Guevara, Ché (Ernesto): 1928-1967: Revolutionary Leader

views updated May 08 2018

Ché (Ernesto) Guevara: 1928-1967: Revolutionary leader

Ernesto Guevara, known around the world by his nickname "Ché," was an Argentine doctor turned Marxist revolutionary who became instrumental in the Cuban revolution during the 1950s. Despite his lack of success outside Cuba, his commitment to worldwide revolution by armed revolt and his subsequent execution in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967 made him a martyr for the cause of liberation in South and Central America.

Childhood Influences

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born on June 14, 1928, in Rosario, located in the eastern Argentinean province of Santa Fe. The oldest child in the family, Guevara had four younger brothers and sisters. Both his father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, a part-Irish civil engineer, and his mother, Celia de la Serna, came from prominent well-to-do families, and both held left-wing political views. As a toddler, Guevara, who was called Tete by his family, began experiencing severe asthma attacks, a condition that plagued him throughout his life. Hoping that an improved climate would help his condition, Guevara's father moved the family to the mountain resort town of Alta Garcia, near Córdoba, where Guevara spent his childhood.

Due to his health, as a young child Guevara was schooled at home by his mother, with whom he remained very close throughout his life. Exposed to his mother's radical political views as well as to a family library that contained controversial and leftist works, Guevara developed his political ideology as an outgrowth of his upbringing. He particularly enjoyed the poetry of Spaniard Federico García Lorca and Chilean Communist Pablo Neruda. He was also influenced by childhood friends whose parents had been killed or exiled during the Spanish Civil War. Later his father claimed that it was at home that Guevara first read the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir I. Lenin.

Guevara attempted to overcome his asthma through strenuous physical activity, and became known as an excellent swimmer and rugby player. He also traveled the countryside on long bicycle trips. Bucking peer pressure and the interests of his friends, as a teen Guevara showed no interest in fashionable clothing or the latest trends and never took up drinking or smoking. At the age of 14 he joined the Partido Unión Democrática and participated in street fights against the peronistas, supporters of Argentine dictator Juan Perón.

At a Glance . . .

Born on June 14, 1928, in Rosario, Argentina; died on October 8, 1967, in La Higuera, Bolivia; son of Ernesto Guevara Lynch and Celia de la Serna; married Hilda Gadea Acosta, c. 1955; married Aleida March, June 3, 1959; five children. Education: University of Buenos Aires, 1947-53.

Career: Member of Fidel Castro's Cuban revolutionary army, 1955-59; head of the industrial department of the Cuban National Institute of Agrarian Reform, 1959; head of the Cuban National Bank, 1959-61; head of Cuban Ministry of Industry, 1961-65; revolutionary leader in Bolivia, 1966-67.

Motorcycled Through South America

Despite atypical political views, the family was in many ways typical of the country's upper-middle class, and it was expected that Guevara would attend college and pursue a career. Influenced by his struggle with chronic asthma and his grandmother's death from cancer, Guevara chose medicine as his profession. After graduating from high school with honors at the age of 19, he enrolled in medical school at the University of Buenos Aires. Restless and adventuresome, Guevara left his studies in 1952 to motorcycle and hitchhike across South America with his friend Alberto Granados, a biochemist.

The 24-year-old Guevara and his 29-year-old companion traveled through Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela. The two funded their adventure by taking on odd jobs as truck drivers, porters, doctors, and dishwashers, and landed in jail at least twice. Guevara was deeply affected by the conditions of poverty, hunger, and disease that he saw across the continent. In San Pablo, Venezuela, he worked as a nurse in a leper colony, and there discovered the deep solidarity among the outcasts as well as the painful isolation of their existence.

Eventually Guevara decided to return to Argentina, vowing to return to work at Granados in the leprosarium after completing his medical studies. With no money for passage home, Guevara made his way home via Miami, Florida, after a relative offered to purchase an airline ticket for him. By October of 1952 Guevara was back at the university in Buenos Aires.

Introduced to Marxism

Guevara submitted a thesis on allergies, passed his qualifying medical examinations, and was awarded his medical degree in the spring of 1953. But the young doctor's focus had been changed by his first-hand experience with the abysmal social conditions in South America. Rather than providing medical services the poor could never afford, Guevara decided to commit his life to assisting the disadvantaged and the oppressed. Always restless and adventuresome and wanting to avoid required military service in Perón's army, Guevara set out for Bolivia to witness the work of the country's infant revolutionary government. However, he soon moved on and spent the next two years traveling through Central America, including stops in Ecuador, Panama, and Costa Rica, before landing in Guatemala.

