"Che" Guevara: Profile of a Revolutionary
Ernesto “Che” Guevara was born in Rosario, Argentina, in 1928. The eldest of five children in a family of Spanish, Basque, and Irish descent, Ernesto is said to have developed an "affinity for the poor” very early in life. Growing up in a family with what were considered politically leftist beliefs, Ernesto was introduced to a wide spectrum of political perspectives even as a boy. His father, a staunch supporter of Republicans from the Spanish Civil War, often invited veterans of the conflict to stay at the Guevara home.
Though suffering devastating bouts of asthma that would continue to afflict him throughout his life, Ernesto excelled as an athlete, enjoying swimming, soccer, golf, and marksmanship, while also becoming an avid cyclist. An exceptional rugby union player as well, he played at fly-half for the University of Buenos Aires First XV, earning the nickname "Fuser"—a contraction of El Furibundo (raging) and his mother's surname, de la Serna—for his aggressive style of play.
Surrounded by academia and the fine arts, Ernesto was a tournament chess player by the age of 12 and developed a passion for poetry (especially Keats, Machado, Lorca, and Walt Whitman), and could recite Rudyard Kipling from memory. Inspired by the more than 3,000 books in the Guevara home, he became a lifelong ravenous reader (as well as writer) well-versed in Karl Marx, William Faulkner, André Gide, and Jules Verne, as well as the works of Nehru, Kafka, Camus, Lenin, Sartre, H.G. Wells, and Robert Frost.
In 1948, Ernesto enrolled in University of Buenos Aires to study medicine. Then feeding what would become an insatiable wanderlust to explore the world, he interspersed his collegiate pursuits with two long introspective journeys that would fundamentally change the way he viewed himself and the socioeconomic conditions in Latin America.
The first, in 1950, was a 2800 mile solo trip through the rural provinces of northern Argentina on a bicycle on which he installed a small motor. This was followed in 1951 by a nine month, 5000 mile motorcycle trek through most of South America for which he took a year off from his studies, enlisting his friend Alberto Granado, with the final goal to spend a few weeks volunteering at the San Pablo Leper Colony in Peru, on the banks of the Amazon River. (Ernesto used notes from this trip to write The Motorcycle Diaries, which later became a New York Times best-seller, and was adapted into a 2004 award-winning film of the same name.)
Traveling to Mexico City in September of 1954, Ernesto worked in the allergy section of the General Hospital. In addition, he lectured on medicine at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and worked as a news photographer for Latina News Agency. His first wife, Hilda, noted in her memoir, My Life with Che, that for a while, Ernesto considered going to work as a doctor in Africa and that he continued to be deeply troubled by the poverty around him. Hilda describes Che’s obsession with an elderly washerwoman whom he was treating, remarking that he saw her as "representative of the most forgotten and exploited class." Hilda later found a poem Che had dedicated to the old woman, containing "a promise to fight for a better world, for a better life for all the poor and exploited."
Traveling to Guatemala City, Ernesto then met Hilda Gadea Acosta, a politically well-connected Peruvian who was a member of the left-wing group, Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA, American Popular Revolutionary Alliance). Acosta introduced him to a number of high-ranking officials in the Arbenz government, which lead to making contact with a group of Cuban exiles linked to Fidel Castro.
During this period Ernesto acquired the nickname, “Che,” derived from his frequent use of the Argentine diminutive interjection che, a linguistic speech filler used to call attention or ascertain comprehension. Subsequently, Che found himself in Guatemala in 1954 during the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz’s socialist government by an American-backed military coup. Disgusted by what he saw, Che decided to join Fidel Castro‘s revolution in Mexico.
The first step in Castro's revolutionary plan was an assault on Cuba from Mexico. Landing in Cuba on November 25, 1956, they were immediately attacked by Cuban President Batista's military, many of the 82 men killed in the attack or executed upon capture; only 22 remained afterwards. Che later wrote that it was during this bloody confrontation that he “laid down his medical supplies and picked up a box of ammunition dropped by a fleeing comrade, finalizing his symbolic transition from physician to combatant.”
