“Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.”
– Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden” (1899)
There he was, again, Che, Cuba’s one-time Lord High Executioner. This time he was staring at me from an Irish postage stamp, with my surname stamped next to his face.
He’s been stalking me since 1959.
Che was my neighbor in Havana, and I actually saw him in the flesh several times. He lived in an opulent mansion just a few blocks from my small house, and also ran the prison of La Cabaña, where some of my relatives ended up being tortured and murdered by him. Their crime was to voice an opinion different from Che’s. Or, in the case of my uncle Filo, it was the simple fact that his son Fernando had voiced an opinion Che didn’t like.
Yet, despite mountains of evidence that prove that Che was a murderous sociopath, a racist, and a homophobe, there are still many people on earth who believe that he is a saint of sorts. So, this Argentine monster whose nickname is a rough equivalent of today’s “Dude” has not only come to rule the world of kitsch, but also that of postage stamps.
Che has been irritating the hell out of me during all of the fifty-five years that I’ve lived in exile, popping into view in posters, t-shirts, trinkets, and hagiographies, everywhere. Western Europeans seem to love him the most. Whenever I go there, Che ambushes me constantly, around each and every bend of the road, even in the most unlikely places. Il Che in tutti i colori e a prezzi esorbitanti. (1)
Being waylaid by demons would be less disturbing. They can be dispelled by holy water and sacred salt, or a crucifix. But Che? How can one deal with his omnipresence? Nothing seems to repel his evil spirit, or keep it buried in the mausoleum Fidel Castro built for him.
In Arles, where Vincent Van Gogh severed his own ear, Che t-shirts flapped in the wind at the entrance to a souvenir store. Like a messiah crucified between two thieves, Che glowered at everyone, with Absolut Vodka shirts to his right, and Porsche shirts to his left.
In Dubrovnik where customs agents no longer check to see if one’s name is on a long list of enemies of the Yugoslav state, Che looked askance at me from a t-shirt worn by a long-haired teenage boy with an ear ring.
In Venice, a canal or two down from the church where the incorruptible body of Saint Lucy is venerated, he gave me the evil eye from a bottle of Che wine. Fortunately, the Bob Marley bottle beside it made me chill out instantly. The King of Reggae had a cannabis leaf stamped next to his face.
Never mind the fact that Che killed so many Cubans with his firing squads that he came to be known as “The Butcher of La Cabaña,”(2) Never mind that he had a hand in creating concentration camps into which tens of thousands of Cubans were herded, not just for dissenting, but also for wearing tight pants or playing rock music. And never mind that he thought of Mexicans and Africans as inferior folk, or that he hated gays and tried to forcibly “straighten” them out, or that one of his labor camps for homosexuals displayed a sign similar to that at the entrance to Auschwitz: “Work will turn you into real men.”
He still gets an Irish postage stamp.
All these Che objects are highly disturbing, but also highly ironic, for they are a betrayal of everything he supposedly stood for and killed for. Those of us who knew the real Che – as opposed to the idol – know all too well that he would have imprisoned or executed the Irish dolts who created his postage stamp, along with each and every one of the spoiled consumers who buy Che paraphernalia thinking that he was a noble idealist, part Robin Hood, part Christ (3). Communists like Che have always laughed at the way in which capitalists easily become useful idiots and their own worst enemies. As Lenin put it: “the Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” (4)
So Che, a revolutionary who actually tried to do away with money when he was in charge of Cuba’s treasury, ends up as a marketing gimmick, with an internet store dedicated solely to the selling of Che kitsch, – a cyberspace emporium which boasts of “the largest collection of Ernesto Che Guevara merchandise found anywhere in the world.,” proclaiming that
The spirit and passion of Che Guevara have attracted a vast and devoted international following that avidly embraces Che as the definitive symbol of rebellion, a legendary leader of revolution, and a 20th Century cultural pop icon. (5)
Pop Icon indeed, and patron saint of all those bigots who believe in what Rudyard Kipling called “the White Man’s Burden.”
Allow me to explain. After fourteen years of speaking to hundreds of audiences about Cuba, and fielding all sorts of questions, I have finally figured out what makes the Che and the Castro regime appealing to many of the affluent white people I encounter: it’s all due to an updated version of old-fashioned colonial, imperialist bigotry.
