Biography of Che Guevara

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Dr Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna (June 14, 1928¹ – October 9, 1967), commonly known as Che Guevara, was an Argentine-born Marxist revolutionary and Cuban guerrilla leader. Guevara was a member of Fidel Castro’s “26th of July Movement”, which seized power in Cuba in 1959. After serving various important posts in the new government, Guevara left Cuba in 1966 with the hope of fomenting revolutions in other countries, first in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and later in Bolivia, where he was captured in a CIA-organized military operation. Some believe that the CIA wanted to keep him alive for interrogation but he was executed by the Bolivian army, although this is disputed. After his death, Guevara became a hero of Third World socialist revolutionary movements, as a theorist and tactician of asymmetric warfare.

Youth

Guevara was born in Rosario, Argentina, the eldest of five children in a family of mixed Spanish and Irish descent as his paternal great-grandfather was an Irish immigrant. The date of birth recorded on his birth certificate was June 14, 1928. The birth certificate may have been deliberately falsified to help shield the family from a scandal relating to his mother’s having been three months pregnant when she was married.

Guevara’s ancestor Patrick Lynch, founder of the Argentine branch of the Lynches, was born in Ireland in 1715. He left for Bilbao, Spain, and traveled from there to Argentina. Francisco Lynch (Guevara’s great-grandfather) was born in 1817, and Ana Lynch (his grandmother) in 1861. Her son Ernesto Guevara Lynch (Guevara’s father) was born in 1900. Lynch married Celia de la Serna and had five children.

In this upper-middle class family with significantly left-wing views, Guevara became known for his dynamic and radical perspective even as a boy.

Though suffering from the crippling bouts of asthma that were to handicap him throughout his life, he excelled as an athlete. In 1948, he entered the University of Buenos Aires to study medicine. There he also excelled as a scholar and completed his medical studies in March 1953.

He spent many of his holidays traveling around Latin America. In 1951, Guevara’s older friend, Alberto Granado, a biochemist and a political radical, suggested that Guevara take a year off his medical studies to embark on a trip they had talked of doing for years, traversing South America on a Norton 500 cc motorcycle nicknamed La Poderosa meaning the “the mighty one”, with the idea of spending a few weeks volunteering at a leper colony in Peru on the banks of the Amazon River during the trip. Guevara and the 29-year-old Alberto soon set off from their hometown of Alta Gracia. Guevara narrated this journey in The Motorcycle Diaries, translated in 1996 (and turned into a motion picture of the same name in 2004).

Through his first-hand observations of the poverty and powerlessness of the masses, he decided that the only remedy for Latin America’s social inequities lay in revolution. His travels also taught him to look upon Latin America not as a collection of separate nations but as one cultural and economic entity, the liberation of which would require an intercontinental strategy. He began to develop his idea of a united South America without borders, united in a common ‘mestizo’ culture, an idea which would figure greatly in his later revolutionary activities. Upon his return to Argentina, he completed his medical studies as quickly as he could, to enable him to continue his travels around South America.

Guatemala

Following his graduation from the University of Buenos Aires medical school in 1953, Guevara went on to Guatemala, where President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán headed a left-populist government that, through various reforms, particularly land reform, was attempting to bring about a social revolution. Around this time, Guevara also acquired his famous nickname, “Che”, due to his Argentine roots. Che (pronounced /tʃe/) is a slang term meaning “hey!” in Argentina. It is markedly Argentinian. In English, the misspelling “Ché” (with an acute accent) and the mispronunciation /ʃeɪ/ are fairly common, probably under French influence.

The overthrow of the Arbenz government by a 1954 CIA-backed coup d’état cemented Guevara’s view of the United States as an oppressive imperialist power that would consistently oppose governments attempting to address the socioeconomic inequality endemic to Latin America and other developing third world countries.

This helped strengthen his conviction that Marxist socialism was the only true way to remedy such problems. Following the coup, Guevara volunteered to fight, but Arbenz told his supporters to leave the country, and Guevara briefly took refuge in the Argentine consulate. Cuba Guevara met Fidel Castro and Fidel’s brother Raúl in Mexico City where the two sought refuge after being exiled from Cuba. The Castro brothers were preparing to return to Cuba with an expeditionary force in an attempt to overthrow General Fulgencio Batista, who had assumed dictatorial powers following a coup d’état during the 1952 presidential elections. Guevara quickly joined what became known as the “26th of July Movement”.

