Reading Che Guevara, by Che Guevara
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.