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Che Guevara and the Destruction of America’s Values

Che Guevara

Yesterday, thousands of people gathered in Bolivia to honor Che Guevara, the communist revolutionary and Fidel Castro ally who was executed by Bolivian troops on October 9, 1967.

Yesterday’s event could also have served as a commemoration of the destruction of American values by the U.S. national-security establishment, namely the Pentagon and the CIA.

Prior to his execution, Guevara had been organizing and leading an insurgency against the Bolivian government. His aim was the same as Castro’s in Cuba — to oust a brutal U.S.-supported right-wing dictatorial regime and replace it with a left-wing communist regime.

In the course of the insurgency, Guevara and his small force had ambushed and killed Bolivian soldiers. Such being the case, the natural question arises: What was wrong with killing him?

The answer is: Bolivian military forces had captured Guevara. They had him in custody. And then they shot him.

No trial. No military tribunal. No judicial process at all. Just a summary execution.

That’s murder, pure and simple. No matter what one may think about communists, no matter what atrocities that communists had committed around the world, no matter how despicable one might view communist ideology, no matter what Guevara had done, the fact is that once he was taken into custody, it was a criminal offense to summarily kill him. That criminal offense constituted murder, pure and simple.

When enemy soldiers are taken captive, they cannot be executed except after having been convicted of war crimes. The conviction might be by military tribunal or in a civilian court. Either way, U.S. personnel, either soldiers or police officers, were and are prohibited from summarily executing prisoners.

Our American ancestors ensured that that principle was enshrined into law by enacting the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits the federal government from taking anyone’s life without “due process of law,” a legal phrase that stretches all the way back to Magna Charta. It holds that before the federal government can kill a person, it must provide, at the very least, notice and a hearing or trial in which the accused has the right to defend himself. On the battlefield, that might mean a military tribunal. Away from the battlefield, that might mean a trial in a civilian court.

That founding principle of the United States, however, was destroyed, after World War II, when the federal government was converted from a limited-government republic to a “national-security state,” which consists of the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA. From that point forward, the federal government automatically acquired the power to kill people without due process of law. That is, it acquired the power to commit murder, with impunity.

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that a CIA agent was present when Bolivian forces captured and, later, executed Guevara. Remember: this was 1967, when the U.S. national-security state was convinced that communists were coming to the United States to take over the federal government and turn American red.

This was also the period when U.S. forces had invaded Vietnam with the aim of killing communists.

This was also the period during which the U.S. national-security state was initiating regime-change operations, some of which involved the violent ouster democratically elected socialist and communist foreign leaders from power and replacing them with brutal pro-U.S. right-wing foreign dictatorships. Many of those regime-change operations had built into them the assassination of foreign officials who had never initiated any acts violence against the United States.

One example was the CIA’s ouster of the democratically elected president of Guatemala in 1954, Jacobo Arbenz, who was deemed a threat to U.S. national security. As part of the coup, the CIA had prepared a list of Guatemalan officials to be assassinated.

Another example was the Pentagon’s and CIA’s regime-change operations against Castro in Cuba in the 1960s, which included invasion, terrorism, sabotage, and assassination.

Then there was the U.S.-instigated and U.S.-supported coup in Chile in the early 1970s, which included attempts by the Chilean national-security establishment to assassinate Chile’s democratically elected president with a missile attack.

The CIA has long maintained that it had expressed opposition to Guevara’s execution and that the execution order had been issued by Bolivian officials over the CIA’s objection.

One big problem, of course, is that, as everyone knows, the CIA lies. Don’t forget, after all, that after CIA Director Richard Helms was convicted of lying to Congress regarding the Chilean coup, CIA officials honored and glorified him for lying. Moreover, there is one thing everyone agrees on: If “national security” requires the CIA to lie, the CIA will lie.

Another problem is the fact that the U.S. government had installed the Bolivian military dictatorship into power in a coup against the country’s democratically elected president and then trained many of its personnel at the Pentagon’s School of the Americas, also known as the School of Assassins. In a review of a book entitled Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away with Murder by Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith, the reviewer, James Cockcroft, writes:

The CIA had tried to follow Che ever since 1954, and in 1962, with the help of Chicago mobster Johnny Rosselli, it tried to poison Che in Cuba (more than 600 botched CIA attempts on Fidel Castro’s life also took place in those years and afterwards).

The CIA, with the U.S. military, vowed to track down Che and to “eliminate the guerrillas” operating under Che’s command in Bolivia in 1966–67 in an operation supervised by sixteen Green Berets (U.S. Special Forces) charged with training the 2nd Ranger Battalion-Bolivian Army, the unit that captured Che.

Twenty of the top twenty-three Bolivian military men heading Bolivia’s dictatorship at the time were trained at the U.S. School of the Americas, as were 1,200 other officers and men in the Bolivian Armed Forces and countless military dictators of Latin America.

The CIA country chief in Bolivia, by his own admission, had an understanding with Bolivia’s president, General René Barrientos, that Che must be killed if captured, and Barrientos gave his word that Che would indeed be executed.

The head of the Bolivian Interior Ministry was on the CIA’s payroll, and the U.S. “military attaché” in La Paz was a CIA agent.

Two CIA operatives, both ultra-rightist Cuban Americans, disguised themselves as Bolivian soldiers, and one of them, Felix Rodríguez, would later claim to be the highest-ranking military officer at the scene of Che’s murder.

The fingerprints from Che’s cut-off hands were promptly matched in Washington with prior copies of Che’s fingerprints.

What is the possibility that a U.S. puppet regime in Latin America would execute Guevara without getting a green light from its puppet-master? So remote as to be practically nonexistent.

Another problem is that one of the established practices of the Pentagon and the CIA was to use local agents to do their dirty work, so that the CIA could “plausibly deny” involvement in the crime. That’s what happened, for example, when U.S. intelligence officials used Chilean goons under Gen. Augusto Pinochet to murder two innocent Americans, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi. It’s also why U.S. officials hired local goons in Chile to violently kidnap the commanding general the Chilean armed forces, Gen. Rene Schneider, which left him shot dead by the kidnappers.

In other words, CIA complicity in Guevara’s murder would have been entirely consistent with the U.S. national-security state’s mindset and actions during the Cold War, including its anti-communist assassination programs in Vietnam, Guatemala, Cuba, Chile, and other parts of Latin America.

While the United States would not have had jurisdiction over an execution committed in Bolivia, it did have jurisdiction over a conspiracy here in the United States to commit murder in a foreign country.

Thus, the Justice Department had a duty to target the CIA with a full investigation into whether it was complicit in Guevara’s murder. But that never happened. For one thing, the president of the United States would never have permitted the Justice Department to pursue such an investigation. For another, neither would the Pentagon and the CIA.

By the 1960s, the destruction of America’s founding principle of due process of law had become complete, at least insofar as the murder of communists was concerned. The Pentagon’s and CIA’s power to murder communists was as omnipotent as their power to assassinate “terrorists” today.

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.


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