Those who praise Che and the so-called Cuban Revolution do so for all sorts of reasons, which are too numerous to catalogue. But no matter what reasons are given, supporters of Che and his revolutionary exploits tend to fall into two categories: the true believers and the closet colonialist bigots. The believers are very fervent folk who covet your property, and would eagerly take it from you if you gave them the chance. The accidental Kiplingesque bigots, in contrast, love their own property and therefore normally extend to all other landholders of their own kind a grudging or envious respect. Since they are usually most keenly interested in enjoying all the benefits of a free-market economy and the blessings of democracy, they have no interest in revolutions, at least in their own fortunate countries. But they do tend to love revolutions elsewhere, and to admire figures like Che.
Of course, they love him because they mistakenly think that he fought against those who exploited the poor without realizing that they themselves would be targets of his rage, for they, too, are exploiting plenty of people all over the world. This blindness to their own shortcomings makes them safe enough to have as neighbors, for they tend to believe that the confiscation and redistribution of property is only necessary in countries other than their own, especially those in the third world, where the dark-skinned people tend to live.
The first type of Che and Fidel admirers – the genuine revolutionaries– are a very small, select group in rich nations, but can be found in greater numbers in poorer countries, especially in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. These are individuals who believe in communism and see it as the only just solution to humankind’s many ills. These folk who believe in collectivist communist ideology – and therefore condemn private property and free enterprise – also loathe the basic liberties that are taken for granted by those who live in democratic free-market societies. For them, the “liberties” of capitalist societies are empty concepts that mask the exploitation of the proletariat, and, in contrast, the repressive totalitarian regimes of the old Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and Fidel’s Cuba represent for them the greatest achievements in human history. These revolutionaries and would-be revolutionaries are not necessarily racist bigots. What defines them is not their attitude towards “peoples of colour,” (since many of them fit into that category), but their blind faith in communism.
Given that die-hard communists of this sort are relatively few in number in the wealthy capitalist nations of the West, a question arises: why it is that there are still so many people in the capitalist world – such as the dolts in the Irish postal service — who idolize the mass-murderer Che and find present-day Cuba an exemplary society despite all its well-documented record of human rights abuses?
This is where Kipling and his white man’s burden enter the picture, for whether they know it or not, or whether they like it or not, the sad truth is that white folk from affluent countries who venerate Che or praise the so-called Cuban Revolution are really bigots at heart, not much different from old-fashioned imperialist, colonialist racists. They are also hypocrites, to boot, for they remain comfortably ensconced in their capitalist nations, enjoying all the freedoms guaranteed there, while venerating Che.
In sum, anyone from the affluent world who thinks that the repressive, soul-crushing, collectivist nightmare that calls itself the Cuban Revolution is good for Cubans but not for themselves is implicitly admitting that they are superior to Cubans in some way, be it morally, economically, intellectually, culturally or racially. It makes no difference how the differences are parsed; anyone who says that Che was a virtuous hero or that the repressive Castro regime he served is good for Cubans but not for themselves necessarily implies that Cubans are somehow different and that they are undeserving or incapable of enjoying the same political, social, and economic rights, either because they are in some way inferior or less developed, or because they are construed as simpler, purer, abnormal or uncivilized in some essential way, much like Rousseau’s noble savage. And no one can dispute the fact that most of those who tend to hold such views or who invest capital in Cuba’s tourism industry, or go there as tourists happen to be Europeans and North Americans of European stock who think of themselves as white and of Cubans as “people of colour.” Ironically, then, Rudyard Kipling, the ultimate poster boy of old-style colonialism, turns out to be the intellectual and spiritual forebear of today’s leftist ideologues, and of anyone who defends the so-called accomplishments of Che, and the so-called Cuban Revolution. It may come as a surprise and a great shock to anyone who venerates Che to hear that they are similar in outlook and attitude to Rudyard Kipling, a dead white male who embodies so much political incorrectness. But the obscene, undeniable truth is that there is virtually no difference between anyone alive today who says that Fidel and Che did great things for Cubans and anyone in days of yore who argued that European imperialism was a blessing to all those benighted “new-caught, sullen peoples,” that Kipling called “half-devil and half-child.”
