The Killing Machine: Che Guevara, from Communist Firebrand to Capitalist Brand
Alvaro Vargas Llosa
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 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.”
Guevara’s disposition when he traveled with Castro from Mexico to Cuba aboard the Granma is captured in a phrase in a letter to his wife that he penned on January 28, 1957, not long after disembarking, which was published in her book Ernesto: A Memoir of Che Guevara in Sierra Maestra: “Here in the Cuban jungle, alive and bloodthirsty.” This mentality had been reinforced by his conviction that Arbenz had lost power because he had failed to execute his potential enemies. An earlier letter to his former girlfriend Tita Infante had observed that “if there had been some executions, the government would have maintained the capacity to return the blows.” It is hardly a surprise that during the armed struggle against Batista, and then after the triumphant entry into Havana, Guevara murdered or oversaw the executions in summary trials of scores of people—proven enemies, suspected enemies, and those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In January 1957, as his diary from the Sierra Maestra indicates, Guevara shot Eutimio Guerra because he suspected him of passing on information: “I ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain.... His belongings were now mine.” Later he shot Aristidio, a peasant who expressed the desire to leave whenever the rebels moved on. While he wondered whether this particular victim “was really guilty enough to deserve death,” he had no qualms about ordering the death of Echevarría, a brother of one of his comrades, because of unspecified crimes: “He had to pay the price.” At other times he would simulate executions without carrying them out, as a method of psychological torture.
Luis Guardia and Pedro Corzo, two researchers in Florida who are working on a documentary about Guevara, have obtained the testimony of Jaime Costa Vázquez, a former commander in the revolutionary army known as “El Catalán,” who maintains that many of the executions attributed to Ramiro Valdés, a future interior minister of Cuba, were Guevara’s direct responsibility, because Valdés was under his orders in the mountains. “If in doubt, kill him” were Che’s instructions. On the eve of victory, according to Costa, Che ordered the execution of a couple dozen people in Santa Clara, in central Cuba, where his column had gone as part of a final assault on the island. Some of them were shot in a hotel, as Marcelo Fernándes-Zayas, another former revolutionary who later became a journalist, has written—adding that among those executed, known as casquitos, were peasants who had joined the army simply to escape unemployment.
But the “cold-blooded killing machine” did not show the full extent of his rigor until, immediately after the collapse of the Batista regime, Castro put him in charge of La Cabaña prison. (Castro had a clinically good eye for picking the right person to guard the revolution against infection.) San Carlos de La Cabaña was a stone fortress used to defend Havana against English pirates in the eighteenth century; later it became a military barracks. In a manner chillingly reminiscent of Lavrenti Beria, Guevara presided during the first half of 1959 over one of the darkest periods of the revolution. José Vilasuso, a lawyer and a professor at Universidad Interamericana de Bayamón in Puerto Rico, who belonged to the body in charge of the summary judicial process at La Cabaña, told me recently that
Che was in charge of the Comisión Depuradora. The process followed the law of the Sierra: there was a military court and Che’s guidelines to us were that we should act with conviction, meaning that they were all murderers and the revolutionary way to proceed was to be implacable. My direct superior was Miguel Duque Estrada. My duty was to legalize the files before they were sent on to the Ministry. Executions took place from Monday to Friday, in the middle of the night, just after the sentence was given and automatically confirmed by the appellate body. On the most gruesome night I remember, seven men were executed.
Javier Arzuaga, the Basque chaplain who gave comfort to those sentenced to die and personally witnessed dozens of executions, spoke to me recently from his home in Puerto Rico. A former Catholic priest, now seventy-five, who describes himself as “closer to Leonardo Boff and Liberation Theology than to the former Cardinal Ratzinger,” he recalls that
there were about eight hundred prisoners in a space fit for no more than three hundred: former Batista military and police personnel, some journalists, a few businessmen and merchants. The revolutionary tribunal was made of militiamen. Che Guevara presided over the appellate court. He never overturned a sentence. I would visit those on death row at the galera de la muerte. A rumor went around that I hypnotized prisoners because many remained calm, so Che ordered that I be present at the executions. After I left in May, they executed many more, but I personally witnessed fifty-five executions. There was an American, Herman Marks, apparently a former convict. We called him “the butcher” because he enjoyed giving the order to shoot. I pleaded many times with Che on behalf of prisoners. I remember especially the case of Ariel Lima, a young boy. Che did not budge. Nor did Fidel, whom I visited. I became so traumatized that at the end of May 1959 I was ordered to leave the parish of Casa Blanca, where La Cabaña was located and where I had held Mass for three years. I went to Mexico for treatment. The day I left, Che told me we had both tried to bring one another to each other’s side and had failed. His last words were: “When we take our masks off, we will be enemies.”
