"These are the times that try men’s’ souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
As an unabashed atheist, socialist, anarchist (I really ought to qualify this, but I’ll refrain here), and generally comfortable denizen of the “Left”, I am often asked my opinion about Ernesto Guevara, “El Che”, that countenance which graces so many t-shirts and college dormitory walls, enjoying the vacant worship of idealistic twenty-somethings with collective eyes fresh from page five of the Communist Manifesto (and likely with collective bookmarks still in the preface to Capital). I’ve even been the object of rather loaded requests to mount defense for Che, whatever that means, other than that the petitioner has a penchant for ill conceived, if unintentional, assumption. Having been more or less indifferent to the former question and the latter proposition in the past, I thought I might break with tradition (this being my inauguratory summer as a “blogger”, after all), at the risk of cliché, and oblige. Specifically, I intend to submit a defense of El Che, not through the paradigms of extenuating circumstances, ends-justify-the-means anti-imperialism, or dogmatic, militant Marxism, but rather by pointing out what I see as intolerable hypocrisy, coupled with a plea for the uniform application of standards when throwing around phrases like “terrorist” and “mass murderer”. I invite anyone who can satisfy these basic moral criteria to denounce the guerilla in my presence; I will not quarrel. So, to the point; I intend to draw comparisons between the Cuban and American revolutions, and their respective characters. My decision to concentrate on Guevara’s role in the Cuban Revolution specifically rests partly on practicality and partly on a fortiori logic, since his adventures in Zaire and Bolivia were relatively uneventful by comparison, and any charges levied against him in the context of these are equally applicable, if not more so, in the case of Cuba.
There’s a lot a propaganda floating around cyberspace, most of it promulgated by radical right-wing expatriate Cuban groups based in Miami, making wild claims about Guevara’s butchery in Cuba, including the summary execution of hundreds of innocent civilians at his hands or on his orders. None of these appear to be based on any reliable sources so far as I can tell, and indeed come off as nothing more than Khmer Rouge atrocities copied and pasted, with names changed to suite the objectives. The falsified casualty lists could double as role for any local American Chamber of Commerce, claiming disproportionate killings among the professional class; doctors, lawyers and the like (the Miami Cuban political machine does draw disproportionately from the professional classes, which is no coincidence). While it is true that many skilled professionals and technocrats left Cuba after the Revolution, to give them refugee status is dishonesty with more than a touch of cynical pragmatism. These people came to America to make more money, plain and simple. While I don’t begrudge them that, the Cuban American community clearly has a political agenda, one that compromises their objectivity on all matters Cuban. In fact, they are not above harboring actual convicted terrorist like Orlando Bosch and Jorge Posada themselves, all pot calling the kettle negro jokes aside…
Aware of the dubious nature of many internet sources regarding Guevara’s role in the Cuban Revolution, I hit the scholarly literature, and very quickly noted a profoundly different picture, painted even, if somewhat grudgingly, by less than sympathetic historians. The core of the 26th of July Movement only ever consisted of around a dozen rebels, and the literature is more or less unanimous in attributing their eventual success in toppling the brutal and corrupt Batista regime to widespread popular and organizational support both in the countryside and in urban areas. Moreover, the guerilla’s popular support was largely attributable to the relative few civilian casualties they were responsible for, as opposed to the 20,000 or so tortured or murdered by Batista functionaries between 1952 and 1959. Again, this assessment is essentially unanimous among sources which draw upon appropriate citation and which have been submitted for peer review. Historian and Latin American scholar Richard Weitz asserts that the guerillas of the Sierra Maestra employed force only against military opponents, and I could find no substantiation for claims that the rebels abused or killed political detractors or apolitical peasantry. Historian Timothy P. Wickham-Crowley, a rabid critic of Fidel, writing about guerilla terror in 1990, said, “…such terror is highly selective and used against only government officials, informers, deserters, and local criminal elements, including “social” criminals such as landlords. Despite those assumptions, some guerillas have succeeded virtually without terror (notably in Cuba)…” Even intra-revolutionary justice appears to have been of a moderate variety, and apparently no guerillas were put to death for desertion or insubordination, though we have from diary entrees that these desertions and insubordinations did occur. Guevara himself seems to have held a nuanced view on what constitutes justifiable violence, and advocated the pursuit of change through established