The bigotry and racism of these postcolonial neocolonialists may not lead them to conquer non-white folk, but it does cause them to think that there are still “sullen peoples” who are actually happier when subjected to all sorts of repression at the hands of their own “enlightened” or “visionary” despots. Their new, improved white man’s burden is easier to bear than Kipling’s. It’s also selfish rather than selfless, for their goal is not to send forth their progeny to civilize savages, but to feel good about their own evaluation of all savages and of mass murderers such as Che.
The only burden these folk bear is one they don’t see or feel at all: that of their embrace of the Mussolini principle, that is, their assumption that swarthy folk are incapable of achieving much for themselves without a dictatorship to guide them. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that many northern Europeans and North Americans praised the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini for making Italian trains run on time. Today’s postcolonial neocolonialists may pat themselves or each other on the back for being open-minded about strong “visionary” leaders like Fidel and Che, who whip into shape an otherwise disorderly people, but just like Mussolini’s supporters in the past, they’re really only giving a new twist to all sorts of ugly old prejudices. (6)
But how has such bigotry endured for so long, undetected by the political-correctness police? The chief problem is that the police are the worst bigots, in spite of themselves, and that the prejudices they harbor are as thick as trees in an ancient forest, and as hard to uproot. Bigotry is unreasonable, and it relies heavily on caricatures. The simpler the image, the bigger the lie, the deeper the bigotry. Bigots hold their prejudices to be “self-evident truths,” or facts, or perhaps even sacred beliefs. And the more outrageous the prejudice, the more likely it is that it will be invisible to the person who harbors it.
This is why it is so hard to change a bigot’s mind, and this is why some Irish bigots decided to honor Che with a postage stamp.
Sadly, Ireland is not the only place where Che is venerated, or where those who call attention to his crimes are dismissed as liars. Convincing any fan of Che that their idol was a monster is extremely difficult, perhaps harder than convincing a small child that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Che has become a totem, and messing with totems is taboo, as Emile Durkheim pointed out long ago (7). Durkheim – a contemporary of Kipling – argued that societies depend on myths, symbols and rituals as much as religions do, and that states and nations are faith systems established gradually by groups of individuals who project emotional and psychological energy onto certain symbols. These symbols, or totems, as Durkheim called them, eventually come to represent the whole community, and to transcend it: they become the society’s grand axis, the ultimate reference point for its ethical code, the very means of distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad, holy from deviant, clean from unclean. Totems define every society and how it regulates behavior: at the very same time, they are a reflection and the touchstone of a society’s values.
If you doubt that Che has become a Durkheimian totem, please consider a single piece of evidence: a travel piece on Cuba written by Sarah Shuckburgh, in which she gives voice to the totemic irrationality of the cult of Che (8). After describing all of the deprivations Cubans have to endure nowadays, she projects her own feelings onto an abstraction of all Cubans who still live on the island, saying that despite all of their suffering, “Cubans remain cheerfully egalitarian, and as enthralled as ever by Che, their most famous hero.” Then she lapses into her own adolescent totemic fantasies: “I remember my own Che Guevara poster, pinned to my bedroom wall 35 years ago… I marvel at how photogenic Che was – his romantic features utterly mesmerising.” Swooning over Che’s “precious relics” at his mausoleum — a “lock of hair, wisps of his beard, and remnants of clothing he was wearing when killed”– from which she actually believes she should keep “a respectful distance,” she enjoys a Durkheimian epiphany in which she is able to juxtapose totems and realize her pure devotion to the replacement of Christian beliefs by communist ideology:
The links with religious iconography are startling. He appears as a Christ-like figure, charismatic and courageous, challenging injustice and sacrificing his life to save the oppressed. Che’s apparent asceticism, his idealism, his disapproval of greed, his hard work and altruism remind me of the Puritan work ethic, but with individual faith in God replaced by collectivism.
So it is that for a wilfully blind idolater such as Shuckburgh, who thinks that the “local colour” never includes bloodstains, Cuba is much lovelier when seen as the land of Che than as the home of the Cha Cha Cha.
Long ago, before Che idolaters like Shuckburgh came along — among the pale tourists or would-be tourists of yesteryear who could say “pack our bags, sweetheart; we’re flying down to Havana after tea” – Cuba was best known for its sugar, cigars, rum, and music. And when it came to music, nothing could beat the Cha Cha Cha. But, at its very apogee, in 1959, when Cha-Cha-Cha was most popular, the partying ended abruptly and most impolitely in Cuba.
