Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna, the controversial Marxist revolutionary and guerrilla leader, was a central figure in the Cuban Revolution, serving as second in command to Fidel Castro.
Influenced by his travels as a young man across Latin America where he witnessed poverty and injustices, Guevara developed a political ideology rooted in communism, anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. He believed armed revolution was the answer to overthrowing repressive regimes, and, following his execution in 1967, became a 20th-century icon seen by some as a revolutionary rebel and by others as a ruthless tyrant.
Early Life and Motorcycle Diaries
Guevara was born in Rosario, Argentina on June 14, 1928. The oldest of five children in a genteel, middle-class family, his liberal parents—especially his mother, Celia—were political activists. Guevara’s asthma led the family to relocate near Cordoba when he was a boy, where the drier climate lessened his attacks. And while he participated in sports, he also became a voracious reader. As a teen, he began to cultivate a political ideology and joined detractors of Argentine dictator Juan Perón.
In 1948, Guevara entered the University of Buenos Aires to study medicine but left to embark on what would be known as his “motorcycle diaries” journeys. First, traveling solo across northern Argentina in 1950 on a makeshift motorcycle that consisted of a small engine attached to a bicycle, and, in 1951-1952, on an 8,000-mile, eight-month trip across much of South America and north to Miami. With friend Alberto Granado along for the ride, Guevara witnessed extreme poverty and injustices. The trip fueled his growing interest in communism—and a hatred for capitalism, and he grew to believe a solution could only be achieved by violent revolution. His Motorcycle Diaries, penned during the trip, would be published in 1993.
"I will be on the side of the people,” he wrote in his diaries. “… I will take to the barricades and the trenches, screaming as one possessed, will stain my weapons with blood, and, mad with rage, will cut the throat of any vanquished foe I encounter."
Guevara returned to school and graduated with a medical degree in 1953. He soon traveled again around Latin America and eventually to Guatemala, where he joined an unsuccessful armed effort to defend the CIA-backed overthrowing of the presidency of leftist reformist Jacobo Arbenz. That experience cemented his commitment to Marxism, as well as his disdain for the United States.
Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro
Following the conflict, Guevara fled to Mexico City where he married Hilda Gaeda, and, in 1955, met rebel leaders Fidel and Raul Castro, who were planning their own armed revolution to overthrow the government of Cuba’s dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Guevara said his first discussion with Castro centered on world politics, according to Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, by Jorge G. Castandeda. “After a few hours—by dawn—I had already embarked on the future expedition,” Guevara said. “Actually, after the experience I had had walking through all Latin America and the finishing touch in Guatemala, it wasn't hard to talk me into joining any revolution against a tyrant, but Fidel impressed me as an extraordinary man. … I shared in his optimism. There was a lot to do, to fight for, to plan. We had to stop crying and start fighting."
The dynamic between Castro and Guevara was intense.
“One was impulsive, the other thoughtful; one emotional and optimistic, the other cold and skeptical,” Castandeda writes. “One was attached only to Cuba; the other, linked to a framework of social and economic concepts. Without Ernesto Guevara, Fidel Castro might never have become a Communist. Without Fidel Castro, Ernesto Guevara might never have been more than a Marxist theoretician, an idealistic intellectual.”
Guevara, as part of Castro’s 26th July Movement, was one of a small group, which included the Castro brothers, who survived a first failed 1956 attack upon Batista’s army, and his bravery and leadership led Castro to make him his comandante. On January 1, 1959, the rebels overthrew the government and seized control of Cuba.
Guevara became a Cuban citizen, divorced his first wife and married Aleida March, a Cuban. And with Castro in command, Guevara served as executioner at the La Cabana prison, overseeing the death orders of 500 men considered spies or deserters by some estimates.
He was also named president of the National Bank of Cuba, and later head of the Ministry of Industry, which included global travel as an ambassador for Cuba. However, his push for Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union (which was broken following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962) led to trade sanctions from the United States, a faltering economy and conflict with his fellow leaders.
By 1965, Castro announced that Guevara had written the leader a farewell letter, ceding his citizenship and leaving Cuba to fight imperialism in other developing nations.
Training Forces in Africa and Bolivia
Guevara headed for the African Congo in 1965, to support and train Laurent Désiré Kabila-led Congo rebels. The liberation attempt failed miserably, and Guevara soon returned in secret to Cuba, before being advised by Castro to travel to Bolivia, where he joined guerrilla rebels in an effort to overthrow René Barrientos. A lack of local support, the arrival of the CIA and a manhunt led by American-trained Bolivian Rangers, would bring a swift end to the mission.
Execution and Legacy
On October 8, 1967, the Bolivian Rangers captured Guevara, and, on October 9, he was executed in La Higuera on the order of the military’s high command. According to The New York Times, a CIA officer was present for Che’s execution, although the operative later said the CIA wanted him alive.
Photos of Guevara’s slain body were made public and his hands were severed and delivered to Cuba to prove his death. However, the site of Guevara’s burial was kept secret until 1997, when his remains were identified and returned to Cuba. He was reburied in a mausoleum in Santa Clara.
Guevara serves as one of the 20th century’s most controversial icons. Romanticized as a martyr and hero by many, his face continues to appear on Cuban currency, and his life has been the subject of movies, books and documentaries (his own work, Guerrilla Warfare, was published in 1960; while his The Motorcycle Diaries, The African Dream and The Bolivian Diary, were published after his death). A now-famous image of Guevara wearing a starred beret has become an iconic symbol of rebellion, plastered on T-shirts, posters and more. But others consider him a communist-promoting, ruthless tyrant guilty of human rights violations who rightfully earned the nickname “the butcher of La Caban.”
Fifty years after Guevara's death, Castandeda wrote in The New York Times that, paradoxically, the rebel had become "a symbol of historical changes that he did not identify with, that he did not fight for and that only came of age after his death. He is remembered far more for the momentous events that took place less than a year after he perished, when in 1968 hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets in dozens of capitals and universities across the globe and changed the way they, their children and today their grandchildren live.”
"Che Guevara’s Fiery Life and Bloody Death," The New York Times
"Che Guevara (1928 - 1967)," BBC
“The Death of Che Guevara: Declassified,” The National Security Archive, The George Washington University
Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, by Jorge G. Castandeda