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Ernesto "Che" Guevara was killed by Bolivian troops on October 9th 1967 hunting down Bolivian rebels. Guevera, who was Argentinean by birth, was a close aide to Fidel Castro, and was responsible for exporting the revolution to countries in South America.
Che Guevara was born in Argentina to a middle-class family. He entered the University of Buenos Aires to study medicine. While studying he took time out to travel around South America. During his travels, he saw first hand the poverty that many in South American lived in. He became radicalized and came to believe that only revolution could change the situation. He became even more convinced after a CIA backed coup overthrew the leftist government of Guatemala.
. He joined the Castro brothers and fought to overthrow the Batista regime in Cuba. He became the second in command of the Cuban Revolutionary forces. He was considered instrumental in ensuring the victory of revolutionary forces.
After the successful revolution, Guevara played an important role in the first few years of the new government. One of his first jobs was overseeing the revolutionary trials of those who opposed the revolution. Between 50 and 100 were executed during the period he was in charge. In 1965 Guevara left Cuba to help torment revolution in other parts of the world. His first stop was the Congo. There he helped the revolutionary forces.
In 1966 he moved to Bolivia to help the revolution there. He led a group of 50 fighters. In October 1967 an informant told the Bolivian army the location of Guevara and his men. On October 8th the army surrounded the rebels in a village of La Higuera. Guevara and his soldiers surrendered. The Bolivian government ordered that he be executed, and he was executed on October 9th by a Bolivian soldier.
The Congo, Bolivia, and death of Che Guevara
In December 1964 Guevara traveled to New York City, where he condemned U.S. intervention in Cuban affairs and incursions into Cuban airspace in an address to the United Nations General Assembly. Back in Cuba, increasingly disillusioned with the direction of the Cuban social experiment and its reliance on the Soviets, Guevara began focusing his attention on fostering revolution elsewhere. After April 1965 he dropped out of public life. His movements and whereabouts for the next two years remained secret. It was later learned that he had traveled to what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo with other Cuban guerrilla fighters in what proved to be a futile attempt to help the Patrice Lumumba Battalion, which was fighting a civil war there. During that period Guevara resigned his ministerial position in the Cuban government and renounced his Cuban citizenship. After the failure of his efforts in the Congo, he fled first to Tanzania and then to a safe house in a village near Prague.
In the autumn of 1966 Guevara went to Bolivia, incognito (beardless and bald), to create and lead a guerrilla group in the region of Santa Cruz. After some initial combat successes, Guevara and his guerrilla band found themselves constantly on the run from the Bolivian army. On October 8, 1967, the group was almost annihilated by a special detachment of the Bolivian army aided by CIA advisers. Guevara, who was wounded in the attack, was captured and shot. Before his body disappeared to be secretly buried, his hands were cut off they were preserved in formaldehyde so that his fingerprints could be used to confirm his identity.
In 1995 one of Guevara’s biographers, Jon Lee Anderson, announced that he had learned that Guevara and several of his comrades had been buried in a mass grave near the town of Vallegrande in central Bolivia. In 1997 a skeleton that was believed be that of the revolutionary and the remains of his six comrades were disinterred and transported to Cuba to be interred in a massive memorial and monument in Santa Clara on the 30th anniversary of Guevara’s death. (On the 80th anniversary of his birth, another memorial to Guevara, a statue, was dedicated in his hometown, Rosario, Argentina, in 2008, after decades of acrimonious debate among its citizens over his legacy.) In 2007 a French and a Spanish journalist made a case that the body brought to Cuba was not actually Guevara’s. The Cuban government refuted the claim, citing scientific evidence from 1997 (including dental structure) that, it said, proved that the remains were those of Guevara.
The Inconvenient Truth Behind Revolutionary Icon Che Guevara
As the literal face of revolution, Ernesto Guevara — you probably know him by his familiar nom de guerre, Che — is hard to miss. His bearded, semi-beatific mug can be found anywhere that people long to bring down oppressors and prop up the little guy. And in a lot of places, too, where it's simply cool to wear Che on a T-shirt.