Guevara had gone to Guatemala to experience the country under the revolutionary régime of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who had successfully installed his government in 1951. Although not yet declaring himself a Marxist, Guevara joined the Alliance of Democratic Youth, a leftist organization that supported Ar-benz and Guatemala's Labor party. However, Arbenz's land reform policies incited the anger of the country's landowners and elite, especially the Boston-based United Fruit Company, the country's largest landowner. Consequently, shortly after Guevara arrived in the country, troops, covertly trained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and under the leadership of right-winger Castillo Armas, overtook Arbenz's government. For the first time Guevara became directly involved in revolutionary activities. He moved among small bands of revolutionaries who sought unsuccessfully to retake Guatemala City. Eventually Guevara, who had been identified by the new government as a Marxist, sought refuge in the Argentine embassy.

While in Guatemala, Guevara earned the nickname Ché, used in Argentine Spanish as a form of second person pronoun, which Guevara consistently used to greet his friends. During this time Guevara met his first wife, Hilda Gadea Acosta, a Peruvian radical who helped cement his liberation ideology. Guevara spent much of the following two months holed up in the embassy studying the works of Marx and Lenin. Whereas his experience in the leper colony had pushed him to take up the cause of the poor, his experience in Guatemala led him to affirm armed conflict as the only means to bring about significant social change and liberation from the grip of imperialist forces.

Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution

With little hope of effecting further change in Guatemala, in September of 1954 Guevara escaped the country and made his way to Mexico City, where he earned a living as a physician. His wife soon joined him there, and the two had a daughter in February of 1956. Despite his obligations to his family, Guevara was not ready to settle into a domestic lifestyle. In 1955 he was introduced to Cuban rebel Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl, who were living in exile in Mexico City while they developed plans to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Guevara began his career as a revolutionary in earnest when he signed up with Castro to serve as physician for the invasion force of 82 men; Guevara was the only member who was not of Cuban descent. After undergoing intensive physical training at a clandestine guerrilla warfare training camp outside Mexico City, Guevara shipped out with Castro and his ragtag army aboard the sea-worn yacht Granma.

The Granma landed on Cuban soil on December 2, 1956; however, the invasion attempt proved to be ill-advised. Just four days later all but fourteen of the invasion force were killed in a fierce battle with Batista's army at Alegría de Pío. Both Castro brothers and Guevara were among the survivors who escaped into the rugged mountainous region of Sierra Maestra in eastern Cuba. Although Guevara had joined the revolution as a physician, he became a gifted military leader and Castro's trusted friend. Over the next two years Castro conducted guerrilla warfare, and Guevara served as his main ideologist. While Castro sought only to liberate his homeland, Guevara envisioned the struggle as one of many battles that would take place in the worldwide war against oppression and domination. As Castro prepared for a final offensive against Batista's forces, he placed Guevara in charge of the Eighth Column, with orders to move through the middle of the island and divide the government forces. In a fierce and decisive battle at Santa Clara, Guevara's troops overcame their opponents, causing Batista to flee the country on New Year's Eve of 1956. Guevara was among the first of the rebel troops to enter triumphantly into Havana on January 4, 1959, and claim the capital for the revolutionary forces.

In the new government established by Castro, Guevara was officially declared a Cuban by birth, and served in a number of important capacities. By now a committed Marxist, he encouraged Castro to establish a socialist state, and Castro moved in that direction by appointing Guevara to positions related to finance and the economy. Guevara's first official duty was to head the industrial department of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform. In November of 1959 Castro selected Guevara as president of the National Bank of Cuba, a position he held until February of 1961, when he became the head of the Ministry of Industry. Despite his familiarity with Marxist theory, Guevara had no practical experience in finance, economics, or government. Nonetheless his objective was clear: move Cuba's economy away from its dependence on the export of sugar in general and its dependence on sales to the United States in particular.

To that end, Guevara traveled around the world to conduct trade negotiations with neutral and friendly countries. He played a vital role in realigning Cuba with the Soviet Union by brokering a deal that stipulated that the Soviet Union would purchase sugar from Cuba in exchange for Cuba's political and strategic support of the Communist bloc. In 1961 Guevara published La Guerra de guerrillas (Guerrilla Warfare ), a training manual of guerrilla tactics. The book was widely read among revolutionary factions as well as by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which used the information to train forces to oppose the guerrilla strategy.

Guevara, whose idealistic vision of the perfect socialist state never faded, pushed Cuba toward industrialization. He blamed the United States for intervening in Cuba's economy by subsidizing sugar, which had retarded the growth of industry on the island. When relations between Cuba and the United States turned openly hostile after Guevara seized U.S.- and British-owned oil refineries, he moved the country into closer economic and political alignment with the Soviet Union. However, several factors worked against Guevara's success in reestablishing Cuba's economy around manufacturing and industry. First, and perhaps most important, was the lack of sufficient money to fund development, as well as the absence of any established markets and the lack of advanced technology. Also, Guevara's demand for a total and uncompromising approach to socialism led him into policy conflicts with the Soviet Union. Despite his best intentions, Guevara alienated many of Cuba's workers when he revoked all material incentives for work production, with the goal of creating the "new socialist man" who produced solely for the benefit of society.

