By Tania Bhattacharya
For those on the political Left, Che Guevara’s name is intertwined with concepts of social justice, free speech, eradication of poverty, freedom and sovereignty, and similarly enthralling ideas that reek of the revolutionary’s heady days as a leader of the Cuban Revolution. Henry Kissinger is a darling figure for foreign relations experts. He is lionized for his efforts in the betterment of ties between the United States and China, during the Cold War era. That iconic figure of Che, wearing a beret with a five-pointed star, long hair resting on his shoulders, looking out at a humanity riddled with inequality and injustice with his indignant eyes, has raked in millions. Capitalism has marketed this popular child of Socialism and has had a field day at the bank. Similarly, Kissinger’s coming clean – an unthinkable act on the part of the American bureaucracy – over the shenanigans involving the genocide during Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971, has endeared him to millions of South Asians. A closer examination of these two international figures, who were contemporaries during the Cold War and lived on opposite sides of the ideological divide, however, reveals deeply unsettling and questionable actions by them, that Liberal and Conservative historians, respectively, have not dared to reflect upon.
ERNESTO ‘CHE’ GUEVARA
Che Guevara is not well known to many who wear an image of him – the frequently marketed one – on their t-shirts and polo caps. The catch though, is that even educated historians who have no particular axe to grind against his legacy, conveniently airbrush most of his disturbing acts, out of fear of their write-ups or books, not being well-received.
As a youthful motorcyclist trudging through Central and South America with his buddy Alberto Granado, after their motorcycle broke down, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, to give Che his birth moniker, lied to people about his educational qualifications in return for free food and boarding. On the eve of his famous journey on ‘La Poderosa’, the said motorcycle that gave up the ghost not long after the two men were astride it, Che had not completed his medical studies, having to yet graduate his fourth and last semester. But he had posed as a practicing doctor nevertheless, and even prescribed medication for the sick and suffering souls that had provided him and Granado with food and a roof.
It is often cited that Guevara’s metamorphosis was the result of what he observed at the United Fruit Company, which was an American conglomerate that routinely mistreated its Native American workers, keeping them in grinding poverty, and brutally repressing any spark of protest they found. Prior to this, though, the man had zilch inclination towards social justice or Marxism. The Ernesto that was yet to discover the United Fruit Company – which presently markets under the name of Chiquita Brands International – was a lovelorn twenty-two year old, romancing a very wealthy aristocrat by the name of Maria del Carmen. He had hoped to settle down in comfort and money, with her, and hitherto been a proto-Peronist, with a marked dislike for the Argentine Left. Therefore, it would be wrong to assume that this future guerrilla had been imbued with Leftist ideas from a young age, which he had used as a springboard to advance his ideas of global revolution.
When the Left came to power through the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Che along with his buddies Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos, divided up the spoils of war among themselves, referring to the properties, and cars, left behind by fleeing Cubans, who had been allied with the former regime of deposed America-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Marxist sobriety was far from Che’s mind, as he chose for himself, a 1960 Chevrolet Bel-Air from the confiscated lot of luxury vehicles, and later, a grand waterfront mansion for his wife and future children, after evicting its reluctant owner, who had been the governor. The home was a sprawling bungalow (a single-storied home) with a yatch harbour, seven bathrooms, a swimming pool, a sauna, a massage salon, and five tv sets. Evidence lies in the photographs of his luxurious abode, as well as its description in Humberto Fontova’s book ‘Exposing Che’. Had the former owner resisted, he would have had to face Che’s firing-squads.
One of the most memorable acts of Guevara, as a top echelon of Castro’s dictatorship, was to oversee the execution squads of La Cabana, the high security prison. He personally signed death squad indictments without batting an eye, and without organizing a fair and proper trial for the accused. In his own words “To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary… These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail. This is a revolution!”
