His back was to the wall and his head was held high as he spoke his last words, “be easy and aim well. It’s a man you’re going to kill.” Then, on October 9, 1967, Che Guevara was executed in a rural Bolivian school house. The bullets pierced his arm, his shoulder and his heart. Today marks the 40th anniversary of Che the human’s death and the birth of Che the symbol. Although it’s barely mentioned in the American media, it’s a pretty big story in the Spanish language press.
Most of us know Che Guevara superficially through his romantically heroic image emblazoned on t-shirts and Motorcycle Diaries, a 2005 movie starring Gael García Bernal about Che's youthful adventures. Indeed, in 2004 a very conservative friend of mine told me he admired Che because he fought for “freedom.” Sure, his image sells a lot of T-shirts, but who was Che Guevara? He was a leader of the Cuban revolution; but he was not Cuban and Che wasn’t even his real name.
He was born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna to an upper middleclass family in Rosario, Argentina (a city about 3.5 hours from Buenos Aires) in 1928.
He was a sickly kid and after graduating from high school studied to be a medical doctor. Upon graduation from medical school he began traveling. He practiced medicine pro-bono throughout Latin America until the early 1950’s when he met Fidel Castro and Co. in Mexico. He and his then-wife joined the Cuban independence movement. On December 2, 1956, the Cuban revolutionary forces set sail from the Yucatan peninsula on a rickety boat to fight against Cuba’s (then American backed) dictator Fulgencio Batista and conquer Cuba. They engaged the Cuban army in guerilla warfare on the Eastern side of the island. To be sure, they were not the only band of revolutionary fighters, they were one of many. But they were the most visible fighters and Fidel in particular was a hugely charismatic figure.
Ernesto transformed into Che while fighting in the Cuban jungle. Che is a popular term in Argentina, it means “hey/yo” and sometimes “dude,” and it’s a term Cubans do not ordinarily use. Guevara naturally used this term a lot and, to poke fun at him, his Cuban comrades began to call him “Che.” It quickly became his nome-de-guerre.
The Revolutionary forces toppled the Batista dictatorship on January 1, 1959 and Ernesto the sickly child was long gone. Out of the jungle emerged Fidel, his right hand man Che, and their band of fighters.
Fidel was able to maneuver himself to the lead among the various revolutionary factions and quickly consolidated control. Che took responsibility for executions, and was responsible for killing hundreds of people at the Cabaña prison. He killed Batista loyalists (and their families), ‘capitalists’ and dissidents who spoke out against the new Fidel-led regime. Many took to calling him “the butcher of Cabaña prison.”
He was a staunch, dogmatic communist and admired Joseph Stalin. He approved the killing of innocents, even children, if it strengthened his communist cause. He also dreamed of having “one, two, three Vietnams,” to kill as many Americans as possible and have a global communist revolution.
In 1967 Che left his wife and five kids in Cuba and traveled to Bolivia, where he hoped to spark a Communist insurgency. However, he never fermented local Bolivian support. On October 8, 1967 Bolivian forces, with the help of the CIA, captured Che. Forty years ago today he spoke his last words. Then Che was executed in a small school house in La Higuera, Bolivia. Perhaps Capitalism’s ultimate revenge is that his image is now used to make profits. But think before you wear that T-shirt.
(Does Che remind you of anyone in particular? How about Ayman al-Zawahiri? Al Qaeda’s number two and a qualified medical doctor.)