How many people were killed at La Cabaña? Pedro Corzo offers a figure of some two hundred, similar to that given by Armando Lago, a retired economics professor who has compiled a list of 179 names as part of an eight-year study on executions in Cuba. Vilasuso told me that four hundred people were executed between January and the end of June in 1959 (at which point Che ceased to be in charge of La Cabaña). Secret cables sent by the American Embassy in Havana to the State Department in Washington spoke of “over 500.” According to Jorge Castañeda, one of Guevara’s biographers, a Basque Catholic sympathetic to the revolution, the late Father Iñaki de Aspiazú, spoke of seven hundred victims. Félix Rodríguez, a CIA agent who was part of the team in charge of the hunt for Guevara in Bolivia, told me that he confronted Che after his capture about “the two thousand or so” executions for which he was responsible during his lifetime. “He said they were all CIA agents and did not address the figure,” Rodríguez recalls. The higher figures may include executions that took place in the months after Che ceased to be in charge of the prison.
Which brings us back to Carlos Santana and his chic Che gear. In an open letter published in El Nuevo Herald on March 31 of this year, the great jazz musician Paquito D’Rivera castigated Santana for his costume at the Oscars, and added: “One of those Cubans [at La Cabaña] was my cousin Bebo, who was imprisoned there precisely for being a Christian. He recounts to me with infinite bitterness how he could hear from his cell in the early hours of dawn the executions, without trial or process of law, of the many who died shouting, ‘Long live Christ the King!’”
Che’s lust for power had other ways of expressing itself besides murder. The contradiction between his passion for travel—a protest of sorts against the constraints of the—and his impulse to become himself an enslaving state over others is poignant. In writing about Pedro Valdivia, the conquistador of Chile, Guevara reflected: “He belonged to that special class of men the species produces every so often, in whom a craving for limitless power is so extreme that any suffering to achieve it seems natural.” He might have been describing himself. At every stage of his adult life, his megalomania manifested itself in the predatory urge to take over other people’s lives and property, and to abolish their free will.
In 1958, after taking the city of Sancti Spiritus, Guevara unsuccessfully tried to impose a kind of sharia, regulating relations between men and women, the use of alcohol, and informal gambling—a puritanism that did not exactly characterize his own way of life. He also ordered his men to rob banks, a decision that he justified in a letter to Enrique Oltuski, a subordinate, in November of that year: “The struggling masses agree to robbing banks because none of them has a penny in them.” This idea of revolution as a license to re-allocate property as he saw fit led the Marxist Puritan to take over the mansion of an emigrant after the triumph of the revolution.
The urge to dispossess others of their property and to claim ownership of others’ territory was central to Guevara’s politics of raw power. In his memoirs, the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser records that Guevara asked him how many people had left his country because of land reform. When Nasser replied that no one had left, Che countered in anger that the way to measure the depth of change is by the number of people “who feel there is no place for them in the new society.” This predatory instinct reached a pinnacle in 1965, when he started talking, God-like, about the “New Man” that he and his revolution would create.
