Che Guevara and the Making of the New Man

Erasmo Calzadilla

HAVANA TIMES — At some point in my life that I can’t put my finger on, Che started becoming an increasingly unpleasant figure to me.

It was many years before I took the initiative to read some of his works, and when I did I realized that my dislike for him was no mere side-effect of our media bombardment.

This month marks the anniversary of his death and, as usual, our media have inundated us with the same images and songs as always. I’m sick of it and would like to vomit up for once and for all everything that they’ve forced fed into me about Che. But I won’t do that here – out of respect for you readers. I’ll be content with taking a little revenge.

In this post I will deal with — what is to me — the terrible manner that Guevara had for understanding society, people and political education. I will base this on his letter El socialismo y el hombre nuevo en Cuba (Socialism and the New Man in Cuba).

Che believed that Cuban society (and probably the rest of societies) was divided into two groups. On the one hand there was the enlightened elite, possessing a higher consciousness and a true ideology: Marxism-Leninism. This group was, according to Guevara, the driving force of the revolution.

At the other extreme were the sleeping masses that needed to be woken up, educated, mobilized and pushed because, as a mass, they still didn’t understand the logic of history and the new values.

How would this cognitive effluvia be transmitted between these two groups? According to Che, the elite (structured like a pyramid with Fidel Castro at the apex) had the mission to educate the ignorant masses. One wonders how he understood that instruction.

Guevara proposed various methods to influence the minds of people. Sometimes he seemed to recognize that the masses did indeed possess consciousness. He may have seen it as asleep, naive and misguided, but he saw that it existed. In that case, the main ideological function (of the elite, as he understood it) was to raise, guide or straighten that awareness.

But in other paragraphs Guevara appears more cynical, to have less faith in the masses. For example when his approach to political education consists of training based on incentives and punishment — in the Pavlovian style — he saw that the difference here would be in that with humans these should be moral, preferably.

Lastly, I will deal with the topic of “The winning of the mind.”

Like with many of his comrades, to Guevara what was inconceivable (and sometimes I think even monstrous to him) was the idea of free and solitary consciousness that seeks its own truth, testing here and exploring there.

For him young minds were like virgin and passive territories whose fate was to be won by one or another ideology. The minds of the old had already been colonized, but in those of the young were deposited all of his zeal and hope.

Che proudly laid a plan and a theoretical foundation about how to further work so that young people would acquire certain values and embrace certain principles that were revolutionary and Marxist. Not God himself could have been so arrogant in the face of such raw clay.

Conclusions

Che risked and lost his life fighting for the poor and against imperialism, and for this he deserves respect, recognition and honor, but what a terrible place the world would have been if he or his followers had obtained, as they yearned, the supreme victory.

He had an idea of society (and especially of political education) that seems extremely simplistic and mechanical. I dare say that he disparaged the “masses” (I say so because of the dull, passive and subordinate role that he assigned them in his worldview).

It seems that in many essential aspects his thought doesn’t surpass the bourgeois and classist imagination that he himself abhorred.

But if he belittled the “masses”, he despised “non-revolutionary” intellectuals. The individual who chooses his own path through a deliberate act of consciousness is, for him, a typical representative of depraved capitalism, and therefore should be reformed or set to one side so as not to contaminate others.

For all these reasons I dislike the figure of Ernesto Guevara de la Cerna, also known as “Che.”

In a future post I will deal with the political mind set of this man, expressed in the same letter.

Here are some quotes that I have picked out with the intention of supporting the points I have tried to make here.

[…]

Then came the stage of guerrilla struggle. It developed in two distinct environments: the people, the still sleeping mass that had to be mobilized; and its vanguard, the guerrillas, the motor force of the mobilization, the generator of revolutionary consciousness and militant enthusiasm.

[…]

During the October [1962 missile] crisis and in the days of Hurricane Flora [in October 1963] we saw exceptional deeds of valor and sacrifice performed by an entire people. Finding the method to perpetuate this heroic attitude in daily life is, from the ideological standpoint, one of our fundamental tasks.