institutional avenues as a necessary prerequisite to militant revolution. Weitz quotes him as writing “Where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities for peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted.” Wickham-Crowley studied rebel enforcement of the death penalty during the insurgency, and found that in 1957 a total of five people were tried and executed by the rebels, all having been either informants, double agents or Batista functionaries attempting to forcibly corral peasant populations into what essentially amounted to concentration camps in order to root out insurgents (think defoliation in Vietnam). All of these are virtually by consensus considered “legitimate” actions at time of war, and are almost never decried in any other context. They certainly don’t meet the definition of arbitrary violence for the purpose of terrorizing. Wickham-Crowley further states that the “Revolutionary justice” trials held after rebel victory in 1959, often cited by Cuba’s detractors as evidence of totalitarian abuse of power, were in fact generally held for bandits, rapists and criminals, rather than for ideological opposition, and were on the whole fair and conducted with what would in the Western system be called “due process”. Those sanctioned economically in America as a result of the orchestrations of Joseph McCarthy, deported or imprisoned without charge during the Palmer Raids, or executed for thought crime under the Sedition Act should have been so lucky.
Nathaniel Greene, General and military leader of the American units in the South during the Revolutionary War, wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “They made a dreadful carnage of them, upwards of one hundred were killed and most of the rest cut to pieces. It has had a very happy effect on those disaffected persons of which there were too many in this country.” This is unequivocal documentation of killing for demonstration effect among a civilian population, what we would today call terrorism, and is made all the worse by the fact that the victims were not British soldiers, nor American colonists fighting for the British, but were instead merely people deemed to be loyal to the English crown-in no way militant. This was an ideological cleansing campaign, and not an insignificant one. As a corollary and supporting statement of policy, Revolutionary general Andrew Williamson said of American colonists with loyalist sympathies, “…not with standing the lenity hitherto shown them they have at this crisis given convincing proofs, that no faith should or ought to be placed at their most solemn assurance and a severe example must be made for the benefit of the State, and as a terror to others.” A more explicitly stated official policy of terrorist atrocity inflicted upon a civilian population is difficult to find in recorded history. In 1779, more than 150 Loyalists were held at the Revolutionary military base in Augusta, Georgia. Certainly some of these had fought alongside the British, or had provided British troops with material support (though, considering the infamous duress under with British soldiers were known to put civilians in time of need, it’s debatable whether such “assistance” should have constituted a crime, but we’ll call the issue academic), but a large number were simply political prisoners. Twenty Loyalist civilians captured at Kettle Creek by General Williamson, while attempting to flee to the British lines for protection, for example, were shackled and marched to Augusta in 1779. Five were later hanged, for the crime of misdirected loyalties. The previous year another Loyalist had been hanged at Augusta under the same pretense. Historian Sung Bok Kim wrote of colonial opposition to the Revolutionary Whigs, “Many…opposed the Whigs, probably because they resented the Whig assault on their neutrality. For these people Loyalism was a reaction to pressure from Whig committees and militia mobilization.” A careful examination of the American Revolutionary period shows not a trace of a popular mass movement of the kind that obtained in Cuba during the 1950’s, but rather a contrived attempt by an elite militant cadre to manufacture a base of support for the Revolution where generally none existed, often through coercion and violence. John Adams himself famously estimated that a third of the colonial population supported the Revolution, a third opposed it, and a third remained neutral (and of course “population” is understood to have meant the white, male and propertied class). Kim also documents the burning of colonial towns and farms by Revolutionary regiments, in order to give the appearance of desolation to approaching British troops in the hopes that they would not bother to search the area for rebels. Another historian, John Shy, writing about what he considered to be the positive effects of the Revolutionary War, notes a marked “social process” of political re-education, in which terror and execution of ideological opponents played no small role, and in which revolutionary consciousness was thus raised one atrocity at a time. This positively reeks of the most deplorable Stalinist gulag-philosophy, and was probably the explicit strategy of Revolutionary leaders, if we are to take their correspondences seriously, but I imagine the irony is lost on Shy.
