Many people recognize this picture as being a portrait of Marxist revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. For around forty years his image has been distributed throughout the media on clothes, in music and film and on advertisement (it is somewhat ironic how capitalism has adopted a Marxist in the pop culture). In my hometown there is even a bar named after him. David Segal of the Washington Post described his legacy:
The guy's face is shorthand for 'I'm against the status quo.' He's politics' answer to James Dean, a rebel with a very specific cause.Who was he exactly and why has he been adopted as a symbol of revolution and shaking the status quo?
|Che aged 22|
Che was born in 1928 in Argentina where he grew up in a left wing family. His father was a staunch supporter of the left wing Republican Spanish government and following the Spanish Civil War his father often invited veterans to his home. At school Guevara excelled at sports despite his asthma but he was an even greater intellectual. He could recite the entirety of Rudyard Kipling's If and could quote almost all the works of Sigmund Freud. Among the subjects that he did best at included political science, history, engineering, sociology, maths, archaeology and philosophy. In 1948 he entered the University of Buenos Aires to study medicine. In 1950 he started the first of his motorcycle trips through South and Central America which by 1953 had allowed him to travel over 8,000 km, some of it with his friend Alberto Grenado. He wrote down these travels in his memoir The Motorcycle Diaries. These travels helped influence his Marxist views as he saw widespread poverty in rural areas, especially around Machu Picchu during his time in Peru. He decided that capitalism had oppressed these people and that he had to 'help these people'. In 1953 he returned to Argentina where he finished his degree becoming Dr Ernesto Guevara.
Becoming a Revolutionary
After he left university he spent some more time travelling until he briefly settled in Guatemala. Guatemala at the time was ran by the democratically elected left wing President Jacobo Arbenz who had started appropriating land from the US company United Fruit Company to give to poor farmers. This proved to be the perfect place for Ernesto with the Arbenz government being his ideal government for its land reforms. Here he met up with Peruvian economist Hilda Gadea Acosta who had leads to the revolutionary group Alianza Popular Revolutionaria Americana. In 1955 he would marry Gadea and they would have a daughter together. He made contacts with exiled Cuban revolutionaries, dedicated a poem called Invitacion al camino to feminist left-winger Helena Leiva de Holst and earned his nickname Che. He often used the Argentine slang 'che' (similar to calling someone 'bro') which earned him the nickname. In 1954 the CIA helped overthrow the Arbenz government to replace it with a military junta. Che fled to Mexico with Gaeda. In Mexico City he worked in the local allergy ward, as a photographer and a lectured occasionally. Gaeda reported that he wished to go to Africa to work as a doctor with the high level of poverty there striking a cord with him. However he chose a revolutionary path with him being introduced to Raoul Castro who introduced him in turn to his older brother Fidel Castro and the 26th of July Movement. They wished to overthrow the regime of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and install a government which would benefit the people. He started to become trained in guerrilla warfare which would influence the rest of his life.
Che took part in the Cuban Revolution alongside Fidel Castro where he quickly became Castro's second in command. There is some juxtaposition during this time. On the one hand he was seen as a hero with him hiding with poor peasants whose high level of illiteracy (40% of peasants in Cuba were illiterate) and no electricity increased his urge to help them. In contrast however he proved to be ruthless and autocratic in response to spies, deserters and informers such as sending battalions out to execute people gone AWOL as well as summary executing many people. To those who stayed loyal he did prove to be an equally loyal leader, evident from this quote by Joel Iglesias who had been wounded in battle:
Che ran out to me, defying the bullets, threw me over his shoulder, and got me out of there. The guards didn't dare fire at him ... later they told me he made a great impression on them when they saw him run out with his pistol stuck in his belt, ignoring the danger, they didn't dare shoot.
This could easily be hero worship though so may not be accurate evidence. Che helped found the anti-Batista radio Rebel Radio. He even led his forces to capture Santa Clara which turned out to be the first significant victory in the revolution. However he had started to see another woman, Aleida March, at this time despite being married. When Batista fled Cuba Che arrived in the capital of Havana with Castro following six days later who had been rallying several large cities. Although he was granted Cuban citizenship he confessed to his wife that he had been having an affair and the marriage quickly ended in divorce. Soon after he married Aleida March and they would go on to have four children together.