[…]

Viewed superficially, it might appear that those who speak of the subordination of the individual to the state are right. The mass carries out with matchless enthusiasm and discipline the tasks set by the government, whether in the field of the economy, culture, defense, sports, etc. The initiative generally comes from Fidel, or from the revolutionary leadership, and is explained to the people, who make it their own.

[…]

The vestiges of the past are brought into the present in one’s consciousness, and a continual labor is necessary to eradicate them.

[…]

To build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man and woman.

[…]

That is why it is very important to choose the right instrument for mobilizing the masses. Basically, this instrument must be moral in character, without neglecting, however, a correct use of the material incentive — especially of a social character.

As I have already said, in moments of great peril it is easy to muster a powerful response with moral incentives.

Retaining their effectiveness, however, requires the development of a consciousness in which there is a new scale of values. Society as a whole must be converted into a gigantic school.

[…]

Education takes hold among the masses and the foreseen new attitude tends to become a habit. The masses continue to make it their own and to influence those who have not yet educated themselves.

[…]

Aside from those whose lack of education makes them take the solitary road toward satisfying their own personal ambitions, there are those — even within this new panorama of a unified march forward — who have a tendency to walk separately from the masses accompanying them.

[…]

They no longer travel completely alone over lost roads toward distant aspirations. They follow their vanguard, consisting of the party, the advanced workers, the advanced individuals who walk in unity with the masses and in close communion with them.

[…]

The vanguard group is ideologically more advanced than the mass; the latter understands the new values, but not sufficiently. While among the former there has been a qualitative change that enables them to make sacrifices in their capacity as an advance guard, the latter see only part of the picture and must be subject to incentives and pressures of a certain intensity. This is the dictatorship of the proletariat operating not only on the defeated class but also on individuals of the victorious class..

[…]

the masses are now making history as a conscious collective of individuals fighting for the same cause..

[…]

We revolutionaries often lack the knowledge and intellectual audacity needed to meet the task of developing the new man and woman with methods different from the conventional ones; conventional methods suffer from the influences of the society that created them.

[…]

Our task is to prevent the current generation, torn asunder by its conflicts, from becoming perverted and from perverting new generations.

[…]

In our society the youth and the party play a big part. The former is especially important because it is the malleable clay from which the new person can be built with none of the old defects.

[…]

Our vanguard revolutionaries must idealize this love of the peoples, of the most sacred causes, and make it one and indivisible. They cannot descend, with small doses of daily affection, to the level where ordinary people put their love into practice.

We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity is transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.

[…]

Thus we march on. At the head of the immense column — we are neither ashamed nor afraid to say it — is Fidel. After him come the best cadres of the party, and immediately behind them, so close that we feel its tremendous force, comes the people in its entirety, a solid structure of individual beings moving toward a common goal, men and women who have attained consciousness of what must be done, people who fight to escape from the realm of necessity and to enter that of freedom.

[…]

The basic clay of our work is the youth; we place our hope in it and prepare it to take the banner from our hands.

 

Erasmo Calzadilla

Erasmo Calzadilla: I find it difficult to introduce myself in public. I've tried many times but it doesn’t flow. I’m more less how I appear in my posts, add some unpresentable qualities and stir; that should do for a first approach. If you want to dig a little deeper, ask me for an appointment and wait for a reply.


20 thoughts on “Che Guevara and the Making of the New Man

  • September 11, 2017 at 1:18 pm
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    I was in Cuba off and on from 1999 to 2001, attempting to establish a media school. We got just so far, then were kicked out. I fear the Government thought I was a CIA plant. They also didn’t like the idea of my bringing so many photographers, video producers and writers into Cuba, un-escorted.

    In 1999, I saw an exhibit in a Havana museum on Che, and read some of his letter. From what I remember, and from what I found on your website, this is what I am left with. This piece ends a chapter in my forthcoming book: A Maine Yankee in Communist Cuba.
    I’d appreciate anyone’s comments and suggestions.

    At a museum yesterday, I read Che Guevara’s statements about “the new man and the enlightened soul.”

    “Then came the stage of guerrilla struggle. It developed in two distinct environments: the people, the still sleeping mass that had to be mobilized; and its vanguard, the guerrillas, the motor force of the mobilization, the generator of revolutionary consciousness and militant enthusiasm.

