At a minimum, one may see the West’s disconnect from economics reflected in Che Guevara’s immortalized visage, which adorns everything from college dorm rooms to a new stamp issued by the Republic of Ireland. (You can see a picture of the honor here.) The most familiar image of Guevara, who was born in Argentina to a father of part-Irish ancestry, entered the public canon through the hand of Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick. The Irish post office chose to fete Guevara, it said, because he represents the “quintessential left-wing revolutionary.”
What has not penetrated the West are the revolutionary’s crimes, from sham trials and executions to his pervasive racism (although Irish senator Neale Richmond did protest that Guevara is “a barbaric interrogator, jailer and executioner of hundreds of supposed ‘class enemies’”). Among them is his economic record during his years in Cuban government, before he made the fateful decision to spread the revolution in Bolivia.
Ed West reviews some of this record in a new essay for Religion & Liberty Transatlantic:
Aside from his armed struggle, this bourgeois Argentine brought ruin upon ordinary Cubans, implementing economic policies that had already proved destructive in other countries and installing a dreadfully oppressive regime. …
As Cuba’s Finance Minister and President of the National Bank, Che was in a position to implement his own socialist economic program. Guevara thought capitalist self-interest was evil, but his plan to use “moral incentives” to encourage workers led to widespread absenteeism and a fall in productivity. He expressed no interest in economics, other than the Marxism he believed to be scientific but which was, paradoxically, a faith. One reporter commented that “’in a sense he was, like some early saint, taking refuge in the desert. Only there could the purity of the faith be safeguarded from the unregenerate revisionism of human nature.”
Guevara spearheaded an effort to diversify the Cuban economy from its competitive advantage, sugar production, to a form of autarky that floundered badly. Che later admitted, “we committed in our conception of the development of industry and agriculture … we evolved a plan based on the hope of becoming self-sufficient in a whole series of consumer products and of medium industry which, however, could easily have been obtained in friendly countries.”
Guevara saw Cuba’s reliance on the sugar industry as an imperialist design. Even after Castro was forced to return to sugar as a staple, the yields did not meet expectations.
As a result of policies Che pioneered and Castro modified, Cubans saw much of Latin America surpass their living standards. “In 1959, when Castro took power, GDP per capita for Cuba was some $2,067 a year,” writes Tim Worstall in Forbes. “By 1999, 40 years later, Cuba had advanced hardly at all, to $2,307.”
This is to say nothing of the far worse forms of state repression. Thirty years ago, R.J. Rummel calculated the number of Cubans executed by Castro at 35,000 to 141,000. “Even today,” West writes at for Religion & Liberty Transatlantic, “Freedom House still rates Cuba’s political rights and civil liberties among the worst on earth.”
A mystic who placed his faith in a false religion, Guevara believed Cuba would imbue human nature with a “communist consciousness,” creating a new world where “what we call ‘material disincentives’ will be unnecessary, [and] that every worker will feel the urgent need to support the revolution and will thus experience work as a pleasure.” No one has yet succeeded in this task, and the human beings subjected to Marxism’s grip experienced more severe “disincentives.”
Marxism’s primary problem is not economics but anthropology. “If we then inquire as to the source of this mistaken concept of the nature of the person … we must reply that its first cause is atheism,” wrote Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus. “Not only is it wrong from the ethical point of view to disregard human nature, which is made for freedom, but in practice it is impossible to do so. Where society is so organized as to reduce arbitrarily or even suppress the sphere in which freedom is legitimately exercised, the result is that the life of society becomes progressively disorganized and goes into decline.”
Yet Che continues his march as a modern idol. West writes, “Che sells because he is, more than anything, a rebel figure, but he is also a pseudo-religious one for a secular age, a fake saint.” His essay is a warning that societies losing their grounding in the Western patrimony, and inclining toward atheism, often lionize the authors of societal decline before following their downward-sloping footsteps.
You can read Ed West’s full essay here.