By the end of 1964 it was becoming clear that Guevara's industrialization plan was a near total failure. The only tangible results were a weakened agricultural industry and resulting food shortages. When Guevara began to openly criticize the Soviet Union for not providing the fledgling Marxist nation with enough financial support, Castro apparently decided that he must choose between his old, loyal friend and his powerful ally, and he chose the Soviet Union. Guevara suddenly dropped out of sight in March of 1965, amid speculation that he had been removed by Castro, exiled, imprisoned, or even executed. Castro insisted that Guevara had moved on to further the cause of liberation in other parts of the world. Eventually Castro was proven correct when Guevara finally surfaced in the Kinshasa Republic of the Congo (known today as Zaïre) as part of a revolutionary organization attempting to overthrow the country's government. However, after just six months, frustrated by the lack of success, commitment, and coordination, Guevara quietly returned to Cuba in March of 1966.

Attempted to Spread Revolution

During the next six months, Guevara organized a group of Cuban guerrillas in preparation for a liberation movement in Bolivia. Guevara's plan was to follow his own guerrilla warfare strategy, as outlined in Guerrilla Warfare. He hoped to use his small army to incite a revolution in Bolivia. Once victory was achieved there, he would establish a base for operations from which he could branch out across South America, spreading revolution and liberation throughout the continent. The entire operation was, however, an abysmal failure. First, Guevara and his Cuban troops never secured the trust of the Bolivian peasantry and consequently enlisted few recruits. Second, Guevara's staunch adherence to theoretically pure socialism allowed no room for compromise with the Bolivian Communist Party, which subsequently withdrew from Guevara's movement. Third, Castro ceased to support his friend when it became increasingly clear that Guevara's plans would not succeed. Finally, Guevara was in poor health and out of medical supplies. His asthma was plaguing him and his weight dropped below 100 pounds. Perhaps as a result of his ill health, the seasoned military tactician made numerous strategic errors in judgment.

Guevara's Bolivian revolution ended after 18 months of warfare with the Bolivian army and U.S. Army Rangers. Going against his own training manual, Guevara divided his forces in two with the intent of regrouping, but the two divisions lost track of each other and wandered for months trying to reunite. On August 31, 1967, one group encountered government forces, which won a decisive battle, leaving Guevara and his smaller contingent with no hope for reinforcements. On October 8, 1967, Guevara and his remaining men were surrounded by the Bolivian army in a canyon at Quebrada del Yuro. In the ensuing battle, Guevara was seriously injured and captured. He was taken to the town of La Higuera and interrogated. The next day he was executed, his hands cut off, and buried in a mass grave along with several of his men. He was 39 years old.

Even before his death Guevara was nearing legendary status, and after his execution he became the martyr and idol of an entire generation in both South and Central America as well as around the world. Fervent supporters marched in the streets chanting "!No lo vamos a olvidar!" (We won't let him be forgotten!). When his secret gravesite was discovered 30 years later, after a deathbed confession by a former member of the Bolivian army, a renewed passion for Guevara's memory was ignited. Bolivia, embracing Guevara more closely in death than it ever had during his lifetime, launched a "Ché Guevara Week" and began promoting Guevara's work in the country as a tourist attraction. His written works, including Guerrilla Warfare, Pasajes de la Guerra revolucionaria (Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War ), which describes his personal experiences during the Cuban uprising, and El diario de Ché en Bolivia (The Diary of Ché Guevara), which was published posthumously, gained significant and sustained acclaim. Numerous compilations of speeches and other writings were also published after his death. Guevara has approached the status of sainthood in Latin America. In Europe and the United States, during the late 1990s, Guevara's image began to appear on t-shirts worn by the younger generation. Somehow the socialist martyr had become chic among angst-ridden youth. How Guevara would have felt about his image being sold in trendy shops in the capitalist United States remains a question for speculation.

Selected Writings

La guerra de guerrillas, Departamento de Instruccion de MINFAR, 1960, translation by J. P. Morray published as Guerrilla Warfare, Monthly Review Press, 1961.

Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria, Union de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba, 1963, translation published as Episodes of the Revolutionary War, International Publishing, 1968; revised and enlarged translation by Victoria Ortiz published as Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, Monthly Review Press, 1968.

Ché Guevara Speaks: Selected Speeches and Writings, edited by George Lavan, Grove, 1967.

El diario de Ché en Bolivia: Noviembre 7, 1966, Octubre 7, 1967, Instituto de Libro, 1968; translation edited by Robert Scheer published as The Diary of Ché Guevara; Bolivia: November 7, 1966-October 7, 1967, Bantam, 1968; enlarged translated edition edited by Daniel James published as The Complete Bolivian Diaries of Ché Guevara and Other Captured Documents, Stein & Day, 1968; translation edited by Mary-Alice Waters published as The Bolivian Diary of Ernesto Ché Guevara, Path-finder, 1994.