    To build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man and woman.”

    I can agree with some of his principles—that Imperlisum, exploits the underdeveloped world, steals their raw materials, harnesses the workers who are willing to work for literally pean-nuts. But I don’t believe in his conclusion or his methods.

    As an entrepreneur my role is to build enterprises, create services, invent new devises the “masses” need and want. Much of this creative drive comes from within the individuals’ creative mind, it is not handed down, as Che wrote . . . “The initiative generally comes from Fidel, or from the revolutionary leadership, and is explained to the people, who make it their own.” It is pure arrogance to think that a “committee,” the Party, can be omniscient. Committees rarely make brilliant decisions, it is the individual (Steve Jobs) who designs the “new.”

    Communism ignore the individual’s value, to himself, placing the “New Man and Women” in services to the Party, and it’s ideology. Che wishes to free the masses from capitalism, only to place them under a new and as restrictive ideology.

    No, I’m not part of his thinking.

    David H. Lyman

    Founder and Director

    The Maine Photographic Workshops

    [email protected]

  • June 15, 2015 at 1:17 am
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    Feliz cumpleanos Comandante!!! Hasta la victoria siempre!

  • November 5, 2012 at 8:01 pm
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    As you’ve stated, Mark G., “an ideology based on a ‘vanguard’ guiding the ‘masses’ is an extremely dangerous one, no matter how it is sugar coated.” Except I would say that your statement is more characteristic of modern multi-national corporate capitalism, rather than communism, with the “vanguard” being the CEO’s, CFO’s, Boards of Directors, and their army of opinion-makers who, through the increasingly monopolized mass media, guide the masses into being docile, bamboozled consumers, not to mention cannon fodder for the imperial adventures of the military-industrial complex (as old Father Ike Eisenhower warned us against in his farewell address). Che, on the other hand, I would count as one of the great spiritual avatars, like Jesus Christ himself (who, by the way, Che’s life mirrors, especially in his demise at the hands of the latter-day Pharisee and their heartless imperial masters).

  • November 5, 2012 at 9:27 am
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    “Just as dangerous, though, is judging figures of an earlier era by what we know today.”

    Not only dangerous, it is also just as arrogant. We tend to do this too much with figures from the 20th century because not only of recent memory, but as well thanks to the mass media which flourished during it and makes the minds of millions.

  • November 4, 2012 at 10:15 am
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    After submitting my comment, I saw the “Che was for me” reference in your sentence. Unfortunately, this website does not have an editing function or else I would clarified my statement.

    With that qualification, I stand behind the rest of my statement. Guevera was a dangerous and violent ideologue who engaged in atrocities against civilians and unarmed combatants. No amount of historical relativism excuses this.

  • November 4, 2012 at 5:57 am
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    Of course books have been written about scoundrels. I don’t speak for the reasons others may have for writing books. The beginning of my sentence–“Che for me was” should have signaled I was referring to my own reasons for writing about what sparks my interest. As for Mark G’s affirmation about an ideology based on a vanguard guiding the masses being extremely dangerous, I agree. We need to find a better model. When Che lived, this was the model–for right as well as left. Sadly, it still is for large numbers on both sides of the divide. It didn’t bring us the world we need, or it brought it to us very partially. The profoundly erroneous way we thought about power should have taught us something. I hope it will. Just as dangerous, though, is judging figures of an earlier era by what we know today.

  • November 3, 2012 at 9:21 am
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    Randall: “Che for me was a man of a great many virtues… otherwise, why write a book about him?”

    Many books have been written about Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Does this make them men of a great many virtues?

    An ideology based on a “vanguard” guiding “the masses” is an extremely dangerous one no matter how it is sugar coated. Ideologies based on creating a new man or a new woman are similarly extremely dangerous. This is especially the case when championed by charismatic but also violent and delusional individuals like Che Guevera.

  • November 2, 2012 at 5:24 am
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    For anyone not knowing who Margaret Randall is, the HT editor wrote an article in 2009 about her, “Margaret Randall’s Years in Cuba” – http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=13738 Six excerpts from her book, “To Change the World: My Years in Cuba,” can also be accessed from that link.

