A book review of Alvaro Vargas Llosa's “The Che Guevara Myth.”
Alvaro Vargas Llosa's The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty is less of a study of the life of the Communist killer than a look at how his totalitarian legacy poisons Latin America today. Totalitarianism in Latin America is the real theme of The Che Guevara Myth. The myth is less about Che the individual than the idea that violent terror can bring reform rather than further cycles of brutal oppression.
As Alvaro Vargas Llosa points out, "Che Guevara had a lot more in common with the men and systems he fought than would seem conceivable." The same was true of Fidel Castro, the son of a plantation owner who received a wedding gift from Batista or Vladimir Lenin, the son of a nobleman.
Revolutionaries are less likely to be the oppressed than the aspiring oppressors, with just enough access to power to make them want more without offering them enough mobility to climb to the top through the system. It isn’t the poor starving peasant who runs revolutions, but the itinerant son of a wealthy family with too much education and too little need to work who puts on the beret and plays with guns.
Che Guevara became such a campus hero to privileged leftists not because he was a peasant rebel, but because he was one of them, the son of a wealthy family, a bookish asthmatic brat who became the essence of radical chic. The Che of the red t-shirt has always been a myth. The real Che was the great-grandson of one of the richest men on the continent, his father owned a plantation (another ongoing theme among Cuban Communists) and he benefited from family connections on both sides.
Che was the wheezing rich boy turned psychotic mass murderer that every campus leftie wishes he could be. And when he didn’t have an army of thugs behind him, the self-glorifying killer turned coward, begging for his life.
The transformation of Che from killer to gift shop icon follows what Alvaro Vargas Llosa views as a predictable path from revolution to oligarchy. The living Che becomes the dead Che and the living revolution becomes a fossilized tyranny that markets his mythology to disguise its bankruptcy.
The myth of Che covers up the bigger myth of Latin America’s Marxist revolutions.
Rather than viewing Communist takeovers as a revolutionary break from the past, Llosa posits that they are part of a continuum of Latin American totalitarianism, with Communist dictators mirroring many of the systems they destroyed while destroying what little good they had. The choice between left-wing and right-wing dictators, he argues, is a false choice, as "All those prepared to use force to take life and property away from their fellow men are soul mates." Class warfare distracts millions from the fact that they have no freedom because they have no free market. And no amount of revolutions and firing squads can ever give them a working economy or the free and prosperous society that comes with it.
Instead there is "an endless sequence of oppressive states, each one purporting to suppress the evils of preceding institutions." Colonial administrations are shoved aside by generals. Generals are overthrown by Communists. The Communists are removed by more generals. And the tyrannical cycle continues on.
Nelson Mandela claimed that "Che’s life is an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom." Freedom however was the opposite of what Che stood for, instead engaging in brutal repression, censorship and oppression, killing on a whim and seeking to stamp out entire artistic fields.
Mandela’s praise, like that of so many others, tells us more about Mandela than about Che.
The left needed to believe in the Che myth to deny its complicity in Communist crimes. Thus Sartre could praise the murderer who gleefully signed his letters “Stalin II” and wrote, “I discovered that I really like killing,” as “the most complete human being of our time—our era’s most perfect man.”
Sartre’s “perfect man,” like Mandela’s “inspiration," was tellingly a sociopath who killed without remorse, a self-described “killing machine” building his own myth over a bridge of corpses.
What they were really defending was the central revolutionary myth that a violent leftist overthrow would lead to a virtuous and equal society. They were defending more than just a single privileged monster, but the monstrous crime that he had come to represent in the popular imagination.
Che had always dressed up his psychopathic killing sprees as revolutionary fervor, “The revolution cannot be made without killing and, to kill, it is best to hate.” The horrifying logic of this still permeates the left which begins by hating and ends by killing. Like so many other leftist monsters, Che had sought revolution because of the license it gave him to act out his worst and most monstrous impulses. The linkage between ideology and brutality served as his shield against any criticism of his crimes.
While Che is long dead, the revolutionary regimes linger on, rising and falling as the self-justifying revolutionary brutality perpetuates itself, whether in Venezuela where snipers shoot down protesters or back in Cuba, where political dissent continues to be suppressed with the complicity of a fellow leftist regime in Washington, which exploits misery to stir up tides of violence from Ferguson to Baltimore.
The revolutions manufacture poverty in order to create and maintain revolutions. The misery is the point. Prosperity brings freedom while misery can only lead to more cycles of repression, whether through the perpetuation of a tyranny or through its revolutionary replacement by another tyranny.
It is in this hopeless environment that monsters like Che, Chavez or Castro thrive. This is the world of death squads and corrupt bureaucracies, prison camps and terror bombings, repression and secret police, oligarchies and dependents. It is the world that Che helped to make. It is the world that leftists continue to create with all their soft and hard revolutions. A world defined by brute force and concentrations of wealth under the authority of small and powerful groups of elites.
Che was a son of civilization who chose to become a savage. Latin American history is burdened with that same murderous impulse of soldiers and revolutionaries who choose to abandon civilization for savagery. That is the poison that still runs through the veins of Latin America, drips from the speeches of countless wannabe Ches still blaming all the misery they create on the United States of America and vowing that when they have destroyed and killed enough, when they have stolen enough and looted enough, the country and the world will be made better for their crimes.
The tragic truth, as Alvaro Vargas Llosa's The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty shows us, is that all this only perpetuates the misery and malaise. Revolution is not the exit sign to a better world and wealth redistribution cannot help the poor. Revolution doesn’t open up the system. It closes it down. Its redistribution of wealth actually ends up concentrating it in even fewer hands.
Freedom is still the only solution. By embracing its individualistic tradition, he argues, Latin America can still have what the murderous revolutionaries greedy for power and blood could never give it.
A better life.
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