What's the real story on Che Guevara?
Dear Straight Dope:
A lot of people are using and promoting the image of Che Guevara, selling shirts, etc. What does anyone really know about this guy? What impact or achievements did he have? How does "history" regard him and what he did? Was he much like Fidel? What did he want for the Cuban people/peasants of the world and the USA? What's the real deal on this guy?
SDStaff Bricker replies:
Che Guevara was a self-sacrificing revolutionary who gave up a comfortable bourgeois existence to fight for the impoverished and oppressed, a staunch believer in the cause who rejected the trappings of power to return to the battlefield.
Or he was a violent, cold-blooded killing machine, a sociopathic hooligan who exulted in the death of his enemies, mismanaged the Cuban economy, and won battles by bribing his opponents to surrender in advance.
Like other polarizing political legends, the “real deal” about Che Guevara depends largely on whom you ask, and through what political lens your source views the world.
Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born in 1928 in Rosario, Argentina, the first of five children in a relatively wealthy family. His nickname came from his reported frequent use of the Argentinian slang term che, meaning “bud” or “pal.” He dabbled in poetry in his youth and is said to have been a great fan of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. He was also a chess player of some renown, playing in tournaments as a young teen. He became interested in medicine as his high school years drew to a close and enrolled as a medical student at the University of Buenos Aires in 1948. He completed his academic studies but did not go on to the requisite clinical training that would have earned him a medical license. Perhaps one reason for this was a shift in personal priorities stemming from what he saw when he and a fellow student, would-be biochemist Alberto Granado, took off a year from school to travel around South America on a motorcycle. Their original journey was to take them from Córdoba, Argentina, to a leper colony in Peru, where they planned to volunteer for a few months. Che recorded his observations from this trip in Diarios de motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries), and the trip had a profound impact on how he viewed his continent.
In the Diaries, Che describes what he saw throughout South America – an entrenched class system, with a few wealthy landowners controlling everything and the vast majority of the people poor, powerless, and with no prospect of change. He theorizes that the only hope for undoing the system is violent overthrow, and that such a revolution would of necessity cross “artificial” national borders and create a united “Ibero-America” out of the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies.
After returning and finishing his studies, Guevara again traveled around Latin America, ending up in Guatemala where President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was attempting to introduce a socialist government and impose agrarian reform. Arbenz's supporters saw this as the benevolent redistribution of thousands of acres to the underclass, his enemies as the uncompensated government seizure of thousands of acres owned by private entities, among them a U.S.-based company, United Fruit. In the climate of the fifties, with the U.S. trying to resist the spread of Communism, the powers that be were not about to brook a socialist government in Central America, and attempts were made to overthrow Arbenz – again, depending on which sources you trust, a move either subtly encouraged by Voice of Liberation radio broadcasts or bought and paid for by the CIA. In any event, the end result is a matter of historical record – Arbenz was forced to resign and replaced by Castillo Armas, a military leader who quickly became a dictator.
Guevara viewed the fall of the leftist reformer Arbenz as the direct result of American imperialism and became convinced that the U.S. was implacably opposed to his socialist goals. Armed uprising, he was now convinced, was the only way to bring about change.
Che fled from Guatemala to Mexico, where he met Raúl Castro, brother of exiled Cuban lawyer Fidel Castro, and a short time later the future Cuban leader himself. Che found in Fidel a kindred spirit, and after one night’s extended conversation joined Castro’s Movimiento 26 de Julio, which sought to overthrow Cuba’s military leader, General Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar.
On December 2, 1956, 82 men landed in Cuba, ready to foment glorious revolution. Guevara was there primarily as a medic, but was armed and ready to fight as well. The revolution did not begin well. The expedition landed during the day and was almost immediately attacked by Cuban military forces, suffering heavy losses. Of the original landing force, only twelve eventually made it into the Sierra Maestra mountain range and relative safety. The Cuban army pursued them even there, however, and Che sustained gunshot wounds in the chest and neck. He continued to offer field medical assistance to the other fighters, and the group began the protracted guerilla war that would ultimately end with Batista fleeing Cuba on NewYear’s Day, 1959. Guevara was an integral part of the rebels’ organization. Admired for his combat prowess and his ruthlessness in dealing with suspected informers, turncoats, and deserters, he put aside his medical role and became a full-fledged fighter as the rebels grew in strength and developed into a formidable military force. Perhaps his most famous battle was the Battle of Santa Clara, in which he led one of two assaults on the city, destroying the railway to prevent Batista's forces from reinforcing their positions and capturing the Cuban Army garrison at Fomento. This battle is thought to have tipped the scales; Batista fled to the Dominican Republic days later and victorious rebel forces seized Havana.
