It is certainly the Chicano community’s right to idolize whomever they like, and it is ultimately not my place to tell Chicanos what murals they can or cannot have in their residence. However, their choices are not immune to criticism, and criticism of Che Guevara is certainly merited. A foreign implant from Argentina, Che presided over the infamous summary executions of at least 1,118 political prisoners by firing squad at La Cabaña from 1958 to 1960. Che enjoyed personally administering the coup de grace, the bullet to the back of the neck. Even earlier, in January 1957, Guevara boasted of shooting 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”, reports Che in his diary.
Stanford owes some compassion to its community of Cuban descent, which should not have to tolerate school-sponsored hagiographies of the man who created the gulag system where democrats, dissidents, artists, homosexuals, and Afro-Cuban priests suffer and die to this day. These camps were designed to house the ‘unfit,’ as Che pursued his dream of creating a Cuba filled with ‘New Men.’ Unfortunately, these labor camps remain smaller prisons within a larger one: all of Cuba. The government that Che helped lead continues to trap over 11 million Cubans on the island. Che’s glorified presence on Casa Zapata’s walls is blatantly offensive to Stanford’s Cuban-American community.
Defenders of Che will likely cite his commitment to revolutionary ideals and liberation from the Batista regime. However, replacing Batista with a regime that arrests people for ‘pre-criminal social dangerousness’ is no great achievement. Che was a dogmatic Marxist who, as Minister of Industries, advocated expropriation of every single farm and shop in Cuba, and as one historian noted“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.”
While the worst of Che’s crimes were committed against the Cuban people, he spared no sympathy for the American people. Che once declared“If the nuclear missiles had remained, we would have used them against the very heart of America, including New York City…We will march the path of victory even if it costs millions of atomic victims…We must keep our hatred alive and fan it to paroxysm.” As a Canadian, I really have no stake in the matter, but I would hope Americans would be less celebratory of a man who openly claimed that he would have been willing to sacrifice millions of lives and start a nuclear war just to hurt America, if only the opportunity had not been taken from him. Ironically, President Kennedy — one of the men who stopped Che from nuking America — is also depicted, albeit behind the selected thirteen heroes.
Che admitted in his diaries in 1958 that“Much more valuable than rural recruits for our guerrilla force were American media recruits to export our propaganda.” Indeed, the propaganda effort has been largely successful; Che is routinely used as a symbol of social justice and as a freedom fighter, and is apparently viewed as a Chicano hero. There is no doubt that Che performed some valuable work for indigenous communities by documenting the treatment of Chilean mine workers and fighting the oppressive Batista regime. However, even the most ardent defender of Che’s efforts must admit feeling a slight discomfort at celebrating the man who created the Cuban gulags, trained a secret police force, and helped establish a deeply unjust social system in Cuba.
As Humberto Fontova writes of Cuban-Americans in Exposing the Real Che Guevara,
Practically every day, we go out to the street only to see the image of the very man who trained the secret police to murder our relatives—thousands of men, women, and boys. This man committed many of these murders with his own hands. And yet we see him celebrated everywhere as the quintessence of humanity, progress, and compassion.
If Casa Zapata needs a Cuban martyr on its wall, it has many to choose from. Orlando Zapata and Oswalda Payá — victims of the Castro regime — would be a good start. Any of the brave democrats murdered or imprisoned would be a better choice than a man who has been compared to Heinrich Himmler. Moreover, the placement of Che Guevara next to people like Cesar Chavez only diminishes the contributions of other heroes who deserve recognition for their impressive contributions to Chicanos everywhere — contributions that do not involve mass executions.
In the final analysis, Che Guevara was a butcher and a tyrant. It is utterly disgusting, offensive, and ignorant for Casa Zapata to deify him on its walls.