Nearly four decades after his death, the legend of Che Guevara has grown worldwide. In this new book, Alvaro Vargas Llosa separates the myth from the reality of Che's legacy, and shows that Che's ideals were a re-hash of notions about centralized power that have long been the major source of suffering and misery in the underdeveloped world. With testimonies from witnesses of Che's actions, Alberto Vargas Llosa's detailed account of the "real Che" sets the record straight by exposing the delusion at the heart of the Che phenomenon. Vargas Llosa shows that Che's legacy—making the law subservient to the most powerful, crushing any and all dissent, and concentrating wealth under the guise of "social equality"—is not the solution to poverty and injustice but is the core of the problem.
Besides exposing the dark truths of Che's ideology and actions, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty elaborates on attempts by both the left and right to suppress liberty and examines the manifestation of Latin American spirit throughout the ages, from early indigenous trade to today's enterprising communities overcoming government impediments. In so doing, the book points to the real revolution among the poor—the liberation of individuals from the constraints of state power in all spheres, public and private.
Whether you love or hate Che, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty will not leave you untouched and will provide a powerful, new perspective on how to overcome the challenges facing the Third World.
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About the Author
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is the director of the Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute, the coauthor of The Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot, and the author of Liberty for Latin America.
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The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty
By Alvaro Vargas Llosa
The Independent InstituteCopyright © 2006 The Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
When I was 14, I had a group of friends with colorful international backgrounds at my boarding school. We were rebellious and shared a strong mistrust of authority in its various forms. We resented the stringent rules, the collectivist atmosphere, the sense of regimentation. It was open war between us and the schoolmasters. They called us MCG (Mature Cosmopolitan Group) with a touch of sarcasm. We idolized Bob Marley, occasionally experimented with ganja, recited Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" to ourselves ("Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness ..."), and regularly sneaked off the school grounds at night looking for adventure and getting a fair share of it, not always sweet. We would go back to school in the wee hours of the morning, just in time to get caught by whichever housemaster happened to be looking for us or reporting us to the police as missing!
One of the kids in the group was from South America and he had two passions in life. One was Clint Eastwood, who was alive and kicking. The other was Che Guevara, who had died long before. Like the Clint Eastwood of the movies, my friend lived on the edge. Like Che Guevara (and Keats), he would meet his death prematurely, tragically. He was the only one in a group made up of Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans who would wrap himself in Che Guevara paraphernalia. For some reason I was not quite able to articulate, I never wore the Guevara beret, smoked the cigar, or hung the poster on my wall.
A few years later, I spent a semester studying at an American university. Che Guevara made a new attempt to seduce me. This time, my friends were mostly politically active Puerto Ricans who wanted their island to be independent. One of them hung a poster of Che Guevara on his wall and, next to it, a picture of "Comrade Gonzalo," the genocidal leader of Shining Path, Peru's Maoist organization. As I came into the room one afternoon and this couple faced me from the wall, I was paralyzed. It suddenly dawned on me why my South American friend from boarding school had never quite been able to persuade me to take up Che.
There it was, pure and simple: just like Abimael Guzmán, Che was the negation of what I most seemed to long for in this complicated world — freedom and peace. I must have vaguely sensed this at school, but now, for the first time, I was able to fully grasp a precious truth: one should never be confused by the many variations of that species, the tyrant. Stalinist Che Guevara and Maoist Abimael Guzmán belonged to different camps and represented contrasting attitudes to life — the former being the quintessential pinup, the latter a bizarre recluse — but what they had in common, their lust for totalitarian power, was much more important than their differences.
I had experienced firsthand Shining Path's campaign of terror against the very poor peasants in whose name it purported to act. Like millions of Peruvians, I had personally been affected in different ways by this unlikely reincarnation of Cambodia's Pol Pot in the middle of the Andes. Seeing Che Guevara next to Guzmán on a chic campus wall brought to light the ugly truth about the Argentine hero of the Cuban Revolution, but, more importantly, it inspired the poignant realization that all those prepared to use force to take life and property away from their fellow men are soul mates whatever the ideological or moral subterfuge used to conceal their real motives. "Really, you should rip that off. You have no idea," I said to my friend, and I left the room quite disturbed.
