Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (1928-1967) was an Argentine physician and revolutionary who played a key role in the Cuban Revolution. He also served in the government of Cuba after the communist takeover before leaving Cuba to try and stir up rebellions in Africa and South America. He was captured and executed by Bolivian security forces in 1967. Today, he is considered by many to be a symbol of rebellion and idealism, while others see him as a murderer.
Ernesto was born into a middle class family in Rosario, Argentina. His family was somewhat aristocratic and could trace their lineage to the early days of Argentine settlement. The family moved around a great deal while Ernesto was young. He developed severe asthma early in life: the attacks were so bad that witnesses were occasionally scared for his life. He was determined to overcome his ailment, however, and was very active in his youth, playing rugby, swimming and doing other physical activities. He also received an excellent education.
In 1947 Ernesto moved to Buenos Aires to care for his elderly grandmother. She died shortly thereafter and he began medical school: some believe that he was driven to study medicine because of his inability to save his grandmother. He was a believer in the human side of medicine: that a patient's state of mind is as important as the medicine he or she is given. He remained very close to his mother and stayed fit through exercise, although his asthma continued to plague him. He decided to take a vacation and put his studies on hold.
The Motorcycle Diaries
At the end of 1951, Ernesto set off with his good friend Alberto Granado on a trip north through South America. For the first part of the trip, they had a Norton motorcycle, but it was in poor repair and had to be abandoned in Santiago. They traveled through Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela, where they parted ways. Ernesto continued to Miami and returned to Argentina from there. Ernesto kept notes during his trip, which he subsequently made into a book named The Motorcycle Diaries. It was made into an award-winning movie in 2004. The trip showed him the poverty and misery all throughout Latin America and he wanted to do something about it, even if he did not know what.
Ernesto returned to Argentina in 1953 and finished medical school. He left again almost immediately, however, heading up the western Andes and traveling through Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia before reaching Central America. He eventually settled for a while in Guatemala, at the time experimenting with significant land reform under President Jacobo Arbenz. It was about this time that he acquired his nickname "Che," an Argentine expression meaning (more or less) "hey there." When the CIA overthrew Arbenz, Che tried to join a brigade and fight, but it was over too quickly. Che took refuge in the Argentine Embassy before securing a safe passage to Mexico.
Mexico and Fidel
In Mexico, Che met and befriended Raúl Castro, one of the leaders in the assault on the Moncada Barracks in Cuba in 1953. Raúl soon introduced his new friend to his brother Fidel, leader of the 26th of July movement which sought to remove Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista from power. The two hit it right off. Che had been looking for a way to strike a blow against the imperialism of the United States that he had seen firsthand in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America. Che eagerly signed on for the revolution, and Fidel was delighted to have a doctor. At this time, Che also became close friends with fellow revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos.
Che was one of 82 men who piled onto the yacht Granma in November, 1956. The Granma, designed for only 12 passengers and loaded with supplies, gas and weapons, barely made it to Cuba, arriving on December 2. Che and the others made for the mountains, but were tracked down and attacked by security forces. Less than 20 of the original Granma soldiers made it into the mountains: the two Castros, Che and Camilo were among them. Che had been wounded, shot during the skirmish. In the mountains, they settled in for a long guerrilla war, attacking government posts, releasing propaganda and attracting new recruits.
Che in the Revolution
Che was an important player in the Cuban Revolution, perhaps second only to Fidel himself. Che was clever, dedicated, determined and tough. His asthma was a constant torture for him. He was promoted to comandante and given his own command. He saw to their training himself and indoctrinated his soldiers with communist beliefs. He was organized and he demanded discipline and hard work from his men. He occasionally allowed foreign journalists to visit his camps and write about the revolution. Che's column was very active, participating in several engagements with the Cuban army in 1957-1958.
In the summer of 1958, Batista decided to try and stomp out the revolution once and for all. He sent large forces of soldiers into the mountains, seeking to round up and destroy the rebels once and for all. This strategy was a huge mistake, and it backfired badly. The rebels knew the mountains well and ran circles around the army. Many of the soldiers, demoralized, deserted or even switched sides. At the end of 1958, Castro decided it was time for the knockout punch, and he sent three columns, one of which was Che's, into the heart of the country.
Che was assigned to capture the strategic city of Santa Clara. On paper, it looked like suicide: there were some 2,500 federal troops there, with tanks and fortifications. Che himself only had some 300 ragged men, poorly armed and hungry. Morale was low among the soldiers, however, and the populace of Santa Clara mostly supported the rebels. Che arrived on December 28 and the fighting began: by December 31 the rebels controlled the police headquarters and the city but not the fortified barracks. The soldiers inside refused to fight or come out, and when Batista heard of Che's victory he decided the time had come to leave. Santa Clara was the largest single battle of the Cuban Revolution and the last straw for Batista.
After the Revolution
Che and the other rebels rode into Havana in triumph and began setting up a new government. Che, who had ordered the execution of several traitors during his days in the mountains, was assigned (along with Raúl) to round up, bring to trial and execute former Batista officials. Che organized hundreds of trials of Batista cronies, most of them in the army or police forces. Most of these trials ended in a conviction and execution. The international community was outraged, but Che didn't care: he was a true believer in the Revolution and in communism. He felt that an example needed to be made of those who had supported tyranny.
