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Che Guevara

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Picture of revolutionary Che Guevara smoking a cigar.

Closeup of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, Cuban minister of finance, smoking a cigar in military fatigues. (circa 1959)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Historical Importance of Che Guevara: An Argentine medical doctor, Che Guevara took part with Fidel Castro and other Cuban rebels in the successful attempt to overthrow the Cuban government. After the revolutionary movement took power in 1959, Guevara held important posts in the government. In 1965, he resigned his positions and disappeared from public view. Guevara later reappeared in Bolivia in 1967 at the head of a revolutionary movement, but was captured and killed by members of the Bolivian army. Che Guevara lives on in popular culture and revolutionary mythology as the model of a dedicated and selfless revolutionary.

Dates: June 14, 1928 -- October 9, 1967*

Also Known As: Ernesto Guevara de la Serna

Early Life of Che Guevara

Ernesto Guevara was born in Rosario, Argentina to Celia de la Serna and Ernesto Guevara Lynch, both of whom came from aristocratic Argentine families. Celia’s parents had died when she was little and had left her an inheritance. Ernesto’s family had spent most of their large fortune, leaving Ernesto Sr. with just enough money to invest in a yacht-building company which later burned down. Yet Ernesto Sr. had big ideas about how to make his own fortune, one of which was investing in a yerba mate tea plantation.

Ernesto Sr. used his new bride’s inheritance to start a yerba mate tea plantation in the jungles of Misiones in northern Argentina. They had been there less than a year when their son, Ernesto Jr., was born in 1928. Just two years later, little Ernesto suffered his first of many asthma attacks, a condition that greatly affected both his own life and that of his family.

Asthma

It quickly became obvious that little Ernesto was not going to be able to live in the humid jungle conditions of the family’s yerba mate plantation. Needing a dry climate for little Ernesto’s asthma, the Guevara family placed the plantation in the hands of a family friend and then moved in 1932 to the small, resort city of Alta Gracia, known for its dry climate.

While the dry climate of Alta Gracia did help Ernesto’s asthma a little, he still frequently suffered from asthma attacks that lasted for days, even weeks. Always worried about little Ernesto’s asthma, his parents kept careful track of the weather and the food he ate, hoping there was some pattern to the asthma attacks. They could find none. Because of these frequent asthma attacks, his parents didn’t send little Ernesto to school until March 1937, when he entered second grade.

High School and College

In 1943, Ernesto Sr. started a building firm and moved the entire Guevara family to the city of Cordoba. In Cordoba, Ernesto Jr. began high school and, despite his asthma, he joined the local rugby team. In his free time, Guevara read books, a favorite pastime he had picked up during his frequent asthma attacks.

Guevara was bright and seen both as a daredevil and a leader. Unlike his peers who were meticulous with their clothing and general appearance, Guevara often wore a large trench coat and infrequently bathed. Since he often boasted about his level of dirtiness, he was given the nickname Chancho (“the pig”) -- one of many nicknames from this period.

Guevara was a decent student although he often challenged authority. He had planned on attending college to study engineering until his paternal grandmother got sick.

In May 1947, Guevara’s grandmother suffered a stroke. Guevara left everything behind and traveled to Buenos Aires to be by her side. When she died 17 days later, he was heartbroken. Guevara immediately changed his plan and decided to become a doctor. He applied and was accepted to the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Buenos Aires.

Guevara eventually specialized in allergies, perhaps hoping that they were tied to his own chronic condition, asthma. Guevara worked hard during these years, both at his studies and at odd jobs. He continued to read and to play chess. Guevara also began to travel.

Guevara Begins to Travel

At first, Guevara began hitchhiking. He would travel back to Cordoba and then to other local areas. But he soon wanted to explore farther.

On January 1, 1950, Guevara set off alone on a bicycle that had a small motor attached. He spent six weeks exploring Argentina. Guevara stopped in Cordoba and spent some time with friends; he stopped to visit long-time friend Alberto Granado, who was working at a leprosarium (a hospital to treat leprosy); and then he headed into the more remote areas of northern and western Argentina. Along the way he spoke to hobos, lepers, and hospital patients and realized that there was a great divide between those who were affluent and those who lived on the margins of society.

