Top 10 Facts You Didn’t Know About Che Guevara: You Don’t Know Che!
Lefty leader and friend of Fidel, few have captured the public imagination to the degree of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The Argentinian born doctor turned revolutionary has become a symbol of both socialism and rebellion. His visage is ubiquitous. Nearly 50 years after he was executed in Bolivia he remains a controversial figure.
Che was born on June 14th, 1928 in Rosaria, Argentina. His Basque-Irish family was actually fairly well off, but had left leaning politics. Che was not a healthy child. He suffered from debilitating asthma throughout his life, but rarely let it interfere with his activities. Both jock and nerd, as a student he excelled in athletics – swimming, cycling, football and rugby – but also demonstrated strong intellectual capacity at an early age. He was a prolific reader, loving poetry and philosophy. He excelled in a variety of subjects including, of course, political science and sociology. Che enrolled in the University of Buenos Aires in 1948 to study medicine. His adventurous character lead him to mix some travel in with his studies. The rest, as they say, is history, but a history with some surprising facts you may not be aware of:
Che Really Got Around
I’m not talking about his sex life. (A girl can only dream…). I’m talking travel. We all know that long before Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda set out on their cinematic journey to discover the “real America”, Che took off on an actual motorcycle journey to discover the real South America. However, his 1951, nine-month sojourn, later chronicled in The Motorcycle Diaries (book and film) was only the beginning. In his short life (he died at the age of 39), Che was to cover some serious ground. In June of 1959, Castro dispatched Che on three month tour to Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Yugoslavia, Greece, Singapore and Hong Kong. Guevara continued on to Japan, where he scorned the monuments of the country’s imperial past, choosing instead to visit Hiroshima. 1960 saw Guevara go to Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, North Korea, Hungary and East Germany. In 1964, he traveled from France to the People’s Republic of China, the United Arab Republic, Algeria, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Dahomey, Congo-Brazzaville and Tanzania.
Countries Che traveled to are indicated in red in the map below. He fought in three of them; Cuba, Congo and Bolivia.
Che got his start in Guatemala
While Che is best remember for his role in Cuba, his revolutionary ideals were cemented in Guatemala. Guatemala was also the place where Che met Hilda Gadea Acosta, a Peruvian economist who was to become his first wife (of two), and where he first associated with Cuban exiles with connections to Castro.
Guevara had traveled through the Andean states and throughout Central America. He noted the power wielded by United Fruit Company (the “Capitalist octopuses” up north liked cheap bananas). Guatemala had democratically elected Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán as President and Árbenz was attempting to dismantle the latifundia system of land ownership, whereby huge tracts of land were held by private owners. Árbenz’ land reform initiatives included expropriating uncultivated land in order to redistribute it to the peasants. Good news for the peasants. Bad news for United Fruit. When the Árbenz government received a shipment of arms from Communist Czechoslovakia in 1954, the United States took the opportunity to have a CIA-sponsored army conduct a coup and set up a right-wing dictatorship under Carlos Castillo Armas. If Che wasn’t already radicalized, this sealed the deal. The connection between armed overthrow and financial interests was hard to miss. In what Che, in a tongue in cheek reference called a “rare coincidence,” the same man, John Foster Dulles, was serving as both attorney (and of course, stockholder) for United Fruit Company and United States Secretary of State.
Che Was A Good Warrior…And A Bad One.
The decisive victory for Che, and for the Cuban revolution was the Battle of Santa Clara at the end 1958. Guevara split his force of approximately 300 men sending a southern column to meet the government troops while his “suicide squad” captured a nearby command post/railway depot at the base of a hill. Che’s tactics were effective and his troops were victorious in spite of being severely outnumbered.
But if Che fought so brilliantly in Cuba, why did his later efforts in Congo and Bolivia fail? In both cases, it appears the Guevara overestimated the local population’s desire to engage in class warfare. His efforts at recruitment did not live up to expectations with many finding his willingness to engage in armed confrontation and his aversion to compromise off-putting. It’s speculated that his inclination towards the most volatile solutions were tempered by Castro, thereby allowing Guevara to be much more effective when working with Fidel than without him.
Che was a Banker…
What? No! Say it ain’t so. How could a lefty like Che muddy his hands in the nasty world of high finance? But it’s true. In the early days of Fidel’s Cuba, Guevara was named Finance Minister, Minister of Industries and President of the National Bank. None of this inspired Che to alter his distaste for money. As head of the Bank, one of his duties was to sign the currency. He scrawled “Che,” instead of using his full name, thus making it clear that he did not see money as sacred.
Guevara initiated policies to change the Cuban economy. Businesses, banks and factories were nationalized alongside policies attempting to provide employment, education, housing and healthcare for all Cubans. Che was aware that government policies would not be enough. True change would have to be accompanied by new ways of thinking, by seeing people as equals regardless of race, gender or occupation, by letting go of ideas of individuality. Che defined a “New Man” who would selflessly rise above materialism. Applying this philosophy to economics meant that people were asked to accept moral incentives instead of economic ones. Predictably perhaps, this did not work out and productivity plummeted while absenteeism soared.
Finances were also strained by breaking connection with capitalistic Western neighbors. Guevara attempted to address the gap by forming commercial connections with Eastern Bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, North Korea, Hungary and East Germany. While these efforts did bolster the Cuban economy, they also fostered a state of economic dependence.
And A Bureaucrat
Che was also in charge of National Institute of Agrarian Reform which was put in place to administer land reform. Under Che’s direction, the Institute soon established its own militia, which was used to help the government seize and redistribute expropriated land (including land owned by U.S. corporations). This prompted the U.S. to retaliate by dramatically reducing its imports of Cuban sugar, further adding to the island’s financial woes.
But if Che failed at economics, he rocked at education. Literacy was one of Guevara’s pet projects. Prior to 1959, Cuba had literacy rate of around 60%. In a 1961 campaign, tagged “Year of Education,” Guevara dispatched tens of thousands of volunteers to build schools and train teachers in rural areas. By the end of the campaign, the literacy rate had increased to 96%. Cuba still boasts one of the highest rates of literacy (99.8% for adults, 100% for youth) according to UNESCO. (http://www.uis.unesco.org/literacy/Pages/data-release-map-2013.aspx) Guevara also increased access to higher education saying that education would no longer be “a privilege of the white middle class”.
Che Was Okay With Brutality
The armed part of being an armed revolutionary didn’t bother Che. His biographer, Jon Lee Anderson defended him, saying,
“I have yet to find a single credible source pointing to a case where Che executed ‘an innocent’. Those persons executed by Guevara or on his orders were condemned for the usual crimes punishable by death at times of war or in its aftermath: desertion, treason or crimes such as rape, torture or murder. I should add that my research spanned five years, and included anti-Castro Cubans among the Cuban-American exile community in Miami and elsewhere.”
All being fair in love and war as they say, but still some of Che’s statements are a bit bone-chilling. For instance, Che wrote in his diary regarding the execution of Eutimio Guerra, a man who admitted to treason, and who asked that his life be ended quickly; “”The situation was uncomfortable for the people and for Eutimio so I ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 pistol in the right side of the brain, with exit orifice in the right temporal.”
Che defended the practice of mass executions by firing squad, calling them not only a “necessity” for the people of Cuba, but an “imposition” of the people.
Most ominous of all were his comments regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis. Guevara said that Cuba would have fired the missiles if they’d been under Cuban control and went on to reaffirm that in his view, the cause of socialist liberation was worth the possibility of millions of atomic war victims.
No Friend of Moscow
Che felt that the Soviets had betrayed Cuba, and perhaps Marxism in general, when they negotiated a resolution to the Missile Crisis. It seemed to him that the two Superpowers were pursuing their own interest while using Cuba as a pawn. Guevara began to Soviet-bash on a regular basis. As the Cold War continued, Guevara began to view the world as divided not between the East and West, but rather the north and south, wherein the large countries of the northern hemisphere, exploited the countries of the south.
Not only was Che frustrated that U.S.S.R. seemed more interested in outdoing the U.S. than in achieving world-wide Marxism, his philosophy was starting to resemble that of another Communist Leader, Mao Zedong. Che had come to believe that rapid industrialization (akin to China’s “Great Leap Forward) was a key economic strategy. Thus Che was not only insulting Moscow, he was emulating their sibling rival.
Worth More To Fidel Dead Than Alive?
Che’s rotting relationship with the Soviets put Castro in a tough spot. Cuba received significant and needed financial support (sugar exports) from the Soviet Union. While Castro saw this as a practical necessity, Che seems to have felt that it was a sell out.
The breach was big enough that in the spring of 1965, Che sent Fidel a “farewell letter” in which he reiterated his belief in the cause, resigned from his government posts, resigned from the communist party and renounced the Cuban citizenship which had been bestowed upon him. Che would continue taking the fight abroad. He made a failed effort in Congo, before proceeding to Bolivia, where he would meet his death in 1967.
