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[cheh gA vah' rah] fighter for Cuban independence
Ernesto Guevara Lynch de la Serna was born in Rosario, Argentina, on June 14, 1928. He was the first of five children in a liberal, middle class family of Spanish-Irish descent. Serious bouts with asthma in his early childhood prompted his family to move to the drier climate of Alta Gracia, Cordoba, where he grew up.
Ernesto received most of his early education from his mother and from his father's library. Sartre, Pablo Neruda, and Ciro Alegría were among his most-read authors, and Karl Marx's Das Kapital one of his favorite books. He received his secondary education at the Colegio Nacional Dean Funes in Cordoba. He entered the University of Buenos Aires in 1947, and received his medical degree in March 1953.
Guevara spent his college breaks on a motorcycle traveling South America. By the end of his college years he had been through all of the continent and as far north as the Mexico-United States border. His interactions with poor peasants and leper patients along the way sparked the revolutionary fire within him. He came to believe that socialism was infinitely superior to capitalism, and that armed struggle was the only sure way to socialism. The diaries he kept during his travels were subsequently published as The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America.
After college Guevara first went to Bolivia, but that nation's economic and governmental instability unsettled him and he made his way to Guatemala. He held a minor post in the Communist-supported government of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, until that government was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup d'état in June 1954.
From Guatemala, Guevara went to Mexico City, where he worked in the General Hospital and taught on the medical faculty of National University. In 1955, he met and married Hilda Gadea, an exiled Peruvian Marxist, with whom he had one child; the couple later divorced.
It was through Hilda that Guevara met Fidel Castro, in Mexico City. The two men became fast friends, and Guevara joined Castro's movement to liberate Cuba from the U.S.-backed rule of Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar. Castro's forces landed in Cuba in December 1956. Most of the rebels were soon killed, but Castro, Guevara, and eleven others escaped to the Sierra Maestra mountains. There, they formed a guerrilla band to carry out surprise attacks against the Batista government. Guevara initially served as the rebel's chief physician, but he soon took up a rifle and put down his medical bag. His military prowess proved so valuable that Castro eventually elevated him to the rank of Commander. Although the rebel band never had a great number of "members," it enjoyed numerous successful battles against government troops. By mid-1958, Cubans had lost confidence in Batista's government. On January 1, 1959, Batista fled the country. Guevara triumphantly entered Havana on January 2, and Castro followed him on February 16.
Guevara met his second wife, Aleida March de la Torre, while fighting for Castro. The couple were married in 1959, and eventually had four children.
Almost immediately after Castro installed himself as Prime Minister of Cuba, he declared Guevara Cuban-born. It was about this same time that Guevara formally adopted the nickname "Ché," which was derived from his habit of punctuating his speech with the interjection che, a common Argentine expression for a friend. In October 1959, Castro made Guevara director of the Instituto Nacional de la Reforma Agraria (National Agrarian Reform Institute), which was responsible for distributing land once owned by either the government or foreign-owned corporations to the citizenry. He left this post in November, when he was made president of the National Bank of Cuba. In this position he advocated rapid industrialization and centralization of the economy, and was responsible for the nationalization of U.S.-owned sugar estates, cattle ranches, and oil refineries. When the United States responded with an economic embargo, Castro, under the advice of Guevara, turned to the Soviet Union for economic and military assistance. From October 1960 through February 1961, Guevara made a tour through most of the Communist nations seeking loan and trade agreements, a mission in which he was mostly successful.
After returning to Cuba late in February 1961, Guevara left his position with the National Bank to become Minister of Industry. He was appointed to the Board of Economic Planning and Coordination in August 1961, and became Secretary of that Board in July 1962. In these roles he fixed prices for staple goods, reduced rents, placed controls on accumulation of capital. As a result, industrial output was increased, imports were reduced, and the tax burden was shifted to the upper and middle income classes.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the United States accused the Soviet Union of building nuclear missile bases in Cuba, Guevara argued for a first strike and was bitterly disappointed when the missiles were withdrawn without a fight. By the time the missile crisis was over, relations between Guevara and Castro had become strained. The economy was faltering, leading many Cubans to have serious doubts about Castro's ability to care for them. In addition, Guevara's overzealous urge to carry the socialist revolution into other parts of Latin America and into Africa was beginning to make even the Soviets nervous.
In December 1963, Guevara addressed the UN General Assembly, and stated that armed struggle was the only sure path to socialism. Soon after, he arranged the formation of the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America (the "Tricontinental Conference"). In December 1964, he again addressed the UN General Assembly, this time denouncing Western imperialism. By mid-1965 he was also publicly voicing his displeasure with how established socialist countries, including the Soviet Union, were exploiting underdeveloped nations for their own ends. After about two-and-a-half years of traveling the world and speaking his mind, Guevara returned to Cuba in March 1965 to find that he was no longer in synch with Castro. In April he relinquished all his official positions and gave up his Cuban nationality.
In July 1965, Guevara took a group of Cuban volunteers to the Congo with the intent of spurring rebellion in the eastern part of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although he and his followers were eager and capable, local support for revolt was quite lacking and the revolution ended before it ever started. He returned to Cuba in March 1966, but only stayed long enough to move on to Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and ultimately Bolivia.
Death in Bolivia
In Bolivia, Guevera became the leader of a communist guerrilla movement attempting to overthrow the military government. Having written two books on conducting a guerrilla war, he well knew that in order for such a campaign to be successful it had to have the support of the people. But, like he had in the Congo, he found few Bolivians willing to take up arms against their government. Although his small band enjoyed some minor successes, it was no match against Bolivian forces that had been trained by U.S. Special Forces in anti-guerrilla warfare. On October 8, 1967, he and his men were surrounded near the central Bolivian town of Vallegrande. Guevara was wounded, captured, and taken to the village of La Higuera, where he was executed the following day. Bolivian troops subsequently cut off his hands so that his identity could be confirmed by fingerprinting, and then buried the remainder of his body near the runway of the Vallegrande airport.
Guerrilla Warfare (1961)
In 1969, Guevara's life was immortalized in the film Che!, directed by Richard Fleischer. The movie starred Omar Sharif as Guevara, and Jack Palance as Castro.
Bolivian soldiers found Guevara's grave in July 1997. His body was exhumed, "returned" to Cuba, and on October 17, reburied in a specially built mausoleum in Santa Clara, site of his victory against Batista's forces in 1958.
In 2000, Guevara was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
This page was last updated on February 22, 2017.