As a real flesh-and-blood revolutionary, though, Che Guevara was not all that. His short, clench-fisted life battling "the man" was littered with more defeat than victory, and pockmarked throughout (something his millions of admirers often forget) with some dastardly, decidedly unheroic criminal acts. Even his death, at age 39 in 1967, was in reality just sad and unceremonious, hardly the stuff of, say, Scottish hero William Wallace.
Still, in death, this unquestioned thorn in the status quo's side has become the inescapable symbol of everything that dreamers think a revolutionary should be: strong, principled, a threat to the rich and powerful, a champion of the weak, a leader of the downtrodden.
"In the course of my professional interest in revolution, I've been all over the world. Peru. Colombia. Mexico. Pakistan. Multiple trips to Afghanistan. Iraq. Cambodia. Southern Philippines. All over the place," says Gordon McCormick, who has taught a course on guerrilla warfare at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, for almost 30 years. "No matter where you go, you see photos of Che. This guy has an international appeal, particularly in Latin America. You can go down to Mexico and you see cars driving around with mudguards with his image on them. He's everywhere. He is a motivator for would-be revolutionaries the world over."
Who Was Che Guevara?
Born in Argentina to well-to-do left-leaning parents, Guevara early on developed an unquenchable reading habit that included poetry and the classics. In his early 20s, he traveled throughout South America, where he was introduced to the plight of the poor and working class. (The 2004 movie "The Motorcycle Diaries" chronicled one of his trips.)
Guevara returned to Argentina to complete a degree in medicine, then headed out for more travels around Latin America. The poverty he witnessed, and the often corrupt and unseeing governments throughout the area, led him to embrace the ideas of Marxism and revolution.
It wasn't until 1955, though that Guevara finally had a chance to act on his burgeoning revolutionary ideas. While in Mexico City working as a doctor, Guevara met Cuba's Fidel Castro. After a long night of discussions, Guevara agreed to help Castro in his fight to overthrow the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
On Jan. 1, 1959, Castro and his revolutionary army pushed Batista out of power. Guevara, as comandante of Castro's second army column, moved into Havana the next day. A new Cuba was born, and Guevara became — perhaps more than Castro — the world's most recognized revolutionary.
The Real vs. Romanticized Che Guevara
Castro immediately put Guevara in charge of doling out justice against Batista loyalists who remained in Cuba, and that's where the romanticized image of Che begins to fray. Reports vary, but as supreme prosecutor on the island, Guevara was responsible for executions that numbered in the dozens — at least — and may have been in the hundreds, or maybe more. For those familiar with Che, it was not out of character. During the revolutionary war, Che also was said to have executed deserters, many by his own hand.
For all who lift up Che as an example of the righteous revolutionary, there are those — many Cuban American exiles — who see him only for what he did to their beloved Cuba. Author Humberto Fontova in "Exposing the Real Che Guevara: And the Useful Idiots who Idolize Him:"
Jon Lee Anderson, who wrote what many consider the definitive biography of Che in 1997, titled "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life," addressed Che's brutality in the introduction to the graphic version of his biography in 2016:
Guevara Tries to Extend His Power Beyond Cuba
A few months after taking over, Castro appointed Guevara to head the new government's agrarian reform, among other posts. But Guevara, a full-fledged hero of the revolution, soon grew tired of the daily grind of governing.
"Castro, his objective was to win in Cuba, govern the country. Che Guevara could care less. He was a complete failure as a bureaucrat. Didn't like it. Didn't do a good job," McCormick says. "He was, in his own mind, and actually in fact who he was . an international action figure.
"He had created this role for himself. He, in a sense, had created his own identity. And then he lived by it. And in that sense was authentic. He actually was authentic."
The Cuban Revolution pushed Guevara into a position of international prominence. He spoke before the United Nations, in his trademark military fatigues, in 1964. He traveled all over the world. But he was a revolutionary without a revolution.
When he jumped back into the trenches as a kind of revolutionary soldier of fortune, Guevara's passion and authenticity, the loyalty he commanded among his followers, did not translate into victory. A trip to support insurgents in the Congo in 1965 lasted seven months and ended in total failure.
And his decision to take a small band of soldiers to help in Bolivia's uprising put an end to Guevara.
"It is ironic that Che Guevara comes down to us as a model of the ideal revolutionary, on the one hand," McCormick says, "and yet his theory of revolution — as demonstrated by what occurred in Bolivia, and prior to that in Congo, and arguably should have happened in Cuba — is a theory of failure."
