Who was Che Guevara?
You’ve probably seen his face on t-shirts, hats, or some other piece of merchandise, but what do you really know about Che Guevara? What did he accomplish that made him the hero of oppressed people all around the world?
The Russian revolutionary Vladamir Lenin once pointed out the tendency of the ruling class to “co-opt” revolutionaries after their deaths, turning them into mere “logos” which they attempt to render meaningless by separating the individual from what it is they stood for. It is in an effort to combat this that we offer this article.
Of course, it is not within the scope of this article to completely detail the life of Che – that has already been attempted to varying degrees of success in numerous biographies – rather, we hope to to provide a general outline to those unfamiliar with the man, in hopes that it will lead them to dig deeper into the story of his life, his theories, and most importantly what he fought for: the liberation of humankind.
Ernesto Guevara (the ‘Che’ part wouldn’t come until much later) was born in Rosario, Argentina, in 1928. His mother and father could be described as middle-class, with liberal inclinations.
Even as a young boy, Guevara was known for his often radical perspective, but they wouldn’t develop fully until later in life.
He suffered from crippling asthma from birth, so much so that his family had to relocate because of it, but it didn’t stop him from becoming an excellent athlete. Rugby was one of the sports that he enjoyed most. His aggressive style of play earned him the nickname ‘Fuser’.
In 1948, he enrolled in the University of Buenos Aires to study medicine. He was an excellent student who excelled at his studies.
The Journey Begins
In 1951, on the suggestion of his older friend, Alberto Granado, a biochemist, he decided to take a year off from school to embark on trip across South America that they had dreamed of taking for years. Guevara and his 29-year-old friend set off from their hometown of Alta Gracia on a 1939 Norton 500 cc motorcycle they called La Poderosa II (literally, “the mighty one”). As a part of their trip, they planned to spend a few weeks volunteering at the San Pablo leper colony in Peru. Guevara documented the trip in The Motorcycle Diaries, which was translated into English in 1996, and turned into a motion picture of the same name in 2004.
During the trip, Ernesto witnessed first hand many things that he hadn’t had much experience with before, such as the widespread poverty and oppression faced by the masses of people throughout the Latin America (and the world) under capitalism. It was through this, as well as studies of the writings of revolutionaries like Karl Marx, that he began to understand that the only remedy to these ills lay in socialist revolution.
Through his trip he also began to see Latin America not as a grouping of separate nations divided by invisible, often imposed borders, but rather as a single cultural and economic entity. It was from this foundation that he began to formulate his concept of a united Ibero-America, united “from Mexico to the Magellan straits”, and bound together by a “single mestizo” culture.
Upon his return to Argentina, Guevara was anxious to continuing traveling throughout Latin America, and so he completed his medical studies as quickly as possible, finishing in March of 1953.
Imperialism in Guatemala
Following his graduation, Guevara again set out on the road, this time planning to travel through Central America. After much traveling, he finally ended up in Guatemala, where the popular reformist Jacobo Arbenz Guzman had been elected president. Arbenz was attempting to bring about a social change through various reforms – particularly land reform.
It was at this time that Guevara acquired the nickname that would follow him for the rest of his life. Friends in Guatemala began to refer to him as “Che” (pronounced “chay”), after an interjection (often used to get attention, such as “hey” or “wow”, but also used like “friend” or “pal”) commonly used by Argentinians such as himself.
At the time, 2% of the population of Guatemala controlled 74% of the land suitable to farming, and only used 12% of it. Arbenz planned to redistribute some of the unused land to the poor farmers of the country who made up the majority of its population, a plan that they greatly supported.
The U.S.-based United Fruit Company (UFC), the largest landowner in Guatemala, fully opposed the plan, even though it was paid $600,000 (based on land values it declared for tax purposes) for unused land that was seized as the plan began to be implemented.
The UFC had close ties with the U.S. government, and lobbied the CIA and the Eisenhower administration to take action. In 1954, the administration commissioned the CIA to overthrow democratically elected president Arbenz in a plan called Operation PBSUCCESS. The plan was a success and Arbenz was forced to flee the country on June 27th.
Following the overthrow, Che offered to fight, but Arbenz instructed his foreign supporters to leave the country. After spending some time in the Argentine consulate, Che headed to Mexico.
Witnessing the events that took place in Guatemala enabled Che to understand more than ever that the U.S. was an imperialist power that would always oppose any movements that attempted to solve problems like inequality and poverty that are endemic to Latin America and the rest of the third world. His understanding of socialism as the only answer to these problems grew even stronger.
