Che Guevara statue spurs controversy in Ireland

An Irish city’s plan to erect a monument to the revolutionary icon has piqued conservatives.

Cuba Havana Che Guevara mural painting art
Che Guevara's image is found among the most popular merchandise in the world [REUTERS]

Leeds, United Kingdom – The normally peaceful city of Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, has recently been making the news due to the polemical decision of its city council to build a monument to Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The decision has been based on the fact that Guevara, a descendant of the Lynch clan, was himself partly Irish. This attempt to celebrate Guevara’s Irish heritage has been met with resistance in some conservative quarters within Ireland, and subsequently in the United States.

First, Irish businessman and campaigner Declan Ganley suggested the monument would drive away tourism from Galway – an unlikely outcome, as it is well-known that Che Guevara’s image is found among the most popular merchandise in the world. Then, Yale-based academic Carlos Eire and Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lethinen added their voices to Ganley’s and requested that, since Guevara was a murderer and a war criminal, the Irish should scrap the project altogether and, in the words of the latter, build instead a monument to “the enslaved Cuban people”.

Guevara was much more than a grotesque criminal, as it has been suggested.”

One can only wonder, why this opposition all of a sudden? More importantly, do they have a point?

Ernesto Guevara, better known as “Che”, was a guerrilla fighter and one of the leaders of the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Soon after coming to power, Guevara was in charge of carrying out a number of executions – some accounts mention hundreds – of people that the new Cuban leadership considered to be “enemies of the revolution”.

Although it is true that Guevara seemed to have no qualms about carrying out this gruesome task, his entire contribution to the history of the modern world should not be defined solely by this dark episode; and especially not so by taking the event out of context to demonise him, as Ganley, Eire, and Ros-Lethinen have done.

Before anybody jumps to conclusions, let me start by saying that as a pionero, growing up in revolutionary Cuba in the late 1970s and early 1980s I was subjected to all sorts of propaganda about Guevara – we were all expected to repeat every day at school the motto “pioneers for Communism; we’ll be like Che”. As a result, and understandably, I have never been particularly fond of the man.

As a historian, however, I am deeply aware that Guevara was much more than a grotesque criminal, as it has been suggested. Revolutions are by nature violent events, and those who oppose them are frequently at the end of that violence. By this measure, Washington, Toussaint, and Bolivar could all be considered war criminals if we look at their records – and yet, they all have monuments built to their memory in the United States. Their hands never trembled while giving orders to execute the enemies of the revolutions they led. Do not get me wrong. I am not trying to justify Guevara’s actions, but I do think that they must be examined within the historical context in which they took place.

Besides the executions that seem to steal all the limelight these days, Guevara was also a committed revolutionary who, early in his life, came to realise that poverty and repression were rife in the continent where he was born. He was radicalised in 1954 when a CIA-sponsored coup d’etat in Guatemala deposed democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz.

Contrary to the one-dimensional opinions of Ganley, Eire, and Ros-Lethinen, and in the words of Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, he went on to become “an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom”. In Cuba, he was behind some of the most progressive measures taken by the revolutionary government, including agrarian reform in 1959 and a literacy campaign in 1961. Eventually, after assembling an unsuccessful guerrilla force against Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, he went to Bolivia, where he was assassinated, reportedly on the orders of President Rene Barrientos – and under the apparent approving supervision of CIA agent Felix Rodriguez.

Was Guevara an executioner of those he considered threats or traitors to the Cuban Revolution? Yes, but let’s not forget, he also became a hero to many around the world. It should not be taken lightly that well-respected figures such as Mandela, Jean Paul Sartre, Graham Greene, Sunsan Sontag, and Christopher Hitchens have written about his impact on the contemporary world, and that poets Pablo Neruda, Rafael Alberti, Julio Cortazar and Derek Walcott have published works in tribute to him and his legacy.

Ultimately, as Miami-based Cuban-American scholar Uva de Aragon has suggested, we will have to wait “many years for history to deliver a definite judgement on Che, when the passions of both sides have passed”. Those Cuban-American public figures trying to meddle with the Galway City Council decisions should take a step back and think again. The man and his legacy cannot be defined by a blunt “good and evil” perspective.

Grey moral grounds

Professor Eire’s letter to the Irish Nation constitutes an archetypical example of how to bend history to satisfy one’s views. He called the project “monstrous” and rubbished the opinions of those “who think highly of Che” by comparing them with “Holocaust deniers”. Maybe Professor Eire is not aware of Godwin’s law – if you use Hitler or the Holocaust in an unrelated argument, you automatically forfeit the argument – or maybe he is, and still could not resist the temptation of comparing Guevara’s actions with Hitler’s. In any case, his hyperbolic assessment goes a long way to showing the lack of objective judgement shown by those who passionately loathe Guevara’s figure and legacy.

While I disagree with Professor Eire’s intervention in what I believe should be an Irish affair, I still respect his opinion. Nevertheless, I do believe that he should refrain from using the phrase “We Cubans” in future writings, because it erroneously gives the impression that all Cubans agree with him, which is not the case. The Irish should know that Professor Eire may speak for himself and on behalf of a number of Cubans and Cuban-Americans, but he certainly does not speak on my behalf, or on behalf of many of the Cubans I know.

More difficult to digest are Ileana Ros-Lethinen’s arguments, considering her own positions about themes such as terrorism and executions. Here is a US Republican congresswoman whose own definitions of terrorism and crime are blurred, to say the least. Here is a woman who not once, but twice welcomed any assassination attempt of Fidel Castro during an interview with the British makers of the documentary 638 Ways to Kill Castro.

If the Irish are going to take advice from anyone, they should certainly think twice before taking it from this Cuban-American congresswoman or any of her cronies.”

Here is a woman who, in the 1980s, campaigned for the release of confessed and convicted (by none other than the US government) Cuban terrorist Orlando Bosch, the mastermind behind the terrorist attack that destroyed Cubana Flight 455 on October 6, 1976, killing all 73 passengers and crew upon take-off from Barbados. Here is a woman who lobbied the George W Bush administration for the release of Jose Dionisio Suarez and Virgilio Paz, both of whom had been convicted for the assassination, also in 1976, of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier, an opponent of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

No wonder Ann Louise Bardach, writing for the Washington Post a few years ago, called the environment fomented by Ros-Lethinen in Miami “a peculiar ecosystem” where “the definition of terrorism is a pliable one: One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”.

If the Irish are going to take advice from anyone, they should certainly think twice before taking it from this Cuban-American congresswoman or any of her cronies. As a matter of fact, the Irish, and Galway City Council in particular, should be able to decide whether to build the monument or not without allowing any foreign interests to meddle in their internal affairs.

It is not for Cuban Americans, Cubans, or Argentineans to decide what the good people of Galway should do. It is for them to weigh the pros and the cons, and to discuss why and how to deal with the issue. Whatever they do, Guevara’s face will continue to appear upon tourist merchandise around the world, and his figure and legacy will still provoke all sorts of controversy and opinions. Somehow, I think he would be proud of the reactions of Ganley, Eire, and Ros-Lethinen; after all, they are naively putting him in the place he liked best: on the battleground against his enemies.

Manuel Barcia is Senior Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, as well as Deputy Director at the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds.