May 3, 2008
Ernesto "Che" Guevara (14 May 1928 – 9 October 1967), commonly known as Che Guevara, El Che, or simply Che, was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, politician, author, military theorist, physician, and guerrilla leader. His stylized image also later became a countercultural symbol worldwide.
As a young medical student, Guevara traveled through Latin America and was transformed by the endemic poverty he witnessed. His experiences and observations during these trips led him to conclude that the region's inequalities were a result of capitalism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism, with the only remedy being world revolution. This belief prompted his involvement in Guatemala's social revolution under President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, whose eventual CIA-assisted overthrow solidified Guevara’s radical ideology.
Later, in Mexico, he joined and was promoted to commander in Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement, playing a pivotal role in the successful guerrilla campaign to overthrow the U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. After the Cuban revolution, Guevara served in many prominent governmental positions, including President of the National Bank and “supreme prosecutor” over the revolutionary tribunals and executions of suspected war criminals from the previous regime. Along with traveling to meet world leaders on behalf of Cuban socialism, he was a prolific writer and diarist: his published work includes a manual on the theory and practice of guerrilla warfare. Guevara left Cuba in 1965 to incite revolutions first in an unsuccessful attempt in Congo-Kinshasa and then in Bolivia, where he was captured with help of the CIA and executed.
Both notorious for his harsh discipline and revered for his unwavering dedication to his revolutionary doctrines, Guevara remains a controversial and significant historical figure. Because of his death, invocation to armed class struggle, and romantic visage, Guevara became an icon of leftist revolutionary movements worldwide, as well as a global merchandising sensation. He has been venerated and reviled in dozens of biographies, memoirs, books, essays, documentaries, songs, and films. Time Magazine declared him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, while an Alberto Korda photograph of him entitled Guerrillero Heroico, has been declared "the most famous photograph in the world.
Ernesto Guevara was born on 14 May 1928 in Rosario, Argentina, the eldest of five children in a family of Basque and Irish descent. Growing up in a family with leftist leanings, Guevara was introduced to an array of political perspectives even as a boy. Though suffering from the crippling bouts of asthma that were to afflict him throughout his life, he excelled as an athlete. He was an avid rugby union player and earned himself the nickname "Fuser"—a contraction of "El Furibundo" (raging) and his mother's surname "de la Serna"—for his aggressive style of play. Ernesto was also nicknamed "Chancho" (pig) by his schoolmates, because he rarely bathed, and proudly wore a "weekly shirt".
Guevara learned chess from his father and began participating in local tournaments by the age of 12. During his adolescence and throughout his life he was passionate about poetry, especially that of Pablo Neruda, John Keats, Machado, Federico Lorca, Gabriela Mistral, César Vallejo, Walt Whitman, and Sara de Ibáñez. He could also recite Kipling's "If" and José Hernández's Martín Fierro by memory. The Guevara home contained more than 3,000 books, which allowed Guevara to be an enthusiastic and eclectic reader, with interests including Marx, Faulkner, André Gide, and Jules Verne. He also enjoyed reading Nehru, Kafka, Camus, Lenin, and Sartre; as well as Anatole France, Friedrich Engels, H.G. Wells, and Robert Frost. As he got older he developed an interest in the Latin American writers Horacio Quiroga, Ciro Alegria, Jorge Icaza, Ruben Dario, and Miguel Asturias. Many of these author's ideas he would catalog in his own hand written notebooks of concepts, definitions, and philosophies of influential intellectuals. These included composing analytical sketches of Buddha and Aristotle, along with examining Bertrand Russell on love and patriotism, Jack London on society, and Nietzsche on the idea of death. Sigmund Freud's ideas also fascinated him as he quoted him on everything from dreams and libido, to narcissism and the oedipus complex.
A 22 year old Guevara in 1951.
A 22 year old Guevara in 1951.
In 1948, Guevara entered the University of Buenos Aires to study medicine. While still a student in 1951, Guevara took a year off from his medical studies to embark on a trip traversing South America by motorcycle with his friend Alberto Granado, with the final goal of spending a few weeks volunteering at the San Pablo Leper colony in Peru, on the banks of the Amazon River. Guevara used notes taken during this trip to write an account entitled 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.
Witnessing the widespread poverty, oppression and disenfranchisement throughout Latin America, and influenced by his readings of Marxist literature, Guevara began to view armed revolution as the solution to social inequality. By trip's end, he also viewed Latin America not as separate nations, but as a single entity requiring a continent-wide liberation strategy. His conception of a borderless, united Hispanic America sharing a common 'mestizo' Hispanic America was a theme that prominently recurred during his later revolutionary activities. Upon returning to Argentina, he completed his studies and received his medical diploma on 12 June 1953
“After graduation, due to special circumstances and perhaps also to my character, I began to travel throughout America, and I became acquainted with all of it. Except for Haiti and Santo Domingo, I have visited, to some extent, all the other Latin American countries. Because of the circumstances in which I traveled, first as a student and later as a doctor, I came into close contact with poverty, hunger and disease; with the inability to treat a child because of lack of money; with the stupefaction provoked by the continual hunger and punishment, to the point that a father can accept the loss of a son as an unimportant accident, as occurs often in the downtrodden classes of our American homeland. And I began to realize at that time that there were things that were almost as important to me as becoming famous or making a significant contribution to medical science: I wanted to help those people.”
— Che Guevara, 1960
On 7 July 1953, Guevara set out again, this time to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. In December 1953 he arrived in Guatemala where President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán headed a democratically elected government that, through land reform and other initiatives, was attempting to end the latifundia system. Guevara decided to settle down in Guatemala so as to "perfect [him]self and accomplish whatever may be necessary in order to become a true revolutionary".
In Guatemala City, Guevara sought out Hilda Gadea Acosta, a Peruvian economist who was well-connected politically as a member of the left-leaning American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA). She introduced Guevara to a number of high-level officials in the Arbenz government. Guevara also established contact with a group of Cuban exiles linked to Fidel Castro through the 26 July 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. During this period he acquired his famous nickname, due to his frequent use of the Argentine interjection "che", which is used in much the same way as "hey" or "pal".
Guevara's attempts to obtain a medical internship were unsuccessful and his economic situation was often precarious. On 15 May 1954 a shipment of Škoda infantry and light artillery weapons was sent from Communist Czechoslovakia for the Arbenz Government and arrived in Puerto Barrios, prompting a CIA-sponsored coup attempt. Guevara was eager to fight on behalf of Arbenz and joined an armed militia organized by the Communist Youth for that purpose, but frustrated with the group's inaction, he soon returned to medical duties. Following the coup, he again volunteered to fight, but soon after, Arbenz took refuge in the Mexican Embassy and told his foreign supporters to leave the country. After Hilda Gadea was arrested, Guevara sought protection inside the Argentine consulate, where he remained until he received a safe-conduct pass some weeks later and made his way to Mexico.
The overthrow of the Arbenz regime cemented Guevara's view of the United States as an imperialist power that would oppose and attempt to destroy any government that sought to redress the socioeconomic inequality endemic to Latin America and other developing countries. This strengthened his conviction that Marxism achieved through armed struggle and defended by an armed populace was the only way to rectify such condition.
Guevara arrived in Mexico City in early September 1954, and renewed his friendship with the other Cuban exiles whom he had known in Guatemala. In June 1955, López introduced him to Raúl Castro who later introduced him to his older brother, Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader who had formed the 26th of July Movement and was now plotting to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in what became the Cuban Revolution. Guevara recognized at once that Castro was the cause for which he had been searching.
Although he planned to be the group's medic, Guevara participated in the military training with the members of the Movement, and, at the end of the course, was called "the best guerrilla of them all" by their instructor, Colonel Alberto Bayo. The first step in Castro's revolutionary plan was an assault on Cuba from Mexico via the Granma, an old, leaky cabin cruiser. They set out for Cuba on 25 November 1956. Attacked by Batista's military soon after landing, many of the 82 men were either killed in the attack or executed upon capture; only 22 found each other afterwards. Guevara 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.