Many years later, when I had had the chance to encounter numerous other disguises for tyranny, some on the left but others on the right, I focused on that image from university as the starting point of a larger reflection. The conclusion I reached continues to haunt me today: there are myriad forms of oppression, some much more subtle than others, sometimes adorned with the theme of social justice and at other times obscured by the language of security, and recognizing and denouncing the deceitful psychological mechanisms with which the enemies of liberty attempt to bamboozle us into voluntary servitude is one of the urgent tasks of our times.
Discerning the truth from among the more or less sophisticated impostures that speak to the liberation of humanity from despotism, injustice, hunger, is the first step towards a free society. The liberation of the individual is first and foremost a liberation of the mind, as Etienne de la Boétie taught us centuries ago in his masterful The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. Only then can one resort to fruitful action in the field of social betterment.
One major reason why at least half of mankind lives in poverty and billions live under tyranny is that many impostures continue to deceive so many people. Those who represent them have been able to fool many credulous souls into thinking their liberation will come from the use of violence, the exercise of state dominance, vertical authority, or, more subtly, grand schemes of wealth redistribution — i.e. the "political" rather than the "economic" means, in Franz Oppenheimer's famous and still relevant distinction between a predatory system that exploits a productive class in order to sustain a parasitical oligarchy and a productive system that guarantees the rights of life, freedom, and property, therefore making justice possible.
One of the ironies of choosing to distinguish between freedom and oppression rather than between Socialist and conservative, left and right, pious or impious, is that one stumbles upon the fact that Che Guevara had a lot more in common with the men and systems he fought than would seem conceivable. He was in essence no different from the Batista dictatorship he combated as a young guerrilla in the Cuban jungle — except that he was more efficient and ideological about being a callous dictator himself.
That is, indeed, the tragic history of Latin America: an endless sequence of oppressive states, each one purporting to suppress the evils of preceding institutions. The Iberian colonial system preserved the worst features of the pre-Columbian world. The republics in turn perpetuated the colonial legacy they were meant to abolish. Centralization, verticality, patronage, and monopolies have survived in varying degrees the ideological and political changes that have taken place over time, even under democratic regimes.
The essays that follow seek to convey the idea that intellectual and political deceit — the bondage of the mind — represent the first step towards oppression — the bondage of the body — and that the way to begin to restore a measure of rationality and common sense to those countries where oppression still prevails is to expose the lies on which it rests. It occurred to me that trying to expose the truth about Che Guevara to many young people would be as good a way as any to get this message across.
In 1813, Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette: "Their people are immersed in the darkest ignorance and brutalized by bigotry and superstition." He was referring to Latin America, where just half a century earlier the Spanish and Portuguese colonies seemed a world ahead of the English colonies of North America. Latin America's superiority had been, of course, an illusion — the illusion that a highly centralized, hierarchical society where a person's life was determined by the authorities had something to do with civilization. The splendor of those baroque edifices that looked like a metaphor of cultural greatness had deluded most intellectuals and leaders in Iberian America.
Today, when half of Latin America still lives in poverty and when a significant portion of the other half makes ends meet but still lacks the kinds of opportunities available elsewhere, many people nonetheless look up to the state as the agent of social justice. While Che Guevara appears to have become benign capitalist merchandise for many young people in rich countries, he is still a flesh and blood being, incarnated in the prevailing institutions, for millions of Latin Americans and citizens of other unfortunate territories.