A Motorcycle Trip Through South America

Guevara wanted to see, do, and experience more; thus when Guevara’s friend, Alberto Granado, asked Guevara to accompany him on a motorcycle ride through South America, Guevara immediately agreed.

On January 4, 1952, 23-year-old Guevara and 29-year-old Granado sped off on an old Norton 500 cc motorcycle, which Granado had named La Poderosa II (“The Mighty One”). The two friends spent seven months traveling through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. At first they traveled by motorcycle, but that soon broke down, so they continued their long journey mostly by hitchhiking and walking. During this trip, Guevara had several serious asthma attacks, some of which required a short hospital stay to recuperate.

Along this journey, Guevara began to formulate a worldview that was greatly molded by what he witnessed. When Guevara visited the huge, economically-important Chuquicamata copper mine in Chile, he was appalled by the working conditions. Since U.S. mining companies ran the mine, he not only blamed them for the conditions of the workers, he considered the copper mine an example of capitalist exploitation of South America.

When Guevara and Granado visited the impressive 15th century Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, they not only were impressed with the grandeur of indigenous culture before European conquest, they witnessed the contrast between the harsh and downtrodden life of the Indians they saw still living in the area and the seemingly uncaring American tourists who flocked to Machu Picchu.

When Guevara returned home to Argentina on July 31, 1952, he was a changed man. He continued his medical studies and graduated in June 1953, but hardly had he passed his last exam before he was planning his next trip.

Guevara Turns Radical

With no predetermined travel plan, Guevara went first to Bolivia, then to Guatemala for an extended stay. His intentions were unclear, but his experiences made him increasingly radical. In Guatemala, Guevara met Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian revolutionary who had been exiled from her own country. Hilda became a central force in Guevara’s life, introducing him to the concepts of Marxism and to many exiled revolutionaries, including a number from Cuba.

It was one of these Cuban exiles, Antonio “Nico” Lopez, who gave Guevara the nickname of “Che.” “Che” was a word many Argentineans added to the end of sentences as an interjection that is roughly equivalent to “man” or “hey you;” it was something Guevara often said out of habit.

During his time in Guatemala, Guevara had trouble finding a job, so he spent most of his time hanging out with revolutionary friends. Guevara desperately wanted to help out the revolution that was underway in Guatemala, but he never did find a way.

In June 1954, a coup sponsored by the United States toppled the reformist Guatemalan government headed by Jacobo Arbenz. This turn of events had a profound effect on Guevara. Guevara, now an anti-imperialist and nearly a committed communist, strongly believed that massive improvements to the lives of the proletariat, the lower social classes, could only be achieved by a revolution.

As a known supporter of the Arbenz government, it was time for Guevara to leave Guatemala.

Guevara Joins the Cuban Revolution

In late September 1954, Guevara travelled to Mexico City, where most of his revolutionary friends were heading. Guevara found work, moved in with Hilda, and spent time talking to his revolutionary friends. Then, in June 1955, Raul Castro (Fidel Castro’s younger brother) fled Cuba and arrived in Mexico City. Through Guevara’s Cuban friends, Guevara met Raul upon his arrival. Guevara then asked Raul over for dinner. The two began talking and found they had much in common.

A couple of weeks later, Fidel Castro fled Cuba and arrived in Mexico City. Shortly after his arrival, Guevara met Fidel and later that same night, went out to dinner with both Castro brothers. While at dinner, Fidel asked Guevara to join his revolutionary movement to overthrow the government of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. Guevara immediately accepted.

Shortly after Guevara joined Fidel’s revolutionary force, Hilda discovered she was pregnant. Doing the “honorable thing,” Guevara married Hilda on August, 18, 1955. On February 15, 1956, their daughter, Hilda, was born. Despite now having a wife and family, Guevara was still determined to go with Fidel to Cuba.

While waiting for the day of the revolution to begin, Guevara and other trusted Cuban exiles began training and preparing for guerrilla warfare.

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