Only a small band of revolutionaries survived to re-group as a bedraggled fighting force deep in the Sierra Maestra mountains, where they received support from the urban guerrilla network of Frank País, the 26th of July Movement, and local country folk. With the group withdrawn to the Sierra, the world wondered whether Castro was alive or dead until early 1957 when the interview by Herbert Matthews appeared in The New York Times. The article presented a lasting, almost mythical image for Castro and the guerrillas. Guevara was not present for the interview, but in the coming months he began to realize the importance of the media in their struggle. Meanwhile, as supplies and morale grew low, Guevara considered these "the most painful days of the war."
At this point Castro promoted Guevara to comandante of a second army column. However, Guevara's first idea to hit an enemy garrison at Bueuycito did not go as planned. When his men were late to arrive, he began the attack without them. He told a sentry to halt, but when the sentry moved, Guevara decided to shoot. However, his gun jammed, as did the gun of the young rebel who was with him. Guevara fled under a hail of bullets, which in turn brought a hail of bullets from the rebels in the hills, and the barracks surrendered before Guevara repaired his tommy gun. As Guevara said, "My survival instincts took over."
As Guevara reconsidered his tactics, he imposed even harsher disciplinary treatment. Deserters were punished as traitors, and Guevara was known to send execution squads to hunt down those seeking to escape. As a result, Guevara became feared for his brutality and ruthlessness. During the guerrilla campaign, Guevara was also responsible for the execution of a number of men accused of being informers, deserters or spies.
Guevara was also instrumental in creating the clandestine radio station Radio Rebelde in February 1958, which broadcast news to the Cuban people and statements by the 26th of July movement, and provided radio telephone communication between the growing number of rebel columns across the island. Guevara had apparently been inspired to create the station by observing the effectiveness of CIA supplied radio in Guatemala in ousting the government of Jacobo Arbenz.
In late July of 1958 Guevara would play a critical role in the Battle of Las Mercedes by using his column to halt a force of 1,500 men called up by Batista's General Cantillo in a plan to encircle and destroy Castro's forces. Years later in 1984, USMC Major Larry Bockman, would analyze and describe Che's tactical appreciation of this battle as "brilliant". As the war extended, Guevara led a new column of fighters dispatched westward for the final push towards Havana. In the closing days of December 1958, Guevara directed his "suicide squad" in the attack on Santa Clara, that became the final decisive military victory of the revolution. Radio Rebelde broadcast the first reports that Guevara's column had taken Santa Clara on New Years Eve 1958. This contradicted reports by the heavily controlled national news media, which had at one stage reported Guevara's death during the fighting. Batista, upon learning that his generals were negotiating a separate peace with the rebel leader, fled to the Dominican Republic the next day on 1 January 1959.
After the Revolution
On 8 January 1959, Castro's army rolled victoriously into Havana. On 7 February, the revolutionary government proclaimed Guevara "a Cuban citizen by birth" in recognition of his role in the triumph. Shortly thereafter, he divorced Hilda Gadea, who was still in Mexico. On 2 June 1959, he married Aleida March, a Cuban-born member of the 26th of July movement with whom he had been living since late 1958.
During the rebellion against Batista's dictatorship, the general command of the rebel army, led by Fidel Castro, "introduced into the liberated territories the 19th-century penal law commonly known as the Ley de la Sierra". "This law included the death penalty for extremely serious crimes, whether perpetrated by the dictatorship or by supporters of the revolution. In 1959, the revolutionary government extended its application to the whole of the republic and to war criminals captured and tried after the revolution. This latter extension, supported by the majority of the population, followed the same procedure as that seen in" the Nuremberg Trials held by the Allies after World War II. To implement this plan, Castro named Guevara commander of the La Cabaña Fortress prison, for a five-month tenure (2 January through 12 June 1959). Guevara was charged with purging the Batista army and consolidating victory by exacting "revolutionary justice" against traitors, chivatos, and Batista's war criminals. Serving in the post as "supreme prosecutor" on the appellate bench, Guevara oversaw the trials and executions of those convicted by revolutionary tribunal. For Raúl Gómez Treto, senior legal advisor to the Cuban Ministry of Justice, removing restrictions on the death penalty was justified in order to prevent citizens themselves from taking justice into their own hands.
