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Unmasking Che the Idol

National Book Award winner Carlos Eire, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and later the honor of having as my podcast guest, has an op-ed in Spanish in El Diario La Presa, La nostalgia del Che. Here's the article translated into English:

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Che the Idol

For those of us who lived through the Cuban Revolution there are two Ches: the real one we knew, and the false idol venerated by millions on earth.

The real Che was a hypocrite who lived very comfortably in a mansion while he preached revolution and imprisoned, tortured, and murdered thousands of my fellow countrymen. Some of his victims were my relatives. This Che dismissed human rights as "archaic bourgeois details.” He also herded tens of thousands of Cubans into concentration camps. To top it all off, he didn't really help the poor and oppressed: instead he impoverished everyone, and set himself up as lord of all.

Che the idol is a totally different man: a noble crusader for justice, a sensitive idealist, even a martyr and saint. Ironically, Che the idol generates lots of cash for capitalists who imprint his image on all sorts of merchandise or make films about him.

How did Che the killer become Saint Che?

Because lies are often more attractive than the truth. We human beings have an innate need for heroes, prophets, and saviors, and since genuine ones are in short supply, we eagerly embrace those constructed for us.

Che has four different sorts of admirers: communists, anti-Americans, the poor, and the affluent. That he should be loved by the first three groups is no mystery: Anti-Americans and communists love Che because he is one of their own. The poor desperately need to believe in some redemption from their misery, even in a messianic figure. But why do the affluent need Saint Che? The answer is as simple as it is awful: because of bigotry.

Let's face it: If Che's affluent admirers really believed in his cause, they would move to Cuba, or become revolutionaries in their own country. But they don't, and that says a lot about them.

Saint Che allows white North Americans and Europeans to apply a horribly unacceptable standard of leadership to Latinos that they would never accept for themselves. Through their idolization, these admirers express their feelings of superiority while they delude themselves into thinking that they are in solidarity with the poor. Affluent Latin Americans who love Che, such as Benicio del Toro, the actor who portrays him and praises him are not racists, of course. But they are "useful idiots," as Lenin liked to say.

Any way you look at it, those who idolize Che are to be pitied or feared.

As Paul Berman said a few years ago when another movie sainting Che came out, "The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time."

Fausta Wertz also blogs at faustasblog.com.