As one of the few men truly trusted by Fidel Castro, Che was kept very busy in post-Revolution Cuba. He was made head of the Ministry of Industry and head of the Cuban Bank. Che was restless, however, and he took long trips abroad as a sort of ambassador of the revolution to improve Cuba's international standing. During Che's time in governmental office, he oversaw the conversion of much of Cuba's economy to communism. He was instrumental in cultivating the relationship between the Soviet Union and Cuba, and had played a part in trying to bring Soviet missiles to Cuba. This, of course, caused the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In 1965, Che decided that he was not meant to be a government worker, even one in a high post. His calling was revolution, and he would go and spread it around the world. He disappeared from public life (leading to incorrect rumors about a strained relationship with Fidel) and began plans for bringing about revolutions in other nations. The communists believed that Africa was the weak link in the western capitalist/imperialist stranglehold on the world, so Che decided to head to the Congo to support a revolution there led by Laurent Désiré Kabila.
When Che had left, Fidel read a letter to all of Cuba in which Che declared his intention to spread revolution, fighting imperialism wherever he could find it. Despite Che's revolutionary credentials and idealism, the Congo venture was a total fiasco. Kabila proved unreliable, Che and the other Cubans failed to duplicate the conditions of the Cuban Revolution, and a massive mercenary force led by South African "Mad" Mike Hoare was sent to root them out. Che wanted to remain and die fighting as a martyr, but his Cuban companions convinced him to escape. All in all, Che was in Congo for about nine months and he considered it one of his greatest failures.
Back in Cuba, Che wanted to try again for another communist revolution, this time in Argentina. Fidel and the others convinced him that he was more likely to succeed in Bolivia. Che went to Bolivia in 1966. From the start, this effort, too, was a fiasco. Che and the 50 or so Cubans who accompanied him were supposed to get support from clandestine communists in Bolivia, but they proved unreliable and possibly were the ones who betrayed him. He was also up against the CIA, in Bolivia training Bolivian officers in counterinsurgency techniques. It wasn't long before the CIA knew Che was in Bolivia and was monitoring his communications.
Che and his ragged band scored some early victories against the Bolivian army in mid-1967. In August, his men were caught by surprise and one-third of his force was wiped out in a firefight; by October he was down to only about 20 men and had little in the way of food or supplies. By now, the Bolivian government had posted a $4,000 reward for information leading to Che: it was a lot of money in those days in rural Bolivia. By the first week of October, Bolivian security forces were closing in on Che and his rebels.
The Death of Che Guevara
On October 7, Che and his men stopped to rest in the Yuro ravine. Local peasants alerted the army, who moved in. A firefight broke out, killing some rebels, and Che himself was injured in the leg. On October 8, they finally caught him. He was captured alive, allegedly shouting out to his captors "I am Che Guevara and worth more to you alive than dead." The army and CIA officers interrogated him that night, but he did not have much information to give out: with his capture, the rebel movement he headed was essentially over. On October 9, the order was given, and Che was executed, shot by a Sergeant Mario Terán of the Bolivian Army.
Che Guevara had a huge impact on his world, not only as a major player in the Cuban Revolution, but also afterwards, when he tried to export the revolution to other nations. He achieved the martyrdom that he so desired, and in doing so became a larger-than-life figure.
Che is one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century. Many revere him, especially in Cuba, where his face is on the 3-peso note and every day schoolchildren vow to "be like Che" as part of a daily chant. Around the world, people wear t-shirts with his image on them, usually a famous photo taken of Che in Cuba by photographer Alberto Korda (more than one person has noted the irony of hundreds of capitalists making money selling a famous image of a communist). His fans believe that he stood for freedom from imperialism, idealism and a love for the common man, and that he died for his beliefs.
Many despise Che, however. They see him as a murderer for his time presiding over the execution of Batista supporters, see him as the representative of a failed communist ideology and criticise him for his handling of the Cuban economy.
There is some truth to both sides of this argument. Che did care deeply about the oppressed people of Latin America and he did give his life fighting for them. He was a pure idealist, and he acted on his beliefs, even when his asthma tortured him.
But Che's idealism was of the unbending variety. He believed that the way out of oppression for the starving masses of the world was to embrace a communist revolution just as Cuba had done. Che thought nothing of killing those who did not agree with him, and he thought nothing of spending the lives of his friends in battles and skirmishes if it advanced the cause of the revolution.
His fervent idealism became a liability. In Bolivia, he was eventually betrayed by the peasants: the very people he had come to "rescue" from the evils of capitalism. They betrayed him because he never really connected with them. Had he tried harder, he would have realized that a Cuban-style revolution would never work in 1967 Bolivia, where conditions were fundamentally different than they had been in 1958 Cuba. He believed that he knew what was right for everyone, but never really bothered to ask if the people agreed with him. He believed in the inevitability of a communist world and was willing to ruthlessly eliminate anyone who did not.
Around the world, people love or hate Che Guevara: either way, they will not soon forget him.