It is estimated that several hundred people were executed on Guevara's orders during this time.
On 12 June 1959, as soon as Guevara returned to Havana, Castro sent him out on a three-month tour of fourteen countries, most of them Bandung Pact members in Africa and Asia. Sending Guevara from Havana also allowed Castro to appear to be distancing himself from Guevara and his Marxist sympathies, that troubled both the United States and some of Castro's 26th of July Movement members. He spent twelve days in Japan (July 15–27), participating in negotiations aimed at expanding Cuba's trade relations with that nation. During this visit Guevara also secretly visited the city of Hiroshima, where the American military had detonated an atom-bomb fourteen years earlier. Guevara was "really shocked" at what he witnessed and by his visit to a hospital where A-bomb survivors were being treated.
Upon returning to Cuba in September 1959, it was evident that Castro now had more political power. The government had begun land seizures included in the agrarian reform law, but was hedging on compensation offers to landowners, instead offering low interest "bonds", which put the U.S. on alert. At this point the affected wealthy cattlemen of Camagüey mounted a campaign against the land redistributions, and enlisted the newly disaffected rebel leader Huber Matos, who along with the anti-Communist wing of the 26th of July Movement, joined them in denouncing the "Communist encroachment." During this time Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo was offering assistance to the "Anti-Communist Legion of the Caribbean" who was training in the Dominican Republic. This multi-national force comprised mostly of Spaniards and Cubans, but also of Croatians, Germans, Greeks, and right-wing mercenaries, were plotting to topple Fidel Castro.
These developments prompted Castro to further clean house of "counter-revolutionaries", and appoint Guevara chief official at the National Institute of Agrarian Reform INRA and later President of the National Bank of Cuba BNC, while allowing him to retain his military rank. Although at first sight a strange choice for the important position, Guevara had been promoting the creation of self-sufficient industries since his days in the Sierra Maestra. Guevara was expecting the U.S. to invade, and the Cuban population to then leave the cities and fight as guerrillas, although Guevara's hopes for armed uprisings elsewhere were failing.
In 1960 Guevara provided first aid to victims when the freighter La Coubre, a French vessel carrying munitions from the port of Antwerp, exploded twice while it was being unloaded in Havana harbor, resulting in well over a hundred dead. It was at the memorial service for the victims of this explosion that Alberto Korda took the famous photograph now known as Guerrillero Heroico.
Guevara desired to see a diversification in Cuba’s economy, as well as an elimination of material incentives, in favor of moral ones. Guevara viewed capitalism as a “contest among wolves” where “one can only win at the cost of others”, and thus desired to see the creation of a “new man and woman”. An integral part of fostering a sense of “unity between the individual and the mass”, Guevara believed, was volunteer work and will. To display this, Guevara "led by example", working "endlessly at his ministry job, in construction, and even cutting sugar cane" on his day off, as did Castro. During this time he also wrote several publications advocating a replication of the Cuban revolutionary model, promoting small rural guerrilla groups (foco theory) as an alternative to massive armed insurrection.
Guevara did not participate in the fighting of the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion, having been ordered by Castro to a secretly prearranged command post in Cuba's western Pinar del Río province, where he fended off a decoy force. He suffered a bullet grazing to the cheek during this deployment, however, when his pistol fell out of its holster and accidentally discharged.
Guevara played a key role in bringing to Cuba the Soviet nuclear-armed ballistic missiles that precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. During an interview with the British Communist newspaper The Daily Worker a few weeks after the crisis, Guevara angrily stated that "if the missiles had been under Cuban control, they would have fired them off." Sam Russell, the British correspondent who spoke to Guevara at the time came away with "mixed feelings", calling him "a warm character" and "clearly a man of great intelligence", but "crackers from the way he went on about the missiles."
Disappearance from Cuba
“Because now in the mountains and fields of America, on its flatlands and in its jungles, in the wilderness or in the traffic of cities, on the banks of its great oceans or rivers, this world is beginning to tremble. Anxious hands are stretched forth, ready to die for what is theirs, to win those rights that were laughed at by one and all for 500 years. Yes, now history will have to take the poor of America into account, the exploited and spurned of America, who have decided to begin writing their history for themselves for all time. Already they can be seen on the roads, on foot, day after day, in endless march of hundreds of kilometers to the governmental “eminences,” there to obtain their rights. Already they can be seen armed with stones, sticks, machetes, in one direction and another, each day, occupying lands, sinking hooks into the land that belongs to them and defending it with their lives. They can be seen carrying signs, slogans, flags; letting them flap in the mountain or prairie winds. And the wave of anger, of demands for justice, of claims for rights trampled underfoot, which is beginning to sweep the lands of Latin America, will not stop. That wave will swell with every passing day. For that wave is composed of the greatest number, the majorities in every respect, those whose labor amasses the wealth and turns the wheels of history. Now they are awakening from the long, brutalizing sleep to which they had been subjected.”
— Che Guevara, to the U.N. General Assembly, December 11 1964.
In December 1964, Che Guevara traveled to New York City as head of the Cuban delegation to speak at the United Nations. He also appeared on the CBS Sunday news program Face the Nation and met with a range of people from U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy, to associates of Malcolm X. Malcolm X expressed his admiration, by declaring Guevara "one of the most revolutionary men in this country right now", while reading a statement from Guevara to a crowd at the Audubon Ballroom.
On 17 December, Guevara left for Paris and embarked on a three-month tour that included the People's Republic of China, the United Arab Republic (Egypt), Algeria, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Dahomey, Congo-Brazzaville and Tanzania, with stops in Ireland and Prague. In Algiers on 24 February 1965, he made what turned out to be his last public appearance on the international stage when he delivered a speech at an economic seminar on Afro-Asian solidarity. He specified the moral duty of the socialist countries, accusing them of tacit complicity with the exploiting Western countries. He proceeded to outline a number of measures which he said the communist-bloc countries must implement in order to accomplish the defeat of imperialism. Having criticized the Soviet Union (the primary financial backer of Cuba) in such a public manner, he returned to Cuba on 14 March to a solemn reception by Fidel and Raúl Castro, Osvaldo Dorticós and Carlos Rafael Rodríguez at the Havana airport.
Two weeks later, in 1965 Guevara dropped out of public life and then vanished altogether. His whereabouts were a great mystery in Cuba, as he was generally regarded as second in power to Castro himself. His disappearance was variously attributed to the 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 stance on the Sino-Soviet split, and to serious differences between Guevara and the pragmatic Castro regarding Cuba's economic development and ideological line. Castro had grown increasingly wary of Guevara's popularity and considered him a potential threat. Castro's critics sometimes say his explanations for Guevara's disappearance have always been suspect.
The coincidence of Guevara's views with those expounded by the Chinese Communist leadership was increasingly problematic for Cuba as the nation's economy became more and more dependent on the Soviet Union. Since the early days of the Cuban revolution, Guevara had been considered by many an advocate of Maoist strategy in Latin America and the originator of a plan for the rapid industrialization of Cuba which was frequently compared to China's "Great Leap Forward". According to Western observers of the Cuban situation, the fact that Guevara was opposed to Soviet conditions and recommendations that Castro pragmatically saw as necessary, may have been the reason for his disappearance. However, both Guevara and Castro were supportive publicly on the idea of a united front.
Following the Cuban Missile Crisis and what Guevara perceived as a Soviet betrayal when Khrushchev withdrew the missiles from Cuban territory, Guevara had grown more skeptical of the Soviet Union. As revealed in his last speech in Algiers, he had come to view the Northern Hemisphere, led by the U.S. in the West and the Soviet Union in the East, as the exploiter of the Southern Hemisphere. He strongly supported Communist North Vietnam in the Vietnam War, and urged the peoples of other developing countries to take up arms and create "many Vietnams".
Pressed by international speculation regarding Guevara's fate, Castro stated on 16 June 1965 that the people would be informed when Guevara himself wished to let them know. Still, rumors spread both inside and outside Cuba. On 3 October of that year, Castro revealed an undated letter purportedly written to him by Guevara some months earlier: in it, Guevara reaffirmed his enduring solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, but declared his intention to leave Cuba to fight for the revolutionary cause abroad. Additionally, he resigned from all his positions in the government and party, and renounced his honorary Cuban citizenship. Guevara's movements continued to be a closely guarded secret for the next two years.
In 1965 Guevara decided to venture to West Africa and offer his knowledge and experience as a guerrilla to the ongoing war in the Congo. According to Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella, Guevara thought that Africa was imperialism's weak link and therefore had enormous revolutionary potential. Guevara led the Cuban operation in support of the Marxist Simba movement, which had emerged from the ongoing Congo Crisis. Guevara, his second-in-command Victor Dreke, and twelve other Cuban expeditionaries arrived in the Congo on 24 April 1965 with a contingent of approximately 100 Afro-Cubans joining them soon afterward. They collaborated for a time with guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who had previously helped supporters of the slain Patrice Lumumba lead an unsuccessful revolt months earlier. Disillusioned with the discipline of Kabila's troops, Guevara would dismiss him, stating "nothing leads me to believe he is the man of the hour."
South African mercenaries, led by Mike Hoare in concert with Cuban exiles and the CIA, worked with the Congolese army to thwart Guevara. They were able to monitor his communications, and so pre-empted his attacks and interdicted his supply lines. Despite the fact that Guevara sought to conceal his presence in the Congo, the U.S. government was aware of his location and activities: The National Security Agency was intercepting all of his incoming and outgoing transmissions via equipment aboard the USNS Valdez, a floating listening post which continuously cruised the Indian Ocean off Dar es Salaam for that purpose.
Guevara's aim was to export the Cuban Revolution by instructing local Simba fighters in Marxist ideology and foco theory strategies of guerrilla warfare. In his Congo Diary, he cites the incompetence, intransigence and infighting of the local Congolese forces as key reasons for the revolt's failure. Later that year, ill with dysentery, suffering from asthma, and disheartened after seven months of frustrations, Guevara left the Congo with the Cuban survivors. (Six members of his column had died.) At one point Guevara considered sending the wounded back to Cuba, and fighting alone until the end in the Congo, as a revolutionary example; however, after being urged by his comrades and pressed by two emissaries sent by Castro, at the last moment he reluctantly agreed to retreat. A few weeks later, when writing the preface to the diary he kept during the Congo venture, he began: "This is the history of a failure."
Guevara was reluctant to return to Cuba, because Castro had made public Guevara's "farewell letter" —a letter intended to only be revealed in the case of his death—wherein he severed all ties in order to devote himself to revolution throughout the world. As a result, Guevara spent the next six months living clandestinely in Dar es Salaam and Prague. During this time he compiled his memoirs of the Congo experience, and wrote drafts of two more books, one on philosophy and the other on economics. He also visited several Western European countries to test his new new false identity papers, created by Cuban Intelligence for his later travels to South America. Throughout this period Castro continued to importune his return to Cuba, but Guevara only agreed to do so under the basis of preparing a revolutionary effort somewhere in Latin America, and that his presence on the island would be secret.
Guevara's location was still not public knowledge. Representatives of Mozambique's independence movement, the FRELIMO, reported that they met with Guevara in late 1966 or early 1967 in Dar es Salaam regarding his offer to aid in their revolutionary project, which they ultimately rejected. In a speech at the 1967 May Day rally in Havana, the Acting Minister of the armed forces, Major Juan Almeida, announced that Guevara was "serving the revolution somewhere in Latin America". The persistent reports that he was leading the guerrillas in Bolivia were eventually shown to be true.