Che’s obsession with collectivist control led him to collaborate on the formation of the security apparatus that was set up to subjugate six and a half million Cubans. In early 1959, a series of secret meetings took place in Tarará, near Havana, at the mansion to which Che temporarily withdrew to recover from an illness. That is where the top leaders, including Castro, designed the Cuban police state. Ramiro Valdés, Che’s subordinate during the guerrilla war, was put in charge of G-2, a body modeled on the Cheka. Angel Ciutah, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War sent by the Soviets who had been very close to Ramón Mercader, Trotsky’s assassin, and later befriended Che, played a key role in organizing the system, together with Luis Alberto Lavandeira, who had served the boss at La Cabaña. Guevara himself took charge of G-6, the body tasked with the ideological indoctrination of the armed forces. The U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 became the perfect occasion to consolidate the new police state, with the rounding up of tens of thousands of Cubans and a new series of executions. As Guevara himself told the Soviet ambassador Sergei Kudriavtsev, counterrevolutionaries were never “to raise their head again.”
“Counterrevolutionary” is the term that was applied to anyone who departed from dogma. It was the communist synonym for “heretic.” Concentration camps were one form in which dogmatic power was employed to suppress dissent. History attributes to the Spanish general Valeriano Weyler, the captain-general of Cuba at the end of the nineteenth century, the first use of the word “concentration” to describe the policy of surrounding masses of potential opponents—in his case, supporters of the Cuban independence movement—with barbed wire and fences. How fitting that Cuba’s revolutionaries more than half a century later were to take up this indigenous tradition. In the beginning, the revolution mobilized volunteers to build schools and to work in ports, plantations, and factories—all exquisite photo-ops for Che the stevedore, Che the cane-cutter, Che the clothmaker. It was not long before volunteer work became a little less voluntary: the first forced labor camp, Guanahacabibes, was set up in western Cuba at the end of 1960. This is how Che explained the function performed by this method of confinement: “[We] only send to Guanahacabibes those doubtful cases where we are not sure people should go to jail ... people who have committed crimes against revolutionary morals, to a lesser or greater degree.... It is hard labor, not brute labor, rather the working conditions there are hard.”
This camp was the precursor to the eventual systematic confinement, starting in 1965 in the province of Camagüey, of dissidents, homosexuals, AIDS victims, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Afro-Cuban priests, and other such scum, under the banner of Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción, or Military Units to Help Production. Herded into buses and trucks, the “unfit” would be transported at gunpoint into concentration camps organized on the Guanahacabibes mold. Some would never return; others would be raped, beaten, or mutilated; and most would be traumatized for life, as Néstor Almendros’s wrenching documentary Improper Conduct showed the world a couple of decades ago.
So Time magazine may have been less than accurate in August 1960 when it described the revolution’s division of labor with a cover story featuring Che Guevara as the “brain” and Fidel Castro as the “heart” and Raúl Castro as the “fist.” But the perception reflected Guevara’s crucial role in turning Cuba into a bastion of totalitarianism. Che was a somewhat unlikely candidate for ideological purity, given his bohemian spirit, but during the years of training in Mexico and in the ensuing period of armed struggle in Cuba he emerged as the communist ideologue infatuated with the Soviet Union, much to the discomfort of Castro and others who were essentially opportunists using whatever means were necessary to gain power. When the would-be revolutionaries were arrested in Mexico in 1956, Guevara was the only one who admitted that he was a communist and was studying Russian. (He spoke openly about his relationship with Nikolai Leonov from the Soviet Embassy.) During the armed struggle in Cuba, he forged a strong alliance with the Popular Socialist Party (the island’s Communist Party) and with Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, a key player in the conversion of Castro’s regime to communism.
This fanatical disposition made Che into a linchpin of the “Sovietization” of the revolution that had repeatedly boasted about its independent character. Very soon after the barbudos came to power, Guevara took part in negotiations with Anastas Mikoyan, the Soviet deputy prime minister, who visited Cuba. He was entrusted with the mission of furthering Soviet-Cuban negotiations during a visit to Moscow in late 1960. (It was part of a long trip in which Kim Il Sung’s North Korea was the country that impressed him “the most.”) Guevara’s second trip to Russia, in August 1962, was even more significant, because it sealed the deal to turn Cuba into a Soviet nuclear beachhead. He met Khrushchev in Yalta to finalize details on an operation that had already begun and involved the introduction of forty-two Soviet missiles, half of which were armed with nuclear warheads, as well as launchers and some forty-two thousand soldiers. After pressing his Soviet allies on the danger that the United States might find out what was happening, Guevara obtained assurances that the Soviet navy would intervene—in other words, that Moscow was ready to go to war.