But if the two were not seeing eye to eye before Che died, one would never know it afterwards. In his eulogy, Castro held Che up as a model:
“If we wish to express what we want the men of future generations to be, we must say: Let them be like Che! If we wish to say how we want our children to be educated, we must say without hesitation: We want them to be educated in Che’s spirit! If we want the model of a man, who does not belong to our times but to the future, I say from the depths of my heart that such a model, without a single stain on his conduct, without a single stain on his action, is Che!”
Look, Mom, No Hands!
(Okay, that was in bad taste. I apologize.) The fact that Che’s hands were cut off, put in jars and sent off to Argentina is only one of the many ways in which his death was decidedly unglamorous.
Che had entered Bolivia in disguise. Rather than going down dramatically on the battle field, Che was captured on October 8th 1967, in reportedly horrendous condition. At the behest of the Bolivian President, a soldier named Mario Terán volunteered to do the deed. In order to mask the fact that it was an execution (the U.S. wanted Che sent to Panama for interrogation), Terán shot Che multiple times but avoided putting any bullets in his head. Che’s body was sent to Vallegrande, where it was photographed and his identity was confirmed. Next, a military doctor amputated his hands, so that they could be sent to Argentina to be matched with fingerprints on file with the police. They were later handed over (sorry) to Cuba. The rest of his body didn’t make to Cuba until almost 30 years later when a team of geologists and forensic anthropologist found a mass grave, including remnants of a body with no hands. A mold of the teeth, and the fact that a pipe and tobacco were found nearby confirmed the identity. On October 17, 1997, Guevara was laid to rest in a mausoleum in Santa Clara, Cuba.
Che Guevara – Gift To Capitalists Everywhere
Che Guevara was a man of contradictions. We know him as someone who held the highest egalitarian ideals, but had no problem employing violence to achieve those ideals. A medical doctor and an asthmatic, countless photos depict him with a pipe in his mouth. And then there’s his image. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guerrillero_Heroico)
Of course, it’s not his fault that he happened to be so very easy on the eyes. Nor is it his fault that with simple click of the camera on a March day in 1960, while attending a memorial service for the victims of the La Coubre explosion, Alberto Korda captured all the seriousness, legend and romance of his charismatic character on film.
But the fact remains. That photo, later dubbed “Guerrillero Heroico” (heroic guerilla warrior), is one of the most widely recognized photos ever and is perhaps unique in the history of photography. The Maryland Institute College of Art named it the world’s most famous photo and the Victoria and Albert Museum speculated that it has been reproduced more than any other photo.
Incidentally, in a move Che would surely have appreciated, Korda never received any payment or royalties for the photo. The only time he staked any claim to the picture was when it showed up in a Smirnoff Vodka commercial. Korda believed Che would not have wanted his image used to sell alcohol. He sued and donated his settlement to the Cuban healthcare system.
However, Che would have felt a good deal of chagrin, had he known how much and how often his image would be reproduced for money. Irish artist, Jim Fitzpatrick used Korda’s photo as the base a poster in 1967, and the image expanded from there. Today, Che is big business, adorning posters and tee-shirts, helping big businesses and street vendors alike. You can even buy a poster, tee-shirt or coffee mug bearing Guerrillero Heroico and ironically proclaiming, “Spent his whole life fighting against Capitalism. Now spends his death making t-shirt sellers rich.
All of this might lead one to speculate that maybe it’s not a completely bad thing that Che died young, at the top of his game. So much of what has happened since then would have disappointed him. The great, world-wide communist revolution never came. The Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc fell and the remaining great Communist power (are we calling China a Superpower yet?) is as capitalistic and far from Che’s anti-materialism ideals as can be imagined.
That leaves Cuba. Today, it seems clear that the island nation is on the cusp of change, although no one can say exactly what the future will be. However, it’s worth noting that Cuba seems to have held out against capitalist pressure much longer than anyone expected. (I recall one of my college professors in the early 90s confidently stating that now that the Soviet Union had fallen, Castro would definitely be out of power within two years. Could that be the same arrogance that led to the Bay of Pigs debacle?) Cuba will surely change as the revolutionary generation ages out of the picture. Perhaps they’ll manage to take some of the positive accomplishments of their revolution (like that high literacy rate) into whatever comes next. They will surely take the legend of Che.