At Castro's behest, a parcel of jungle land in the remote Ñancahuazú region had been purchased by native Bolivian Communists for Guevara to use as a training area and base camp.
Training at this camp in the Ñancahuazú valley proved to be more hazardous than combat to Guevara and the Cubans accompanying him. Little was accomplished in the way of building a guerrilla army. Former Stasi operative Haydée Tamara Bunke Bider, better known by her nom de guerre "Tania", who had been installed as his primary agent in La Paz, was reportedly also working for the KGB and is widely inferred to have unwittingly served Soviet interests by leading Bolivian authorities to Guevara's trail.
Guevara's guerrilla force, numbering about 50 and operating as the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional de Bolivia; "National Liberation Army of Bolivia"), was well equipped and scored a number of early successes against Bolivian regulars in the difficult terrain of the mountainous Camiri region. In September, however, the Army managed to eliminate two guerrilla groups in a violent battle, reportedly killing one of the leaders.
Guevara's plan for fomenting revolution in Bolivia appears to have been unsuccessful because it was based upon three primary misconceptions:
* He had expected to deal only with the Bolivian military, who were poorly trained and equipped. However, Guevara was unaware that the U.S. government had sent the CIA and other operatives into Bolivia to aid the anti-insurrection effort. The Bolivian Army would also be trained, advised, and supplied by U.S. Army Special Forces including a recently organized elite battalion of Rangers trained in jungle warfare that set up camp in La Esperanza, a small settlement close to the location of Guevara's guerrillas.
* Guevara had expected assistance and cooperation from the local dissidents which he did not receive, nor did he receive support from Bolivia's Communist Party, under the leadership of Mario Monje, which was oriented toward Moscow rather than Havana.
* He had expected to remain in radio contact with Havana. However, the two shortwave transmitters provided to him by Cuba were faulty; thus the guerrillas were unable to communicate with and be resupplied, leaving them isolated and stranded.
In addition, Guevara's known preference for confrontation rather than compromise, which had previously surfaced during his guerrilla warfare campaign in Cuba, contributed to his inability to develop successful working relationships with local leaders in Bolivia, just as it had in the Congo. This tendency had existed in Cuba, but had been kept in check by the timely interventions and guidance of Fidel Castro.
Capture and Execution
Félix Rodríguez, a CIA operative, claims that he headed the hunt for Guevara in Bolivia. On 7 October, an informant apprised the Bolivian Special Forces of the location of Guevara's guerrilla encampment in the Yuro ravine. They encircled the area, and Guevara was wounded and taken prisoner while leading a detachment with Simeón Cuba Sarabia. Che biographer Jon Lee Anderson reports Bolivian Sergeant Bernardino Huanca's account: that a twice wounded Guevara, his gun rendered useless, shouted "Do not shoot! I am Che Guevara and worth more to you alive than dead."
Guevara was tied up and taken to a dilapidated schoolhouse in the nearby village of La Higuera. Early on October 9, the day after his capture, Barrientos ordered that he be killed. The executioner was Mario Terán, a sergeant in the Bolivian army who had drawn a short straw after arguments over who would get the honor of shooting Guevara broke out among the soldiers. To make the bullet wounds appear consistent with the story the government planned to release to the public, Félix Rodríguez ordered Terán to aim carefully to make it appear that Guevara had been killed in action during a clash with the Bolivian army.
Moments before Guevara was executed he was asked if he was thinking about his own immortality. "No," he replied, "I'm thinking about the immortality of the revolution." Che Guevara also allegedly said to his executioner, "I know you've come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man." Terán hesitated, then pulled the trigger of his semiautomatic rifle, hitting Guevara in the arms and legs. Guevara writhed on the ground, apparently biting one of his wrists to avoid crying out. Terán shot him again, this time hitting him fatally in the thorax – at 1:10 pm, according to Rodríguez.
