Mark Milke: Rachel and Che: How your heroes explain you

Just before Alberta’s New Democrats won power in May 2015, Thomas Lukaszuk, an Alison Redford-era cabinet minister, tweeted that he recalled seeing NDP Leader Rachel Notley with a Che Guevara wristwatch. A later online picture confirmed his tweet. Lukaszuk would go down to defeat two days later in his Edmonton riding, but the premier’s ideological fashion choice was revealing.

Che Guevara, referred to as simply “Che” by those with a celebrity-style fascination with him, was the mid-century Argentine communist revolutionary. He served in Fidel Castro’s guerrilla army in the late 1950s, and his self-awarded “job description” included executing suspected traitors and deserters or just those who bent the rules of the revolutionary cause. In one case, after a child in Guevara’s guerrilla unit stole food, the boy was immediately shot.

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Later, after Castro ousted Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, Guevara served in Havana’s La Cabaña prison, where “enemies of the revolution” were put to death. They included Castro’s former co-belligerents, who also hated Batista but disdained Castro’s Marxism and instead wanted a return to Cuba’s 1940 constitution and liberal democracy.

Che Guevara was described by a Bolivian comrade as “an authoritarian through and through” and by a French author as “dogmatic, cold and intolerant.” Writing in The Black Book of Communism in 1999, Pascal Fontaine described Guevara as “a Latin American version of Nechaev, the 19th-century nihilist terrorist who inspired Dostoevsky’s The Devils.”

Che Guevara’s image is a common enough visage. In the five decades after his death at the hands of the Bolivian army in 1967, his face has been standard fare on wall posters hung by undergraduates intoxicated with some romantic notion of revolution.

That is unfortunate enough, but the wristwatch revealed something about a 50-something political leader in the richest province in Canada, where earnings and opportunities in the past century came not from the ideas of a young, violent Latin American hothead, but from the grounded approach to people, power and the economy worked out over centuries in Great Britain and her offshoots: free peoples, free enterprise, in free societies.

But Rachel Notley chose Che Guevara.

If the premier possessed an odd choice in a wristwatch, she was not alone in her accidentally revealed autocrat preferences. The 2015 NDP election win washed in a few others hostile to free enterprise, including Rod Loyola. Pre-politics, Loyola, a union and NDP organizer, habitually praised Hugo Chávez.

Chávez, who ruled from 1999 until his death, exacerbated Venezuela’s typical Latin American problems — poverty, corruption, graft and inefficiency — with assaults on institutions necessary for a free society: the media, opposition parties, an independent judiciary and non-government organizations.

He turned a second-world country with promise into a bankrupt, failed state. In 2010, Amnesty International described Venezuela’s condition and its regime in this manner: “Attacks, harassment and intimidation of those critical of government policies, including journalists and human-rights defenders, were widespread.”

An example of Chávez’s economic policies: In 2010, the Venezuelan leader launched an “economic war on the bourgeoisie owners” of food-distribution chains, flour mills and grocery stores. His war and the substitution of government agencies for private-sector distribution led to tragic waste.

That same year, a state-owned subsidiary failed to transport food from the docks. The result was 80,000 tonnes of rotting food, including meat. The ensuing stench was described as akin to “100 dead dogs.”

In 2013, when Chávez died, Loyola was listed by the Marxist Leninist Daily as the media contact for an Edmonton “tribute to Chávez.” Organizers called on “the Edmonton community to attend this mass/tribute/homage to President Hugo Chávez.” Loyola wrote of how it was an “opportunity to express solidarity [and] … also share with the media and local community, the hard work, dedication and achievements of President Hugo Chávez and his government.”

The Notley-Guevara, Loyola-Chávez sympathies are notable, not because one expects the premier or Loyola, who chairs Alberta’s standing committee on resource stewardship, to one day hire Latin American revolutionaries to run Alberta’s prisons or to nationalize Alberta’s energy sector (though, in the 2014 leadership race, Loyola did like the idea of 60 per cent royalty rates).

The sympathies matter because, whether Guevara or Chávez, New Democrats still seemed impressed by revolutionary rhetoric over the hard-work reality of how economies, actual justice and countries are built and prosper.

They still seem entranced, as many New Democrats were in the 20th century, by Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and many other revolutionaries from Latin America to Africa, with high-sounding ideas and not the actual results under such regimes.

It is as if the more ideological New Democrats believe that flipping a rhetorical switch and chattering about social justice can bring about prosperity and actual justice.

Excerpted from the book Ralph vs. Rachel: A tale of two Alberta premiers, by Mark Milke. Excerpt published in The Dorchester Review (Autumn/Winter 2018).

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