History vs. Che Guevara – Alex Gendler

His face is recognized all over the world. The young medical student
who became a revolutionary icon. But was Che Guevara
a heroic champion of the poor or a ruthless warlord
who left a legacy of repression? Order, order. Hey, where have I seen that guy before? Ahem, your Honor, this is Ernesto Che Guevara. In the early 1950s, he left behind a privileged life
as a medical student in Argentina to travel through rural Latin America. The poverty and misery he witnessed
convinced him that saving lives required more than medicine. So he became a terrorist seeking to violently overthrow
the region’s governments. What? The region’s governments
were brutal oligarchies. Colonialism may have formally ended, but elites still controlled
all the wealth. American corporations bought up land
originally seized from indigenous people and used it for profit and export, even keeping most of it uncultivated
while locals starved. Couldn’t they vote to change that? Oh, they tried, your Honor. In 1953, Che came to Guatemala under the democratically-elected
government of President Árbenz. Árbenz passed reforms to redistribute some of this uncultivated
land back to the people while compensating the landowners. But he was overthrown
in a CIA-sponsored coup. The military was protecting against
the seizure of private property and communist takeover. They were protecting corporate profits and Che saw that they would use
the fear of communism to overthrow any government
that threatened those profits. So he took the lessons of Guatemala
with him to Mexico. There, he met exiled Cuban revolutionaries and decided to help them
liberate their country. You mean help Fidel Castro
turn a vibrant Cuba into a dictatorship. Dictatorship was what Cuba
had before the revolution. Fulgencio Batista was a tyrant
who came to power in a military coup. He turned Havana into a luxury playground
for foreigners while keeping Cubans mired in poverty and
killing thousands in police crackdowns. Even President Kennedy called it
the worst example of “economic colonization, humiliation,
and exploitation in the world.” Whatever Batista’s faults, it can’t compare to the totalitarian
nightmare Castro would create. Forced labor camps, torture of prisoners,
no freedom to speak or to leave. But this isn’t the trial
of Fidel Castro, is it? Che Guevara was instrumental in helping
Castro seize power. As a commander in his guerilla army, he unleashed a reign of terror
across the countryside, killing any suspected spies or dissenters. He also helped peasants build
health clinics and schools, taught them to read, and even recited poetry to them. His harsh discipline was necessary
against a much stronger enemy who didn’t hesitate to burn entire
villages suspected of aiding the rebels. Let’s not forget that the new regime
held mass executions and killed hundreds
of people without trial as soon as they took power in 1959. The executed were officials
and collaborators who had tormented
the masses under Batista. The people supported
this revolutionary justice. Which people? An angry mob crying for blood
does not a democracy make. And that’s not even mentioning
the forced labor camps, arbitrary arrests, and repression of LGBT people
that continued long after the revolution. There’s a reason people kept
risking their lives to flee, often with nothing but the clothes
on their backs. So was that all this Che brought to Cuba? Just another violent dictatorship? Not at all. He oversaw land redistribution, helped established universal education, and organized volunteer literacy brigades
that raised Cuba’s literacy rate to 96%, still one of the highest in the world. Which allowed the government to control
what information everyone received. Guevara’s idealistic incompetence
as Finance Minister caused massive drops in productivity when he replaced worker pay raises
with moral certificates. He suppressed all press freedom, declaring that newspapers
were instruments of the oligarchy. And it was he who urged Castro
to host Soviet nuclear weapons, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world
to the brink of destruction. He was a leader, not a bureaucrat. That’s why he eventually left to spread
the revolution abroad. Which didn’t go well. He failed to rally rebels in the Congo and went to Bolivia
even when the Soviets disapproved. The Bolivian Government,
with the help of the CIA, was able to capture and neutralize
this terrorist in 1967, before he could do much damage. While doing plenty of damage themselves
in the process. So that was the end of it? Not at all. As Che said,
the revolution is immortal. He was publicly mourned in cities
all over the world. Not by the Cubans who managed to escape. And his story would inspire
young activists for generations to come. Ha. A trendy symbol of rebellion for those
who never had to live under his regime. Symbols of revolution
may become commodified, but the idea of a more just world remains. Maybe, but I’m not sharing my coffee. Che Guevara was captured and
executed by government forces in Bolivia. His remains would not be found
for another 30 years. But did he die a hero
or had he already become a villain? And should revolutions be judged
by their ideals or their outcomes? These are the questions we face
when we put history on trial.

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