• RSS icon
  • Share icon
  • Printer friendly format

Che Guevara

Last modified 14 September 2011.

First published 14 February 2002. Updated 2 August 2008

Full name Ernesto 'Che' Rafael Guevara de la Serna. 'Che' variously translates as "Hey, you ...", or 'Chum', or 'Buddy', or 'Pal', or 'Dude', or 'The Kid'.

Country: Argentina, Cuba.

Cause: Liberation of Cuba from a corrupt military dictatorship and resistance to United States interference in Cuban political affairs.

Background: Christopher Columbus claims Cuba for Spain on his first voyage in 1492. The Spanish are ousted by the US in the war of 1898. The island is then effectively annexed by the US. American business interests flourish but the domestic political process is seriously compromised by US interference. 1933 sees the entry of Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar onto the political scene when the then army sergeant leads a military revolt that installs a new revolutionary government.

In January 1934 Batista topples the new government and installs himself as dictator, ruling until 1940 when he is legitimately elected as president. Finding himself out of power in 1944, Batista, now a general, bides his time until 10 March 1952, when he overthrows the government in a bloodless coup and cancels planned elections. The US recognises the Batista government on 27 March. Batista rules by decree and presides over a corrupt regime with links to US business and organised crime. More background.

Mini biography: Born on 14 June 1928 in Rosario, Argentina, into a liberal, middleclass family. He is the first of five children. As a child he suffers from asthma, and will do so for the rest of his life.

1947 - He begins studying for a degree in medicine at the University of Buenos Aires. He spends his leave on motorcycle tours with his friend Alberto Granado, who runs a dispensary at the leper colony of San Francisco del Chanar near Cordoba in Argentina.

In journeys undertaken in 1951 and 1952, Guevara travels first in Argentina, where he meets the lepers at Cordoba, then heads west into Chile and then north through Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and on to Miami in the US, where he is turned back by the immigration authorities.

While in Peru he works in the San Pablo leprosarium. His experiences with the lepers and the poor and underprivileged during his travels have a key impact on the development of his political thought. He becomes convinced that genuine equality can only be achieved through socialism.

Guevara's experiences on the road are later described in his book 'Motorcycle Diaries'.

1952 - Guevara participates in riots against Argentine President Juan Perón.

1953 - Guevara completes his medical degree in March. He travels to Bolivia and then to Guatemala, which is governed by the reformist administration of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. While in Guatemala Guevara meets his first wife, Hilda, an exiled Peruvian Marxist. The couple will later divorce.

1954 - The Guatemalan Government is overthrown by a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) backed coup d'état in June 1954. The CIA's involvement includes the compilation of lists of individuals to be "eliminated", imprisoned or deported following the coup.

After helping in the resistance against the coup, Guevara flees to Mexico City, where he works in the General Hospital and teaches on the medical faculty of the National University. His experience of the CIA's role in the downfall of the Guzmán government confirms his growing belief in the need for armed resistance against opponents of socialism.

1955 - While in Mexico he meets Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary. Castro is in self-imposed exile following his early release from a prison sentence imposed after his abortive attempt to overthrow the Batista regime on 26 July 1953.

"Our first argument revolved around international politics," Guevara later writes of his first meeting with Castro. "By the small hours of that night I had become one of the future expeditionaries."

1956 - From his base in Mexico, Castro forms the 26th of July Revolutionary Movement. Guevara joins the group as a medic and trains with them in guerrilla warfare techniques. The group of 82 land on the coast of Oriente province (in the island's east) on 2 December and launch an attack against the Batista regime. The attack results in the death or capture of most of the revolutionaries.

The 12 survivors, including Castro, his brother Raul and Guevara, retreat to the Sierra Maestra Mountains to the south. From there they stage continuous successful guerrilla attacks against the Batista government, gaining widespread support and growing to an estimated 3,000 men.

Faced with the choice of either remaining a medic or taking up the gun, Guevara writes, "I was confronted with the dilemma of dedicating myself to medicine or my duty as a revolutionary soldier. I had in front of me a rucksack full of medicine and an ammunition case, the two weighed too much to carry together. I took the ammunition and left the rucksack behind."

