Che Guevara

Picture of revolutionary Che Guevara smoking a cigar.
Closeup of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, Cuban minister of finance, smoking a cigar in military fatigues. (circa 1959). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Who Was Che Guevara?

An Argentine medical doctor, Che Guevara took part with Fidel Castro and other Cuban rebels in the successful attempt to overthrow the Cuban government. After the revolutionary movement took power in 1959, Guevara held important posts in the government.

In 1965,he resigned his positions and disappeared from public view. Guevara later reappeared in Bolivia in 1967 at the head of a revolutionary movement, but was captured and killed by members of the Bolivian army.

Che Guevara lives on in popular culture and revolutionary mythology as the model of a dedicated and selfless revolutionary.

Dates: June 14, 1928 -- October 9, 1967*

Also Known As: Ernesto Guevara de la Serna

Early Life of Che Guevara

Ernesto Guevara was born in Rosario, Argentina to Celia de la Serna and Ernesto Guevara Lynch, both of whom came from aristocratic Argentine families.

Celia’s parents had died when she was little and had left her an inheritance. Ernesto’s family had spent most of their large fortune, leaving Ernesto Sr. with just enough money to invest in a yacht-building company, which later burned down. Yet Ernesto Sr. had big ideas about how to make his own fortune, one of which was investing in a yerba mate tea plantation.

Ernesto Sr. used his new bride’s inheritance to start a yerba mate tea plantation in the jungles of Misiones in northern Argentina. They had been there less than a year when their son, Ernesto Jr., was born in 1928.

Just two years later, little Ernesto suffered his first of many asthma attacks, a condition that greatly affected both his own life and that of his family.

Asthma

It quickly became obvious that little Ernesto was not going to be able to live in the humid jungle conditions of the family’s yerba mate plantation.

Needing a dry climate for little Ernesto’s asthma, the Guevara family placed the plantation in the hands of a family friend and then moved in 1932 to the small, resort city of Alta Gracia, which was known for its dry climate.

While the dry climate of Alta Gracia did help Ernesto’s asthma a little, he still frequently suffered from asthma attacks that lasted for days, even weeks.

Always worried about little Ernesto’s asthma, his parents kept careful track of the weather and the food he ate, hoping there was some pattern to the asthma attacks. They could find none. Because of these frequent asthma attacks, his parents didn’t send little Ernesto to school until March 1937, when he entered second grade.

High School and College

In 1943, Ernesto Sr. started a building firm and moved the entire Guevara family to the city of Cordoba. In Cordoba, Ernesto Jr. began high school and, despite his asthma, he joined the local rugby team.

In his free time, Guevara read books, a favorite pastime he had picked up during his frequent asthma attacks.

Guevara was bright and seen both as a daredevil and a leader. Unlike his peers who were meticulous with their clothing and general appearance, Guevara often wore a large trench coat and infrequently bathed.

Since he often boasted about his level of dirtiness, he was given the nickname Chancho (“the pig”) -- one of many nicknames from this period.

Guevara was a decent student although he often challenged authority. He had planned on attending college to study engineering until his paternal grandmother got sick.

In May 1947, Guevara’s grandmother suffered a stroke. Guevara left everything behind and traveled to Buenos Aires to be by her side. When she died 17 days later, he was heartbroken.

Guevara immediately changed his plan and decided to become a doctor. He applied and was accepted to the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Buenos Aires.

Guevara eventually specialized in allergies, perhaps hoping that they were tied to his own chronic condition, asthma. Guevara worked hard during these years, both at his studies and at odd jobs.

He continued to read and to play chess. Guevara also began to travel.

Guevara Begins to Travel

At first, Guevara began hitchhiking. He would travel back to Cordoba and then to other local areas. But he soon wanted to explore farther.

On January 1, 1950, Guevara set off alone on a bicycle that had a small motor attached. He spent six weeks exploring Argentina.

Guevara stopped in Cordoba and spent some time with friends; he stopped to visit long-time friend Alberto Granado, who was working at a leprosarium (a hospital to treat leprosy); and then he headed into the more remote areas of northern and western Argentina.

Along the way he spoke to hobos, lepers, and hospital patients and realized that there was a great divide between those who were affluent and those who lived on the margins of society.

A Motorcycle Trip Through South America

Guevara wanted to see, do, and experience more; thus when Guevara’s friend, Alberto Granado, asked Guevara to accompany him on a motorcycle ride through South America, Guevara immediately agreed.

On January 4, 1952, 23-year-old Guevara and 29-year-old Granado sped off on an old Norton 500 cc motorcycle, which Granado had named La Poderosa II (“The Mighty One”). The two friends spent seven months traveling through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela.

At first they traveled by motorcycle, but that soon broke down, so they continued their long journey mostly by hitchhiking and walking. During this trip, Guevara had several serious asthma attacks, some of which required a short hospital stay to recuperate.

Along this journey, Guevara began to formulate a worldview that was greatly molded by what he witnessed. When Guevara visited the huge, economically-important Chuquicamata copper mine in Chile, he was appalled by the working conditions.