The Death of Che Guevara
Guevara took about 50 men to support a revolutionary army against the Bolivian government, and quickly slipped deep into the jungles of the country to employ the guerrilla tactics he had used in Cuba and elsewhere (as described in his book "Guerrilla Warfare," originally published in 1961).
But his strategy and tactics were doomed almost from the start. He didn't recruit a single local to help in his fight, largely because no one in his group spoke the dialect of the Bolivians in that part of the country. He failed to coordinate with the communist party there. And he probably didn't realize that it wasn't just the Bolivians that he was fighting. The U.S. had supplied, trained and supported many of the forces employed against the Bolivian insurgents.
After several months of skirmishes and the death of several of his men, a wounded and bedraggled Guevara was captured by the Bolivian army Oct. 8, 1967. He was executed under orders from Bolivian President René Barrientos, on the afternoon of Oct. 9, 1967. According to a U.S. Department of Defense intelligence report, Guevara said to his executioner — a young Bolivian sergeant who had volunteered to shoot the prisoner — "Know this now, you are killing a man."
After the execution, his body was flown to a nearby town, where it was put on display at the local hospital. His hands were dismembered and flown to Argentina for fingerprint verification. He then was buried in an unmarked grave. Guevara's remains weren't discovered until a retired Bolivian general told the author Anderson of their location in 1995.
It is, as McCormick points out, the perfect coda to a modern-day Greek tragedy.
"And then, of course, at the very, very end of the play, he is killed in cold blood. Face to face. And according to eyewitness reports, takes it in stride," says McCormick, who wrote a paper on Guevara titled "Ernesto (Che) Guevara: The Last "Heroic" Guerrilla," in 2017. "It's the perfect tragedy. And you don't have to know Greek tragedy, or even know a lot about what happened to Che Guevara, to at some visceral level to appreciate that quality.
"It resonates with people. I think that explains in part his enduring appeal, even among those who in no way respect his politics or even many of his methods."
Che's Dual Legacy
Boxer Mike Tyson has a prominent Che tattoo. So does Argentine football star Diego Maradona. Omar Sharif portrayed Che in a 1969 film, and Benicio Del Toro did so to acclaim in 2008. Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen once sported a runway bikini with Che's image on it. His face has adorned T-shirts and been on countless storefronts. It's been on "South Park" and on "The Simpsons."
Guevara, these days, is the personification of utter cool to all those who want to defy the establishment. Yet that image doesn't do him justice. In its simplicity, it is not just.
Che Guevara was an intellect, a poet, a physician, a visionary a leader. "He smiles, he's well-educated, he's well read, he has a sense of humor," McCormick says. "He's the kind of guy you'd like to sit down and have a tequila with and share a cigar."
But more than any of that, Che Guevara was a true revolutionary. That's not to be forgotten.
"The guy's a killer. He's absolutely ruthless. He is absolutely ruthless, which is part and parcel to who in fact he made himself to be," McCormick says. "He is a first-generation international revolutionary fighting against 'the man.' And he has to be ruthless. It's not an act. That is what makes him authentic."
The iconic portrait of Guevara that has launched so many T-shirts (and now memes) — eyes cast upward, omnipresent beret atop a head of scraggly hair and mottled beard, a slightly angry expression on his face — was shot by Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, who later changed his name to Alberto Korda. He was a fashion photographer recruited temporarily into duty as a journalist for a Castro speech in March 1960. The portrait, which is in the public domain, is a slightly cropped version of the original.
What Happened to the People Behind the Assassination of Che Guevara?
October 9th marks the fiftieth anniversary of the execution of Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Only one person witnessed Che’s death: the executioner himself, Bolivian Army Sergeant Mario Terán. “Know that you are killing a man,” Che told him. “Now shoot here, dammit.” The latter order refers to Che’s exhorting his reluctant killer to aim the rifle at the chest. The president of Bolivia, René Barrientos, had already announced Che’s death in the previous day’s battle. The mortal wounds had to appear related to a battle, not an execution.
