Perhaps one of the most recognisable icons in modern history, Che Guevara was nothing if not enigmatic. Soft spoken and multi-faceted, he has proven over the years to be a divisive figure, loathed by many, loved by more. We delve a little deeper into the life of this infamous figure.
Che Guevara was born Ernesto Guevara in 1928. Although mostly associated with Cuba throughout his lifetime, Guevara was actually born in Rosario, Argentina. From the outset, anarchy would be inherent to Guevara, even down to a controversy surrounding the date of his birth. While his birth certificate says that he was born on June 14, 1928, he was actually born a month before, but as his parents conceived Che out of wedlock, they had the date changed to save face in conservative Argentina.
He was of Irish and Spanish descent, and his father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, said of him, “the first thing to note is that in my son’s veins flowed the blood of the Irish Rebels”, referring presumably to the 1916 Rising in Ireland, a symbolic precursor to what would come to define Guevara over the course of his lifetime. His name would also continue to evolve, being named Ernestito, or ‘Little Ernest’ as a child, before earning the nickname Che, a colloquialism meaning ‘man’ in Argentine Spanish, due to his frequent use of the word.
Guevara was something of a Renaissance man: intelligent, athletic, intellectual, handsome and compassionate. In 1948, he began studying medicine in the University of Buenos Aires and graduated as a doctor in 1953. However, he interrupted his studies twice to take lengthy motorcycle tours around South America, particularly favouring northern Argentina, Peru and Chile, where he was exposed to extreme poverty, disease and inequality, all of which altered his worldview and radicalised him politically. One of these trips was the subject of the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, based on Guevara’s road diaries.
These voyages shaped Guevara’s views on Latin American identity and strengthened his Communist beliefs, asserting that Latin America required an holistic and integrated solution as a single entity rather than disparate states. This anti-capitalist and anti-individualist sentiment would be cultivated on more travels across the South American continent and cemented in Guatemala, where he would align himself with guerrillas and affirm his belief in armed struggle as a the only means of fighting imperialism.
Guevara married Hilda Gadea Acosta, an influential Peruvian economist, in Mexico in 1955, where they had moved due to political pressure in Guatemala. She introduced him to a number of Cuban rebels, setting him on course for his life of revolution. He worked as a doctor in Mexico City and soon met Fidel Castro, his revolutionary comrade, whose recounting of the Cuban struggle convinced Che that this was the cause he had been searching for.
Upon arrival in Cuba, Guevara and a band of rebels were ambushed by the Cuban military, and Che found himself putting down his medical equipment in favour of arms, a pivotal point in his transition from intellectual doctor to murderous guerrilla. He quickly became promoted to second in command of Castro’s fighters, and gained a reputation for ruthlessness and brutality. Yet, he was still admired and was seen as a teacher and respected for his intellect.
In 1959, he married Cuban rebel Aleida March and the couple went on to have four children together, adding to the child he already had with Gadea.
As part of Castro’s plan to liberate Cuba, he established La Cabana Fortress prison, where members of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s regime were held, and Castro appointed Guevara as the commander of the facility. Guevara earned the name the ‘butcher of La Cabana’ for overseeing the execution of more than 2,000 inmates, solidifying his image as hardened man who would stop at nothing to defend his cause.
But Guevara was also instrumental in imposing land reforms around this time to restore the balance in Cuba’s agriculture, as well as championing education and setting about improving Cuban literacy. He strengthened ties with Russia and became something of a revolutionary statesman, appearing as a Cuban diplomat abroad.
As his Marxist ideals became more prominent, Guevara spent time in Africa and China, and his ties to Cuba became more tenuous. He had become disillusioned with the Russian system and more pro-China, something which isolated him, and he eventually disappeared from public life in Cuba in 1965.
Castro released a ‘farewell letter’ penned by Guevara, stating his intention to continue his revolutionary fight abroad, effectively ending his alliance with Cuba, although he still maintained his support for the Cuban cause in the letter.
He spent the next year in relative obscurity, his whereabouts unknown, and took the drastic measure of altering his appearance by shaving his iconic hair and beard and changing his name to pose as a Uruguayan businessman so that he could enter Bolivia unannounced. Once in Bolivia, he attempted to organise a revolution and enlisted a band of guerrillas, but the local population informed Bolivian authorities and Guevara was eventually captured.
Guevara was executed with nine gunshots. Before his execution, he was asked if he was thinking about his mortality, to which he replied, “No. I’m thinking about the immortality of the revolution.” Che met an undignified end, with his dead body being displayed for the press on a slab in in the Vallegrande hospital. After his execution, a military doctor amputated Guevara’s hands so they could be sent to Argentina to be fingerprinted.
His death was met with three days of mourning in Cuba, and in 1997 his remains were unearthed in Bolivia before being sent to Santa Clara in Cuba where they remain today.
Che Guevara has become a legendary figure, with his image being synonymous with freedom and the anti-establishment. However, this is not without its irony, as much of the merchandising that bears Che Guevara’s image is itself a cog in the capitalist machine, contrary to the ideals that Guevara held dear and fought all his life for.