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Reading Che Guevara, by Che Guevara

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Che Guevara photo Alberto Korda

It’s hard to mention Che Guevara’s name in Latin America without lighting fires. The iconic bearded face wearing a cap, a mere brand on a coffee cup or a T-shirt for many 20-somethings was, albeit romanticized, incredibly real for many, for several generations. He was executed 50 years ago by the Bolivian army that was trained, equipped and guided by the CIA and U.S. Green Beret soldiers. Indeed, it’s possible to read about Che Guevara’s death in cold detail in declassified documents in the US National Security archives.

His image as a Marxist revolutionary inspired many, but he was also responsible for mass executions carried out in the Cuban prison, La Cabaña, once he and the Castro brothers had overthrown the Batista government during the Cuban Revolution in 1959, and for advocating hatred and violence to spur revolutionary struggle. 

Ernesto Guevara was born in 1928 in Rosario, Argentina, to a middle class family. He acquired the nickname “Che”, which is widely used in Argentina and translates roughly as “mate”, or “pal”. He studied medicine at Buenos Aires University and embarked on several long trips through Central and South America where his first-hand experience witnessing poverty and oppression led directly to his later beliefs that armed revolution was the only solution to break this cycle. In Guatemala he observed the 1954 CIA-orchestrated coup to oust the reformist Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz, which, with its policy of land reform had challenged, among other institutions, the presence of the US multinational United Fruit Company (also present in Cuba). It was in Guatemala that Che met his first wife, Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian economist and Communist.

He traveled to Mexico where he met the Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl. He joined Castro's '26th July Movement' and from then on became a key player in the guerrilla war waged against the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, metamorphosing from medical orderly to a Comandante.

Once Castro was in power, Che was put in charge of purging Batista’s police apparatus, which he did, following kangaroo court hearings. Although he had no training as an economist, he was named president of the National Bank of Cuba, and then minister of industry and carried out plans for land redistribution and the nationalization of industry. Meanwhile, Castro’s government, which had not been pro-Soviet at the outset, began moving towards the Soviet bloc, in part as a result of US trade sanctions. Guevara, who did not approve of following the Soviet model and its proposals to encourage greater financial independence and responsibilities for businesses, sympathized more with a Maoist model. He told René Dumont, a French agronomist, that his ideal vision of man was someone who would “become a stranger to the mercantile side of things, working for society and not for profit.”

Very soon after the Cuban Revolution, Che published Guerrilla Warfare, in which he expanded his tactical philosophy on guerrilla warfare to be used in Latin America, but it was studied by revolutionaries the world over, and also by counter-revolutionary military schools. It is important to note that at the time, colonialism was just coming to an end; it had come ten years earlier in Vietnam, which was gearing up for another war, in Algeria, and in the former Belgian Congo, for example. (Apartheid, however, was still going strong in South Africa.) Che eventually fell out with Castro, primarily because of Cuba’s increasing alignment with the Soviet Union. In 1965 he unceremoniously left Cuba, and Fidel Castro read a letter to Cubans allegedly written by Che, that stated he had left Cuba in order to spread revolution in the rest of the developing world. Che Guevara spent several months in Africa, in particular training forces in guerrilla warfare in the Congo, a failure that he described candidly in his Congo Diary.

He then travelled to Bolivia where he hoped to begin a revolution like the one in Cuba against the military dictatorship of René Barrientos, but he was caught and executed, as we know. His final campaign can be read in The Bolivian Diary, in which his last entry was recorded the day before his capture.

Whatever one may say about Che Guevara, he did, essentially, practice as he preached, and because he was a prolific writer, it’s a perfect opportunity, 50 years after his death, to read his books in order to form one’s own opinion. The books below are mainly by Che Guevara, but there are also two well-documented biographies and a book about his final capture in Bolivia.

Motorcycle Diaries: Notes On A Latin American Journey

This is an important book to read to be able to understand where and how Che found his lifelong inspiration. Not intended for publication, this diary about his road trip through Latin America while he was still a medical student, was edited by his family and first published in Cuba in 1993.  In 1952, at the age of 24, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, and his friend Alberto Granado, a doctor, set off on a road-trip through Latin American on a motorcycle called La Poderosa (The Mighty One), which broke down very early on during their trip. As they crossed Argentina, travelled over the Andes to Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela, Che wrote about exploitation of the land first by Europeans, then by North Americans, the immense gap between rich and poor, the plight of indigenous people, and the terrible lack of a social health care system. The widespread poverty and oppression, coupled with his readings of Marxist literature resulted in his enduring belief that armed revolution was the solution to  inequality.

