Che Guevara (1928-1967)
From his first meeting with Fidel Castro in Mexico in 1955 to his death in the Bolivian Andes in 1967, Ché Guevara's revolutionary career spanned little more than a decade. Yet the handsome young face, gaze set firmly on the future, has lived on through generations. In today's imagination Ché remains a mythical, romantic hero -- an uncompromising revolutionary, selfless, dedicated, incorruptible, ready to die for his beliefs.
Ernesto Guevara de la Serna grew up in the shelter of provincial aristocracy in Argentina. His personality was not forged in easy privilege, but by the fierce battle he waged against acute asthma. "He was a very sick boy," his brother later remembered, "but his character and willpower allowed him to overcome it." Guevara came to believe that all life was an act of will. "Any task, no matter how daunting could be solved by dint of enthusiasm, revolutionary fervor and unbending determination."
In 1948 Guevara went to Buenos Aires to study medicine. Restless by nature, he left his native land in 1952 on an eight-month journey of discovery and awakening. As he made his way north through South America, Guevara witnessed injustices that filled him with indignation. "I will be with the people," he wrote in the journal he called viaje, "journey." "I will dip my weapons in blood and, crazed with fury, I will cut the throats of my defeated enemies. I can already feel my dilated nostrils savoring the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood, of death to the enemy." One year later, having completed his medical degree, he left Argentina for good.
At age 26, Guevara arrived in Mexico. He had spent five weeks in Bolivia and nine months in Guatemala, where he witnessed the overthrow of reformist president Jacobo Arbenz by a CIA-backed military coup. The event forever fixed his hatred of the United States. By then he was a convinced Marxist, and ardent admirer of the Soviet Union. Married to a Guatemalan woman, Hilda Galea, he intended to name his first son Vladimir. He had decided to join the ranks of the Communist Party, "somewhere in the world." But despite his lofty ideals, Ché was little more than a drifter, a wandering photographer, an underpaid medical researcher -- a rebel in search of a cause.
Guevara discovered that cause in late summer 1955, when he was introduced to a daring exiled Cuban rebel leader committed to freeing his country from a dictator. The rebel's name was Fidel Castro, and he was planning to return to his native Cuba and take up arms. "By the small hours of that night I had become one of the future expeditionaries," Ché later recorded. Castro's passion and Guevara's ideas ignited each other. "It was like Lenin and Trotsky, like Hitler and Goebbels, like Mao Tse-Tung and Zhu De," journalist Georgie Anne Geyer would later write.
Ché distinguished himself, outperforming every Cuban while training in Mexico, despite his bouts of asthma. He was one of the few survivors of Castro's disastrous Granma landing, which the Cuban army had spotted. Ché Guevara made his way to the remote Sierra Maestra, where he joined Castro and seventeen other Granma survivors — the men who would form the core leadership of revolutionary Cuba.
Ché fought bravely in the mountains. He earned Castro's confidence and was the first rebel to be given the rank of comandante. Marching on Santa Clara in late 1958, his column derailed an armored train filled with dictator Fulgencio Batista's troops and took over the city. Guevara's triumph would be the final blow in the rebel military campaign against Batista.
By January 1959, Guevara, along with the Castro brothers, was recognized as one of the three most powerful leaders of the Cuban revolution. He became a Cuban citizen, divorced Hilda Galea, married a beautiful Cuban woman, Aleida March, and began a new family.
Guevara's first assignment was to oversee executions at an infamous prison, La Cabaña. Between 1959 and 1963, approximately 500 men were killed under his watch. Many individuals imprisoned at La Cabaña, including human rights activist Armando Valladares, allege that Guevara took a personal interest in the interrogation, torture, and execution of political prisoners.
Guevara recorded the two years he spent in overthrowing Batista's regime in a detailed account entitled Pasajes de la Guerra Revolucionaria, which came out in 1963. An English translation, Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, was issued five years later.
Popular But Ineffective
Lacking any managerial training, Ché was nevertheless named head of Cuba's central bank. Later, he became Minister of Industries. He called for the diversification of the Cuban economy, and for the elimination of what he called material incentives. Volunteer work and dedication of workers would drive economic growth. All that was needed was will. Ché led by example. He worked endlessly at his ministry job, in construction, and even cutting sugar cane. His good looks, acerbic humor and willingness to point out the revolution's shortcomings earned him the affection of many Cubans. But by 1963, as characterized by a CIA classified report, "Guevara... had brought... the economy to its lowest point since Castro came to power."
