The famous photo. An icon to the world. (Photo: Alberto Korda)
Nickname “Che” derived from Guevara’s habit of punctuating his speech with the interjection che, a common Argentine expression for a friend or hey! Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born in Rosario, Argentina into a middle-class family of Spanish-Irish descent.
Celia de la Serna y Llosa, his mother, had lost her parents while she was still a child. Celia was raised by her religious aunt and her older sister, Carmen de la Serna, who married in 1928 the Communist poet Cayetano Córdova Itúrburu. Guevara’s family was liberal, anti-Nazi and anti-Peronist, and not very religious. With Celia’s fortune, the family lived comfortably, although Ernerto Guevara Lynch, Ernesto’s father, managed to spend much of it in his unlucky business ventures. In his youth Guevara read widely and among his reading list in the 1940s were Sartre, Pablo Neruda, Ciro Alegría, and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. He also kept a philosophical diary and in Africa 1965 Guevara planned to write a biography of Marx.
In 1953 Guevara graduated from the University of Buenos Aires, where he was trained as a doctor. During these years Guevara read Stalin and Mussolini but did not join radical student organizations. He made long travels in Argentina and in other Latin America countries. At the same time his critical views about the expanding economic influence of the United States deepened. In 1952 he made journey with his motor bike, an old Norton 500 single, around South America. The journey opened his eyes about the situation of the Indians and was crucial for the awakening of his social conscience. Like Jack Kerouac later in his book On the Road (1957), Guevara recorded his impressions in The Motorcycle Diaries. “The person who wrote these notes died the day he stepped back on Argentine soil,” Guevara wrote in his diary. “Wandering around our ‘America with a capital A’ has changed me more than I thought.”
Che Guevara and Fidel Castro
After witnessing American intervention in Guatemala in 1954, Guevara radicalized and become convinced that the only way to bring about change was by violent revolution. He wrote in a letter to home: “Along the way, I had the opportunity to pass through the dominions of the United Fruit, convincing me once again of just how terrible these capitalist octopuses are. I have sworn before a picture of the old and mourned comrade Stalin that I won’t rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated.”
In Guatemala Guevara met Hilda Gadea. They married 1955 and had one child. Guevara was arrested with Fidel Castro in Mexico for a short time. He had joined Castro’s revolutionaries to overthrow the Batista government. In 1956 they loaded 38-feet long motor yacht Granma full of guerrillas and weapons and sailed to Cuba, landing near Cabo Cruz on December 2.
They made their base in the mountains of Sierra Maestra, attacking garrisons and recruiting peasants to the revolutionary army. In the areas controlled by the guerrillas, Guevara started land reform and socializing process. In spite of his chronic asthma, Guevara enjoyed the hard conditions and war. Land reform became the slogan, the “banner and primary spearhead of our movement” as Guevara described it in an interview, that made eventually peasants participate in the armed struggle. Guevara was respected by his men, although considered violent – he shot Eutimio Guerra who had cooperated with dictator Fulgencio Batista’s army.
In the mountains Guevara met Aleida March in 1958, 24-year-old revolutionary fighter, and she became Guevara’s second wife in 1959. He continued to write his diary and also composed articles for El Cubano Libre. A selection of Gurvara’s articles, which he wrote between 1959 and 1964, was published in 1963 as PASAJES DE LA GUERRA REVOLUCIONARIA. For the media Cuba was a hot subject – New York Times, Paris Match and Latin American papers sent reporters to the mountains to make stories of the revolutionaries. At the same time when Guevara was in the mountains, his uncle was Ambassador to Cuba.
Guevara rose to the rank of major and led one of the forces that invaded central Cuba in the late 1958. After the conquest of power in January 1959 Guevara gained fame as the leading figure in Castro’s government. He attracted much attention with his speeches against imperialism and US policy in the Third World. He argued strongly for centralized planning, and emphasized creation of the ‘new socialist man’. In his famous article, ‘Notes on Man and Socialism’, he argued that “to build communism, you must build new men as well as the new economic base.” The basis of revolutionary struggle is “the happiness of people,” the the goal of socialism is the creation of more complete and more developed human beings.
Che Guevara’s body after been killed
In a discussion on September 14, 1961 Guevara opposed the right of dissidents to make their views known even within the Communist Party itself. However, privately Guevara was critical of the Soviet bloc, but so was also Nikita Khruschev. When the executions of war criminals started Guevara acted as the highest prosecuting authority. The condemned were soldiers found guilty of murder, torture and other serious crimes. Because Guevara was a doctor, one of his friends once asked how he could work in such a position. Guevara’s answer was like from Western movies: “Look, in this thing you have to kill before they kill you.” In 1959 Guevara adopted formally the nickname Che and was granted honorary Cuban citizenship. He was visited by such intellectuals as de Beauvoir, and Sartre who saw in him the “most complete human being of our age”. The most famous picture of Guevara was taken by Alberto Diaz Gutiérrez, known professionally as Korda. He declined to take royalties when the picture became worldwide icon. When a British advertising agency appropriated the image for a vodka ad Korda rejected the idea: he never drank himself,” said the photographer, “and drink should not be associated with his immortal memory.”