According to Philippe Gavi’s biography of Guevara, the revolutionary had bragged that “this country is willing to risk everything in an atomic war of unimaginable destructiveness to defend a principle.” Just after the Cuban missile crisis ended—with Khrushchev reneging on the promise made in Yalta and negotiating a deal with the United States behind Castro’s back that included the removal of American missiles from Turkey—Guevara told a British communist daily: “If the rockets had remained, we would have used them all and directed them against the very heart of the United States, including New York, in our defense against aggression.” And a couple of years later, at the United Nations, he was true to form: “As Marxists we have maintained that peaceful coexistence among nations does not include coexistence between exploiters and the exploited.”
Guevara distanced himself from the Soviet Union in the last years of his life. He did so for the wrong reasons, blaming Moscow for being too soft ideologically and diplomatically, for making too many concessions—unlike Maoist China, which he came to see as a haven of orthodoxy. In October 1964, a memo written by Oleg Daroussenkov, a Soviet official close to him, quotes Guevara as saying: “We asked the Czechoslovaks for arms; they turned us down. Then we asked the Chinese; they said yes in a few days, and did not even charge us, stating that one does not sell arms to a friend.” In fact, Guevara resented the fact that Moscow was asking other members of the communist bloc, including Cuba, for something in return for its colossal aid and political support. His final attack on Moscow came in Algiers, in February 1965, at an international conference, where he accused the Soviets of adopting the “law of value,” that is, capitalism. His break with the Soviets, in sum, was not a cry for independence. It was an Enver Hoxha–like howl for the total subordination of reality to blind ideological orthodoxy.
The great revolutionary had a chance to put into practice his economic vision—his idea of social justice—as head of the National Bank of Cuba and of the Department of Industry of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform at the end of 1959, and, starting in early 1961, as minister of industry. The period in which Guevara was in charge of most of the Cuban economy saw the near-collapse of sugar production, the failure of industrialization, and the introduction of rationing—all this in what had been one of Latin America’s four most economically successful countries since before the Batista dictatorship.
His stint as head of the National Bank, during which he printed bills signed “Che,” has been summarized by his deputy, Ernesto Betancourt: “[He] was ignorant of the most elementary economic principles.” Guevara’s powers of perception regarding the world economy were famously expressed in 1961, at a hemispheric conference in Uruguay, where he predicted a 10 percent rate of growth for Cuba “without the slightest fear,” and, by 1980, a per capita income greater than that of “the U.S. today.” In fact, by 1997, the thirtieth anniversary of his death, Cubans were dieting on a ration of five pounds of rice and one pound of beans per month; four ounces of meat twice a year; four ounces of soybean paste per week; and four eggs per month.
Land reform took land away from the rich, but gave it to the bureaucrats, not to the peasants. (The decree was written in Che’s house.) In the name of diversification, the cultivated area was reduced and manpower distracted toward other activities. The result was that between 1961 and 1963, the harvest was down by half, to a mere 3.8 million metric tons. Was this sacrifice justified by progress in Cuban industrialization? Unfortunately, Cuba had no raw materials for heavy industry, and, as a consequence of the revolutionary redistribution, it had no hard currency with which to buy them—or even basic goods. By 1961, Guevara was having to give embarrassing explanations to the workers at the office: “Our technical comrades at the companies have made a toothpaste ... which is as good as the previous one; it cleans just the same, though after a while it turns to stone.” By 1963, all hopes of industrializing Cuba were abandoned, and the revolution accepted its role as a colonial provider of sugar to the Soviet bloc in exchange for oil to cover its needs and to re-sell to other countries. For the next three decades, Cuba would survive on a Soviet subsidy of somewhere between $65 billion and $100 billion.
