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The symbolic life and death of Che Guevara

Posted in Communism, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Politics, Revolution on Tuesday, 27 November 2012

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This edited article about Che Guevara originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 789 published on 26th February 1977.

Death of Zapata, picture, image, illustration

The death of Zapata (above) gave Mexican revolutionaries a synbol much as the death of Che Guevara did the Cubans. Picture by Ron Embleton

When the Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, was lured into a trap and riddled with bullets by the Federal troops, the General who was in charge of them had no illusions that the flames of the revolution had been quenched by his death. Looking down at the body of the guerrilla leader, he said on that day in 1918: “Sometimes a dead man can be a terrible enemy.”

He spoke with a great deal of truth, for Zapata was to remain a symbol of freedom for the oppressed peasantry throughout the whole of the revolution.

The same epitaph could have been applied to Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who lies in an unmarked grave somewhere in Bolivia.

Che was born into an upper class Argentinian family in 1928. Although in time he was to react strongly against his social background, his family were actually liberal and progressive people who were more interested in justice, literature and poetry, than in making money.

Thanks to his father, who encouraged him to work with the peasants, Che became aware of the tremendous gulf between the rich and poor in South America. This background contributed to his urge to help the underprivileged.

But if Che ever dreamed of becoming a revolutionary in those early days, he also had to face up to the fact that he suffered constantly from asthma – a complaint which demands a life free of tension. He fought the illness with the only weapon he had – will-power.

It was this will-power which made him take up games, even though there were times when he had to run off the field to inhale his medicine; it was this will-power, too, which took him through a six-year course in medicine in three years, despite 45 serious asthma attacks.

While he was still at the University, Che decided he would like to learn more about South America and its people. Finding an enthusiastic fellow traveller in a friend named Alberto Granados, who was to become a distinguished leperologist, Che set off on a journey which was to change his whole life.

Unfortunately, the motor bike which was to take them across South America, broke down soon after they had crossed the Andes. Undaunted, they continued on their way by hitch-hiking, and earning money as truck-drivers, porters, doctors and dishwashers. Travelling like this. Che was able to see at first hand how the peasants and workers lived.

He had seen something of the division between the rich and the poor when his father had sent him out to work among the people, but here conditions were much worse. Here he found men and women living like starving beasts, and at the mercy of the big landowners who ruthlessly exploited them.

Finally, thirsty, hungry and penniless, the two friends reached a leper colony on the banks of the Amazon River, where they worked as male nurses for three months. During this period, Che saw something of the great comradeship and selfless loyalty that is forged among lonely and desperate men.

This, and all the other things he had seen on the journey, helped to change him from a doctor to a revolutionary.

In 1953, after qualifying as a doctor, Che once again took to the road and saw for himself the miserable aftermath of failed revolutions in Bolivia, Guatemala and Mexico. Che thought that the lack of support and fatal apathy of the peasants had contributed to their failure. These experiences moved him from passive indignation to planning active resistance.
A friend of Che’s was to write later: “For a revolutionary, failure is a springboard . . .” To become a total revolutionary all Che needed was another revolution. He found it in Cuba.

In the spring of 1954, Che had met a Peruvian girl named Hilda, and through her he met men who had been exiled from Cuba for revolutionary activities. Through talking to the group, Che became a great admirer of another revolutionary named Fidel Castro, who had been forced to flee from Cuba. When he met Castro in Mexico in the following year, they immediately became friends.

Castro was already laying plans to invade Cuba, and asked Che to join him as a fighting doctor. They started to recruit men, and train them, and so build up a genuine guerrilla force. It was around this time that Guevara got his nickname “Che” which in Argentina means “mate” or “buddy”.

Meanwhile, Che and Hilda had married, but it could hardly be called a marriage in the conventional sense of the word. Che spent most of his time with Fidel, discussing their plans to attack Cuba, and, soon after the revolutionary success there, he was to desert her for another woman, who had fought at his side.

Hilda said later: “I lost my husband to the Cuban Revolution.”

In 1956, eighty-two of the band boarded an old yacht and sailed for Cuba. Nobody could navigate the boat properly. Everyone was seasick, most of the supplies were lost in a storm and the expedition landed in the wrong place, near the Sierra Maestra, a series of mountain ranges in South-East Cuba.

The amateurishness of the group, in the first weeks of this seemingly foolhardy venture, led to more disasters. The troops of Batista, the corrupt dictator who ruled Cuba, surrounded them and nearly wiped them out. Hemmed in by enemy patrols and starving, they were totally dependent on help from the peasants of the Sierra Maestra. They were not to be disappointed. Anxious to be rid of the Batista regime, the peasants joined Che.

In 1958, Che led a breakthrough from the Sierra Maestra to Central Cuba. This was ultimately successful, and in January, 1959, they marched into Havana. Fidel and his men took over the government of Cuba, and Che was made Cuba’s Minister of Industries.

By 1965, the new regime was fully established. Che did not adapt successfully to the work of peaceful government, and soon began to yearn to start revolutions elsewhere. With Fidel’s support, he slipped quietly into Bolivia, unnoticed, to work from there for the liberation of the whole of Latin America.

However, there was one fact that Che and Fidel had ignored. In 1952, Bolivia had had a revolution and the land had been divided among the peasants. Now landowners in their own right, they regarded Che’s activities with open hostility.

Without their support, Che’s revolution in Bolivia never really got started. A Bolivian peasant betrayed Che’s whereabouts and he was wounded and captured. The authorities, not wanting to bring their famous prisoner to trial because of the publicity it would attract, killed him on the following day.

Che had been a fanatical, and often brutal, revolutionary. Yet, despite his faults, he lives on in the hearts of many idealists as a champion of the poor and oppressed.

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