Che Guevara´s Monument at La Higuera (Bolivia), where he got killed.
From 1961 to 1965 Guevara was minister for industries, and director of the national bank, signing the bank notes simply ‘Che’. He traveled widely in Russia, India and Africa, meeting the leading figures of the world, among others Jawahar Lal Nehru and Nikita Khruschev. Guevara was also the architect of the close relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union. Although good relationships with Moscow become the cornerstone of Castro’s foreign policy, Guevara followed the emergence of the Maoists. In 1965 Guevara made public his disappointments in Algiers and described the Kremlin as “an accomplice of imperialism”. Guevara’s dismissal from the ministry followed immediately on his return from Algiers.
To test his revolutionary theories Guevara resigned from his post as a politician. He had published highly influential manuals Guerrilla Warfare (1961) and Guerrilla Warfare: A Method (1963), which were based on his own experiences and partly chairman Mao Zedong’s writings. President John F. Kennedy had Guerrilla Warfare rapidly translated for him by the CIA. Guevara stated that revolution in Latin America must come through insurgent forces developed in rural areas with peasant support. There is no need for right precondition for revolution – guerrilla warfare can begin the activities. In his last article, ‘Vietnam and World Struggle’, Guevara outlined his global perspective for revolutionary struggle, and stressed the dual role of hate and love.
“And he did have a saving element of humor. In a tape of his appearance on an early episode of “Meet the Press” in December 1964, where he confronts a solemn panel of network pundits, when they address him about the “conditions” that Cuba must meet in order to be permitted the sunshine of American approval, he smiles as he proposes that there need be no preconditions: “After all, we do not demand that you abolish racial discrimination….” A person as professionally skeptical as I.F. Stone so far forgot himself as to write: “He was the first man I ever met who I thought not just handsome but beautiful. With his curly reddish beard, he looked like a cross between a faun and a Sunday-school print of Jesus…. He spoke with that utter sobriety which sometimes masks immense apocalyptic visions.” (Christopher Hitchens in New York Review of Books, July 17, 1997) During his disappearance from public life Guevara spent some time in Africa organizing the Lumumba Battalion which took part in the Congo civil war. He was not happy how Laurent Kabila fought against Joseph Mobutu, although his first impression on Kabila was positive. “Africa has a long way to go before it reaches real revolutionary maturity,” Guevara concluded in his diary.
In 1966 Guevara turned up incognito in Bolivia where he trained and led a guerrilla war in the Santa Cruz region. In his manual Guerrilla Warfare, Guevara had stressed that the guerrilla fighter needs full help from the people of the area, it is an indispensable condition, but Guevara failed to win the support of the peasants and his group was surrounded near Vallegrande by American-trained Bolivian troops. “The decisive moment in a man’s life is when he decides to confront death,” Guevara once said. “If he confronts it, he will be a hero whether he succeeds or not. He can be a good or a bad politician, but if he does not confront death he will never be more than a politician.” After Guevara was captured, Captain Gary Prado Salmón put a security around him to be sure that nothing happened. Guevara told him, “don’t worry, captain, don’t worry. This is the end. It’s finished.” (from the documentary film ‘Red Chapters,’ 1999) Guevara was shot in a schoolhouse in La Higuera on October 9, 1967, by Warrant Officer Mario Terán of the Bolivian Rangers at the request of Colonel Zenteno. Terán was half-drunk, celebrating his birthday. Guevara’s last words were according to some sources: “Shoot, coward you are only going to kill a man.” In order to make a positive fingerprint comparison with records in Argentina, Guevara’s hand were sawed off and put into a flask of formaldehyde. They were later returned to Cuba. Guevara’s corpse was buried in a ditch at the end of the runway site of Vallegrande’s new airport. “Che considered himself a soldier of this revolution, with absolutely no concern about surviving it,” said Fidel Castro later in Che: A Memoir.
Che Guevara did have some last words before his death; he allegedly said to his executioner: “I know you are here to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”
Víctor Pérez-Galdós, Un hombre que actúa como piensa, Editora Política, La Habana, 1988.
Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Ernesto Guevara, también conocido como el Che, Editorial Joaquín Mortiz, México, 1996.