Guevara becomes Castro's chief lieutenant and distinguishes himself as a resourceful and ruthless tactician capable of ordering the execution of traitors and waverers but also deeply concerned for the welfare of his troops.

Writing of an investigation into alleged treason by one peasant, Guevara says, "I carried out a very summary inquiry and then the peasant Aristidio was executed. ... It is not possible to tolerate even the suspicion of treason."

On his execution of Eutimio Guerra, a peasant and army guide, Guevara writes, "I fired a .32-calibre bullet into the right hemisphere of his brain, which came through his left temple. He moaned for a few moments, then died."

Guevara comes to believe in hatred as a potent revolutionary force. "Hatred (is) an element of the struggle," he later writes in his 'Message to the Tricontinental'.

"A relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy. We must carry the war into every corner the enemy happens to carry it: to his home, to his centres of entertainment; a total war."

In 1957 he is made a commander of one of the largest of the five guerrilla columns.

1958 - The US provides Batista with US$1 million in military aid. The US has become the dominant economic force in Cuba, which is treated as an international playground. However, the revolution cannot be stopped.

In November Guevara leads the guerrilla advance from Oriente Province through government lines to central Las Villas Province. Guevara's column takes the strategic provincial capital of Santa Clara in the centre of Cuba on 28 December. The road to Havana is now clear.

1959 - With the guerilla forces pressing in, Batista flees the country on new year's day. Castro's 3,000 guerrillas have defeated a 30,000 strong professional army. Guevara enters Havana on 2 January. A new interim government is formed and is recognised by the US on 7 January, the same day that Castro enters the capital. Castro assumes the position of prime minister on 16 February. Guevara is declared Cuban born. He marries his second wife, Aleida, then travels through Africa, Asia and Yugoslavia. Guevara and Aleida had fought together during the insurgency. They will have four children.

The new revolutionary government quickly arrests and tries the 'Batistianos', the supporters of the Batista regime, for alleged atrocities committed during the dictator's rule. As commander of the La Cabana Fortress in Havana, Guevara is closely involved in the trials. More than 500 civil and military officials from the former government are executed.

It is reported that Guevara takes a personal interest in the prosecutions of former members of Batista's Bureau for the Repression of Communist Activities. He is also involved in the reorganisation of the national army.

On 7 October Guevara is appointed as director of the industrialisation program of the Instituto Nacional de la Reforma Agraria (National Agrarian Reform Institute), the agency that administers land reforms and the expropriation of American-owned businesses and agricultural estates. He stays in the position only until 26 November, when he is made president of the National Bank of Cuba.

Guevara advocates rapid industrialisation and centralisation of the economy, a position that will put him at odds with others in the government more concerned with the development of the agricultural sector. He also argues that Cuba should turn to the political left and ally itself with the Soviet Union. He calls for the creation of a 'New Man' selflessly dedicated to the betterment of society.

Relations between the US and Cuba sour when the land reforms begin to bite and US industrial, commercial and agricultural interests in Cuba are nationalised. Meanwhile, Castro frequently promises to allow a general election and the return of democracy but refuses to set a firm timetable for the restoration of the electoral process.

1960 - In February Castro signs a trade agreement with the Soviet Union. Cuba agrees to buy Soviet oil in return for sugar exports and US$100 million in credit. The US responds in March by terminating purchases of Cuban sugar and ceasing oil deliveries. Covert operations coordinated by the CIA include the formation of a paramilitary force of Cuban exiles to invade the island and overthrow Castro.

In May Cuba and the Soviet Union establish diplomatic relations. Further seizures of US-owned properties and further agreements with other communist governments causes the US to restrict trade with Cuba and, on 19 October, impose a partial economic embargo that excludes food and medicine. The Soviet Union becomes Cuba's chief supporter and trade partner.