Castro, Guevara, and 80 other guerrillas departed from Tuxpan, Veracruz, aboard the cabin cruiser Granma in November 1956. (The name was most likely a tribute to the grandmother of the previous owner, an American.) Guevara was the only non-Cuban aboard.

Shortly after disembarking in a swampy area near Niquero in the southeast, the expeditionary unit was attacked by Batista’s forces. Only 15 rebels survived.

Guevara, the group’s physician, laid down his knapsack containing medicalsupplies 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.

The rebels slowly grew in strength, seizing weapons and winning support and recruits from the local peasants in rural areas and intellectuals and workers in urban areas. Guevara exhibited great courage, skills in combat, and ruthlessness, and soon became one of Castro’s ablest and most trusted aides. Guevara took responsibility for the execution of informers, insubordinates, deserters and spies in the revolutionary army. He personally executed Eutimio Guerra, a suspected Batista informant, with a single shot from his .32(7.65mm) caliber pistol.

Within months, Guevara 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. Guevara recorded the two years spent in overthrowing Batista’s regime in a detailed account entitled Pasajes de la Guerra Revolucionaria (English translation, Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, 1968), first published in 1963. The book was composed of series of articles that appeared in Verde Olivo, a weekly publication of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. A newer translation was published in 1996, entitled Episodes of the CubanRevolutionary War.

Revolutionary government

After Castro’s troops entered the capital of Havana on January 2, 1959, a new socialist government was established. Shortly thereafter, Guevara became a Cuban citizen and divorced his Peruvian wife, Hilda Gadea, with whom he had one daughter. Later, he married a member of Castro’s army, Aleida March. The couple would have four children together.

Che Guevara became as prominent in the new government as he had been in the revolutionary army. After serving as the military commander of the La Cabana fort, Guevara became an official at the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, president of the National Bank of Cuba, and Minister of Industries. In this capacity, Guevara faced the challenge of adapting Cuba’s capitalist agrarian economy into a socialist industrial economy. After negotiating a trade agreement with the Soviet Union in 1960, Guevara represented Cuba on many commercial missions and delegations to Soviet-aligned nations in Africa and Asia after the United States imposed an embargo on the nation.

In 1959, Guevara was appointed commander of the La Cabana Fortress prison. During his term as commander of the fortress from 1959-1963, he oversaw the hasty trials and executions of many former Batista regime officials, including members of the BRAC secret police (some sources say 156 people, others estimate as many as 500). Poet and human rights activist Armando Valladares, who was imprisoned at La Cabana, documented Guevara’s particular and personal interest in the interrogation, torture, and execution of prisoners.

Guevara helped guide the Castro regime on its leftward and pro-Communist path.

An active participant in the economic and social reforms brought about by Castro’s government, he became known in the West for his fiery attacks on U.S. foreign policy in Africa, Asia, and especially Latin America.

During this period, he defined Cuba’s policies and his own views in many speeches, articles, letters, and essays, the most important of which are two books on guerrilla warfare. El socialismo y el hombre en Cuba (1965; Man and Socialism in Cuba, 1967) is an examination of Cuba’s new brand of socialism and Communist ideology. His highly influential manual on guerrilla strategy and tactics (English translation, Guerrilla Warfare, 1961) advocated peasant-based revolutionary movements in the developing countries.

Prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Guevara was part of a Cuban delegation to Moscow in early 1962 with Raúl Castro where he endorsed the planned placement of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Guevara believed that the placement of Soviet missiles would protect Cuba from any direct military action against it from the United States.

Jon Lee Anderson reports that after the crisis Guevara told Sam Russell, a British correspondent for the socialist newspaper Daily Worker, that if the missiles had been under Cuban control, they would have fired them.

Guevara’s book, Guerrilla Warfare, was seen for a time as the definitive philosophy for fighting irregular wars. 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. However, the failure of his “Cuban Style” revolution in Bolivia was thought to have been due to his lack of grassroots support there, and hence this strategy is now thought by some to be ineffective.

