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Romanticizing Che at The Guardian

Che Guevara

During the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara was Castro’s military advisor and a troop leader; after Castro’s victory, Guevara was appointed Cuba’s Minister of Economics (in which capacity he quickly ran the value of the Cuban peso into the ground). He was also put in charge of La Cabaña Fortress prison, which has been described as the Communist Cuba’s equivalent of Stalin’s notorious Lubyanka Prison. At the same time, he acted as Fidel’s chief executioner, ordering – at a bare minimum – several hundred firing-squad executions of opponents and potential opponents of the regime. (The real number is probably in the five figures.) Given Cuba’s small population, this was equivalent to liquidating millions of Americans. The point of all this bloodletting was not just to exterminate the victims but to terrorize everyone else – to make it clear to all of Cuba that Castro & co. meant business and were not to be trifled with.

Camilo Guevara

Why are we revisiting all this half-century-old history? Because the Western media still write about Che as if he were a romantic hero, a virtuous figure, a symbol of humanity and brotherhood. One of the latest examples: a March 18 profile by the Guardian‘s Jonathan Watts of Guevara’s son Camilo. The angle of the piece: Guevara junior was reacting with “wary optimism” to President Obama’s planned March 20 Cuba visit, and, more broadly, to the improving relations between Cuba and the U.S.

Jonathan Watts

Watts referred to the U.S. as “the world’s capitalist powerhouse” and to Che as “one of the Cuban revolution’s most famous figures.” Camilo, wrote Watts, “is dedicated to protecting Che’s legacy and ensuring that his father’s words – and not just his famous portrait – are remembered around the world.” He noted that Camilo was trying to be philosophical: “Maybe we can influence the US in a positive way.” But his main hope was that “our principles, our ideals, our national project” would not be poisoned by increased contact with the U.S.

The Che cult, still alive and well on the island prison

That Camilo holds such views is no surprise. Our concern is with Watts. With the exception of a brief paragraph acknowledging Cuba’s mistreatment of political prisoners, its restrictions on Internet access, and its lack of basic freedoms, Watts presented Cuba throughout – its leaders, its political system, its revolution, and its longstanding conflict with the U.S. – exclusively through Camilo’ eyes. Yes, it’s one thing for a journalist to give a fair account of an interviewee’s perspective; it’s another thing to serve up pure propaganda without providing anything remotely resembling a reality check. Indeed, Watts’s implication throughout the article was that Camilo’s view of things was, quite simply, factual.

Fidel Castro

Want facts? Here are a couple: Cuba is a Communist dictatorship; since the Castro revolution, over a million of its people have fled to the United States to live in freedom. But you wouldn’t know this from reading Watts. How did he describe today’s Cuba vis-a-vis the U.S.? As “a small country that has resisted its superpower neighbour for more than half a century.” And no, he wasn’t quoting or paraphrasing Camilo here, or trying to frame the situation as Camilo sees it. No; this was pure Watts, acting in his capacity as a supposedly objective reporter.

Watts’s chat with Camilo took place at a place called the Che Guevara Study Centre. In addition to interviewing the tyrant’s son, Watts explored the Study Centre’s archive. Of all the items he looked at, the one he decided to highlight in the article was “a short goodbye message that Che wrote to his children in the knowledge that he could soon die.”

Dear old dad

In the message Che wrote: “Above all be sensitive, in the deepest areas of yourselves, to any injustice committed against whoever it may be anywhere in the world.” Watts quoted this without comment – choosing not to point out the outrageous irony that this plea for sensitivity to injustice was composed by a man who executed hundreds of political opponents in cold blood.

Watts’s piece ended with these sentences: “There is no chance he [Obama] will visit the Che Guevara Study Centre for a lesson in revolution. For Guevara that is a shame: ‘If Obama comes, he might learn something.’” For a journalist to close a piece like this with a quote like that is tantamount to handing over his article to the guy he’s writing about. It’s pretty disgraceful – but, then again, hardly an unprecedented move for The Guardian.

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