Guevara came to Bolivia with fifteen other Cuban revolutionary veterans to organize a guerrilla insurrection. He eventually recruited into his band some thirty Bolivians, four Peruvians, an Argentinean, the famous radical French journalist Régis Debray, and the Buenos Aires-born German women known as “Tania.” His strategy involved the initiation of several simultaneous rural anti-imperialist movements in neighboring countries that would eventually challenge United States hegemony in the region. “To create two, three . . . many Vietnams is the watchword,” he wrote. His rebellion in Bolivia was to be the beginning.
In summary, the upraising lasted for about a year and ended up with several Bolivian defections, prison sentences for three foreigners and several Bolivians, and the deaths of all but two of the guerrillas. Fifty Bolivian army soldiers died in battle. Moreover, President Lyndon Johnson had responded to a Barrientos request for aid by sending two Cuba-American CIA agents, and seventeen Special Forces trainers. US-trained troops captured Guevara on 8 October 1967 and carried out the order of execution on the following morning.
President Johnson rewarded Bolivian President René Barrientos with a rare invitation (for a Latin American head of state) to visit the Johnson Ranch in Stonewall, Texas. The afternoon’s entertainment featured an outdoor Texas barbeque and a frontier pageant along the Pedernales River with covered wagons, cowboys, and faux Indians. Johnson the cattleman presented Barrientos the aviator with a western saddle. Not two weeks later, his government in La Paz had to confront a new crisis. The Bolivia left erupted in protest rallies when several leaks proved the official version of Che’s death to be false.
President Barrientos responded defensively. He ridiculed Captain Prados and a few other officers who had exposed the falsehood. They were dismissed from the armed forces. Antonio Arguedas, interior minister in the president’s cabinet of President Barrientos, had to flee the country for releasing to the press the real story behind the execution of Comandante Che. His report implicated American officials in Che’s death. Arguedas’s version of events placed CIA Agent John Tilton at the meeting in which the Bolivian president and generals had decided on Che’s execution.
Finally, photocopies of Che’s guerrilla diary came to light early the following year, when Fidel Castro had it published in Havana. President Barrientos denounced it as a fabrication. Castro challenged him to compare the Cuban publication to the actual diary still in the possession of the Bolivian government. Bolivian government spokesmen had to concede the truth of the matter. A British reporter, Richard Gott, revealed that he had paid a Bolivian general $5,000 for copies of the diary, which eventually ended up in the hands of Fidel Castro. Interior Minister Arguedas may have been the real source of the diary.
White House adviser Walt Rostow reported that CIA personnel with the Bolivian Army were unable to prevent the execution of Che, which Rostow regarded as “stupid, but understandable.” Subsequently, President Barrientos compounded his first lie – that Che had died in battle – with more untruths. Three requests arrived at the Presidential Palace in La Paz for Che’s remains. One came from Guevara’s brother Roberto, another from Castro, and the third from the President of the Chilean Senate, Salvador Allende. Barrientos announced that Che’s body had been cremated. That was not true either.
One of the Cuban-American CIA agents later admitted to burying the corpse in an unmarked grave. But before “disappearing” the body, Bolivian officials wanted to make sure they really had the real Che Guevara. They sawed off both hands. A Bolivian military officer flew with them to Buenos Aires, where Argentinean forensic experts confirmed that the fingerprints were those of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna. Minister Arguedes subsequently delivered Che’s hands, sealed in a jar of formaldehyde, to Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader stored them at the Palacio de la Revolución.
Che’s remains arrived much later. In 1997, the Bolivian government revealed the secret burial site of Guevara and other Cubans who had died with him. Castro had the remains repatriated to the Cuban city of Santa Clara. There Che and his followers lie within a mausoleum that commemorates his greatest military victory in the Cuban revolutionary war. Tania’s remains rest there too.
Soon enough the Bolivian triumph turned into a curse as many top leaders involved in the Che’s death themselves met violent ends. President René Barrientos died in 1969 in the crash of a helicopter, the cause of which was never determined. Later that same year, the peasant Honorato Rojas, died of gunshots. His betrayal had led to the annihilation of nine men and Tania too in an army ambush.
Army Commander General Juan José Torres, who attended the meeting that generated the order of execution, governed the country as president of a left-wing government in 1971. He had released Régis Debray and Ciro Bustos from prison. Torres was assassinated in Buenos Aires in 1976 by a right-wing terrorist group known as the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance. General Alfredo Ovando also attended that meeting. After the helicopter crash, he succeeded Barrientos as president. Ovando fell – or was thrown – into a well and died in 1982.
