison.

"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, as saying.

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 and assassins."

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 his epoch".

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 leader.

"I'm doing it for history's sake," he said. Not only that, perhaps: he expects to fetch up to £4m. Viva la revolucion.

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