Congo

He persuaded Castro to back him in the first covert Cuban involvement in Africa. Guevara desired to first work with the pro-Lumumba, Marxist Simba movement in the former Belgian Congo (later Zaire and currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

In 1964, Guevara was assisted for a time in the former Belgian Congo by guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who helped Lumumba supporters lead a revolt that was eventually suppressed in 1965 by the Congolese army as well as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Guevara dismissed Kabila as insignificant. “Nothing leads me to believe he is the man of the hour,” Guevara wrote. [1]

Guevara was only 35 at that time and had never had any formal military training. His asthma prevented him from going in to military service in Argentina, a fact of which he was proud, given his opposition to the government.

He had the experiences of the Cuban revolution, including his successful march on Santa Clara, Cuba, in late 1958, which was central to Batista finally being overthrown by Castro’s forces. However, as Guevara was to discover, working under the direction of a gifted revolutionary leader does not make oneself a gifted revolutionary leader.

U.S. Army Special Forces advisors working with the Congolese army were able to monitor Guevara’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. Later that same year, ill, humiliated and with only a few survivors of the force he had brought into the country, Guevara left the Congo.

Disappearance from Cuba

After April 1965 Guevara dropped out of public life and then vanished altogether. Guevara was not seen in public after his return to Havana on March 14 from a three-month tour of the People’s Republic of China, the United Arab Republic (Egypt), Algeria, Ghana, and Congo-Brazzaville. Guevara’s whereabouts were the great mystery of 1965 in Cuba, as he was regarded as second in power to Castro himself.

His disappearance was variously attributed to the relative failure of the industrialization scheme he had advocated while minister of industry, to pressure exerted on Castro by Soviet officials disapproving of Guevara’s pro-Chinese Communist outlook as the Sino-Soviet split grew more pronounced, and to serious differences between Guevara and the Cuban leadership regarding Cuba’s economic development and ideological line.

Guevara’s pro-Chinese orientation was increasingly problematic for Cuba as the Cuban economy became more and more dependent on the Soviet Union. Since the early days of the Cuban revolution Guevara had been considered an advocate of Maoist strategy in Latin America and the originator of a plan for swift industrialization of Cuba. According to Western observers of the Cuban situation, the fact that Guevara was opposed to Soviet recommendations that Castro seemed obliged to agree to might have been the reason for his disappearance.

Indeed, by this point Guevara had grown more skeptical of the Soviet Union.

He saw the Northern Hemisphere, led by the U.S. in the West and the Soviets in the East, as the exploiter of the Southern Hemisphere. But he strongly supported the Communist side in the Vietnam War, despite North Vietnam’s pro-Soviet position, and urged his comrades in South America to create “many Vietnams”.

Pressed by international speculations on Guevara’s fate, Castro said on June 16 that the people would be informed about Guevara when Guevara himself wished to let them know. Numerous rumors about his disappearance spread both inside and outside Cuba.

On October 3 of that year, Castro revealed an undated letter purportedly written to him by Guevara some months earlier in which Guevara reaffirmed his enduring solidarity with the Cuban Revolution but stated his intention to leave Cuba to fight abroad for the cause of the revolution. He explained that “other nations are calling for the help of my modest efforts” and that, having “always identified with the world outcome of our Revolution”, he had decided to go and fight as a guerrilla in different parts of the world. In the letter Guevara announced his resignation from all his positions in the government, in the party, and in the Army, and renounced his Cuban citizenship, which had been granted to him in 1959 in recognition of his efforts on behalf of the revolution.

During an interview with four foreign correspondents on November 1, Castro remarked that he knew where Guevara was but that he would not disclose the place, and added, denying reports that his former comrade-in-arms was dead, that “he is in the best of health.” Despite Castro’s assurances the fate of Guevara remained a mystery at the end of 1965. Guevara’s movements and whereabouts remained a secret for the next two years.

Bolivia

Speculation continued during the year as to the whereabouts of the former Minister of Industry and Director of the National Bank. In a speech at the May Day rally in Havana, the Acting Minister of the armed forces, Maj. Juan Almeida, announced that Guevara was “serving the revolution somewhere in Latin America”. The persistent reports that he was assisting the guerrillas in Bolivia were ultimately proven true.

A parcel of jungle land in Nancahazu was purchased by native Bolivian 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 René Barrientos is alleged to have expressed the desire to see Guevara’s head displayed on a pike in downtown La Paz.

He ordered the Bolivian Army to hunt Guevara and his followers down.

