I was in Argentina when the debate over efforts to tear down statues of Confederate hero Robert E. Lee exploded in the United States, and it sounded very much like the ongoing petition in that South American country to destroy monuments to guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara. In both cases, there is a much better solution.
Why not let the statues of these historical figures stand, and build monuments to their victims right next to them?
Why not build, right next to each Robert E. Lee statue, a monument to the victims of slavery in the United States? Or, next to Argentine-born Cuban rebel “Che” Guevara, a monument to the people who were executed by him in Cuba?
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Supporters of monuments to these and other controversial figures argue that they are part of each country’s history, and deserve to be treated like that. If that’s the case, it would make sense to place them in their context, next to other historic figures that represented opposite points of view.
Schoolchildren and others seeing these side-by-side monuments would get both sides of the story. Violent clashes over efforts to remove these statues – like the one that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12 – could be more easily avoided. These statues would serve as testimony to the conflicting viewpoints of history, rather than cult objects.
In Argentina’s port city of Rosario, the center-right Bases Foundation has launched a petition to push city authorities to demolish the giant “Che” Guevara monument that was dedicated in 2008 under a left-of-center government. The 13-foot, 1 1 / 2-ton bronze statue was made by melting 75,000 keys, which its sculptor said were donated by people from all over the world.
The petition for the destruction of the statue has already gathered 14,100 signatures on the Change.org website. A counter-petition on the same site asking to keep the monument has drawn 8,100 signatures.
According to the foundation’s petition, “Guevarism in Cuba has left 10,723 people killed by the communist regime, 78,000 dead seeking to escape the island, 14,000 dead in (Cuba’s) foreign military ventures, 5,300 who died in the Escambray rebellion, (and) persecution of intellectuals, gays and dissidents.”
The petition also requests that all other “Che” Guevara busts and plaques be removed, and that city authorities cancel plans to create a “Che” Guevara tourism circuit.
In the United States, the controversy over the monuments to Confederate figures has turned more violent.
The recent clash between white supremacists and anti-racists in Charlottesville left one dead and 19 wounded. Since then, protesters have pulled down a statue to Confederate soldiers in Durham, North Carolina, and city authorities in Lexington and Baltimore have sped up plans to take down Confederate monuments, in part because they fear escalating protests.
Supporters of Confederate monuments, such as President Donald Trump, say they are part of this country’s legacy. Criticizing those who want to tear them down, Trump said in a rally on Tuesday, “They are trying to take our heritage away.”
Those who want to demolish monuments of Confederate figures argue that these statues have become objects of veneration for white supremacists and neo-Nazis. It’s no coincidence that most Confederate monuments were built in the 1890s and the 1920s, two historical peaks of race segregation and lynching of blacks. These monuments seek to legitimize racism, critics say.
I believe that countries should look much less to the past, and much more into the future. Instead of having historical figures such as George Washington on U.S. dollar bills, we should have forward-looking images dealing with education and innovation. Singapore’s most circulated dollar bill has the image of an anonymous teacher in front of his students. At the bottom of the $2 note you can read the word “Education.”
But if many people want to remember history and maintain monuments to controversial figures, let’s be smart about it: Instead of fighting over whether to tear them down, let’s put them side by side with others representing opposite views that are more socially accepted nowadays. It’s time for Robert E. Lee and “Che” Guevara to share their places in history with their victims.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.