14ymedio, Maria Werlau, Miami, 9 October 2017 — ‘Che’ Guevara’s face adorns T-shirts worn by many opponents of capital punishment, but the flesh-and-blood man displayed a deep contempt for the sanctity of human life.
Behind the carefully constructed myth of Che, there is a dark and irreconcilable truth. A cursory look at the extensive bibliography on Che, including his own writings, and a glance at the list of his known victims, makes that patently clear.
Guevara knew, through his self-study of communism, that terror would be a necessary component of revolutionary order. Besides, he had come prepared for the task of executioner; in the Sierra Maestra he had been forged as a serial killer. Of the 25 executions by the Rebel Army during the fight against Batista that Cuba Archive has documented, at least 6 were at Che’s hand or ordered by him. From the 1st of January 1959, he and the Castro brothers pushed the imperative to kill to guarantee control in Cuba.
The death penalty was practically abolished in Cuba, as article 25 of the 1940 Constitution forbade its application except in cases of military treason. But on 10 January 1959 the new Council of Revolutionary Ministers modified the constitution, ignoring the clauses about the process for its amendment, and on 10 February 1959 they promulgated a new Basic Law. Thus, the constitution was subordinated, and essentially abolished, granting the death penalty a vestige of legality and permitting its retroactive application.
From January 1 to 3, 1959, Che executed, or left orders to execute, 25 people in Santa Clara. On 3 January, Fidel Castro appointed him commander of La Cabaña prison in Havana and supreme judge of the revolutionary tribunals. In the short period in which he was in charge of La Cabaña (from January 4 to November 26, 1959), at least 73 people were executed without basic legal guarantees and the great majority without their crimes having been proven. Che not only commanded La Cabaña, but was also the judge in charge of all appeals.
Curiously, the best biographies of Che Guevara have devoted hundreds of pages to the smallest minutia of his life, but given almost zero attention to his victims. In fact, Che’s clothes, appearance, interests, sexuality, or personal correspondence receive more interest than those whose lives he stole or the tracks of pain he left in the anguished families of his victims.
Che spoke frankly to the international community about the executions in Cuba. At the United Nations in New York on 11 December 1964, he made his famous declaration: “Executions, yes we have executed, we are executing and we will continue to execute as long as necessary.”
What is less legendary, but more shocking, is that he was in favor of unleashing nuclear war to “build a better world,” supposedly from the ashes, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. A few weeks later, he told a British journalist if the missiles had been under Cuban control, they would have been launched. If there were any doubts about his objectives, his 1967 message at the Tricontinental Conference passionately advocating the destruction of the United States.
The real number of Che’s victims may never be known. In addition to those he may have killed in Cuba and who are still unknown, many others died in the guerrilla revolts he led in the Congo and Bolivia, as well as other violent actions he led in Latin America. After his death, the totalitarian system he helped to design and impose in Cuba has cost thousands of lives and the communist model he was devoted to has left a number of victims calculated at 100 million in the world.
In this era of suicide bombers who massacred civilians for fanatic objectives, it is imperative to make clear who Che really was. We owe his victims a memory and we owe the loved ones they left behind solidarity. They were plunged into a pain underestimated by the world, made deeper by the exaltation of the executioner.
María Werlau heads the Cuba Archive Project. The second edition of her book, The Forgotten Victims of Che Guevara, includes the profiles of some of his victims.