Having failed as a hero of social justice, does Guevara deserve a place in the history books as a genius of guerrilla warfare? His greatest military achievement in the fight against Batista—taking the city of Santa Clara after ambushing a train with heavy reinforcements—is seriously disputed. Numerous testimonies indicate that the commander of the train surrendered in advance, perhaps after taking bribes. (Gutiérrez Menoyo, who led a different guerrilla group in that area, is among those who have decried Cuba’s official account of Guevara’s victory.) Immediately after the triumph of the revolution, Guevara organized guerrilla armies in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Haiti—all of which were crushed. In 1964, he sent the Argentine revolutionary Jorge Ricardo Masetti to his death by persuading him to mount an attack on his native country from Bolivia, just after representative democracy had been restored to Argentina.
Particularly disastrous was the Congo expedition in 1965. Guevara sided with two rebels—Pierre Mulele in the west and Laurent Kabila in the east—against the ugly Congolese government, which was sustained by the United States as well as by South African and exiled Cuban mercenaries. Mulele had taken over Stanleyville earlier before being driven back. During his reign of terror, as V.S. Naipaul has written, he murdered all the people who could read and all those who wore a tie. As for Guevara’s other ally, Laurent Kabila, he was merely lazy and corrupt at the time; but the world would find out in the 1990s that he, too, was a killing machine. In any event, Guevara spent most of 1965 helping the rebels in the east before fleeing the country ignominiously. Soon afterward, Mobutu came to power and installed a decades-long tyranny. (In Latin American countries too, from Argentina to Peru, Che-inspired revolutions had the practical result of reinforcing brutal militarism for many years.)
In Bolivia, Che was defeated again, and for the last time. He misread the local situation. There had been an agrarian reform years before; the government had respected many of the peasant communities’ institutions; and the army was close to the United States despite its nationalism. “The peasant masses don’t help us at all” was Guevara’s melancholy conclusion in his Bolivian diary. Even worse, Mario Monje, the local communist leader, who had no stomach for guerrilla warfare after having been humiliated at the elections, led Guevara to a vulnerable location in the southeast of the country. The circumstances of Che’s capture at Yuro ravine, soon after meeting the French intellectual Régis Debray and the Argentine painter Ciro Bustos, both of whom were arrested as they left the camp, was, like most of the Bolivian expedition, an amateur’s affair.
Guevara was certainly bold and courageous, and quick at organizing life on a military basis in the territories under his control, but he was no General Giap. His book Guerrilla Warfare teaches that popular forces can beat an army, that it is not necessary to wait for the right conditions because an insurrectional foco (or small group of revolutionaries) can bring them about, and that the fight must primarily take place in the countryside. (In his prescription for guerrilla warfare, he also reserves for women the roles of cooks and nurses.) However, Batista’s army was not an army, but a corrupt bunch of thugs with no motivation and not much organization; and guerrilla focos, with the exception of Nicaragua, all ended up in ashes for the foquistas; and Latin America has turned 70 percent urban in these last four decades. In this regard, too, Che Guevara was a callous fool.
In the last few decades of the nineteenth century, Argentina had the second-highest growth rate in the world. By the 1890s, the real income of Argentine workers was greater than that of Swiss, German, and French workers. By 1928, that country had the twelfth-highest per capita GDP in the world. That achievement, which later generations would ruin, was in large measure due to Juan Bautista Alberdi.
Like Guevara, Alberdi liked to travel: he walked through the pampas and deserts from north to south at the age of fourteen, all the way to Buenos Aires. Like Guevara, Alberdi opposed a tyrant, Juan Manuel Rosas. Like Guevara, Alberdi got a chance to influence a revolutionary leader in power—Justo José de Urquiza, who toppled Rosas in 1852. And like Guevara, Alberdi represented the new government on world tours, and died abroad. But unlike the old and new darling of the left, Alberdi never killed a fly. His book, Bases y puntos de partida para la organización de la República Argentina, was the foundation of the Constitution of 1853 that limited government, opened trade, encouraged immigration, and secured property rights, thereby inaugurating a seventy-year period of astonishing prosperity. He did not meddle in the affairs of other nations, opposing his country’s war against Paraguay. His likeness does not adorn Mike Tyson’s abdomen.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow and director of The Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute. He is the author of Liberty for Latin America.