The Soviet Union had seen sense and backed down from a military confrontation with the United States, over the former’s stockpiling of nuclear arsenals in Cuba. This well-known incident of the Cold War is described as the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’. Humanity may have sighed in relief, with President Kennedy having the gumption of not gloating over the event, but Che was far from happy. He had sulked and complained no end, about how his dream of incinerating America, and if possible, the rest of the world, with nuclear devastation, had remained unfulfilled. As a result, he had decided to step away from Cuban-Soviet bonhomie. One finds no solidarity with human rights here, on behalf of the Left’s favourite poster-child. That millions of innocent civilians the world over, including proletarian have-nots, would have been wiped out in a nuclear holocaust, does not seem to have impressed itself on his conscience.
No exemplar in his private sphere, either, Ernesto, discreetly maintained several mistresses while being married to Aleida March, a fellow revolutionary. So much so, that one of his illegitimate liaisons, produced a son in 1964. The child – Omar Perez – born to Lilia Perez Lopez, then a student at Havana University and herself already married, is today a famous journalist, poet, and a convert to Buddhism, who thinks nothing much of his father’s legacy, questioning most of it. At the drop of a hat, our revolutionary had abandoned his spouse and offspring on the eve of his underground operations in the Congo and in Bolivia, without assuring them any guarantee of his return. His first wife, the Native American Hilda Gadea and his daughter with her, Hildita (little Hilda), as well as his second wife, Aleida, along with his four young children with her, were virtually abandoned, for the sake of globalizing Socialism.
An interview with Omar Perez.
In a memoir called ‘My cousin, El Che’, Alberto Benegas Lynch Jr., a cousin of Guevara, had said that the former enjoyed torturing animals, as a child. This disturbing trait is often found among budding serial-killers, and if unchecked, can spawn individuals with an apathetic, and cruel mindset.
Biographies of public figures as polarizing as Che, must be thoroughly examined and cross-checked before being absorbed as gospel truth. There are agenda-ridden books out there, penned and sponsored by CIA stooges, or Cuban-American exiles, which have spun several untrue myths about Ernesto Guevara, chief among those being, that he murdered gays, and hated Blacks. Though the kingpins of the Cuban Revolution – Che included – were no saints, and consciously contributed to the culture of ‘Machismo’, a culture that exuded male chauvinism and militarism, as lamented by Che’s widow Aleida March herself, there is no personal record of Guevara ever having executed anyone on the basis of homosexuality, alone. Nowhere in his copiously jotted entries, do we find any mention of LGBT people or his attitude towards them. When the LGBT did find themselves facing persecution, it was as gulag inmates in the labour camp system devised by Guevara. Cuba’s labour camps were not targeted at the LGBT. They were internment camps for those who simply ‘didn’t fit’ into regular Cuban society. The allegation about him hating Blacks maybe veracious to a degree; he had been pretty nasty in his opinion about them as a youth, but with maturity, Guevara began to identify more and more with the anti-imperialist struggles of the sub-Saharan African peoples, had a Black Cuban comrade as his best-man on his wedding day, and made a United Nations speech on the power of the Black-Africans in liberating themselves from white Imperialism.
As Minister of Industries in Cuba, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, had visited India and proclaimed his support and faith in Cuba-India co-operation. An avid reader, Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi had inspired his beliefs from the time that he was a teenager. As an Indian, and especially if that Indian belongs to the political Left of the Indian intelligentsia, it is hard to overcome a grandiose image of this man, who is more riddled in myth, than any other revolutionary of the past century. Yet, it is the historian’s duty, to make historical narration, as objective as possible. At best, the global Left’s most famous rebel, was a mixed bag. A figure who despite his courage, vision, and ideals; had a dark and disturbing side to his persona.
The late chef, Anthony Bourdain, has a blurb which says “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death, with your bare hands”.
Bourdain would have known. As a peripatetic French chef, besotted by Oriental fares, in particular those of South East Asia, with an emphasis on Cambodia; he had witnessed first hand, how that war-ravaged nation was trying to right its balance, after decades of slaughter by the United States’ military forces, and its homegrown terror outfit, the CIA.
