An Icon of Evil
BY WILLIAM MEYERS
December 27, 2005
Cuba is a communist country. This will not be news to the readers of The
New York Sun, but it may come as a surprise to visitors at the
International Center of Photography. In the almost 400 words that make up
the wall text at the entrance to "Che! Revolution and Commerce" and
discuss its eponymous hero, neither "communist" nor "communism" appear. It
is like explaining who Osama bin Laden is without mentioning he is Muslim.
The first paragraph of the wall text informs the visitor that the
exhibition is about "Alberto Korda's 1960 portrait of Ernesto 'Che'
Guevara, titled 'Guerrillero Heroico,'" and that for "the last 45 years,
this iconic photograph has symbolized antiestablishment thought and action."
That's true enough, and for an institution that prides itself on its
willingness to deal with the "transgressive," a mighty plus.
It points out approvingly that the picture was used during the 1968
student uprisings in Europe. These, however, were revolution as opera
bouffe. Che's picture was certainly not displayed during the Solidarity
protests in Poland in the 1980s or in the Tiananmen Square demonstration
in China in 1989, when men and women genuinely hazarded their lives for
Ernesto "Che" Guevara was a sociopathic thug, a man who genuinely relished
killing, a man with a passion for putting his pistol to other men's heads
and blowing their brains out, preferably when they were bound, gagged, and
blindfolded. Oh, and there is no record of the heroic guerrilla of
"Guerrillero Heroico" actually having prevailed in real-life guerrilla
battles of any consequence, and very little of his participating much in
combat of any sort.
Fidel Castro, his brother Raoul, and Che were able to steer the Cuban
revolution away from democracy through backroom politics, the use of fear
and propaganda, and the imprisonment of genuine democratic leaders, like
Huber Matos and Mario Chanes De Armas. What makes Guevara interesting is
that in everything he did he was a total bungler, the Inspector Clouseau
of revolution. This, too, seems to have escaped ICP's attention.
The first sentence of the second paragraph of the wall text informs the
visitor that Korda's picture was taken "on March 5, 1960, at a time when
Che held a position in the Cuban government overseeing the country's
transformation from an agrarian to an industrial economy." Where to start
In 1959 when the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista was overthrown, Cuba
had one of the highest GDPs of any country in Latin America. Within months
of Castro's appointment of Guevara as minister of economics, the Cuban
peso, which traditionally was equal to a U.S. dollar, was virtually
worthless, and so it remains. The next year, 1961, Guevara became minister
of industries, and the island's factories either closed or began their
steady decay. The Cubans who have prospered since the revolution are
either party officials or those who made new lives for themselves in
The one job Guevara excelled at was when he was commander of La Cabana
prison, Havana's equivalent of Moscow's notorious Lubyanka. He liked
overseeing executions and personally administering the coup de grace.
Pierre San Martin, an inmate of La Cabana who made it out alive, gave the
tenor of Guevara's administration in an article published in El Nuevo
Herald from December 28, 1997.
A 14-year-old boy, badly beat up, was brought to the prison. When those in
his cell asked why he was there, he explained that he had tried to protect
his father, who was being taken to the firing squad. Che's guards soon
returned and led the boy from the cell. "Then we spotted him, strutting
around the blood-drenched execution yard with his hands on his waist and
barking orders - Che Guevara himself," Mr. San Martin recalled.
"'Kneel down!' Che barked at the boy.
"'Assassins!' we screamed from our window.
"'I said: KNEEL DOWN!' Che barked again.
"The boy stared Che resolutely in the face. 'If you're going to kill me,'
he yelled, 'you'll have to do it while I'm standing! Men die standing!'
"Then we saw Che unholstering his pistol. He put the barrel to the back of
the boy's neck and blasted. The shot almost decapitated the young boy."
And so it goes.
ICP tells us, "Che left Cuba in 1965 with the goal of inciting revolution
in the Congo and then in Bolivia," but not that those incitements were
comic examples of bumbling incompetence, funny except for the dead left
behind. You can look it up. The wall text refers to Guevara's "classical,
even Christ-like demeanor," it says his "enigmatic gaze encompasses both
determination and desire," and that he "was a young and charismatic
idealist who gave up the security of his middle class world for his
convictions." And Hitler was a vegetarian who became an important European
Cornell Capa founded ICP in 1966 as the International Fund for Concerned
Photography, and it has always had a social mission. Not surprisingly, its
political cast is leftish. Soon after the American invasion of Afghanistan,
it displayed pictures of civilian casualties with an accompanying wall
text that explained war was bad. When the pictures from Abu Ghraib became
available, it immediately devoted a room to an exhibition titled "Inconvenient
Evidence" and quoted some of Susan Sontag's inanities.
It is right that ICP should remind us of our responsibilities to innocent
civilians caught in the way of battle, and even that it should be
solicitous of the welfare of terrorists, but why is it indifferent to the
suffering of the Cuban people over the last half century, to the poets,
artists, and homosexuals who have been murdered or imprisoned, who are in
prison now? Why should a major cultural institution gull its public? Or is
it just inexcusably ignorant?
The examination of the uses to which one particular picture - an icon -
can be put is certainly a project within the purview of the International
Center of Photography's mission. Had it begun "Che! Revolution and
Commerce" by explaining to the public what sort of man Ernesto Guevara was,
it might have been a valuable exhibition. How successful it is, I cannot
tell you. I went to the press preview, but was so affronted by the
despicable wall text at the entrance, I turned around and walked out.