The Cult of Che hits a new low

Photo: National Security Archive One of the oddest cultural trends of our time is the Cult of Che Guevara. I was just down in Peru, where street vendors proudly peddle Chinese-made tapestries and t-shirts bearing Che’s image to U.S. college students. Hollywood—most notably Robert Redford—has glamorized Che on screen. And in more than one European hamlet will you find a “Che ...

598501_071025_che_05.jpg
598501_071025_che_05.jpg

Photo: National Security Archive

One of the oddest cultural trends of our time is the Cult of Che Guevara. I was just down in Peru, where street vendors proudly peddle Chinese-made tapestries and t-shirts bearing Che's image to U.S. college students. Hollywood—most notably Robert Redford—has glamorized Che on screen. And in more than one European hamlet will you find a "Che Guevara Bar," inevitably attracting hipsters with the same, sad tapestries, fake Cuban cigars, and cheap rum.

Today, the Cult of Che hit a new low, when a 3-inch lock of his beard and other items went up for sale at a Dallas auction house. The starting bid? $100,000. Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez is rumored to be among the potential interested bidders. The seller is Gustavo Villoldo, a retired CIA operative of Cuban heritage who was involved in Che's capture and was present when Che was buried. Villoldo says he cut the lock of hair because, "I wanted proof that I had completed my mission." His motive for selling it now appears to be profit. (This month marks the 40th anniversary of Che's death.)

One of the oddest cultural trends of our time is the Cult of Che Guevara. I was just down in Peru, where street vendors proudly peddle Chinese-made tapestries and t-shirts bearing Che’s image to U.S. college students. Hollywood—most notably Robert Redford—has glamorized Che on screen. And in more than one European hamlet will you find a “Che Guevara Bar,” inevitably attracting hipsters with the same, sad tapestries, fake Cuban cigars, and cheap rum.

Today, the Cult of Che hit a new low, when a 3-inch lock of his beard and other items went up for sale at a Dallas auction house. The starting bid? $100,000. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez is rumored to be among the potential interested bidders. The seller is Gustavo Villoldo, a retired CIA operative of Cuban heritage who was involved in Che’s capture and was present when Che was buried. Villoldo says he cut the lock of hair because, “I wanted proof that I had completed my mission.” His motive for selling it now appears to be profit. (This month marks the 40th anniversary of Che’s death.)

MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images

It’s disappointing to see Che glorified in this way. The man was a Marxist-Leninist of the worst kind: He presided over the Cuban Revolution’s first firing squads; he assisted in the persecution of homosexuals [see note below]; he imprisoned dissidents. Che preached a dangerous breed of martyrdom and hatred reminiscent of the most radical jihadists of today’s Middle East. You may see some familiar themes in this, one of Che’s choicest lines:

Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become….”

Today, we seem intent on remembering Che as a liberator in the Bolivarian vein, a freedom fighter. He was not. As Paul Berman has elegantly documented, Che inspired many middle-class Latin Americans to take up arms in insurgent campaigns that did nothing more than set the cause of Latin American democracy back decades. That a tiny lock of his hair can sell in Texas (of all places) for six figures is a sad comment indeed on just how severely his legacy has been distorted.

Editor’s Note: This post was changed by the editor to avoid any confusion. It originally said that Che “assisted in the persecution of homosexuals and AIDS victims.” Many readers asked about the original language. Mike explains here.

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