During this time in Cuba, Che discovered the deplorable living conditions of the Cuban people under Batista. There were no schools, no electricity, minimal access to healthcare, and more than 40 percent of the adults of Cuba were illiterate.
As the conflict continued, Che became an integral part of the rebel army, advising Castro while setting up factories to make grenades, building ovens to bake bread, teaching new recruits military tactics, and organizing schools to teach the illiterate locals, campesinos, to read and write. He also established health clinics and a newspaper to disseminate information. Castro subsequently promoted Che to Comandante (commander) of a second army column--the second highest position in Castro's army.
Responsible for winning many decisive battles, Che helped make it possible for Castro to finally seize control of the Cuban government. In his first 100 days in office, Castro passed several new laws: rent was cut by 50 per cent for low wage earners, the telephone company was nationalized and the rates reduced by 50 per cent, land was redistributed among the peasants (including land owned by the Castro family), and separate facilities for Blacks and Whites (swimming pools, beaches, hotels, cemeteries) were abolished--reforms said to have come at Che’s urging.
In June of 1959, in a move to distance himself from Che (and his Marxist beliefs), a plan ultimately designed to ingratiate himself with the US Government, Castro sent Che on a three-month tour of Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Yugoslavia, Greece, and the cities of Singapore and Hong Kong. Upon returning to Cuba in September of 1959, it was apparent that Castro had garnered more political power and that Che was now expected to take a quieter role.
Even so, Che was able to acquire positions as both Minister for Industries and Minister of the National Bank from 1961 to 1965, during which time he instituted many reforms that would come to change the face and future of Cuba.
During this time, Che also continued to travel the world, offering his revolutionary ideas and methods to countless oppressed peoples, getting directly involved in several fights including that in the Congo. But with Che being increasingly viewed by the American Government as a dissonant, a volatile time bomb that needed to be de-fused, Castro was forced to attempt to limit his powers. With tensions building between Che and the Castro government, Che resigned in April of 1965 to lead a guerrilla war in Bolivia.
In 1967, the CIA recruited Cuban exile turned CIA operative Félix Rodríguez to train and head a team that would attempt to capture Che.
As CIA agent Philip Agee would later confide, "There was no person more feared by the company (CIA) than Che Guevara because he had the capacity and charisma necessary to direct the struggle against the political repression of the traditional hierarchies in power in the countries of Latin America." At this point, Che was attempting to persuade the Bolivian tin-miners living in poverty to join his revolutionary army.
On October 7, 1967, an informant informed the Bolivian Special Forces of the location of Che's guerrilla encampment in the Yuro ravine. Encircling the area with 1800 soldiers, Che was subsequently wounded and taken prisoner. On October 9, Bolivian President René Barrientos ordered that Che be killed, the task of execution given to a Sergeant Terán. Wanting to avoid possible personal retaliation--or give Che the opportunity to escape--President Barrientos instructed Terán to aim carefully to make it appear that Che had been killed in action during a clash with the Bolivian army.
Sergeant Terán would later report, as he entered the hut, Che is said to have yelled, "I know you've come to kill me. Shoot, coward! You are only going to kill a man!" Terán opened fire with his semiautomatic rifle, hitting Che in the arms and legs. As Che writhed in pain on the ground, Terán then fired several more rounds, wounding him fatally in the chest at 1:10 pm. In all, Che was shot nine times.
While many today see Che Guevara’s political views as far too radical and a danger to any government’s stability, many others see his guerilla strategies as the template for social change through revolution. (You can witness its use in many parts of the world today.) Many say, he literally "wrote the book" on revolution.
The Bolivian Diary of Ernesto Che Guevara
Images via wikipedia.org unless credited otherwise
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