The commander of the 8th Bolivian Army, Colonel Joaquín Zenteno, (who had passed on the order to execute) died on a Paris street in 1976 at the hands of assassins belonging to a group called the Che Guevara Command. Colonel Andrés Selich, who took pleasure in “disappearing” and disposing of captured guerrillas, was lynched by his fellow officers in 1973. In an assassination attempt in 1972, Che’s captor, Captain Gary Prado, suffered a gunshot wound to the spine. Prado has been confined to a wheelchair ever since.
Author and former CIA agent Brian Latell has interviewed defectors from Cuba’s state security agencies. They say that Castro’s hit squads were responsible for some of these killings. Those involved in Che Guevara’s death, including President Barrientos, succumbed to Fidel’s wrath, Latell concludes. For good measure, Cuban security agents also arranged for the assassination in Paraguay of former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. His assassin, a veteran of Argentina’s urban guerrilla movement of the 1970s, riddled Somoza’s car with bullets.
Then there remains the case of Che’s executioner, Sergeant Mario Terán. President Barrientos promoted him to sergeant major and gave him some reward money. But Terán admitted later to being wracked with doubts about his role in Guevara’s death. At times Terán considered himself a national hero and at others, a common killer who did not deserve to live. Ultimately the Cubans forgave him. A few years ago, they flew him to Havana for cataract surgery to save his eyesight—completely free. By then, the president of Bolivia was Evo Morales, a firm ally of the Cuban government.
The Cuban Revolution
Before all that, though, there was the man, an Argentine-born doctor who first arrived on the world stage during the Cuban revolution, when he became a trusted comrade of Fidel and Raúl Castro.
In January 1959, as the revolution ended and President Fulgencio Batista fled, the rebels entered Havana led by Guevara, who was recovering from a broken arm and could not lead the final assault himself, The Times reported.
“The orders to his troops were simple,” the article said. “‘Go in and attack!’”
As the rebels consolidated control, a reporter asked Guevara what he planned to do now. “We are waiting for Fidel,” he said.
In the months and years that followed, Guevara oversaw executions at La Cabaña prison before becoming a top-level economic minister and diplomat, traveling the world to promote Cuba’s ideals.
A revolutionary vanishes
In the years before his death, Guevara’s whereabouts was a global mystery.
After having overseen the firing squads that followed the Communist victory he helped secure in Cuba, and after a stint running the country’s central bank, Guevara suddenly vanished in 1965, sent by Fidel Castro to organize revolutions abroad. He was dispatched on a failed mission to Congo, then bounced between safe houses in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Prague.
“Back then, people said he had been killed by Fidel, others that he had died in Santo Domingo, that he was in Vietnam,” said Juan Carlos Salazar, who, in 1967, was a 21-year-old Bolivian reporter about to begin chasing his first major story. “They placed him here, they placed him over there — but no one knew where he was.”
Loyola Guzmán, a Communist youth leader in La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, would be one of the first to learn. She received a message one day calling her to Camiri, a small town near the border of Paraguay. She said she had no idea what the meeting was for.
Ms. Guzmán is 75 now, but a photo in January 1967 shows her in the flush of youth, in fatigues and a field cap, sitting on a log at a sweltering jungle camp — and next to her is Guevara.
“He said he wanted to create ‘two or three Vietnams,’” said Ms. Guzmán, with Bolivia a base for a revolution not only there but in neighboring Argentina and Peru, as well. Ms. Guzmán agreed with the idea and was sent back to the capital to drum up support for the revolutionaries and manage their money.
In March 1967, the battle began.
Mr. Salazar, the journalist, learned later that month that fighting had broken out between the Bolivian army and an armed group, leaving seven soldiers dead. The reporter was dispatched to the area to investigate, but it remained unclear who the militants were — although it was known they were regularly delivering fatal blows to government forces.
Soon afterward, word began to leak out that the ringleader might be Guevara.
The army wanted to find and defeat him. Among journalists, “everyone wanted to interview him,” recalled Mr. Salazar.