Guevara’s guerrillas, numbering about 120, were well equipped and scored a number of early successes in difficult terrain in the mountainous Camiri region of the country against Bolivian regulars. In September, however, the Army managed to eliminate two guerrilla groups, reportedly killing one of the leaders.

Guevara’s hope of fomenting revolution in Bolivia appears to have been predicated upon a number of misconceptions. He had expected to deal only with the country’s military government. However, there was a U.S. presence in Bolivia. After the U.S. government learned of his location, CIA operatives were sent into Bolivia to aid the anti-insurrection effort. He had expected to deal with a poorly trained and equipped national army. Instead, the Bolivian Army was being trained by U.S.

Army Special Forces advisors, including a recently organized elite battalion of Rangers trained in jungle warfare. Guevara had also not received the expected assistance and cooperation from the local dissidents when he undertook his journey. Moreover, Bolivia’s Moscow-oriented Communist Party did not aid him in the insurrection.

Guevara and his associates found themselves hamstrung in Bolivia by the American aid and military trainers to the Bolivian government and a lack of assistance from his allies. In addition, the CIA also helped anti-Castro Cuban exiles set up interrogation houses for those Bolivians thought to be assisting Guevara and/or his guerrillas. Some were tortured for information.

The Bolivians were notified of the location of Guevara’s guerrilla encampment by a deserter. On October 8, the encampment was encircled and Guevara was captured while leading a patrol in the vicinity of La Higuera. His surrender was offered after being wounded in the legs and having his rifle destroyed by a bullet. According to soldiers present at the capture, during the skirmish as soldiers approached Guevara he allegedly shouted, “Do not shoot! I am Che Guevara and worth more to you alive than dead”. Barrientos ordered his execution immediately upon being informed of Guevara’s capture. Guevara was taken to an old schoolhouse and executed, bound by his hands to a board. He had already suffered several wounds in the battle which resulted in his capture.

The executioner was a sargeant in the Bolivian army, who had drawn a short straw and had to shoot Guevera. Several versions exist about what happened next. Some say the executioner was too nervous, left, and was forced back inside. Others say he was so nervous he refused to look Guevara in the face and shot him in the side and the throat, which was the fatal wound. Che Guevara did have some last words before his death; he allegedly said to his executioner, “I know you are here to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man”.

A CIA agent and veteran of the U.S. invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, Felix Rodriguez headed the hunt for Guevara in Bolivia. After hearing of Guevara’s capture Rodriguez relayed the information to CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia via CIA stations in various South American nations. After the execution, Rodriguez took Guevara’s Rolex watch, often proudly showing it to reporters during the ensuing years. Rodriguez had removed Guevara’s hands to send to different parts of the world to verify his identity.

A side issue connected with the guerrillas was the arrest and trial of Régis Debray. In April 1967 government forces captured Debray, a young French Marxist theoretician and writer, and accused him of collaborating with the guerrillas. Debray claimed that he had merely been acting as a reporter, and that Che, who had mysteriously disappeared several years earlier, was leading the guerrillas.

As Debray’s trial—which had become an international cause celebre—was beginning in early October, Bolivian authorities on October 11 reported that Guevara had been shot and killed in an engagement with government forces on October 9. The former Cuban leader’s body was publicly displayed and photographed, and fingerprints were offered as proof of identification.

On October 15 Castro admitted that the death had occurred and proclaimed three days of public mourning throughout Cuba. The death of Guevara was regarded as a severe blow to the socialist revolutionary movements throughout Latin America.

In 1997, the skeletal remains of Guevara’s body were exhumed, positively identified by DNA matching and returned to Cuba, where he is revered as a heroic revolutionary leader. On the 12 July 1997 Guevara’s remains were buried with full military honours in the city of Santa Clara, in the province of Villa Clara, where Guevara won the decisive battle of the Cuban Revolution.

The Bolivian Diary

Also removed was Guevara’s diary, which documented events in the guerrilla war being fought in Bolivia. The first entry is on 7th November 1966 shortly after Guevara’s arrival at a farm in the Bolivian jungle and the last entry is on 7th October 1967 just before his capture. The diary tells how the guerillas are forced to begin operations due to discovery by the Bolivian Army, the eventual split of the group, and their general failure. It records the split between Guevara and the Bolivian Communist Party that resulted in Guevara having significantly fewer soldiers than originally anticipated. It shows that Guevara had a great deal of difficulty recruiting from the local populace, due mainly to the fact that the guerrilla group had learned Quechua and not the local languages of the Bolivian Amazon, such as Guarani. As the campaign drew to an unexpected close, Guevara became increasingly ill. He suffered from asthma, and most of his last offensives were carried out to obtain medicine.

