Hollywood history is often nonsensical, but filmmakers usually have the good sense not to whitewash killers and sadists. Steven Soderbergh’s new film about Che Guevara, however, does that, and more.
Che the revolutionary romantic, as depicted by Benecio del Toro in Soderbergh’s film, never existed. That hero of the left, with his hippie hair and beard, an image now iconic on T-shirts and coffee mugs around the world, is a myth concocted by former Cuban president Fidel Castro’s propagandists — something of a cross between Don Quixote and Robin Hood.
Like those tall tales, Fidel’s myth of Che bears a superficial resemblance to historical facts, but the real story is far darker. Some Robin Hood probably did brutalize the rich and, to cover his tracks, give some of his loot to the poor. In medieval Spain, Quixote-like knights probably did roam the countryside, ridding it not of dragons but of the land’s few remaining Muslims.
The same goes for the legendary Che. No teenager in rebellion against the world or his parents seems able to resist Che’s alluring image. Just wearing a Che T-shirt is the shortest and cheapest way to appear to be on the right side of history.
What works for teenagers also seems to work with forever-young movie directors. In the 1960s, the Che look, with beard and beret, was at least a glib political statement. Today, it is little more than a fashion accoutrement that inspires a big-budget Hollywood epic. Are Che theme parks next?
But once there was a real Che Guevara: He is less well known than the fictional puppet that has replaced reality. The true Che was a more significant figure than his fictional clone, for he was the incarnation of what revolution and Marxism really meant in the 20th century.
Che was no humanist. No communist leader, indeed, ever held humanist values. Karl Marx certainly was not one. True to their movement’s founding prophet, former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東), Castro and Che held no respect for human life. Blood needed to be shed if a better world was to be baptized. When criticized by one of his early companions for the death of millions during the Chinese revolution, Mao observed that countless Chinese die everyday, so what did it matter?
Likewise, Che could kill with a shrug. Trained as a medical doctor in Argentina, he chose not to save lives but to suppress them. After he seized power, Che put to death 500 “enemies” of the revolution without trial, or even much discrimination.
Castro, no humanist himself, did his best to neutralize Guevara by appointing him minister for industry. As could be expected, Che applied Soviet policies to the Cubans: Agriculture was destroyed and ghost factories dotted the landscape. He did not care about Cuba’s economy or its people: His purpose was to pursue revolution for its own sake, whatever it meant, like art for art’s sake.
Indeed, without his ideology, Che would have been nothing more than another serial killer. Ideological sloganeering allowed him to kill in larger numbers than any serial killer could imagine, and all in the name of justice. Five centuries ago, Che probably would have been one of those priest/soldiers exterminating Latin America’s natives in the name of God. In the name of history, Che, too, saw murder as a necessary tool of a noble cause.
But suppose we judge this Marxist hero by his own criteria: Did he actually transform the world? The answer is yes — but for the worse. The communist Cuba he helped to forge is an undisputed and unmitigated failure, much more impoverished and much less free than it was before its “liberation.” Despite the social reforms the left likes to trumpet about Cuba, its literacy rate was higher before Castro came to power, and racism against the black population was less pervasive. Indeed, Cuba’s leaders today are far more likely to be white than they were in Fulgencia Batista’s day.
Beyond Cuba, the Che myth has inspired thousands of students and activists across Latin America to lose their lives in foolhardy guerrilla struggles. The left, inspired by the siren call of Che, chose armed struggle instead of elections. By doing so, it opened the way to military dictatorship. Latin America is not yet cured of these unintended consequences of Guevarism.
Indeed, 50 years after Cuba’s revolution, Latin America remains divided. Those nations that rejected Che’s mythology and chose the path of democracy and the free market, such as Brazil, Peru and Chile, are better off than they ever were: Equality, freedom and economic progress have advanced in unity. By contrast, those nations that remain nostalgic for the cause of Che, such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, are at this very moment poised on the brink of civil war.
The real Che, who spent most of his time as Castro’s central banker supervising executions, deserves to be better known. Perhaps if Soderbergh’s two-part Che epic succeeds at the box office, his financial backers will want to film a more truthful sequel. There is certainly no shortage of material for Che, The Untold Story.
Guy Sorman is a French philosopher and economist.
COPYRIGHT: PROJECT SYNDICATE
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday last week met with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) at an APEC summit in Thailand. The meeting made front-page news in Japan the following day. Three years ago, when then-Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe visited Beijing to meet with Xi, no one questioned Abe’s attitude toward China, as the conservative parties in Japan had been spearheaded by Abe. However, Kishida could easily be labeled as pro-China, as he hails from Hiroshima — a place known for its anti-war, anti-nuclear movements — and was once the director of the Japan-China Friendship Association of Hiroshima.
It is quite the irony when former British prime minister Boris Johnson — a buffoon who for far too long was taken seriously — is branded a buffoon for saying something deadly serious. Following Johnson’s withering criticism of China at a business forum in Singapore on Wednesday last week, the event’s organizer, Michael Bloomberg, apologized to attendees, saying that Johnson was “trying to be amusing rather than informative and serious.” However, Johnson’s characterization of China as a “coercive autocracy” that had showed “a candid disregard for the rule of international law” was spot-on. His comments evoked the wisdom of the Austrian-British philosopher
Although internal Chinese politics are largely defined by meticulously concocted mysteries, it is an open secret that the battle for who will ascend to the highest echelons of Zhongnanhai is decided at the Beidaihe resort. It is where factions within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) engage in horse-trading over leadership selection and delegate appointments long before the party’s national congress. What unfolded at last month’s 20th National Congress was predetermined at the Beidaihe gathering in August. In this context, the CCP, and particularly Chinese President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平), used the event to project power and party unity.
As campaign fever for tomorrow’s local elections turns white hot, supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) have been going head to head on social media. The latest row was triggered by a Facebook post on Nov. 13 by songwriter and KMT supporter Liu Chia-chang (劉家昌), who rebuked United Microelectronics Corp founder Robert Tsao (曹興誠) for advocating independence. “Although you regained your ROC [Republic of China] citizenship after returning from Singapore, you continue to help the green independents by guarding their flank,” Liu wrote, adding that it was an “insult to the nation.” “When [KMT