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Guerrilla Warfare

This book includes three of Che Guevara's most influential essays describing his tactical philosophy of fighting a guerrilla war in Latin America. Guerrilla Warfare, written in 1960, outlines Guevara's doctrine for guerrilla fighters, especially against Caribbean-style dictatorships. In Guerrilla Warfare: A Method (1963) and Message to the Tricontinental (1967), Guevara modified some of his earlier tenets. These latter two works move away from his earlier dogmatism, suggesting that Marxist revolution was possible even in purportedly democratic regimes. All three essays reflect his deeply held belief that a small, rural-based guerrilla army can trigger a revolution.

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Che Guevara Reader: Writings on Politics & Revolution

This is a comprehensive selection of Che Guevara’s writings, letters and speeches available in English. The volume covers Che’s writings on the Cuban revolutionary war, the first years of the revolution in Cuba and his vision for Latin America and the Third World. It includes such classic essays as "Socialism and Man in Cuba" and his call to create "Two, Three, Many Vietnams." Among the features of this expanded edition are several unpublished articles, essays and letters, including a letter from Che to his children shortly before his death in Bolivia in 1967 and an essay, "Strategy and tactics for the Latin American revolution."

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Congo Diary : The Story of Che's Lost Year in Africa

Che Guevara's disappearance from Cuba in 1965 aroused much speculation. In preparation for the fateful Bolivian mission, Che led a secret Cuban force to aid the liberation movement in the Belgian Congo after Patrice Lumumba was assassinated there. Unpublished for decades because of its controversial content, this account of Che's lost year in Africa was revised and reviewed by Fidel Castro and Che's widow, Aleida March.

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The Bolivian Diary

With an introduction by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara's famous last diary was found in his backpack after he was captured by the Bolivian Army in 1967. In 1967 Che Guevara traveled to Bolivia to lead the Bolivian Liberation Army. In the jungle they attempted to initiate a revolution like that in Cuba, in which Che had played such a central role. This diary describes the troubled guerrilla campaign until Che's final entry on the 7th October 1967 - the day before his capture by the CIA-backed Bolivian Army and his execution.

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Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara

By the time he was killed in the Bolivian jungle, where his body was displayed like a deposed Christ, Ernesto "Che" Guevara had become a synonym for revolution everywhere from Cuba to the barricades of Paris. This biography peels aside the veil of the Guevara legend to reveal the charismatic, restless man behind it. Drawing on archival materials from three continents and on interviews with Guevara's family and associates, Jorge Castañeda follows Che from his childhood in the Argentine middle class through the years of pilgrimage that turned him into a committed revolutionary. He examines Guevara's complex relationship with Fidel Castro, and analyzes the flaws of character that compelled him to leave Cuba and expend his energies, and ultimately his life, in quixotic adventures in the Congo and Bolivia. 

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Che Guevara

Jon Lee Anderson's biography traces Che's extraordinary life, from his comfortable Argentine upbringing to the battlefields of the Cuban revolution, from the halls of power in Castro s government to his failed campaign in the Congo and assassination in the Bolivian jungle. Anderson has had unprecedented access to the personal archives maintained by Guevara's widow and carefully guarded Cuban government documents. He conducted extensive interviews with Che's comrades, some of whom speak here for the first time and with the CIA men and Bolivian officers who hunted him down. Anderson broke the story of where Guevara's body was buried, which led to the exhumation and state burial of the bones. Anderson brings to light many details of Che's life that have long been cloaked in secrecy and intrigue. 

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The Fall of Che Guevara

The Fall of Che Guevara tells the story of Guevara's last campaign, in the backwoods of Bolivia, where he hoped to ignite a revolution that would spread throughout South America. This book shows in detail the strategy of the USA and Bolivian governments to foil his efforts. Based on numerous interviews and on secret documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from the CIA, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Archive, the book casts new light on the roles of a Green Beret detachment sent to train the Bolivians and of the CIA and other US agencies in bringing Guevara down. Of particular interest is that Ryan shows that Guevara was an agent of Cuban foreign policy from the time he met Fidel Castro in 1955 until his death-not a mere independent revolutionary, as many scholars have claimed. Guevara's attempted insurgency in Bolivia was in reality a Cuban attempt to achieve another badly-needed revolutionary success. 

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Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty in English. She is based in Paris.

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