    For anyone who thinks the Cuban government is uniquely intolerant of dissent, the US attempted to deport her due to what she has written, not at the height of the McCarthy era as you would expect, but in 1984 when Reagan was president. Cuba, subjected to a state of siege/war at least has a legitimate excuse. What excuse does the most powerful country in the world have to feel threatened by what Margaret writes?

    You can read her biography on her website – http://www.margaretrandall.org/Biography

    Margaret, I look forward to reading your new book.

  • November 1, 2012 at 10:32 am
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    I started reading this piece with great interest, partly because I have spent the past year writing about Che (my book, Che on My Mind, will appear next year from Duke University Press). Mine is a poet’s reminiscence of one of the human beings who most defined my generation (admittedly, a different generation from that of the man who wrote this piece). As a feminist, my perception of Che is far from the perfect being, and I wondered if the writer was going to address one of the issues I found most problematic when I lived in Cuba: whether young people, daily urged to “be like Che,” might not sometimes feel intimidated by a bar set so high. On the other hand, Che for me was a man of a great many virtues… otherwise, why write a book about him? So I was surprised when the author went to “Socialism and Man in Cuba” and, to substantiate his views, quoted as selectively as many quote from the Bible. To me, one of the most interesting points Che made in that masterful letter was that the masses are in fact the more important of the two forces he saw as being the motors of society. He clearly states that the masses act as a check on the vanguard when the vanguard goes astray. I would urge Erasmo to reread Che’s seminal work, trying to situate himself in the society Che inhabited. And to pay some attention, as well, to some of the cutting-edge things Che had to say in that piece about the dangers of socialist realism, the importance of artistic freedom, etc.

  • November 1, 2012 at 4:23 am
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    You have problems with this? Or are you just worried?

  • November 1, 2012 at 4:20 am
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    RE: ‘Moses’ reading Che.

    Somehow, this is as hard to believe as it would be if I claimed I read George W’s book, the one where he admitted to sanctioning torture and why his ability to collect frequent flyer miles these days is severely curtailed as countries around the world are threatening to try him for war crimes. Bush’s writings would seem to be more simpatico to ‘Moses’ thinking than Che’s.

    RE: ‘Moses’ not being included in Che’s “elite vanguard” on the basis of skin colour.

    The issue of Che’s racism has been dealt with at great length in comments on HT. Anyone interested in seeing how often ‘Moses’ plays the race card, use HT’s google search engine, submitting: “moses says” racist. Be prepared for a lengthy read – 70 plus hits. He posts a lot

    RE: ‘Moses’ rejecting “the notion that [Che’s] views are any more enlightened than my own. ”

    Read through his 70 plus comments and make up your own mind.

    RE” Che’s “pampered historic generation.”

    If any tourist operator in Cuba offers to sell you a tour of the palatial palaces of revolutionary leaders, don’t give him money but suggest a trade – a free tour in exchange for the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge.

    RE: Che meeting “his undoing in Bolivia.”

    With the help and approval of the CIA from ‘Moses’ country, of course. Don’t be shy ‘Moses’, give credit where it’s due.

    RE: tee-shirts worn by “wannabe ” revolutionaries.

    Probably correct. A real revolutionary wouldn’t be foolish enough to stand out in such an obvious way. It’s all those folks in white shirts and ties “waiting for a job with a large multinational” that you have to worry about. And they ARE waiting these days. The longer they wait, the more you have to worry

  • November 1, 2012 at 3:40 am
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    Erasmo,

    Winston Churchill has an awesome international reputation. Few people know or remember him for anything more than often-played sound bites from his speeches. For most of Churchill’s career, he was isolated and regarded as a reactionary, justifiably. But he will be remembered for being an inspiration, regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the past century.

    Che is also best known as an inspirational figure. As a post-revolutionary administrator, he left much to be desired and it’s obvious Fidel was more than happy to see him relocate his revolutionary fervour to other countries.

    You write that at the anniversary of his death your are “inundated … with the same images and songs as always” and that you are “sick of it and would like to vomit.” Strong words. I’ve noted that you are “inundated” with images and songs and in response you inundate us with quotes from Che’s writings.