Incidentally, the U.S. sponsored military dictatorship that replaced Arbenz turned out to be one of the most brutal regimes in world history.
The Cuban Revolution
It was in Mexico City that Che would meet brothers Raul and Fidel Castro. The two were in exile from Cuba after being freed – by popular demand – from a Cuban prison to which they were sentenced after leading a failed attack on a military garrison as a part of a larger plan to overthrow U.S. sponsored dictator Fulgencio Batista. The Castro brothers and others Cubans were planning to return to Cuba as a guerrilla force named the “26th of July Movement” (after the date of the original attack on the garrison). Che immediately hit it off with Fidel and agreed to join the expedition as a medic on the first night.
After a period of training, and even imprisonment by the Mexican authorities, Fidel, Che, and 80 others departed from Tuxpan, Veracruz, aboard the cabin cruiser Granma in November 1956. Che was the only non-Cuban on board.
Bad weather, and other problems, delayed their arrival by two days, and so an armed uprising in Santiago, which was aimed at drawing away the attention of Batista’s troops, ended up only serving to put them on alert. They finally landed, 30 miles away from the point where weapons and reinforcements awaited them.
Almost immediately after pulling themselves ashore they were ambushed by the dictator’s army. All but a handful of the guerrillas were killed. It was during this battle that Che made a crucial decision when, while retreating, he chose to pick up a box of ammunition instead of his medical bag. He later described the situation, “Perhaps this was the first time I was confronted with the real-life dilemma of having to choose between my devotion to medicine and my duty as a revolutionary soldier. Lying at my feet were a knapsack full of medicine and a box of ammunition. They were too heavy for me to carry both of them. I grabbed the box of ammunition, leaving the medicine behind.”
Fidel, Raul, and Che were among the survivors who then made their way undetected into the rugged Sierra Maestra mountains. From here they built a strong support base amongst the region’s poor farmers which would soon spread to working people across the country. The numbers of the Rebel Army grew as they continued to carry out successful attacks.
Throughout the revolution, Che continually exhibited great courage, combat and leadership skills, self-discipline, and boldness. He soon rose to the highest rank in the Rebel Army, Comandante (Major). In Late 1958, he lead his column through a long and arduous march to the city of Santa Clara, where they would soon take over after derailing an armored train filled with Batista’s henchmen. This proved to be the final straw and the dictator was forced to flee the country. Guevara later recorded his memories of the two year struggle in a series of articles that would later be published as a book entitled Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War.
On January 1st, 1959, the 26th of July Movement called for a general strike – to serve as a final blow – which lead to the victory of the revolution. For his part in the fighting Che was declared a “Cuban citizen by birth” and was appointed Commander of the La Cabaña Fortress prison. Soon after he divorced his Peruvian wife, Hilda Gadea, the mother of his first child whom he married while in Guatemala. Later he would marry Aleida March, another fighter in the Rebel Army, with whom he would have 4 children.
During his six months at the prison, Che oversaw people’s courts in which the Cuban people dished out revolutionary justice to brutal killers, rapists, and other war criminals that served Batista during the war.
Later, Che would become an official of INRA (the National Institute of Agrarian Reform), that carried out one of the most extensive land reforms ever seen. Large plantations were seized from big (often foreign owned) businesses and given to the poor farmers that actually worked them. An Urban Reform was also carried out in which all rents were lowered so that no renter would have to spend more than 10% of their income on housing, and, after a few years, would receive ownership of it. The mansions of the rich were turned over to the servants that worked in them and the government bought up homes which weren’t being used (usually because the owners had several homes) and redistributed them to people in need of housing. U.S. owned casinos and houses of prostitution (so many in fact that Cuba was referred to as ‘the whore house of the Caribbean) were closed.