In August 'Time' magazine publishes a cover story on Guevara, calling him "Castro's brain." "It is he who is most responsible for driving Cuba sharply left, away from the US that he despises and into a volunteered alliance with Russia," the magazine states.

During the year, Guevara completes his book 'Guerra de guerrillas' (Guerrilla warfare). The book will become a manual for revolutionary groups in Latin America and elsewhere.

1960 is also the year in which fashion photographer Alberto Diaz Gutierrez takes the most famous of all the images of Guevara. Titled 'The Heroic Guerrilla', the photograph will become a symbol throughout the world of a revolutionary ideal.

1961 - The US officially breaks diplomatic relations with Cuba on 3 January and intensifies attempts to destabilise the Castro government. In the first two weeks of April there are several terrorist bomb attacks in Havana as well as bombing raids on Cuban airfields by unidentified aircraft.

On 17 April 1300 Cuban exiles, supported by the CIA and operating from a base in Nicaragua, attempt to invade Cuba at a southern coastal area called the Bay of Pigs. After three days of fighting they are crushed by Castro's forces. In the aftermath about 20,000 Cubans are arrested and charged with counter-revolutionary activities.

From October 1960 to February 1961, Guevara tours socialist and communists countries, including Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and China, as part of a commercial delegation seeking loans and trade agreements.

On 23 February 1961 he is appointed minister of industry in the Cuban Government, stepping down from his position as president of the National Bank. In the industry portfolio, Guevara continues his advocacy of centralised economic planning. He fixes prices for staples, reduces rents, and places controls on the accumulation of private capital. Industrial output is increased, imports are reduced and the tax burden is shifted to upper and middle income earners.

In July he publicly criticises Castro for overfunding the armed forces when the money could better spent on industrial production.

In August Guevara is appointed as a member of the board of economic planning and coordination. In July 1962 he becomes secretary of the board.

Meanwhile, the 26th of July Revolutionary Movement is merged with the Communist Party of Cuba. Castro declares that Cuba is now a socialist state, although Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev publicly states that Castro is not a communist. Castro has become the head of a non-elected, single-party regime focused on his own charismatic personality.

1962 - In February the US extends the trade restrictions on Cuba. The restrictions are extended even further in March. Imports of all goods made from or containing Cuban materials are now banned, even if the product is made in third country.

The 'Cuban Missile Crisis' flares in October when the US Government discovers that the Soviet Union is setting up launch sites for long-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. After a tense 13-day standoff between US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev the missiles are removed on condition that the US withdraws its missiles stationed in Turkey and ceases its attempts to overthrow Castro. During the crisis Guevara argues in favour of a first strike and is bitterly disappointed when the missiles are withdrawn.

1963 - US economic and social restrictions on Cuba are tightened further still. Travel to the island by US citizens is banned, as are all financial and commercial transactions. All Cuban-owned assets in the US are frozen. In December Guevara address the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, stating that armed struggle is the only sure path to socialism. At home however, his policies contribute to the decline of the Cuban economy and begin to fall out of favour.

1964 - Tensions within the Cuban Government over Guevara's economic policies continue and are heightened by his enthusiasm for carrying the revolution beyond Cuba into other parts of Latin America and to Africa.

Guevara begins to travel widely and frequently, meeting with guerrilla and revolutionary groups and their supporters around the world and arranging the formation of the Organisation of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America (the 'Tricontinental Conference').

In March he represents Cuba at a UN conference on trade and development in Geneva. He travels to Peking in China, then to Paris and Algeria and Moscow. In December he again addresses the UN General Assembly, before travelling to Canada, Algeria and Mali.

Addressing the UN General Assembly, Guevara denounces Western imperialism, singling out the Congo in Africa as an example of the damage that can be caused by Western meddling in the affairs of underdeveloped and newly independent countries.

"We would like to see this Assembly shake itself out of complacency and move forward," he says. "We would like to see the committees begin their work and not stop at the first confrontation. Imperialism wants to turn this meeting into a pointless oratorical tournament, instead of solving the serious problems of the world. We must prevent it from doing so."