Critic of the Soviets
Guevara became disillusioned with the Soviet Union, attacking Moscow in every international forum. After Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev removed nuclear missiles from Cuba during the 1962 Missile Crisis, Guevara questioned Moscow's commitment to international socialism. He was also critical of Soviet insistence that Cuba continue to specialize in sugar. "The socialist countries are, in a way, accomplices of imperialist exploitation," he told a gathering of Third World revolutionaries in Algiers.
Era of World Revolution
Ché's reputation outside of Cuba, among leftist intellectuals and the radical youth that called itself "the new left," grew by leaps and bounds. It was an era of world revolution, and Fidel Castro had declared his readiness to support revolutionaries "in any corner of the world." Ché was the most visible advocate of this commitment. In early 1965 he mysteriously disappeared from view. For six months Fidel kept his silence. Then, in October 1965, he revealed the contents a letter he had kept secret. In an emotional farewell, Ché had renounced all his official posts, given up his Cuban citizenship and left Cuba "to fight imperialism... in new fields of battle." Ché wrote, "I have fulfilled the part of my duty that tied me to the Cuban revolution... and I say goodbye to you, to the comrades, to your people, who are now mine."
Ché's whereabouts became an international guessing game: The London Timesreported him in Addis Ababa and Dar es Salaam; eyewitnesses spotted him in Vietnam. Others announced his death. But Ché was deep in the African Congo, fighting a futile war and barely escaping with his life. Humiliated, he returned secretly to Cuba. Soon, though, Ché decided to return to his native Argentina to bring about revolution. But neither the Argentine Communist Party nor Castro approved of his decision. It was Fidel who suggested that Ché go instead to Bolivia, and try ignite a continental revolution.
Legend and Liability
By the late 1960s, Cuba was increasingly absorbed into the Soviet sphere, and Ché was becoming a liability. Unable to ignite successful guerrilla movements, he offended Moscow at every turn. After six months training in the mountains of Cuba, the now legendary rebel entered Bolivia disguised as a businessman, determined "to turn the Bolivian Andes into another Sierra Maestra."
Guevara's guerrilla group, numbering about 120, were well equipped and scored a number of early successes. Then came a series of disasters. The U.S. government located the group and sent CIA operatives into Bolivia. The local population turned its back on the rebels. Bolivia's Moscow-oriented Communist Party reneged on a commitment to help him. Moreover, Guevara was being hunted by a U.S.-trained elite battalion of Bolivian Rangers skilled in jungle warfare. "Bolivia. July, 1967," Ché wrote in his diary. "The negative aspects prevail, including the failure to make contact with the outside. We are down to 22 men, three of whom are disabled, including myself." By September, he was suffering from acute asthma, weakened by dysentery, and surrounded by the Bolivian Rangers.
Months passed, and Guevara received no word from Havana. "The interesting thing about Ché in Bolivia was that he was in the eastern high Andes, which are readily accessible for anyone who knew where he was. Fidel knew where he was," journalist Georgie Anne Geyer, who investigated Ché's death, has concluded. "He could've sent someone up from Paraguay. He could've sent someone out from La Paz, the capital. There was no contact. Ché is left wandering in this very high, wild jungle." Although Castro would deny any possibility of rescuing Guevara, biographer Jorge Castañeda authoritatively concluded, "Fidel did not send Ché to his death in Bolivia. He simply allowed history to run its course."
Death of a Revolutionary
The Bolivian Rangers captured Ché Guevara on October 8, 1967, at a ravine called El Yuro. The next day he was executed. His body was photographed on a stone slab in a small hut for the whole world to see. On October 12, an American State Department analysis of Ché's death predicted, "Guevara will be eulogized as the model revolutionary who met a heroic death."
A photograph taken by Alberto Korda in March 1960 soon became one of the century's most recognizable images. Che's portrait was simplified and reproduced on a vast array of merchandise, such as T-shirts, posters, and baseball caps -- and Guevara remains an icon of world revolution.