Che would go on to become President of the National Bank of Cuba and Minister of Industries, positions from which he headed the major challenge of transforming Cuba’s backwards, colonial, capitalist plantation economy into a socialist industrialized economy. The U.S. government, angry that the socialist revolution had taken up the cause of the people over the interests of foreign-owned business, drastically cut back the amount of sugar that they purchased from Cuba (eventually imposing a full economic embargo, which stands to this day, even though it has been repeatedly condemned by all but 2 nations and deemed illegal by the United Nations), in an attempt to damage the Cuban economy. They also sabotaged buildings, farms, and factories, flew planes over the island dropping bombs, and attempted to assassinate Cuban leaders. Cuba however, would not be intimidated. Che negotiated a trade agreement with the Soviet Union in 1960 in which they agreed to buy all Cuban sugar at a price above the going rate. He also represented Cuba on many trade missions to nations in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Che played a major part in the reorganization of the Cuban economy along a socialist path, which enabled the country to eliminate homelessness, illiteracy, and unemployment in only a few years. He became well known as a hero of many for his fiery attacks on the United States imperialists’ foreign policy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
It was during this time that Che made many important theoretical contributions in his speeches, articles, letters, and essays. His book Guerrilla Warfare became highly influential, and was used as a guide by guerrilla movements throughout Latin America (unfortunately, many of the fighters, though very courageous, oversimplified the theories put forth in the book, eventually leading to their defeat). Groups like the FARC-EP, waging a decades long revolutionary struggle in Colombia, utilize many methods laid out in the book to this day. Man and Socialism in Cuba, put forth many of Che, and Cuba’s, greatest contributions. In it Che pointed out that liberation of humankind could only come about after the people first evolved into ‘new people’, concerned with the welfare of everyone as a whole over the welfare of themselves as individuals. This ‘evolution’ could only occur when the material conditions for it existed, namely, under socialism. Later, when the continuing world revolution, and the economic crises inherent to capitalism destabilized it, the need for the proletarian state would disappear and full liberation would finally exist in a society of equals without states or governments.
Che portrayed this ‘new man’ in his daily life. He spent his weekends and evenings volunteering in shipyards and textile factories or cutting sugarcane. He was known for his simple lifestyle, an example of which was when he refused a pay raise when he became a member of government, choosing instead to continue receiving the much lower salary he drew as a Comandante in the Rebel Army. In another famous example, when Che was served food on expensive china while dining with high-ranking officials from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during a trip to Russia, he asked the officials, “Is this how the working class lives in Russia?”
An attempted U.S. invasion, commonly known as ‘the Bay of Pigs’, and which was defeated in less than 72 hours, took place during Che’s time in the revolutionary government. The event lead Cuba to acquire nuclear missiles from the USSR in its own defense, which resulted in the “Cuban missile crisis” in 1962.
After returning from a three-month tour of the People’s Republic of China, United Arab Republic, Algeria, Ghana, Mali, Dahomey, Congo-Brazzaville, and Tanzania in March of 1965, Che dropped out of public life and was not seen for some time.
Che’s whereabouts were the main question in Cuba throughout the year, and many rumors began to spread – including one started by enemies of the revolution that Che and Fidel had some sort of a split. This of course was not true at all, as would be proven later.
In an interview with foreign correspondents on November 1st, Castro said that he knew where Guevara was but could not disclose the location. He said that Che was “in the best of health”. Speculation however continued at the end of the year, and Che’s movements would have to be kept secret for the next two years.
During this time, an article written by Che was published in Tricontinental Magazine in which he called for complete support of the heroic Vietnamese people who were fighting against U.S. imperialist invaders, and urged comrades around the world to create “two, three, many Vietnams.”
In The Congo
In March of 1965 the decision was made that Che would lead a rebel force in support of the Marxist Simba movement in the former Belgian Congo (later Zaire and currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in Africa.
Guevara worked with guerrilla leader Laurent-Desire Kabila, who had earlier helped supporters of the murdered prime minister Patrice Lumumba lead a revolt that was suppressed by the Congolese army and a large group of white mercenaries.
CIA advisors working with the Congolese army monitored Guevara’s communications, arranged ambushes against the rebels and the Cubans, and interrupted their supply lines. Che had planned to teach the local Simba fighters communist ideology and the strategies and tactics of guerrilla warfare; but, due to their incompetence, superstition, and internal feuds, he was unable to, and the revolt eventually failed. After seven months, Che, who was ill and suffering from debilitating bouts of asthma, finally left the Congo with the surviving members of his Cuban column (six had died in battle). Originally, Che refused to give up and planned to send the wounded back to Cuba and then stand alone, fighting to the end as a revolutionary example; but after much debating with his comrades in arms, and Fidel, he was finally persuaded to return. Guevara documented his experiences in his Congo Diaries (later published as The African Dream).
During his time in the Congo, Fidel had made public a farewell letter written to him in which Che officially severed his ties with Cuba in order to devote himself to revolutionary activities in other parts of the world. “I feel that I have fulfilled the part of my duty that tied me to the Cuban revolution in its territory,” the letter says, “And I say goodbye to you, the comrades, your people, who are already mine … Other nations of the world call for my modest efforts. I can do that which is denied you because of your responsibility as the head of Cuba, and the time has come for us to part.”
After spending six months living underground in Dar-es-Salaam, Prague, and the German Democratic Republic, Che returned to Cuba, but only on a temporary basis for the few months needed to prepare another revolutionary effort, this time in Latin America.
