Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna (June 14, 1928 - October 9, 1967), commonly known as Che Guevara, was an Argentine-born Marxist revolutionary and Cuban guerrilla leader. “Che” is an Argentine Spanish expression for calling someone's attention, and in some other parts of Latin America, a slang for someone from Argentina.
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Guevara was a member of Fidel Castro's 26th of July Revolutionary Movement, which seized power in Cuba in 1959. After the revolution Guevara became second only to Fidel Castro in the new government of Cuba, and the man chiefly responsible for moving Castro towards communism. A rebel at heart, except for brief stints as president of the National Bank and Minister of Industries, Guevara did not settle in as part of the new Cuban government, and tried without success to stage revolutions through guerilla warfare in various countries, notably the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Bolivia, where he was captured by a unit of the Bolivian Ranger Battalion advised by United States Green Berets on October 8, 1967, and executed the following day.
In 1951, Ernesto set off from his home town of Córdoba on a motorcycle tour of South America. The poverty he observed during this trip led him to intensify his study of Marxist ideologies. Following his graduation from the University of Buenos Aires medical school in 1953, he travelled to Guatemala where a populist leader, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, had recently been elected president. Ernesto met several followers of Fidel Castro who were in exile there. When the CIA sponsored an overthrow of Arbenz's rule, Ernesto volunteered to fight. Arbenz told his supporters to leave the country, and Ernesto briefly took refuge in the Argentine consulate. After moving to Mexico City, he renewed his friendship with Castro's associates. Ernesto met Castro when the latter arrived in the Mexican capital after being amnestied from political prison in Cuba, and joined his 26th of July Movement dedicated to the overthrow of Cuban Dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Castro, Che and 80 other insurgents departed Tuxpan, Mexico aboard the cabin cruiser "Granma" in November 1956 to invade Cuba and start the revolution. Shortly after disembarking in a swampy area near Niquero in South-East Cuba, the expeditionaries were attacked by Batista's forces. Only 12 rebels survived. Che, the group's physician, laid down his knapsack containing medical supplies in order to pick up a box of ammunition dropped by a fleeing comrade, a moment which he later recalled as marking his transition from doctor to combatant.. Within months he rose to the highest rank, Comandante (Major), in the revolutionary army. His march on Santa Clara in late 1958, where his column derailed an armored train filled with Batista's troops and took over the city, was the final straw that forced Batista to flee the country.
In 1959, Che Guevara was appointed commander of the La Cabana Fortress prison. During his term as commander of the fortress from 1959-1963, he oversaw the execution of what some estimate to be approximately 500 political prisoners. Many individuals imprisoned at La Cabana recall the particular and personal interest Guevara took in the interogation, torture and execution of certain prisoners. This, and his execution of deserters and spies in the revolutionary army, have led some to consider Guevara a ruthless leader.
Che Guevara with Cuban cigar
Library of Congress
Recently declassified military documents reveal that in 1965, Guevara concluded that to further his ambition to foment Communist revolutions in South America, additional credentials as a revolutionary leader in his own right were a necessity. To this end, he persuaded Castro to back him in the first, covert Cuban involvement in Africa. Guevara desired to first work with, and eventually usurp command of, the Simba (aka "Lumumbaist") movement in the former Belgian Congo (later Zaire and currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo), with the goal of overthrowing the government and installing a Communist regime. He rapidly discovered that having worked for a successful revolutionary leader does not make one a successful revolutionary leader.
U.S. Army Special Forces advisors working with the Congolese army were able to monitor Che's communications, arrange to ambush the rebels and the Cubans whenever they attempted to attack, and interdict Guevara's supply lines. Guevara proved unable to supplant the native Simba leadership, and in fact was forced to place his troops under Simba command. Every military operation planned by him failed miserably. Late that same year, ill, humiliated and with only a few survivors of the force he had brought into the country, Guevara left the Congo with his tail between his legs.
Following a lengthy recuperation in Cuba, traveling on a false passport Guevara entered Bolivia in November of 1966, again with the idea of organizing a revolt and installing a Communist government there. A parcel of jungle land in Nancahazu was purchased by native Communists and turned over to him for use as a training area. The evidence suggests that this training was more hazardous than combat to Guevara and the Cubans accompanying him. Little was accomplished in the way of building a guerrilla army. On learning of his presence in Bolivia, President Rene Barrientos is alleged to have expressed the desire to see Che's head displayed on a pike in downtown La Paz. He ordered the Bolivian Army to hunt Guevara and his followers down.
On October 8th, 1967, Guevara was captured while leading a patrol in the vicinity of La Higuera, Bolivia. After being wounded multiple times in the legs and having his rifle destroyed by a bullet, Guevara surrendered. He identified himself, telling the soldiers he was Che Guevara and “worth more to them alive than dead," in what some see as an apparent plea for his life. Barrientos ordered his execution immediately upon being informed of Guevara's capture.
On October 9th, as he was about to be shot, despite the wounds to his legs Che allegedly stood up to take the bullets. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the vicinity of the execution site.
Iconic image of Che Guevara
In 1999, the skeltal remains of Guevara's body were exhumed, positively identified by DNA matching and returned to Cuba. There he is revered as a heroic revolutionary leader, despite his proven incompetence in that area of endeavour.
Che's book, Guerrilla Warfare, was seen for a time as the definitive philosophy for fighting irregular wars. However, with his death in Bolivia his "Cuban Style" of revolution outlined in the book was shown to be ineffective. Guevara believed that a small group (foco) of guerrillas, by violently targeting the government, could actively foment revolutionary feelings among the general populace, so that it was not necessary to build broad organizations and advance the revolutionary struggle in measured steps before launching armed insurrection.
In the late 1960s, he became a popular icon for revolution and youthful political ideals in Western culture. A dramatic photograph of Che taken by photographer Alberto Korda in 1961 soon became one of the century's most recognizable images, and the portrait was simplified and reproduced on a vast array of merchandise, such as T-shirts, posters, and baseball caps.
Che's reputation even extended into theatre where he is depicted as the narrator in the musical Evita, who becomes disillusioned with the increasingly corrupt and tyrannical Eva Peron and her dictator husband. This is taking some creative license, as Guevara's only interaction with Eva Peron was to write her a facetious letter in his youth, asking her for a Jeep.
Guevara has been represented in the movies by Francisco Rabal (1968), Omar Sharif (1969), Alfredo Vasco (1999), and Gael García Bernal (2002) and (2003).