This short book does not want to simply expose an ugly truth. It also looks at the alternative path for the peoples of the underdeveloped world. That is the purpose of "Latin American Liberalism — A Mirage?" and of "The Individualist Legacy of Latin America," the two essays on liberty that follow the text on Che Guevara. The first of these focuses on the reforms that have failed to change things in the underdeveloped world, while the second tries to rescue from oblivion a long tradition of liberty among Latin Americans — an anti-Che tradition, if you will — in the hope that it can serve as an inspiration for a future free society. Exposing the myth is the first step.
The next step is to convey to those who are still under the myth's spell that there is indeed a way to liberate people from injustice and hunger, but that it implies a massive move away from statism and collectivism, and towards decentralized, individual-based rights.CHAPTER 2
The Killing Machine
Che Guevara, from Communist Firebrand to Capitalist Brand
Che Guevara, who did so much (or was it so little?) to destroy capitalism, is now a quintessential capitalist brand. His likeness adorns mugs, hoodies, lighters, key chains, wallets, baseball caps, toques, bandannas, tank tops, club shirts, couture bags, denim jeans, herbal tea, and of course those omnipresent T-shirts with the photograph, taken by Alberto Korda, of the socialist heartthrob in his beret during the early years of the revolution, as Che happened to walk into the photographer's viewfinder — and into the image that, thirty-eight years after his death, is still the logo of revolutionary (or is it capitalist?) chic. Sean O'Hagan claimed in The Observer that there is even a soap powder with the slogan "Che washes whiter."
Che products are marketed by big corporations and small businesses, such as the Burlington Coat Factory, which put out a television commercial depicting a youth in fatigue pants wearing a Che T-shirt, or Flamingo's Boutique in Union City, New Jersey, whose owner responded to the fury of local Cuban exiles with this devastating argument: "I sell whatever people want to buy." Revolutionaries join the merchandising frenzy, too — from "The Che Store," catering to "all your revolutionary needs" on the Internet, to the Italian writer Gianni Minà, who sold Robert Redford the movie rights to Che's diary of his juvenile trip around South America in 1952 in exchange for access to the shooting of the film The Motorcycle Diaries so that Minà could produce his own documentary. Not to mention Alberto Granado, who accompanied Che on his youthful trip and advises documentarists, and who now complains in Madrid, according to El País, over Rioja wine and duck magret, that the American embargo against Cuba makes it hard for him to collect royalties. To take the irony further: the building where Guevara was born in Rosario, Argentina, a splendid early twentieth-century edifice at the corner of Urquiza and Entre Ríos Streets, was until recently occupied by the private pension fund AFJP Máxima, a child of Argentina's privatization of social security in the 1990s.
The metamorphosis of Che Guevara into a capitalist brand is not new, but the brand has been enjoying a revival of late — an especially remarkable revival, since it comes years after the political and ideological collapse of all that Guevara represented. This windfall is owed substantially to The Motorcycle Diaries, the film produced by Robert Redford and directed by Walter Salles. (It is one of three major motion pictures on Che either made or in the process of being made in the last two years; the other two have been directed by Josh Evans and Steven Soderbergh.) Beautifully shot against landscapes that have clearly eluded the eroding effects of polluting capitalism, the film shows the young man on a voyage of self-discovery as his budding social conscience encounters social and economic exploitation — laying the ground for a New Wave re-invention of the man whom Sartre once called the most complete human being of our era.
But to be more precise, the current Che revival started in 1997, on the thirtieth anniversary of his death, when five biographies hit the bookstores, and his remains were discovered near an airstrip at Bolivia's Vallegrande airport, after a retired Bolivian general, in a spectacularly timed revelation, disclosed the exact location. The anniversary refocused attention on Freddy Alborta's famous photograph of Che's corpse laid out on a table, foreshortened and dead and romantic, looking like Christ in a Mantegna painting.
It is customary for followers of a cult not to know the real life story of their hero, the historical truth. (Many Rastafarians would renounce Haile Selassie if they had any notion of who he really was.) It is not surprising that Guevara's contemporary followers, his new post-communist admirers, also delude themselves by clinging to a myth — except the young Argentines who have come up with an expression that rhymes perfectly in Spanish: "Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué, " or "I have a Che T-shirt and I don't know why."