Che’s African Campaign
The old doctor recalled that after their first meeting he and Che had never parted. The two took part in the Cuban revolutionary mission in Congo. Their goal was to overthrow the government. However, the situation was not as easy as it initially seemed. According to Mell, there were problems in Congo that Che “was unable to solve.”
“The information he received was inaccurate,” Che’s old friend told Sputnik. “There were no resistance fighters, but people from different tribes without any military organization.
In addition, although the Tanzanian government agreed to provide passage for Cuban revolutionaries through its territory, a person like Che, who was known worldwide, caused political problems. Therefore, Che had to remain anonymous for a period of time and Congolese revolutionaries learned about the famous Argentinean only when he was already in their territory.
This file photo taken in the 1960s shows then Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro (L) lighting a cigar while listens Argentine Ernesto Che Guevara (Photo: Wikipedia)
‘Do not shoot!’: The last moments of communist revolutionary Che Guevara
His leg riddled with bullets, his gun knocked out of his hand, Ernesto “Che” Guevara surrendered.
“Do not shoot! I am Che Guevara and worth more to you alive than dead,” he said as U.S.-trained Bolivian forces closed in. The Argentine-born doctor and Marxist rebel leader who helped Fidel Castro seize power in Cuba was finally captured after 2 1/2 years of living in secrecy.
Guevara, the beret-wearing guerrilla leader who had led firing squads after the Communist victory in Cuba, had abruptly resigned from his government posts and left Cuba to spread the revolution in Africa and South America. But the missions, including the one to arouse an uprising in Bolivia, were all but doomed. On that afternoon of Oct. 8, 1967, Guevara was taken prisoner and carried by soldiers to a one-room schoolhouse in the town of La Higuera in Bolivia, about four miles away from where he was captured, according to Richard Harris’s biography, “Death of a Revolutionary: Che Guevara’s Last Mission.”
Félix Rodríguez, a Cuban American CIA operative posing as a Bolivian military officer, would find him covered in dirt inside that schoolhouse the next day. His hair was matted, his clothes were torn and filthy, and his arms and feet were bound. The U.S. government wanted him alive to be interrogated, but Bolivian leaders decided that Guevara must be executed, fearing a public trial would only garner him sympathy. The official story would be that he was killed in battle.
Rodríguez, who was instrumental in Guevara’s capture, had mixed emotions at that time, as he acknowledged later in an interview. Here was a man who had assassinated many of his countrymen, Rodríguez said, and yet he felt “sorry for him.”
Then, he told the guerrilla leader that he was about to die.
“I looked at him straight in the face, and I just told him. . . . He looked straight to me and said: ‘It’s better this way. I should have never been captured alive,’ ” Rodríguez recalled during a “60 Minutes” interview years later.
Che Guevara is often held up as some kind of military genius because of his role in the Cuban Revolution. It was certainly one of the greatest guerrilla triumphs of all time, and Guevara does deserve credit for playing a major role. His victory over government forces at Santa Clara, where he was severely outnumbered, was a remarkable one. However, his military reputation appears to be built solely on this impressive win.
Guevara was involved in a number of guerrilla warfare attempts after the Cuban Revolution each of which was an utter failure. His two high profile failures occurred in the Congo in 1965 and Bolivia in 1967. In the Congo, he allied himself with Laurent Kabila and Pierre Mulele. Relations with Kabila were quickly strained, and Guevara blamed the incompetence of the Congolese rebels for the failure.
Bolivia was another complete disaster one which resulted in his death. The accounts of his exploits underline just how overrated he was as a commander. As well as being so arrogant that he refused to listen to advice from others, Guevara had a poor grasp of supply and logistics. His failure to identify with the Bolivian peasantry ensured his mission was doomed from the start. Ultimately, his group was cut off from any resupply routes and began to starve in the nation&rsquos jungles. Guevara was reportedly a âpitiful sight&rsquo when captured.
Aside from his well-known escapades, there is also the small matter of his failed revolutionary armies in Panama, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. One of Che&rsquos colleagues, Jorge Masetti, embarked on an idiotic scheme to try and start a revolution in Argentina. Masetti was supported by Guevara but proved to be an even less capable leader. With a group of Cuban commandos, Masetti entered northern Argentina but the &lsquorevolution&rsquo was swiftly put down by provinical police. Masetti probably got lost in the jungle and disappeared in April 1964.