Guevara played several key roles in the fledgling Castro government. As the new commander of La Cabaña prison, he was responsible for the execution of many former members of the Batista regime. Later Castro appointed him to run the National Bank of Cuba, an incongruous post for a man who had often expressed a dislike for money as a tool of imperialist oppression.
Whatever his talents as a revolutionary, Guevara was no banker. He was much more interested in spreading revolution and was a driving force behind a failed insurrection in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Appointed minister of industry by Castro, he published several works seeking to explain the Cuban socialist model. In El socialismo y el hombre en Cuba (Man and Socialism in Cuba), he outlined the need for the individual to evolve in conjunction with the new socialist state. His command of revolutionary theory did not equip him to manage nationalized industries, however. Guevara began attracting criticism for his ineffectual efforts at government work. He was still admired for his role in the revolution, though, and played a important part in the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba. He went on record as saying that if he had controlled the missiles, he would have launched them against the United States.
The missile crisis may well have been the catalyst for the next major stage in Che’s life. He regarded the decision of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles from Cuba as an unmitigated betrayal. He became disenchanted with the Soviet version of Marxism and came to feel that Chinese socialism had more to offer. This put him at odds with Castro, who was increasingly reliant on Soviet economic ties and assistance.
Whether because his growing popularity and disagreements with Castro caused the latter to view him as a threat or simply because he preferred the uncomplicated life of a revolutionary in the field, Che Guevara disappeared from Cuba in March, 1965 following his return from a speaking engagement at the United Nations. Castro eventually produced an undated letter in which Che purportedly resigned all his government posts to carry on the revolutionary struggle elsewhere. The letter said in part, “On the new battlefields I will carry the faith that you inculcated in me, the revolutionary spirit of my people, the feeling that I am fulfilling the most sacred of duties: to fight against imperialism wherever one may be.”
That "wherever" turned out to be the African Congo, where Guevara sought to duplicate the Cuban revolution using the familiar mix of communist ideology and guerrilla warfare. The local fighters did not take to the lessons well and the effort failed. Che returned briefly to Cuba, then moved on to Bolivia. Here, too, he ran into trouble. Expected cooperation from the Communist Party of Bolivia did not materialize and Bolivia’s armed forces were unexpectedly buttressed by U.S. Army advisors. On October 8, 1967, Che and his comrades were surrounded and he was captured by the Bolivian Army. The next morning he was executed and his body flown to a local hospital and displayed to the public. Castro proclaimed three days of public mourning in Cuba to mark Guevara’s demise.
Ironically, Che Guevara, an avowed foe of capitalism in life, became the center of a major industry in death. The famous image of Che in a beret, taken by photographer Alberto Korda at a rally in 1960, became an icon for leftist revolutionary ideals and was emblazoned on countless T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, and other conspicuous consumables, making millions for the distributors. (Korda himself received almost nothing but sued only once, to stop a vodka distributor from using the image.) Cuba, not being a signatory to international accords on intellectual property rights (a concept derided by Castro as “bullshit”), had no standing to complain about misappropriation of the image.
So what have we learned?
It seems fair to say that, love him or hate him, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was no parlor pink – he was a true believer in the ideals for which he gave his life. He had many opportunities to relax in power and privilege, yet repeatedly chose to immerse himself in dangerous struggle on behalf of others. On the other hand, let's face it, he was a violent revolutionary. He had a hand in overthrowing a government, forcibly seizing private property, and executing political enemies.
Perhaps the best way to reconcile these contradictions is to take refuge in the classic comment: those were different times. It's difficult for someone who didn't live through the sixties to grasp how inevitable revolution seemed then, and how noble the cause. Whatever you may think of the goal – and if you have any familiarity with Latin American history, it's not hard to understand why someone would become a revolutionary there – Che was one of the few who did more than just talk. What he would think of Cuba today, and whether he would he see its revolution as a success, a failure, or a work in progress, no one can say. But the world is different for his having been in it.