    In other words, you were not bombarded with Che’s ideas but with an image of Che in popular lore. I suspect you may have a soft spot for Winston but would feel another need to upchuck if you knew what he actually stood for.

    If I was to write an article about what Churchill actually believed, first, I would probably not be able to find any media willing to carry what I wrote, as you have in HT, and if I did, I would be committing professional suicide.

    There seems to be a recurring theme on HT. A recent article abut Fidel, where the author told us how much he disliked his subject and not much else, served as an excuse for Fidel haters to submit comments, and folks like me to point out their hate-mongering. I’m not sure what anyone really gets out of this.

    A segment of the Cuban population, probably quite small, seems to feel a need to denigrate its national heroes and they are regularly given a voice here, encouraging comments from those who have been the perennial enemies of the Cuban government for more than 50 years.

  • October 31, 2012 at 12:21 pm
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    You write, “Castro has turned it into a corruption for new kind of tourist”. We know what Cuba was like under the ‘old kind of tourist’ – you know, the mafia, the johns serviced by hookers, the gamblers – essentially the playground and fiefdom of the US.

    Going to “spend money in casa particulars and bring essentials to my friends and try and spend money with the people” sounds a hell of a lot better to me. And then there’s the side benefits – universal health care and education.

    If that’s what a “narcissistic tyrannical patronisfive maniac” is capable of, I’ll take Fidel any time to whoever you think is better. Btw, who would that be?

  • October 30, 2012 at 6:38 pm
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    Jim, I think you are like Erasmo in one regard: You blame the shortcoming of the Cuban experiment in socialism on the proponents of an incorrect monopolist hypothesis, and not on the hypothesis, itself. Still, I found your comment honorably written, and of great interest.

  • October 30, 2012 at 2:14 pm
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    Agree. This is very well written by an obvious intelligent man. You are absolutely right; Che did not understand how social systems work in reality nor, would I like to add, did he understand the human heart and how humans are motivated, obtain and maintain their self-esteem, empathize, and contribute to their society.

    Neither did Karl Marx truly understand social systems and humans with a truly objective, historical, and strategic thought process. He had an an interesting thesis, but his arrogance and willfulness led him to erroneous conclusions that ended up supporting tyrants, tyrannical systems, authoritative and paternalism, invasions into the rights of man, hypocrisy, and the heartless abuses of people. Che was similarly an idealist with intelligence, but he was also self obsessed, extreme, and I disciplined and in the final analysis tried to destroy the Cuban culture and its security. Even Castro, the ther narcissistic tyrannical patronisfive maniac saw through Che.

    Many Cubans I have spoken with who live in Havana think that Che was on Fidel’s enemy and hit list and had it done or wold have had him killed if someone else didn’t beat him to the task.

    I feel sorry for those who do not see through this charade and cannot see how controlling these systems are and how they pretend to serve the common good and evangelize with these tired slogans about liberty and solidarity which has never been true in Cuba. The gossip and jealousy and turning people into the authorities that still goes on is pathetic. The situation with travel freedom is like the sleeve off their vest and prohibiting it was always contrary to the UNs Declaration on the Rights of Man signed by Cuba and the other members in 1948. I hope someone someday sues the communist party of Cuba for a violation of their rights.

    I realize I took my own spin and frustration on the topic into my own realm going off the path a bit, but the defense of Che and the other tyrants infuriates me. And I do not blockade Cuba. I travel their and spend money in casa particulars and bring essentials to my friends and try and spend money with the people avoiding the government run things as much as possible, I do not understand the meanness of the Miami Baptistianos and think it is a version albeit in contrast to the same cruelty and fiendish system they protest against. Cuba is such a wonderful land and I consider my Cuban friends the most precious ones I have ever known. I pray for the future of Cuba and I fear for it too. I do appreciate the rational enlightened writing of the comments of Erasmo and protest against his antagonists while of course respecting their freedoms of speech. I love Cuba too and it’s cultural richness and the hearts of the fine people I know and I protest what has become of its crumbling infrastructure and the moral decay. Castro has turned it into a corruption for new kind of tourist and he can take credit for turning decent people into jintineros, thieves, liars, and a people dependent upon the world like children in a dysfunction family. Shame on him and his comrades. History will not treat well, but I doubt they care or ever did. It became about them and not the Cuban people.