Consider some of the people who have recently brandished or invoked Guevara's likeness as a beacon of justice and rebellion against the abuse of power. In Lebanon, demonstrators protesting against Syria at the grave of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri carried Che's image. Thierry Henry, a French soccer player who plays for Arsenal, in England, showed up at a major gala organized by FIFA, the world's soccer body, wearing a red and black Che T-shirt. In a recent review in The New York Times of George A. Romero's Land of the Dead, Manohla Dargis noted that "the greatest shock here may be the transformation of a black zombie into a righteous revolutionary leader," and added, "I guess Che really does live, after all." The soccer hero Maradona showed off the emblematic Che tattoo on his right arm during a trip where he met Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. In Stavropol, in southern Russia, protesters denouncing cash payments of welfare concessions took to the central square with Che flags. In San Francisco, City Lights Books, the legendary home of beat literature, treats visitors to a section devoted to Latin America in which half the shelves are taken up by Che books. José Luis Montoya, a Mexican police officer who battles drug crime in Mexicali, wears a Che sweatband because it makes him feel stronger. At the Dheisheh refugee camp on the West Bank, Che posters adorn a wall that pays tribute to the Intifada. A Sunday magazine devoted to social life in Sydney, Australia, lists the three dream guests at a dinner party: Alvar Aalto, Richard Branson, and Che Guevara. Leung Kwok-hung, the rebel elected to Hong Kong's Legislative Council, defies Beijing by wearing a Che T-shirt. In Brazil, Frei Betto, President Lula da Silva's adviser in charge of the high-profile "Zero Hunger" program, says that "we should have paid less attention to Trotsky and much more to Che Guevara." And most famously, at this year's Academy Awards ceremony Carlos Santana and Antonio Banderas performed the theme song from The Motorcycle Diaries, and Santana showed up wearing a Che T-shirt and a crucifix. The manifestations of the new cult of Che are everywhere. Once again the myth is firing up people whose causes for the most part represent the exact opposite of what Guevara was.
No man is without some redeeming qualities. In the case of Che Guevara, those qualities may help us to measure the gulf that separates reality from myth. His honesty (well, partial honesty) meant that he left written testimony of his cruelties, including the really ugly, though not the ugliest, stuff. His courage — what Castro described as "his way, in every difficult and dangerous moment, of doing the most difficult and dangerous thing" — meant that he did not live to take full responsibility for Cuba's hell. Myth can tell you as much about an era as truth. And so it is that thanks to Che's own testimonials to his thoughts and his deeds, and thanks also to his premature departure, we may know exactly how deluded so many of our contemporaries are about so much.
Guevara might have been enamored of his own death, but he was much more enamored of other people's deaths. In April 1967, speaking from experience, he summed up his homicidal idea of justice in his "Message to the Tricontinental": "hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine." His earlier writings are also peppered with this rhetorical and ideological violence. Although his former girlfriend Chichina Ferreyra doubts that the original version of the diaries of his motorcycle trip contains the observation that "I feel my nostrils dilate savoring the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood of the enemy," Guevara did share with Granado at that very young age this exclamation: "Revolution without firing a shot? You're crazy." At other times the young bohemian seemed unable to distinguish between the levity of death as a spectacle and the tragedy of a revolution's victims. In a letter to his mother in 1954, written in Guatemala, where he witnessed the overthrow of the revolutionary government of Jacobo Arbenz, he wrote: "It was all a lot of fun, what with the bombs, speeches, and other distractions to break the monotony I was living in."
Excerpted from The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty by Alvaro Vargas Llosa. Copyright © 2006 The Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
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Table of Contents
2 The Killing Machine: Che Guevara, from Communist Firebrand to Capitalist Brand,
3 Latin American Liberalism — A Mirage?,
4 The Individualist Legacy in Latin America,
About the Author,