"Of all the burning problems to be dealt with by this Assembly, one of special significance for us, and one whose solution we feel must be found first is that of peaceful coexistence among states with different economic and social system," he continues.

"Much progress has been made in the world in this field. But imperialism, particularly US imperialism, has attempted to make the world believe that peaceful coexistence is the exclusive right of the earth's great powers."

"It must be clearly established, however, that the government of the United States is not the champion of freedom, but rather the perpetuator of exploitation and oppression against the peoples of the world and against a large part of its own population." Full copy of the speech.

1965 - At the start of the new year Guevara is still moving, to the Congo, then to Guinea, Ghana, Dahomey, Algiers, Paris, Tanzania and Peking. In February, while addressing the Tricontinental Conference at Algiers, he hints at his disillusionment with the established socialist countries, implying that they are exploiting underdeveloped nations for their own ends.

"Socialism cannot exist without a change in conscience to a new fraternal attitude toward humanity, not only within the societies which are building or have built socialism, but also on a world scale toward all peoples suffering from imperialist oppression," Guevara states.

"We have to prepare conditions so that our brothers can directly and consciously take the path of the complete abolition of exploitation, but we cannot ask them to take that path if we ourselves are accomplices of that exploitation."

"The development of countries now starting out on the road to liberation should be paid for by the socialist countries ... There should not be any more talk about developing mutually beneficial trade based on prices rigged against underdeveloped countries by the law of value and the inequitable relations of international trade brought about by that law."

"If we establish that kind of relation between the two groups of nations, we must agree that the socialist countries are, in a way, accomplices of imperialist exploitation. It can be argued that the amount of exchange with underdeveloped countries is an insignificant part of the foreign trade of the socialist countries. That is a great truth, but it does not eliminate the immoral character of the exchange." Full copy of the speech.

In March Guevara is back in Cuba but with his policies now discredited stays only long enough to drop out of the political scene. His treatise 'Socialism and Man in Cuba', in which he elaborates on his theory of the 'New Man', is published on 12 March.

In April he tells Castro he is relinquishing all his official positions and his Cuban nationality. In July he travels to the Congo with a group of Cuban volunteers to ferment a rebellion in the eastern part of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The rebellion, which is not widely supported by the local people, fails. Guevara moves on.

On 3 October Castro publicly reads a farewell letter written to him by Guevara in April. "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." Full copy of the letter.

During the same period, Guevara drafts and circulates his 'Message to the Tricontinental' in which he effectively declares war on the US. "Our every action is a battle cry against imperialism, and a battle hymn for the people's unity against the great enemy of mankind: the United States of America," the message says. Full copy of the message.

1966 - Guevara returns to Cuba in March, but quickly travels on to Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia, where he joins and becomes a leader of a communist guerrilla movement attempting to overthrow the country's military government.

1967 - The guerrilla band has some initial success but receives little support from the local people. "The ... masses don't help us in anything and instead they betray us," Guevara complains.

Never numbering more than 50 men and one woman, the guerrillas are soon outmanoeuvred by about 1,800 US-trained and armed Bolivian troops. The troops are assisted by advisers from the CIA.

On 8 October Guevara is wounded in the foot and captured near Vallegrande, in the mountains of central Bolivia. "I'm Che Guevara and I'm worth more to you alive than dead," he tells his captors. He is carried to the village of La Higuera, 30 km southwest of Vallegrande, and placed under guard in the schoolhouse, together with other captured rebels.

Around noon the following day, and against the CIA's wishes, Guevara is executed with four gunshots to his chest. His last words are reported to be, "I know you have come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man."

Guevara is dead at the age of 39.

Following the execution, Guevara's hands are removed so his identity can be confirmed by fingerprinting. On 11 October his handless body is secretly buried near the airport at Vallegrande, along with the bodies of six of his executed colleagues.

On 18 October Castro delivers a eulogy for Guevara to nearly a million people assembled in Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion. Castro states that Guevara's example and ideals will be an inspiration for future generations of revolutionaries.

