It is an iconic image, one which features on shirts and posters, even coffee mugs the world around. Half beret, half beard, Che Guevara stares into the distance, a stern look on his face as he watches himself morphing into a symbol for counter-culture and revolution on the t-shirts of hipsters everywhere, who seem to ignore the irony of buying a t-shirt emblazoned with the face of a communist hero.
Joking aside, the way in which Guevara has been adopted as such a popular international symbol for rebellion is in some ways rather frightening. He is so often held as a hero of the people but his story goes much deeper than this. Despite a genuine desire to free the people of the world from the oppressive capitalist system, Guevara could be ruthless, executing members of the regime that had been in place in Cuba before the arrival of himself and Fidel Castro. Those who didn’t agree with them lost their lives, as did his friends, who he would have gladly sacrificed on the battlefield were their deaths to further his cause. Cuba was purged and he earned for himself the nickname of ‘The Butcher of La Cabana.’ Counter revolutionaries were no longer to be allowed in the new Cuba and Che presided over the founding and running of concentration camps to keep undesirables locked up in – dissidents, homosexuals, Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses. His effect on the Cuban economy has also been noted, for example, the introduction of quotas and pay cuts for those who didn’t meet them, and a loss of commercial trade with the west, and, as a result, a crippling dependency on the east for their survival. His fervent idealism was also a problem, and possibly an issue of egoism came into play. For him, his way was the right way, communism was the right way and nothing else. This would prove to be his downfall in Bolivia as he never truly connected with the peasant populace whom he came in to the country to speak for, and who eventually turned him in.
And now, Galway City Council is considering proposals to build a statue to Guevara, in honour of the famous guerrilla. The link, of course, is through his family; Che’s grandmother, Anna Isabel Lynch, was born in Co. Galway and moved to South America where she met a man with the surname Guevara. So perhaps the City council merely want to honour a great-grandson of the city, or perhaps they simply want to court controversy by erecting another monument to a person who happily lived a life of violence (in front of the Spanish Arch stands a statue of Christopher Columbus). Thankfully taxpayer’s money won’t be allocated for this project, instead the Cuban and Argentinian embassies will help to fund the work.
Criticism has been swift and fierce. Businessman Declan Ganley, the man behind anti-Lisbon Treaty party, Libertas, has heavily criticised the proposal, calling it the “pet project of a small number of extremists in the Labour Party.” Ganley, who is also based in Galway city, described Guevara as a mass-murderer and raised fears over the possible damage that could be done to Galway’s reputation internationally. And international questions have already been raised. Ileana Ros, a Cuban born Florida Republican, and Chairperson of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, has called on the City Council to reconsider their plans. In a statement, she argued that instead “the City Council of Galway should honour the victims of Che and the Castro dictatorship by rejecting this proposal. Despite the image makeover which some try to give him, the real Che Guevara was a mass murderer and human rights abuser.” Disregarding America’s shady involvement with dictators and leaving countries with large numbers of bodies behind them, Ros has a point. Many people down in the Republic have been fiercely critical of the IRA and their campaign of revolution against the state in Northern Ireland and support for victim’s groups has been widespread. Both revolutionary groups fought against what they perceived was an unjust system, both wanted to secure rights for their own people and both used violence excessively in their attempt to secure their goals. So why is one set appropriate, appreciated and remembered fondly while another, more closer to home, is vilified, castigated and eventually consigned to a murderous past best forgotten?
Though at first the City Council remained silent, Councillor Billy Cameron maintained the project had the full support of the Council. Criticism, he argues, has been blown out of proportion. “The Galway connection was established some years ago. He’s related to the Galway tribes, the Lynches and the Blakes. We want to celebrate somebody from our historic past.” The fact that he was a revolutionary doesn’t mean he was good, nor that he was right, nor indeed do his Irish connections redeem his other behaviours. If Galway City Council wants a statue of Che Guevara in their city then they should prepare to build one of Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness right beside it.