Throughout 1966 and 1967 people continued to wonder where exactly Che was. Finally, in a speech at the 1967 May Day rally in Havana, Major Juan Almeida announced that Guevara was “serving the revolution somewhere in Latin America.” It would turn out that Che was leading a guerrilla army in Bolivia.
Che chose Bolivia after a 1964 coup triggered an outbreak in demonstrations, protests, strike by miners, and repression against leaders of leftist and other popular movements. When he and his comrades analyzed the situation, they saw that there was an opening for a guerrilla column made up of Bolivians, some Peruvians, and a group of well trained Cubans, to launch a revolutionary offensive. The plan was to create an international rebel army, that, after achieving victory in Bolivia, would spread the struggle to the rest of Latin America.
A piece of land was purchased in the jungles of the Nancahuazu by the Bolivian Communist party and turned over to Che for use as a training area. The Party originally pledged its full support and participation of its membership, but its leader, Mario Monjae, later decided against it after the struggle had already begun.
The rebel army, named the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional de Bolivia (National Liberation Army of Bolivia), was made up of about 50 well equipped guerrillas. They were able to launch a number of successful attacks against the Bolivian army in the mountainous Camiri region, despite the fact that it was being trained in jungle warfare and aided by U.S. Army Special Forces.
But problems, such as the refusal of the Communist Party of Bolivia to deliver expected assistance, materials, and reinforcements (the Party leadership went as far as to refuse to tell would-be volunteers how and where to join the guerrillas), eventually lead to some defeats. In September the Bolivian Army managed to eliminate two small groups of guerrillas.
Additionally, counter-revolutionary Cuban exiles with full CIA backing set up interrogation houses in which they tortured 300,000 Bolivians in search of supporters of Che and the guerrillas.
Capture and Assassination
To make matters worse a deserter betrayed the guerrillas and lead Bolivian Special Forces directly to them. On October 8th, their encampment was encircled and a shoot out took place. Che refused to surrender and was captured only after being shot in both knees and having his gun destroyed by a bullet.
Che was taken to a old schoolhouse where he was held overnight. On the next afternoon he was murdered by a sergeant in the Bolivian army while he was tied by his hands to a board. Before he was executed, Che said these last words: “I know you are here to kill me. Shoot coward! You are only going to kill a man.”
After a military doctor cut off Che’s hands, Bolivian army officers moved his body to an undisclosed location and refused to reveal if his remains had been buried or cremated.
CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, who also took part in the failed invasions of Cuba and Vietnam, took Che’s watch and still displays it to this day.
On October 15 Fidel Castro gave an emotional speech in which informed the world of Che’s death and proclaimed three days of public mourning in Cuba. The death was considered a severe blow to the revolutionary movement and deeply saddened oppressed people around the world.
The diary Che kept in Bolivia was removed when he was captured. In it, he documented the events of the guerrilla campaign. He wrote of how the guerrillas were forced to begin operation much earlier than they had planned due to discovery by the Bolivian Army. He also recorded the rift between the Bolivian Communist Party and himself, which resulted in the rebel army having far fewer soldiers and contacts than was originally expected. Che also wrote of his increasing illness towards the end of the campaign. His asthma was getting worse, and most of his last offensives were made simply to obtain medicine.
In 1997, Che’s skeletal remains were exhumed from beneath an air strip near Vallegrande, Bolivia, positively identified by DNA matching, and returned to Cuba. On October 17, 1997, his remains were laid to rest with full military honors in a specially built mausoleum, the Plaza Comandante Ernesto Guevara, in the city of Santa Clara, where he won the decisive battle of the Cuban Revolution thirty-nine years earlier.
Legacy of a Revolutionary Hero
When Che’s murder was announced protests broke out throughout the world, and articles, books, poems and songs were written about his life, death, and message. Che is especially revered because of his spirit of self-sacrifice, illustrated by his choice to reject a comfortable life and instead join, and take up the cause of the worlds poor, oppressed majority. He never gave up that cause, continuing to give his all to the revolutionary struggle until his death.
The famous photo taken of Che by photographer Alberto Korda in 1960, which became one of the 20th centuries most recognizable images, has become a symbol of liberation for millions of people.
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte called Che “the most complete human being of our age.” Ernesto “Che” Guevara was one of the most dedicated revolutionaries we have ever known. But his struggle is far from over. The oppressed masses of the world must continue to fight for freedom, justice, and equality through socialist revolution – the only way it can be achieved – as Che said, “Hasta la victoria, siempre!” [Forever, until victory!]