"They who sing victory over his death are mistaken," Castro says. "They are mistaken who believe that his death is the defeat of his ideas, the defeat of his tactics, the defeat of his guerrilla concepts ... If we want to know how we want our children to be we should say, with all our revolutionary mind and heart: We want them to be like Che."

The same month, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk receives a report from his Bureau of Intelligence and Research that predicts that Guevara "will be eulogised as the model revolutionary who met a heroic death."

Postscript

1995 - In July a Bolivian general reveals the location of Guevara's grave.

1997 - What are thought to be the remains of Guevara's body are exhumed from their communal grave in Vallegrande and returned to Cuba in July. The 30th anniversary of his death is celebrated across Cuba. On 17 October the remains are reburied in a specially built mausoleum in Santa Clara, the site of his decisive victory against Batista's forces at the end of 1958. More than 100,000 Cubans attend the service.

"Why did they think that by killing him, he would cease to exist as a fighter?" Castro says at the ceremony to mark the reburial. "Today he is in every place, wherever there is a just cause to defend."

2000 - 'Time' magazine names Guevara as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century. "Though communism may have lost its fire, he remains the potent symbol of rebellion and the alluring zeal of revolution," the magazine states.

Meanwhile, Castro remains in power in Cuba, but the idealism of the revolution has soured and his rule has become a dictatorship.

According to the Human Rights Watch World Report 2005, "The Cuban government systematically denies its citizens basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, movement, and a fair trial. A one party state, Cuba restricts nearly all avenues of political dissent. Tactics for enforcing political conformity include police warnings, surveillance, short term detentions, house arrests, travel restrictions, criminal prosecutions, and politically-motivated dismissals from employment."

About 300 people are held as political prisoners.

Guevara's legacy remains a potent force. Images of the long-dead revolutionary are found throughout Cuba, and schoolchildren begin every day with the pledge, "Seremos como el Che" - we will be like Che.

2008 - Rosario, the city in Argentina where Guevara was born, recognises its most famous son on 14 June, the 80th anniversary of Guevara's birthday, with the unveiling of a 3.6 metre bronze statue of the dead revolutionary.

It is the first major public memorial to Guevara to be erected in Argentina.

Comment: Restless and complex, practical and idealistic, caring and brutal, self-serving and naive - and this is just scratching the surface of the contradictory personality that has fuelled the myth and legend of Che Guevara. On the one hand there is the temptation to dismiss Guevara as a frenetic dreamer consumed by the movement and romance of revolutionary action. On the other is an admiration for his total commitment to the utopian belief that a 'New Man' could create a just and equal society.

Guevara's preparedness to challenge the dominant world powers was also admirable. A bitter critic of the US, he also earned the enmity of socialist states. The Soviet Union opposed his fateful mission to Bolivia, reportedly because it involved a dispute with the "legitimate" Latin American communist parties favoured by the Soviets.

There is much to admire in Guevara, and yet there is also uneasiness. Uneasiness because it is only a short step from someone like Guevara to someone like Osama bin Laden, and because the two are essentially fellow travellers. Uneasiness over all the revolutionary clichés that Guevara was so skilled at employing. Uneasiness over all the leftist rhetoric so readily consumed and regurgitated by baby-boomer acolytes from the West. Uneasiness over the subsequent incorporation of the form of Che Guevara into a revolutionary myth while the substance of the man is overlooked.

Today I see Western youths wearing the famous 'Heroic Guerrilla' image of Guevara on T-shirts and wonder what this is about. Some, like those well-known social liberals boxer Mike Tyson and soccer player Diego Maradona, even go so far as to have the image tattooed on their bodies, presumably to demonstrate the permanence of their fidelity to Guevara's "ideals".

The image has stolen all the meaning. Guevara has been completely subsumed by a culture that he hated.

In 1967 Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the US rock-band 'The Doors', sang the lyric, "We want the world and we want it, Now!" Guevara could have said it himself. It may have sounded revolutionary then. Today it just sounds immature and stupid.

Guevara is a false hero. He is an adolescent fantasy, not a mature role model.