Guevara, an infamous revolutionary figure who helped institute regime change in Cuba along with Fidel Castro, was being used as part of a resource to teach young Toronto students about the importance of literacy – though making no mention of his alleged crimes.
According to the resource guide, posted publicly on the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) website until Thursday, Che Guevara was “a leader in Latin America,” who was “saddened by how poor people were wherever he visited,” and “decided that he would give all his time and energy to work to change that.”
The resource continues: “He is called a ‘revolutionary’ because he wanted to change the way people worked and viewed the world. He travelled to do political work in many countries until he helped to win a battle in Cuba, called the Cuban Revolution. He worked in the government there for a few years and then travelled to other countries to do similar work.”
While the lesson plan for primary students focuses on the importance of literacy, it also leaves out much detail about Guevara – including his involvement in a number of executions.
“This webpage was created as a resource should they choose to use it as a resource for them to teach their kids about literacy in Cuba,” said Ryan Bird, a spokesperson for the TDSB.
“Che Guevara was integral in raising the literacy rate in Cuba and this was a resource for them to use… It was by no means a mandated piece of curriculum.”
But were Guevara’s accomplishments in literacy noteworthy enough to be included in a primary education resource plan celebrating Latin American history?
While literacy rates in Cuba did grow post-revolution, David Parker, a Queen’s University professor who teaches Latin American history argues that the growth in literacy rates came at a cost for Cuba. Before the revolution, Parker suggests, illiteracy rates hovered around 25 per cent, "which at the time put Cuba's literacy rate well into the top half of Latin America," rather than the 50 per cent claimed by the TDSB report.
Currently, Cuba has among the highest literacy rates in the world, at 99.8 per cent.
But at what cost did Cuba achieve the significant growth in literacy rates? Parker claims that while post-revolution life may have been better for many people in rural areas, there was a significant economic sacrifice to the entire country.
"Cuba sacrificed a huge amount of economic potential in the name of a radical equality and an impressive education and healthcare safety net for all. The rural poor in Cuba live far better than before the revolution in countless ways. But the average Havana dweller can't necessarily say the same thing. It all depends what you use as your "before" and "after" comparisons," Parker said.
The Toronto District School Board now says that after concerns from the public, the page was taken down and may not have been the best example of Latin American history to use in promoting literacy.
“We’ve heard people’s concerns about this webpage and we have taken it down from our website. We understand that perhaps this example was not the best way to explain the situation in Cuba,” Bird said. “We all know historical figures can be controversial in themselves, but we have heard people’s concerns and we’ve taken it down off the website.”
The TDSB also made a concerted effort not to include the so-called “darker parts” of Guevara’s past, including his alleged responsibility for hundreds of executions.
“This was just for elementary students. There were certain elements of Che Guevara’s ‘darker past’ were not necessarily appropriate for this context, as we were truly focusing on the literacy rate in Cuba,” Bird said.
“This is not a mandated part of the curriculum. If older students, or high school students were learning about Che Guevara, of course his more complete history would be told.”
An expert in Latin American politics doesn’t think Guevara’s so-called “darker” actions are anything to shy away from, saying any executions ordered by Che Guevara were merely a part of the guerrilla war in which he was involved.
“The government was trying hard to infiltrate the revolutionary cells,” Dr. Judith Teichman from the University of Toronto said. “There were some allegations that he had some people executed. Not many.”
He was not a mass murderer according to Teichman, but rather a person forced into a situation where violence was the only option. She suggests that his situation can be compared to other violent struggles across the world.
“War always produces moral dilemmas and behaviour that you would rather not have to engage in, and injustices,” Teichman said. “But you have to understand that was in the context that people are living in… why do we go to war? Why did we go to war in the First and Second World War?... In most people’s schemas, there are justifications for war under certain circumstances.”
Around the world, Guevara is known by many as an inspiring figure, having led a revolution in Cuba which overthrew the Batista government, a regime that killed thousands of people - though he is clearly not perfect.
“He is an individual who single-handedly changed history, and millions around the world came to the conclusion that they could transform their own countries if they could only "be like Che" and emulate his sacrifice,” Parker said. "It's also true that his vision of worldwide revolution failed almost everywhere, and arguably caused great suffering."