  • October 30, 2012 at 1:45 pm
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    I really have tried on several occasions to stomach the writings of Che Guevara. I realize that I would have not have been included among the elite vanguard of which he writes as I am an African-American and his published racists views would have likely excluded me from this group. As such, for this and many other reasons I reject the notion that his views are any more enlightened than my own. Had he been content to contain his famous ego to the island of Cuba and remain subservient to Fidel, he likely would have lived to a ripe old age as the other members of the pampered historic generation are doing. Instead, hell-bent on peddling his unoriginal ¨New Man¨ fantasies to every desperate third world country who would receive him, he finally met his undoing in Bolivia. Nonetheless, he is sure to live on in the minds and on the T-shirts of every wannabe revolutionary waiting for a job with large multinational.

  • October 30, 2012 at 1:11 pm
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    In a limited way, I see some of myself in Erasmo Calzadilla; and this article confirms it. He looks at the reality in which he finds himself, analyzes it and draws conclusions that go against the prevailing conventional wisdom.

    He has a tendency however to attribute the evils of his situation to personalities. He does not probe for the programmatic causes of what is. He cannot therefore come up with anything programmatic for changing reality to what it ought to be, but can only fester and rant against individuals. In this case his puss is spewed at the national and international hero Che Guevara.

    Erasmo looks at the following pronouncement by Che: “To build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man and woman., to build the new man and woman.” He then concludes that this is wrong because Che is not such a good guy, after all.

    This shallow analysis of course is precisely what the Trotskyists and other ultra-Lefts come up with: The evils of state monopoly socialism comes from supposedly evil individuals–Stalin, Mao, Fidel, Che–and not from the political and economic maximum program of Marxian state monopoly socialism.

    The Che statement above is faulty because the “new material foundations” instituted under the Cuban revolutionary government were and are incorrect, from a programmatic standpoint. By opting for ownership of everything productive by the state, the possibility for workable socialism–and the development of the new individual (man)–the new material conditions were simply a wreck going somewhere to happen, so to speak.

    As long as Erasmo continues to focus on individuals and not on program, he will continue to be one more frustrated malcontent with nothing but anti-bureaucratic vile to express through his articles. Still, I wish him well and the best of luck in life.

  • October 30, 2012 at 11:18 am
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    “Crazy with fury I will stain my rifle red while slaughtering any enemy that falls in my hands! My nostrils dilate while savoring the acrid odor of gunpowder and blood. With the deaths of my enemies I prepare my being for the sacred fight and join the triumphant proletariat with a bestial howl!”

    This from Che Guevara’s very Motorcycle Diaries. Edited out of the popular film version, of course.

  • October 30, 2012 at 9:34 am
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    Oh no I foresee a flamewar taking place in 3…2…1…

    Anyway, Che was an orthodox Marxist-Leninist. If you Erasmo, don’t consider yourself even a Marxist, then it would be very unlikely that you’d agree with the ideology of this man. One has to carefully read this letter and take his/hers one conclusions. Che, as every other typical revolutionary from the 20th century, commited the exact same error that Eduardo Galeano spoke of in Silvio Tendler’s “Utopia e Barbárie” in a brilliant and wise way:

    “With much blood and many tears we have learned that History’s time is not our time. That History is a slow-paced lady, fanciful, sometimes crazy, very difficult, very complicated, very mysterious, much more mysterious than we believe it to be. And she doesn’t give a damn about us. She doesn’t obey us. Because her time is infinitely longer than each one of us. Our generation was very arrogant in the attempt to reduce History to it’s own time. But, one the other hand this was also marked by a beautiful necessity to create another world, and create it with urgency.”

  • October 30, 2012 at 7:32 am
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    Disagree How can anyone as astute as the writer dislike a man unknown to him?
    I ask is this a bit of pandering or simply a opinion? If so okay However wow I knew Che as a teen snd I saw much more worth in my brother

    Peace

    My comment is in effort to seek dialogue vs bashing

    Thanks Circle lol

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