Following the revolution Castro placed Che in charge of a tribunal for informers, war criminals and traitors for five months. It is difficult to tell Che's attitude to the 55 to 105 (sources are not reliable) people he had executed. Some exiled Cubans claim that he did this with relish while others claimed that he pardoned as many people as he could. What can be conclusively claimed though was how he became hardened by it and agreed that it was necessary to defend what the revolution had achieved.
After the tribunal he oversaw the land reforms which gave more land to poorer peasants, his travels in South America was still very much with him. He also started the Cuban literacy project. Before the revolution between 60-76% of the population was literate, around 40% for peasants, and like all of his other economic projects it was a success. By 1961 national literacy was at 96%. In 1959 Castro also sent Che to make diplomatic calls to countries neutral in the Cold War including Yugoslavia, Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan as well as pro-US nations (in Japan he criticized Imperial Japan but also went to Hiroshima to commemorate those who had died there) and communist countries including East Germany and China. He even called for the UN to put pressure on South Africa to end Apartheid. This could have influenced his policy of affirmative action when he returned to Cuba to help ethnic minorities get into university. Che at this time also started the 'New Man' project where he wanted to create a Cuba that was hard working, selfless, gender-blind and anti-imperialist. He founded a series community centers, women's groups, labor groups and youth groups to do this. Che also visited the USA where he appeared on Face the Nation where he won the admiration from Malcolm X. When the USA sent over a thousand Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs invasion he was injured when his pistol went off as it fell out of his holster.
Congo and Bolivia
In 1965 Che left Cuba. There are various conflicting sources about why he did this. Some argue that is was because he was angry about being kept in the dark by Castro, others about his disagreement about foreign policy (Che favoring aiding the third world while Castro wanted closer ties to the USSR following the Cuban Missile Crisis), others saying that Che was angry at the corruption of the Castro regime and others simply that he wanted to continue spreading the ideas of the revolution. Regardless of the true reason he went to the Congo. Ever since his days in Mexico he had wanted to help the poor of Africa. The Congo was the most idealistic place for Che to start his revolution. It had gained independence in 1960 and its anti-imperialist prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, had been overthrown and executed in a coup led by Colonel Mobutu. Che with 100 Afro-Cubans and 12 Cuban expeditionaries (along with his second in command Victor Dreke) joined up with guerrilla leader Laurent-Desire Kabila, a pro-Lumumba leader. Che hired a younger interpreter as well to help teach him Swahili. Che tried to teach the guerrillas a Marxist-Leninist ideology to reconstruct the country and to teach Kabila's forces to fight. He quickly left Kabila though due to the low discipline. Soon after he left the Congo thanks to bad asthma, dysentery and the people not being interested. He said 'we can't liberate a country that doesn't want to fight'. He left some of his force behind and left for Bolivia. With Castro publishing Che's farewell letter he decided that he couldn't return to Cuba so decided to fight in Bolivia, again going back to his days on his motorcycle.
His whereabouts in Bolivia was largely unknown but like in Congo his force of 50 working as the ELN was not successful. In 1967 the Bolivian army managed to successfully wipe out two guerrilla groups, reportedly killing one of the leaders. Like in the Congo Che was unable to get widespread support but there were other reasons why he failed. Castro had supplied him with radios which were faulty which caused communication issues, Bolivia's Communist Party was corrupt and instead of facing the weak Bolivian army he also had to face CIA trained commandos who had been training the army. Felix Rodriguez, a Cuban exile who was a CIA agent, told the Bolivian army where in the forest to look for Che. On October 8th 1967 Che was captured and the following day he was executed.
Why has his legacy become so potent?
|A monument to him in Bolivia|
There are many reasons why Che Guevara has developed such a legacy in the pop culture. His journeys among the poor and work with them during his time in Cuba made him very sympathetic. Him leaving Cuba, apparent betrayal by Castro and staunch anti-corruption set him apart from the totalitarianism from Castro's Cuba. Whereas other revolutionaries such as Lenin, Mao and even Castro himself abandoned their ideals Che apparently never did that, he always stuck to his ideals. Che was also a revolutionary during the 1960s when liberal ideas became more popular so his anti-authority, pro-civil rights and pro-women's rights stuck with that generation and as these ideas became even more popular during the 1970s and 1980s this further increased his popularity. Finally he died a martyr. Being betrayed and executed his legacy became preserved. He became someone who died for his belief. Often that can be very potent. In a world striving for equality, no corruption and helping the oppressed it is easy to see why Che is still a popular icon.