Most people know Che Guevara only for his alliance with Fidel Castro during the Cuban revolution, and his Marxists revolutionary status. However, this communist icon actually led a very fascinating and full life; travelling around South America, graduating as a medical practitioner, working as a doctor and leading a happy home life in Mexico, before his execution in 1967.
The Early Years
On the 14th of June 1928, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born into a wealthy family, in one of the most important cities in Argentina, Rosario. At the age of 9 Che was already beginning to absorb the left-leaning political views of his family and peers, and started showing an increasing interest in the Spanish Civil war. In 1947, at the age of 19, Che Guevara met a budding young communist by the name of Tita. Together they joined the Argentine Communistic Youth, a politically active group opposing the government of Juan Perón.
Che Guevara began studying medicine at the University of Buenos Aires, whilst also working as a male nurse on trading and petroleum ships. However, by 1951 Che had given up on his promising medical career, and decided to drop out of university to travel around South America with his close friend, Alberto Granado.
During his travels Che Guevara met doctor Hugo Pesce, a Peruvian scientist and marxist directing the National Leprosy Program. Discussions with Pesce began to change Che’s perspective on society, and pushed him to visit the leper-centre of San Pablo. The widespread poverty and sheer levels of suffering he found in these areas persuaded Che to return to Argentina and complete his medical studies, which he did in 1953.
Forming a Marxist’s Mind
After graduating, Che traveled to Guatemala where he witnessed its leftist government overthrown by a CIA-backed operation. This event only served to deepen his Marxist beliefs and convictions. During his time in Guatemala his activist ways got him branded as a ‘dangerous Argentine communist’, and as such he could no longer stay in the country. This lead Che to move to Mexico, and by 1955 he was married and working in a hospital in Mexico City.
Whilst in Mexico Guevara met Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, and his brother Raúl, who were planning to overthrow the current government of Fulgencio Batista. Guevara instantly joined Fidel Castro’s ’26th July Movement’, and on the 2nd of December, 1956 they landed in Cuba. Over the next few years Che served as Castro’s right hand man; advising him on war tactics, and growing their guerrilla forces against the already disintegrating Batista regime.
A New Reign
In January 1959 Fidel Castro finally overthrew Batista, and took control of Cuba. His first point of business was to place Che Guevara in charge of the La Cabaña prison, where it is said between 156 – 550 people were wrongly executed under Che’s orders. Guevara was then made president of the National Bank of Cuba, where he helped to shift the country’s trade from the United States to the Soviet Union. In 1961 Castro then promoted Che to the minister of industry, where he began travelling the world as an ambassador of Cuba.
During his later roles, Che acted as a key player in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He also wrote a manual on the art of guerrilla warfare, which led him to deliver a speech to the United Nations in 1964.
Becoming a Martyr
In 1965, with the Cuban economy in complete shambles, Che resigned from this post in order to export his revolutionary ideals to other parts of the world. He travelled first to the Congo in Africa, where he attempted to train the troops in guerrilla warfare in support of a revolution there. His efforts quickly failed, and later that year Guevara secretly returned to Cuba, and then on to Bolivia.
In Bolivia he rallied and lead forces rebelling against the government of Remé Barrientos Ortuño. However, with the help of US assistance, the Bolivian army captured Che Guevara and the remainder of his fighters. Che was promptly executed on October the 9th 1967, in the Bolivian village of La Higuera. Although his body was buried in a hidden location, the remains were discovered in 1997, and were sent back to Cuba to be reburied.
To this day there are extremely mixed views on the actions of Che Guevara. He has been regarded as a martyred hero, and an image of rebellion, revolution and socialism to those with radical leftist views. However, others view him as a ruthless killer, who ordered the execution of prisoners without fair trial in Cuba. Whatever your view on this historical figure, you can’t argue the impact his life has had, as it continues to fascinate the public world over. Since his death, there have been many books and films, including The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) and Che (2008), portraying his life, and museums opened to tell his story.
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