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To heal life or to take life.
That was the decision Ernesto Guevara had to make in the mid-1950s. As most people know, he chose the latter.
What took a doctor and turned him into a revolutionary, a famous icon, and a so-called murderer? Who was this legend and why is he everywhere?
Ernesto Guevara was born in Argentina, June 14, 1928. By the age of three he had developed asthma that would haunt him for his entire life. For much of his early childhood, he was home schooled because of his asthma and spent many days in bed just trying to breathe. Ironically, he was spared from serving in the Argentinian military due to this severe health condition.
He graduated high school in 1945 and decided to study medicine after his grandmother died. He went to the University of Buenos Aires and worked at an asthma clinic while attending school there. When he was close to graduating, Guevara embarked on a long motorcycle trek across South America with his friend Alberto Granado. This adventure became known as the Motorcycle Diaries after the drama based on this portion of Guevara’s life.
Most of their trip was spent struggling to stay on the off-balanced motorcycle and meeting locals. When the duo reached Chile, they were forced to leave their motorcycle and continue on foot. While in Venezuela, Alberto decided to stay at a leprosarium (leper colony) and Guevara traveled on alone. He eventually made his way to Miami, Florida and then returned home to finish medical school.
The two friends met many people and saw a lot of hardship and sickness across the continent. The inequality Guevara experienced began to mold him into a socialist sympathizer, forming beliefs that would guide him in the future.
Once Guevara finished school, he traveled again, this time with his friend Carlos Ferrer. When in Bolivia, they saw first hand the National Revolutionary Movement’s attempt to change the country and extend Bolivians’ rights and education. Although this movement was creating social change, it was clear here, as well as across the continent, that America had a firm grasp on the economies of Latin America.
Guevara made his way to Guatemala where he met Hilda Gadea, who worked for the Guatemalan government. Guevara witnessed a violent ousting of the Guatemalan president by a CIA trained army, and fled with Hilda to Mexico City. While in Mexico, the two got married after Hilda became pregnant with their daughter.
By now, Guevara believed himself to be a supporter of Communist ideals and the idea of revolution, but not a strong proponent of either. He still wanted to travel. This would quickly change after he met a group of exiled Cuban rebels who he would talk politics with. The Cuban rebels nicknamed him Che, which was a common Argentinean expression for “pal” or “dude.”
A year after Che’s arrival in Mexico, his life would change forever, for it was here that he met Fidel Castro. The two instantly hit it off, and when Castro asked Che to join his revolution, Che agreed without hesitation.
November 25, 1956, Che found himself in Cuba for the first time in his life, armed and ready to overthrow the corrupt Batista government. Che, Castro and about eighty other men sailed to Cuba to meet up with rebels who were raising support for the eventual wrestle for power in what Castro called the July 26th Movement, after his earlier rebellion against Batista.
The incoming rebels were two weeks late in their landing and due to the bad timing, they were separated and some were captured and killed. Through fierce leadership, Che soon gained a reputation for searching out danger and having no qualms with killing deserters or spies. At the same time, he was known by his soldiers to have sentimental feelings for his friends and allies. The landing in Cuba transformed Che the healer to Che the guerrilla rebel.
For the two years that the rebels spent in the Sierra Maestra mountains, Che had more difficulty coping with the harsh life than most. With his relentless asthma, he was slowed and at times unable to function without medicine. Although it is known smoking is not helpful for those with asthma, Che continued to smoke cigars regularly.
Che was not only a leader under Castro, but he was a medic for his men and, when possible, helped treat local peasants as well.
During the rebellion Che was promoted to Comandante and became the second most powerful rebel, under Castro of course. Che did not take this title as a way to privilege and prestige. He continued to eat, sleep and work alongside his men.
By the end of 1958, the rebels had taken Santa Clara, a breaking point in the battle, and soon thereafter, Batista fled Cuba. On January 3, 1959, Che arrived at La Cabaña, in Havana, and was greeted by cheers and celebrations in the streets.
Once Castro took control of Havana, Che was placed in charge of training the army and served as the supreme prosecutor. This role is where most people who chastise Che point out as evidence of his cruelty. As supreme prosecutor, he was in charge of deciding the guilt, and execution, of people suspected of supporting Batista. It is believed that he did not attend any trials, but judged solely on the documentation provided and oversaw the execution of between two hundred and seven hundred people. This number has varied wildly and some claim that Che personally executed many prisoners himself.