Just as Hollywood has planted the genocidal Winston Churchill on a pedestal, so have historians from around the world, done to Kissinger. They have no qualms deriding the usual suspects; Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ceausescu, Hoxha, even Che. But Kissinger’s glorified image is sacrosanct. It is not difficult to see, why. The aforementioned leaders killed, centered around ideology. Their victims were ideological bete noires. Though reprehensible, at least their actions can be directly linked to political dislike. It was quite different with the victimization of Cambodia, though. Kissinger’s hate killed and devastated millions of lives, even though the victims were apolitical. They were poor peasants, minding their own business. Since then, the term ‘Collateral Damage’ has been used to refer to the mass murdering of Cambodian citizens, not ‘victims of genocide’, as if their sole reason to exist, was to become cannon fodder for American hegemony in South East Asia.
Kissinger’s criminality cannot be overstated. Indo-China, involving Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, were mercilessly napalmed, and aerial bombed, a trend-setting tactic, that led in the long-run to the era of remote-controlled violence, as in the case of American drone bombing of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, northern Pakistan, and the entirety of Yemen. As a favourite of US Right Wingers – after all Kissinger was a fixture in the Nixon administration – the former has all the required moral support from patriotic American citizens. Historians feel beleaguered taking on his false persona as a man of peace, since he has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. His stature as a civil servant, someone with high academic credentials and a job as a statesman, makes human rights activists’ efforts in indicting him, ever more difficult. It was at the International Court of Justice at the Hague, that Kissinger deserved a spectacle; not at the Nobel Awards ceremony.
The main perpetrators of the Cambodian Genocide have been both the Khmer Rouge, as well as Henry Kissinger. His disastrous actions brought out the worst in the Khmer Rouge executioners, giving way to a set of retributive actions that further lengthened the genocide. Strangely, while the Khmer Rouge is routinely and rightly denounced for its repressive actions, Kissinger has not received his due, for being a mass murderer and fellow executioner.
The aerial bombings maimed, disfigured, incinerated, and killed hundreds of thousands of citizens in Indo-China. Survivors were forced to live for months inside holes in the ground, or in caves that could protect them from the aerial assaults. Yet, excoriating the architect of such dastardly acts, is seen as ‘Historical Revisionism’. Rarely before, has a war criminal been awarded such priviledge; with Winston Churchill, being an exception.
Both the political Left and the political Right, have coddled Che Guevara, and Henry Kissinger, respectively, preventing the rest of us, from assessing them in an impartial manner. But even here, Che has been criticized with comparative ease, as opposed to Kissinger’s impunity. Indians tend to have a positive opinion of the American diplomat, barely aware of his indiscriminate carpet bombing of Indo-China, where his victims still suffer, to this day. To the average academic, Henry Kissinger’s name is associated with the betterment of US-China ties, and effective foreign policy, not mass extermination. It is akin to absolving Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara of all his criminality, just because he had studied to be a doctor, had helped lepers, and was willing to die for his principles. This sounds great! But so what? His redeeming features ought to be kept aside for a different discussion. One wishes we could subject Mr. Kissinger to the same standard. While he chomps on Cambodian Lettuce Wraps at high profile parties, his victims are still wondering why they deserved his ire.
In the end, it would suit us well, to abandon Capitalism and Communism, as useless, globalizing, and expansionist doctrines, that have overstayed their welcome. A new world order, must be one, where each nation rises to self-sufficiency, by ascribing to political, economic, social, and yes, religious models; which suit it the best. Some features that apply to all of us as global citizens, such as Human Rights, must be adhered to. But outside of this, any form of expansionism, and globalization, should be discouraged.
A last word on the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Henry Kissinger. One might be curious about who he dedicated it to. Well, he made it clear that the prize was a dedication to the suffering and pain, experienced by the families of all the US soldiers, who had fallen in Indo-China.
The pain of his victims, was omitted.
Tania is a freelance writer with a masters in defence and strategic studies, who has a wide range of interests.