American intra-revolutionary justice was harsh, by most reports medieval, in comparison to that of the Sierra Maestra rebels. But then again, lacking the popular support that the 26th of July Movement enjoyed, I suppose it had to be. Revolutionary regiments had to be conscripted, as opposed to the entirely voluntary Cuban rebel cadres. Those failing to appear for draft or militia duty were imprisoned, though draft dodgers were often released on pledge that they would take up arms against the British. Again, we observe proto-American state and military power employed as a mechanism for the political conversion of the population. Records show that mutiny and desertion were dealt with severely. General Washington himself prescribed 30 to 40 lashes for insubordination in the ranks (this was enough to bleed a man to death, not to mention the subsequent mortalities caused by gangrene). After a mutiny on the New Jersey line was put down forcibly, Washington ordered the ringleaders executed without trial as “an example” to others. Acts of mutiny were not uncommon during the Revolutionary War, mostly because privates, who were essentially mercenaries, were rarely paid; or later as it became increasingly apparent that the colonial paper issued to those who were paid in compensation for their coerced allegiance was totally worthless. Tired, ill-fed, and ill-clothed, Revolutionary regiments pillaged the colonial American countryside, driving vast swaths of the civilian population into poverty for decades following the Revolution-indeed, they were encouraged to do so by the Revolutionary leadership. Castro’s nationalization of American corporate holdings in Cuba is widely cited as the origin of the strained relations between our respective countries, and this is quite true. While the U.S. rather half heartedly provided material aid during the Batista regime’s attempt to quell the rebellion (though it enthusiastically supported the dictatorship in its early days), it maintained a rather aloof posture towards Castro’s Cuba until the expropriations, after which all pretense of tolerance was abandoned. But Castro’s nationalizations find their analog in the American Revolution as well, and millions of acres of property belonging to landowners who maintained allegiance to the English Crown were seized and divided amongst the Revolutionary elite as spoils of war; some of the first millionaires of the new American Republic were a product of this deplorable cronyism. It was an profoundly undemocratic process, relegating the language of equal opportunity which characterized the period to mere rhetoric. Both policies concerning loyalist holdings and exceptions to such policies were made arbitrarily on the basis of graft, corruption and patronage. In one case, a friend of Washington’s, and devoted Loyalist, was allowed to maintain his vast holdings based on nothing more than the law of “friends in high places”. I could not find a single documented instance of a Revolutionary private, small farmer or landless tenant who benefitted materially from the widespread expropriation of Loyalist property in the aftermath of the Revolution. At least in the case of Cuba nationalized facilities were putatively the property of all. In the American case even the pretense of equity was dispensed with, and furthermore it would not be inaccurate to say that Loyalists were punished economically for their political affiliations.
It isn’t terribly difficult to see why Guevara is a hero to millions of people around the world who feel they are the victims of Western economic imperialism. I have no problem with those who criticize Guevara’s methods or the outcome of the Cuban revolution in general. That said, what I find troubling is the disproportionate amount of detractors who come from the ultra-nationalist American Right, and who adhere to a puerile and whitewashed mythology concerning the history of their own favored revolution. Critical thinking is fundamental, and anyone who expects to be taken seriously should seriously consider the uniform application of standards in matters political and civil. Such is a moral imperative for the winter soldier.
-W. Gimson, 06/28/2010