What Does Obama’s Picture in Front of a Che Mural Mean?

American conservatives are furious about images taken in Havana with the famous revolutionary in the background. Guevara might be even more upset.

Dennis Rivera / AP

If many American conservatives were already agitated and colicky about President Obama’s trip to Cuba, a photo op in Havana Monday pushed them into full-on apoplexy.

Obama went to visit a memorial to national hero Jose Martí, and was then photographed standing in front of a huge mural of Che Guevara, the leftist guerrilla who along with Fidel Castro was a leader of Cuba’s Communist revolution. The reaction was harsh. (The liberal site Talking Points Memo gathers a good sampling.) The Drudge Report went with subtle innuendo and a funny callback to the Bush administration: “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.” One writer tweeted, “Finally, our POTUS is able to honor the mural of a racist, terrorist, mass murderer who oversaw concentration camps.” Jay Nordlinger fumed, “In Cuba, the Castros’ island prison, the American president has been photographed with looks of delight on his face in front of a Dear Leader-ish image of Guevara.” (He doesn’t look all that happy to me, but your mileage may vary.)

One of the more interesting reactions came from former House Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich:

Was it bad advance work by presidential staff? Perhaps, though this being Cuba, it might be difficult to avoid being photographed with icons of Marxist repression—starting with President Raul Castro, with whom Obama gave a brief shared press conference on Monday. As Peter Ubertaccio wryly noted on Twitter, Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were also photographed with portraits of iconic brutal Communists:

In other words, getting your photo taken with monsters of the 20th century is an occupational hazard of diplomacy. Perhaps that’s reason enough not to go. There is a good-faith critique from some observers, especially on the right, who contend that no American president should go to Cuba while the Castros retrain power. They worry that visiting, shaking hands, and being photographed this way ratifies the regime. A crackdown on dissidents on the eve of the trip shows how, despite some reforms, the Cuban government remains unacceptably repressive. (The fact that Castro was asked about political prisoners by CNN’s Jim Acosta, and his puerile denial, show how the trip might positively affect that.) Although a majority of Americans now oppose the embargo, one can mount a case for why Cuba ought to remain isolated and why visiting Cuba at all (setting aside the photo) is unwise.

That is not what Gingrich is doing here with his not-so-subtle (and not-so-grammatical) suggestion that Obama is a secret Communist and Che-lover. But what if he’s right? What if this isn’t just a product of being in Cuba, and also not—let’s grant for discussion, since Obama hasn’t had any U.S. political prisoners gunned down yet—evidence that Obama is a Communist sleeper agent sent to dismantle American democracy?

If Guevara could see Obama standing in the plaza and making this trip, it’s hard to imagine he’d be pleased. Obama’s visit follows, and flows from, years of market-based reforms, mostly instituted by Raul Castro since he took over from his ailing brother in 2008. Those reforms do not a market-based economy or a liberal democracy make, but they are unquestionably movement away from the doctrine Fidel Castro and Che Guevara once promulgated. When the BBC surveyed experts on what Che would think about Cuba’s recent moves last year, the general consensus that he’d be unhappy. “He felt total detestation” for the United States, said his biographer Lucia Alvarez de Toledo, though she thought he might be pleased that the U.S. was coming to recognize the futility of the embargo. Another described Guevara’s “very, very wary” attitude toward Cuba’s northern neighbor. Most biting was Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Che Guevara was an idealist, and he may say that Raul is betraying the revolution. [But] in Cuba no one is thinking about what Che Guevara may think,” he said. Mesa-Lago even derided the very image in front of which Obama was pictured: “You can see portraits of Che Guevara everywhere across Latin America. Of course there is a big portrait of Che Guevara about 10 stories high in the Plaza de La Revolucion, where Fidel used to address the people. But it's like a joke. This is simply a myth of the past.”

Guevara’s famous slogan was “¡Hasta la victoria siempre!”—until victory always, roughly. Whatever the outcome of Obama’s trip, it’s hard to imagine that Guevara would feel that Obama landing on the island in his big, imperialist plane, rolling through the streets in his big, imperialist motorcade, and meeting with figures in the island’s nascent private sector were doing anything but pulling Cuba away from that victory. Che might be even angrier than Newt.