Venceremos! The Speeches and Writings of Ernesto Ché Guevara, edited, annotated, and introduced by John Gerassi, Macmillan, 1968.

Ché Guevara and the Cuban Revolution: Writings and Speeches of Ernesto Ché Guevara, Pathfinder Press/Pacific and Asia, 1987.

Notas de viaje, translation by Ann Wright published as The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey around South America, Verso, 1995.



Cold War, 1945-1991, Gale, 1992.

Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale, 1998.

Historic World Leaders, Gale, 1994.


Economist, October 11, 1997; December 25, 1999.

Latin American Perspectives, July 1998.

Time, July 14, 1997; June 14, 1999.

U.S. News & World Report, October 27, 1997.

World Press Review, October 1996.


Contemporary Authors Online,

Kari Bethel

Ernesto Guevara

views updated May 29 2018

Ernesto Guevara

Ernesto Guevara (1928-1967) was an Argentine revolutionary, guerrilla theoretician, and the trusted adviser of Cuban premier Fidel Castro.

Ernesto Guevara was born on June 14, 1928, in Rosario. Of Spanish and Irish descent, he suffered from asthma, spending his childhood in a mountain town near Rosario. At an early age he read history and sociology books and was particularly influenced by the writings of the Chilean Communist poet Pablo Neruda. At 19 Guevara entered the medical school of the University of Buenos Aires.

In 1952 "Che" Guevara ("Che" is an Argentine equivalent of "pal") broke off his studies in order to set out with a friend on a transcontinental trip which included motorcycling to Chile, riding a raft on the Amazon, and taking a plane to Florida. He returned to Argentina to resume his studies, graduating with a degree of doctor of medicine and surgery in 1953.

Late in 1953 Guevara left Argentina, this time for good. He moved to Guatemala, where he had his first experience of a country at war. He supported the Jacobo Arbenz regime, and when it was overthrown in 1954 Guevara sought asylum in the Argentine embassy, remaining there until he could travel to Mexico.

It was here that Guevara met the Castro brothers. At the time Fidel Castro was planning an expedition against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, and Guevara agreed to go along as a doctor. On Dec. 2, 1956, the expeditionaries landed in eastern Cuba, becoming the nucleus of a guerrilla force which operated in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. The guerrillas contributed to the crumbling of the Batista regime on Dec. 31, 1958.

In January 1959 Guevara was one of the first rebel commanders to enter Havana and take control of the capital. He held several posts in the Castro government:commander of La Cabaña fortress, president of the National Bank, and minister of industries. But always, most important of all, he was one of Castro's most influential advisers. Guevara visited Communist countries in the fall of 1960 to build up trade relations with the Soviet bloc and criticized United States policy toward Cuba. He also directed an unsuccessful plan to bring rapid industrialization to Cuba and advocated the supremacy of moral over material incentives to increase production. Guevara also masterminded Cuba's subversive program in Latin America and wrote extensively on this subject. In his first book, Guerrilla Warfare (1960), he provided basic instructions on this type of conflict.

Guevara's official tasks did not cure him of his restlessness. He continued to travel. In December 1964 he addressed the United Nations General Assembly and then set out on a long journey to Europe, Africa, and Asia. After his return to Havana he surprisingly disappeared from public view. His wanderings took him to Africa to lead a guerrilla movement which failed. He returned to Cuba, preparing a team of Cuban army officers who would accompany him to his next fighting area, Bolivia.

Guevara expected that a spreading guerrilla operation in Bolivia would force United States intervention, thus creating "two, three, or many Vietnams." Instead the Bolivian army tracked down and annihilated the guerrillas and captured Guevara on Oct. 8, 1967. The next day Guevara was executed.

Further Reading

Jay Mallin, ed., Che Guevara on Revolution (1969), contains Guevara's most important writings on guerrilla warfare as well as a valuable introduction. Daniel James, Che Guevara (1968), is the most complete biography. Two works on Guevara's activities in Bolivia are Luis J. Gonzales and Gustavo A. Sanchez Salazar, Che Guevara in Bolivia, translated by Helen Lane (1969), a study of Guevara's last months in Bolivia, and Richard Harris, Death of a Revolutionary:Che Guevara's Last Mission (1970), a fair-minded account of his guerrilla campaign in Bolivia and its long-range implications. Written with a left-wing point of view, Jean Larteguy, The Guerrillas (trans. 1970), is an analysis of the South American revolutionary tradition which attempts to link Guevara to Bolívar. Martin Ebon, Che:The Making of a Legend (1969), provides valuable insights into Guevara's personality and activities. □