Since U.S. mining companies ran the mine, he not only blamed them for the conditions of the workers, he considered the copper mine an example of capitalist exploitation of South America.

When Guevara and Granado visited the impressive 15th century Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, they not only were impressed with the grandeur of indigenous culture before European conquest, they witnessed the contrast between the harsh and downtrodden life of the Indians they saw still living in the area and the seemingly uncaring American tourists who flocked to Machu Picchu.

When Guevara returned home to Argentina on July 31, 1952, he was a changed man. He continued his medical studies and graduated in June 1953, but hardly had he passed his last exam before he was planning his next trip.

Guevara Turns Radical

With no predetermined travel plan, Guevara went first to Bolivia, then to Guatemala for an extended stay. His intentions were unclear, but his experiences made him increasingly radical.

In Guatemala, Guevara met Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian revolutionary who had been exiled from her own country. Hilda became a central force in Guevara’s life, introducing him to the concepts of Marxism and to many exiled revolutionaries, including a number from Cuba.

It was one of these Cuban exiles, Antonio “Nico” Lopez, who gave Guevara the nickname of “Che.” “Che” was a word many Argentineans added to the end of sentences as an interjection that is roughly equivalent to “man” or “hey you;” it was something Guevara often said out of habit.

During his time in Guatemala, Guevara had trouble finding a job, so he spent most of his time hanging out with revolutionary friends. Guevara desperately wanted to help out the revolution that was underway in Guatemala, but he never did find a way.

In June 1954, a coup sponsored by the United States toppled the reformist Guatemalan government headed by Jacobo Arbenz. This turn of events had a profound effect on Guevara. Guevara, now an anti-imperialist and nearly a committed communist, strongly believed that massive improvements to the lives of the proletariat, the lower social classes, could only be achieved by a revolution.

As a known supporter of the Arbenz government, it was time for Guevara to leave Guatemala.

Guevara Joins the Cuban Revolution

In late September 1954, Guevara traveled to Mexico City, where most of his revolutionary friends were heading. Guevara found work, moved in with Hilda, and spent time talking to his revolutionary friends.

Then, in June 1955, Raul Castro (Fidel Castro’s younger brother) fled Cuba and arrived in Mexico City. Through Guevara’s Cuban friends, Guevara met Raul upon his arrival. Guevara then asked Raul over for dinner. The two began talking and found they had much in common.

A couple of weeks later, Fidel Castro fled Cuba and arrived in Mexico City. Shortly after his arrival, Guevara met Fidel and later that same night, went out to dinner with both Castro brothers. While at dinner, Fidel asked Guevara to join his revolutionary movement to overthrow the government of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. Guevara immediately accepted.

Shortly after Guevara joined Fidel’s revolutionary force, Hilda discovered she was pregnant. Doing the “honorable thing,” Guevara married Hilda on August, 18, 1955. On February 15, 1956, their daughter, Hilda, was born. Despite now having a wife and family, Guevara was still determined to go with Fidel to Cuba.

While waiting for the day of the revolution to begin, Guevara and other trusted Cuban exiles began training and preparing for guerrilla warfare.

The Cuban Revolution

On the morning of November 25, 1956, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, plus 79 other revolutionaries left Mexico and headed to Cuba on board a 38-foot yacht named Granma. When the revolutionaries reached Cuba on December 2, 1956, they had not only missed their rendezvous with a support group but had also been spotted.

Three days after they had arrived in Cuba, Fidel’s group was ambushed by the Cuban army. As bullets flew around him, Guevara ran to the forest. He had been wounded in the neck, but he was one of the few lucky enough to survive the attack. The twenty or so revolutionaries that survived the attack regrouped in the Sierra Maestra, a remote and mountainous region. From here, Fidel Castro continued his revolution.

Che Guevara was now a revolutionary. He participated in attacks as well as executions. He proved himself to be both a good soldier and a leader. He was fearless and courageous.

By May 1958, Guevara was virtually second-in-command of the large group of revolutionaries that had gathered around Castro in the Sierra Maestra. Castro’s group had grown in size and strength over the long months. Using guerrilla tactics, Castro and his men successfully took over town after town.

Guevara is best remembered for his critical role in capturing the strategic city of Santa Clara in December 1958.

On January 1, 1959, Batista fled Cuba. The Cuban Revolution was over.

Using Power

It was then time for Castro and his comrades to create their own government. Guevara, who was now pretty much a communist, favored nationalization of industry and a state controlled agrarian reform program.

As one of the top leaders of the Cuban Revolution, Guevara was given a number of important posts in the new Cuban government, including Minister of Industry and Chairman of the National Bank. However, Guevara was not happy being a bureaucrat, nor was he a particularly successful one.

At a funeral in March 1960 for victims of an explosion on a freighter loaded with munitions, photographer Alberto Diaz (“Korda”) took a picture of the bearded, long-haired Che wearing his black beret. This became the iconic photograph of Che as the determined revolutionary.