Fidel and Che showed up, and they outlawed Christmas and Carnival, along with all respect for human rights. The Cha-Cha-Cha was not so much outlawed as eclipsed. Thundering, long-winded speeches by Fidel drowned it out, as did the rhythmic mantras intoned in unison by mobs of thousands who called on Che to shoot dead anyone who didn’t like those speeches. Gone were the boozy nightclubs; not silenced, but simply upstaged by the Grand Guignol Theatre of the Revolution. And so it was that after the imperialists stopped taking Cha-Cha-Cha lessons, their progeny set up altars to the greatest saint and martyr of that new utopia, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the asthmatic Argentinian who oversaw its firing squads.
And now, nearly sixty years after he first fired a coup-de-grace bullet into some Cuban’s brain –something he loved to do– and fifty years after his own poetically just death at the hands of a firing squad, Che has a mausoleum in Santa Clara, Cuba, which resembles that of the fascist Generalisimo Francisco Franco at the Valley of the Fallen, near Madrid, not only because of its bombastic pretentiousness and overall gestalt, but also because the natives tend to visit it only when they are forced to do so.
And now, damn it, he also has an Irish postage stamp, with my surname on it.
So it is that Che, poor holy Che, suffers an excruciating martyrdom as a top consumer item and a pop idol, his face imprinted on all sorts of stuff. And so it is that the capitalist pigs he so loathed have ditched the Cha-Cha-Cha for a mantra that invokes his sacred name with fervor: “Che! Che! Che!”
The worst thing about Che’s postage stamp is that when all is said and done, Che’s Irish ancestry has nothing to do with his monstrous legacy. In fact, the stamp is an insult to everyone of Irish descent, for Che was very similar to Oliver Cromwell, the ultimate monster in Irish history.
Like Cromwell, Che felt justified in committing thousands of atrocities in a land other than his own, in the name of some higher cause. Cromwell received plenty of good press too, and adulation from those on his side, just like Che. To Cromwell’s admirers – and he’s had plenty of them – the Irish people were inconsequential obstacles to his aims, or worse, despicable wretches who deserved no mercy. Some of those wretches happened to be ancestors of mine, who fled from Ireland to Spain in 1649 and lost everything they owned.
So, how’s this for a modest proposal, Irish postage stamp designers: why not issue a Cromwell stamp too?
It’s only fair.
Carlos Eire is the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History & Religious Studies at Yale University. He specializes in the social, intellectual, religious, and cultural history of late medieval and early modern Europe. He is the author of seven books including ‘Waiting for Snow in Havana’ and ‘The Early Modern World’ which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and the R.R.Hawkins Prize for Best Book of the Year, respectively. Due to his opposition to authoritarianism the Cuban government has banned his books and declared him an ‘enemy of the state.’
1. Che, in all colors, and at exhorbitant prices.” Zoe Valdes, Le pazze e il Che, www.cubaitalia.org/n302005.htm. http://www.cadal.org/articulos/nota.asp?id_nota=962.
2. See Javier Arzuaga, Cuba 1959, La Galera de la Muerte (Miami: Editorial Carta de Cuba, 2006), a memoir written by the priest who accompanied all of Che’s victims to the firing squad during the first nine months of the Castro regime:
3. See: Enrique Ros, Ernesto Che Guevara: mito y realidad (Miami: Ediciones Universal, 2002).
4. Vladimir Ilich (Ulyanov) Lenin, quoted by I. U. Annenkov in “Remembrances of Lenin,” Novyi Zhurnal/New Review, September 1961, p. 147.
5. For conclusive proof of Che’s apotheosis as a consumer item check out the “Che bestsellers” and the “Che clearance” pages at www.thechestore.com.
6. A common prejudice among many Northern Europeans and their North American descendants is the belief that Southern Europeans, Slavs, and Jews are inferior to them in many ways, and may not really count as “whites.” See: Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a different color: European immigrants and the alchemy of race (Cambridge/ London: Harvard University Press, 1998).
7. Emile Durkheim, Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse: le syst me totémique en Australie (Paris: F. Alcan, 1906). English translation by Joseph Ward Swain, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (London : Allen and Unwin, 1915).
8. Sarah Shuckburgh, “A Little Local Colour,” The Telegraph, 5 March 2006. Available at: www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/main.jhtml?xml=/travel/2006/05/03/ethavana03.xml
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