In simple terms, had Guevara remained in Cuba after the revolution, his reputation as an excellent military commander would probably have remained intact. However, he met with nothing but failure once he tried to expand his âvision&rsquo around the world. In the end, his legacy is far less impressive than anyone would care to admit.
Che Guevara & History On Trail
But was Che Guevara a heroic champion of the poor or a ruthless warlord
who left a legacy of repression?
In the early 1950s, he left behind a privileged life as a medical student in Argentina to travel through rural Latin America. The poverty and misery he witnessed convinced him that saving lives required more than medicine.
So he became a terroris t seeking to violently overthrow the region’s governments. The region’s governments were brutal oligarchies. Colonialism may have formally ended, but elites still controlled all the wealth. American corporations bought up land originally seized from indigenous people and used it for profit and export, even keeping most of it uncultivated
while locals starved.
You may have thought “Couldn’t they vote to change that?”
Well, they tried. In 1953, Che came to Guatemala under the democratically-elected government of President Árbenz. Árbenz passed reforms to redistribute some of this uncultivated land back to the people while compensating the landowners. But he was overthrown in a CIA-sponsored coup. The military was protecting against the seizure of private property and communist takeover. They were protecting corporate profits and Che saw that they would use the fear of communism to overthrow any government
that threatened those profits. So he took the lessons of Guatemala
with him to Mexico. There, he met exiled Cuban revolutionaries and decided to help them liberate their country.
This means help Fidel Castro turns a vibrant Cuba into a dictatorship.
The dictatorship was what Cuba had before the revolution. Fulgencio Batista was a tyrant who came to power in a military coup. He turned Havana into a luxury playground for foreigners while keeping Cubans mired in poverty and
killing thousands in police crackdowns. Even President Kennedy called it
the worst example of “economic colonization, humiliation, and exploitation in the world.”
Whatever Batista’s faults, it can’t compare to the totalitarian nightmare Castro would create. Forced labor camps, torture of prisoners, no freedom to speak, or to leave.
(But this isn’t the trial of Fidel Castro, is it?)
Che Guevara was instrumental in helping Castro seize power. As a commander in his guerilla army, he unleashed a reign of terror
across the countryside, killing any suspected spies or dissenters. He also helped peasants build health clinics and schools, taught them to read, and even recited poetry to them. His harsh discipline was necessary against a much stronger enemy who didn’t hesitate to burn entire villages suspected of aiding the rebels.
Let’s not forget that the new regime held mass executions and killed hundreds of people without trial as soon as they took power in 1959. The executed were officials and collaborators who had tormented the masses under Batista. The people supported this revolutionary justice.
And that’s not even mentioning the forced labor camps, arbitrary arrests, and repression of LGBT people that continued long after the revolution. There’s a reason people kept risking their lives to flee, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
So was that all this Che brought to Cuba? Just another violent dictatorship?
Not at all. He oversaw land redistribution, helped established universal education, and organized volunteer literacy brigades that raised Cuba’s literacy rate to 96%, still one of the highest in the world. Which allowed the government to control what information everyone received.
Guevara’s idealistic incompetence as Finance Minister caused massive drops in productivity when he replaced worker pay raises with moral certificates.
He suppressed all press freedom, declaring that newspapers were instruments of the oligarchy. And it was he who urged Castro to host Soviet nuclear weapons, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world
to the brink of destruction.
He was a leader, not a bureaucrat.
That’s why he eventually left to spread the revolution abroad.
Which didn’t go well. He failed to rally rebels in the Congo and went to Bolivia even when the Soviets disapproved. The Bolivian government, with the help of the CIA, was able to capture and neutralize this terrorist in 1967, before he could do much damage. While doing plenty of damage themselves
in the process.
As Che said, the revolution is immortal. He was publicly mourned in cities
all over the world. Not by the Cubans who managed to escape. And his story would inspire young activists for generations to come. A trendy symbol of rebellion for those who never had to live under his regime.
Symbols of revolution may become commodified, but the idea of a more just world remains.
Che Guevara was captured and executed by government forces in Bolivia. His remains would not be found for another 30 years.