His body was then lashed to the landing skids of a helicopter and flown to nearby Vallegrande where photographs were taken, showing a figure described by some as "Christ-like" lying on a concrete slab in the laundry room of the Nuestra Señora de Malta hospital.
A declassified memorandum dated 11 October 1967 to President Lyndon B. Johnson from his senior adviser, Walt Rostow, called the decision to kill Guevara “stupid” but “understandable from a Bolivian standpoint.” After the execution, Rodríguez took several of Guevara's personal items, including a watch which he continued to wear many years later, often showing them to reporters during the ensuing years. Today, some of these belongings, including his flashlight, are on display at the CIA. After a military doctor amputated his hands, Bolivian army officers transferred Guevara's cadaver to an undisclosed location and refused to reveal whether his remains had been buried or cremated. The hands were preserved in formaldehyde to be sent to Buenos Aires for fingerprint identification. (His fingerprints were on file with the Argentine police.) They were later sent to Cuba. On 15 October, Castro acknowledged that Guevara was dead and proclaimed three days of public mourning throughout the island.
While researching his biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, author Jon Lee Anderson happened to discover the hidden location of Guevara's burial. Thus in 1997, the skeletal remains of a handless body were exhumed from beneath an air strip near Vallegrande, identified as those of Guevara by a Cuban forensic team at the scene, and returned to Cuba. On 17 October 1997, his remains, with those of six of his fellow combatants, were laid to rest with military honors in a specially built mausoleum in the city of Santa Clara, where he had won the decisive battle of the Cuban Revolution.
Also removed when Guevara was captured was his diary, which documented events of the guerrilla campaign in Bolivia. The first entry is on 7 November 1966 shortly after his arrival at the farm in Ñancahuazú, and the last is dated 7 October 1967, the day before his capture. The diary tells how the guerrillas were forced to begin operations prematurely due to discovery by the Bolivian Army, explains Guevara's decision to divide the column into two units that were subsequently unable to re-establish contact, and describes their overall unsuccessful venture. It also records the rift between Guevara and the Bolivian Communist Party that resulted in Guevara having significantly fewer soldiers than originally expected and shows that Guevara had a great deal of difficulty recruiting from the local populace, due in part to the fact that the guerrilla group had learned Quechua, unaware that the local language was actually Tupí-Guaraní. As the campaign drew to an unexpected close, Guevara became increasingly ill. He suffered from ever-worsening bouts of asthma, and most of his last offensives were carried out in an attempt to obtain medicine.
The Bolivian Diary was quickly and crudely translated by Ramparts magazine and circulated around the world. There are at least four additional diaries in existence—those of Israel Reyes Zayas (Alias "Braulio"), Harry Villegas Tamayo ("Pombo"), Eliseo Reyes Rodriguez ("Rolando") and Dariel Alarcón Ramírez ("Benigno")—each of which reveals additional aspects of the events.
Even forty years after his death, Che's life and work remain controversial.
Some view Che Guevara as a hero, for example Nelson Mandela referred to him as "an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom" while Jean-Paul Sartre described him as "not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age." Guevara remains a beloved national hero to many in Cuba, where school children begin each morning by pledging "We will be like Che." Moreover, Guevara has been sanctified by some Bolivian campesinos as "Saint Ernesto", whom they pray to for assistance.
Conversely, others view him as a spokesman for a failed ideology and as a ruthless executioner. Johann Hari, for example, writes that "Che Guevara is not a free-floating icon of rebellion. He was an actual person who supported an actual system of tyranny." Detractors have also theorized that in much of Latin America, Che-inspired revolutions had the practical result of reinforcing brutal militarism for many years. He also remains a hated figure amongst many in the Cuban exile community, who view him with animosity as "the butcher of La Cabaña."
Ironically, a monochrome graphic of Alberto Korda's photograph has become one of the World's most universally merchandized images and can now be seen on an endless array of items, including t-shirts, hats, posters, tattoos, and even bikinis. Yet, Guevara also remains an iconic figure both in specifically political contexts and as a wide-ranging popular icon of youthful rebellion.