The Bolivian Diary was quickly and crudely translated by Ramparts magazine and circulated around the world. Fidel Castro has denied involvement with this.

Hero cult

While pictures of Guevara’s dead body were being circulated and the circumstances of his death were being debated, Guevara’s legend began to spread. Demonstrations in protest against his assassination occurred throughout the world, and articles, tributes, and poems were written about his life and death.

Even liberal elements that felt little sympathy with Guevara’s Communist ideals during his lifetime expressed admiration for his spirit of self-sacrifice. He is singled out from other revolutionaries by many young people in the West because he rejected a comfortable background to fight for global revolution. And when he gained power in Cuba, he gave up all the trappings of privilege and power in Cuba in order to return to the revolutionary battlefield and ultimately, to die.

In the late 1960s, he became a popular icon for revolution and youthful political ideals in Western culture. A dramatic photograph of Guevara taken by photographer Alberto Korda [2] in 1961 (see Che Guevara (photo)) 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. Guevara’s reputation even extended into theatre, where he is depicted as the narrator in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Evita.

This portrays Guevara as becoming disillusioned with Eva Perón and her dictator husband, Juan Domingo Perón because of Peron’s increasing corruption and tyranny. The narrator role involves creative license, because Guevara’s only interaction with Eva Perón was to write her a facetious letter in his youth, asking for a Jeep.

Some believe that Guevara, called “the most complete human being of our age” by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, may yet prove to be the most important thinker and activist in Latin America since Simón Bolà var, leader of the South American independence movement and hero to subsequent generations of nationalists throughout Latin America.

In the movies

Movies and actors who have portrayed Che Guevara:
El ‘Che’ Guevara at the Internet Movie Database – Francisco Rabal (1968)
Che! at the Internet Movie Database – Omar Sharif (1969)
Evita at the Internet Movie Database – Antonio Banderas (1996)
Hasta la victoria siempre at the Internet Movie Database – Alfredo Vasco (1999)
The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta) – Gael Garcà a Bernal (2004)
Che: The Movie at the Internet Movie Database – Benicio Del Toro (announced to begin production in 2005)

Writings by Che Guevara

Wikiquote quotations related to:
Che Guevara
Self-Portrait: Che Guevara, Ocean Press, 320pp, paperback, 2005
The Diary of Che Guevara, Amereon Ltd,
The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey, Perennial Press, ISBN 0007182228.
Back on the Road: A Journey to Central America (Harvill Panther S.), The Harvill Press, paperback, ISBN 0802139426.
The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo, Grove Press, paperback.
Bolivian Diary, Pimlico, paperback, ISBN 0712664572
Guerrilla Warfare, Souvenir Press Ltd, paperback, ISBN 0285636804.
Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, Monthly Review Press, paperback, 1998
Che Guevara Speaks, Pathfinder, paperback
Che Guevara Talks to Young People, Pathfinder, paperback
Che Guevara Reader: Writings on Guerrilla Warfare, Politics and History, Ocean Press, paperback
Critical Notes on Political Economy, Ocean Press, paperback
Our America and Theirs, Ocean Press (AU), paperback, ISBN 1876175818.
Manifesto: Three Classic Essays on How to Change the World, Consortium, paperback
Socialism and Man in Cuba: Also Fidel Castro on the Twentieth Anniversary of Guevara’s Death, Monad, paperback

Writings about Che Guevara

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, Jon Lee Anderson, Bantam Press, ISBN 0553406647 or Grove Press, ISBN 0-8021-1600-0. Chapter 1 includes the story of the falsified birth certificate.
The Che Guevara Reader, Collection of Guevara works edited by David Deutschmann, Ocean Press, ISBN 1876175699.
Guevara, Also Known as Che, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Saint Martin’s Press, ISBN 0312206526.
Guerrilla Warfare Ernesto Guevara and Thomas M. Davis, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Public Relations. June 1985.
Travelling with Che Guevara – The Making of a Revolutionary, Alberto Granado, Pimlico, ISBN 1-8441-3426-1.

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