When Guevara’s wife Hilda joined him in Cuba in 1959, Guevara told her he had a new companion. He had met Aleida March during the campaign for Santa Clara. Hilda agreed to a divorce and Guevara married Aleida March on June 2, 1959. Guevara had four children with Aleida over the next few years.

Guevara published two important books based on his experiences in the Cuban Revolution. One book was Reminiscences of the Guerrilla War, first published in Spanish in 1963. The other was Guerrilla Warfare (1961). In the latter, Guevara emphasized the crucial importance of an insurrectionary foco, a determined guerrilla force that could create the conditions for a successful revolution by living among and working with the peasantry.

This idea was contrary to standard Marxist-Leninist ideas about the growth of an urban proletariat creating proper conditions for a revolution.

A Disappearing Act

In April 1965, Guevara disappeared from public life. He left behind his wife, his children, and his positions in the Cuban government. Che Guevara was hoping to start a new revolution.

Guevara spent much of 1965 in the Congo, attempting to organize a revolutionary force that could serve as a foco for the Congo. However, the soldiers he worked with seemed uninterested in revolutionary politics. Their leaders appeared to be only interested in political power for themselves. After several frustrating months, he withdrew from the Congo.

Starting a Revolution in Bolivia

After the failed effort in the Congo, Guevara decided to organize a revolution in Bolivia. In November 1966, Che arrived in Bolivia disguised as a balding, middle-aged Uruguayan businessman named Adolfo Mena Gonzalez. Once safely within Bolivia, Guevara quickly shed that disguise and got to work on the revolution.

Since, the bulk of Guevara’s initial revolutionary force was Peruvian and Cuban, it was imperative that Guevara get a decent number of Bolivians to support the revolutionary cause as soon as possible. Unfortunately, Guevara was never able to do this.

Guevara’s first hope was to get the support of the Bolivian Communists; however, after Che refused to let the leader of Bolivia’s Communist Party take control of the entire revolution, the Bolivian Communists wanted nothing to do with Guevara.

Guevara’s second hope was to appeal to Bolivian peasants to support the revolutionary cause. This also failed once the Bolivian government began a very effective propaganda campaign that emphasized the internationality of Guevara’s rebels and blamed these foreigners for bringing Castro-led Communism into their country. The patriotic peasants were thus not willing to help these outsider rebels.

Everything else went badly for Guevara in Bolivia. The most damaging development came when the Bolivian government discovered Guevara's presence in their country as well as his general location before Guevara had time to establish himself.

By March 1967, the Bolivian army was actively pursuing Guevara’s small group of revolutionaries, following them so closely that Guevara was unable to maintain a base camp. Constantly on the run and suffering from a severe asthma attack, Guevara was unable to muster an attack or a retreat.

Hunted, Guevara’s group became splintered and many were captured or killed.

Che Guevara Captured and Executed

The end came in October 1967. On the morning of October 8th, Bolivian Army Rangers had surrounded Guevara and the 16 revolutionaries that remained within a gully called the Quebrada del Churo.

At 1:10 p.m., a gun battle broke out. The guerrillas got separated; many were killed or captured. During the gunfight, Guevara was hit by a bullet in his left leg. While trying to scramble away, Guevara was captured. Guevara was taken to a schoolhouse in the small town of La Higuera, where he was interrogated.

The next day, the order to execute Che Guevara was given by the president of Bolivia. At 1:10 p.m. on October 9, 1967, Sergeant Mario Teran, a Bolivian soldier who had volunteered for the job, shot Guevara with a semiautomatic rifle.

Che Guevara was dead at age 39.

Guevara After Death

At first, the Bolivians placed Guevara’s body on top of a concrete washbasin and let both soldiers and locals view his remains. Pictures were taken. Some people even cut off locks of Guevara’s hair as good-luck keepsakes. Before he was to be buried, the Bolivians sawed off Guevara’s hands and placed them in formaldehyde hoping to use them as proof of Guevara’s death.

On October 11, 1967, the Bolivians secretly buried Guevara’s hand-less body in a secret grave. For three decades, the location of Guevara’s grave remained a closely kept secret.

In July 1997, Guevara’s skeleton and those of six other revolutionaries were located near the Vallegrande airstrip in southern Bolivia and returned to Cuba for reburial. In October of that year, Guevara and his companions were buried in Santa Clara, the city where he had won a decisive victory in the Cuban Revolution in 1958.

Despite the failure of attempted revolution in the Congo and in Bolivia, Guevara has had a brilliant afterlife as the symbol of a dedicated revolutionary, willing to sacrifice his life for the oppressed of the world.

Ironically, his image has been turned into a commodity by the very capitalistic system he sought to overturn, reproduced on countless posters and on a vast array of other commercial products.

* According to a leading biographer of Guevara, Jon Lee Anderson (Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, page 3), Guevara’s mother told him that Guevara was actually born May 14, but she and her husband changed the date so no one would suspect she had been pregnant before the marriage.