At the end of the year, Castro named Che the governor of the Cuban National Bank. He refused his higher paying salary and was instrumental in helping take control of privately owned farms and plantations. These plots of land were then controlled by the government with the mindset that Cuba’s resources belongs to Cubans. This self-serving mindset did not sit well with the United States, who soon started a partial trade embargo against the country. When the USA refused to purchase Cuban sugar, the Russians rushed at the opportunity and soon created strong trading ties with Cuba. Che wished to have a strong industrial foundation, and with the help of their new found friends in the Soviet Union, they were able to start building a more industrialized Cuba.
Although Castro did not call his new government Communist, some Cubans started to see strong Communist-style laws and reforms. Soon, people started publicly criticizing the government and Castro took measures to quiet those who would speak out, closing news organizations and creating labor camps.
During this time, the United States decided to take a more aggressive stance with Cuba. With the CIA backed Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, relations between Cuba and the USA and Cuba’s allies the USSR became strained at times, to say the least. The United States enacted a complete embargo of Cuban goods, making it unbearably difficult for the Cuban people. Despite his high role in the government, because Che had refused higher pay, he personally felt the struggle of the Cuban people along with his second wife and two children. It was also during this time when Che started to become disillusioned with the Soviet style of communism and started looking toward the Chinese model.
In 1963, Che went to Algeria and spoke during a celebration of the country’s freedom from French rule and admitted he had failed in his attempts to industrialize Cuba. He mostly blamed the US embargo. Apparently, Castro agreed with Che and removed him from being in charge of Cuba’s economy.
In 1964, Castro signed an agreement with the Soviet Union to not extend revolutions around Latin America. Che was not pleased by this and in December of 1964 gave a powerful speech at the UN in New York speaking of the need for revolution and to fight against imperialism and colonization.
Not long after this speech, Che left Cuba for the Congo in Africa. There, he covertly helped Marxist revolutionists try to take over, but with a disorganized group of men and a country that was not keen to support the communist uprising, Che was forced to give up and soon headed back to Latin America. He found his way to Bolivia where he hoped to spark yet another revolution.
Bolivia would prove to be more dangerous for Che than the Congo. Constantly sick and on the run, Che and his rebels were eventually apprehended on October 8, 1967 by CIA-backed Bolivian troops. The next day, Ernesto “Che” Guevara was killed. A few days later, Castro announced to Cuba that Che’s life as a revolutionary was at an end.
Although the most famous guerrilla in history was dead, his story lives on. To many, he is a hero. To some, a murderer. To most, an icon.
The famous photograph of Che ironically has become quite an interesting story on its own. Originally snapped during a memorial service to those who died in the La Coubre explosion, possibly carried out by the CIA, Guerrillero Heroico was taken by Alberto Korda during a moment of contemplation by Che. Korda, a true supporter of the Cuban Revolution, never claimed royalties or requested payment for his iconic piece, believing that if the image of Che was widespread, his message would follow close behind.
With a new generation taking hold, this iconic image has reached the eyes of most people since it was first taken in 1960. This image has become a symbol of rebellion and dissent with many youth of today. But what would Che think of this?
First of all, this image is everywhere. It has become the opposite of what Che fought against, a capitalist money-making machine. While wearing a shirt with the likeness of Che may feel empowering or rebellious to many, his legacy is more often than not completely misunderstood. Most people who promote his likeness would probably disagree with his ideas and beliefs.
Che was not an advocate of individualism, which I imagine many people who sport his likeness are trying to demonstrate. Che was a communist. He believed people needed to work, and work hard. Equality is for all, but one had to earn it. Che saw the world through the eyes of the sick, poor, and oppressed, not consumers attempting to disassociate themselves from the norm.
Che was a communist-revolutionist. Some admire him for his work in trying to free Latin America and Africa from imperialism and some hated him for his harsh tactics. Either way, Che was an important figure in Latin history and world history. With today, the 46th anniversary of his death, it is important to remember who Che was and what he actually represented.