The Cuban RevolutionOn the morning of November 25, 1956, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, plus 79 other revolutionaries left Mexico and headed to Cuba on board a 38-foot yacht named Granma. When the revolutionaries reached Cuba on December 2, 1956, they had not only missed their rendezvous with a support group but had also been spotted.
Three days after they had arrived in Cuba, Fidel’s group was ambushed by the Cuban army. As bullets flew around him, Guevara ran to the forest. He had been wounded in the neck, but he was one of the few lucky enough to survive the attack. The twenty or so revolutionaries that survived the attack regrouped in the Sierra Maestra, a remote and mountainous region. From here, Fidel Castro continued his revolution.
Che Guevara was now a revolutionary. He participated in attacks as well as executions. He proved himself to be both a good soldier and a leader. He was fearless and courageous.
By May 1958, Guevara was virtually second-in-command of the large group of revolutionaries that had gathered around Castro in the Sierra Maestra. Castro’s group had grown in size and strength over the long months. Using guerrilla tactics, Castro and his men successfully took over town after town.
Guevara is best remembered for his critical role in capturing the strategic city of Santa Clara in December 1958.
On January 1, 1959, Batista fled Cuba. The Cuban Revolution was over.
Using PowerIt was then time for Castro and his comrades to create their own government. Guevara, who was now pretty much a communist, favored nationalization of industry and a state controlled agrarian reform program. As one of the top leaders of the Cuban Revolution, Guevara was given a number of important posts in the new Cuban government, including Minister of Industry and Chairman of the National Bank. However, Guevara was not happy being a bureaucrat, nor was he a particularly successful one.
At a funeral in March 1960 for victims of an explosion on a freighter loaded with munitions, photographer Alberto Diaz (“Korda”) took a picture of the bearded, long-haired Che wearing his black beret. This became the iconic photograph of Che as the determined revolutionary.
When Guevara’s wife Hilda joined him in Cuba in 1959, Guevara told her he had a new companion. He had met Aleida March during the campaign for Santa Clara. Hilda agreed to a divorce and Guevara married Aleida March on June 2, 1959. Guevara had four children with Aleida over the next few years.
Guevara published two important books based on his experiences in the Cuban Revolution. One book was Reminiscences of the Guerrilla War, first published in Spanish in 1963. The other was Guerrilla Warfare (1961). In the latter, Guevara emphasized the crucial importance of an insurrectionary foco, a determined guerrilla force that could create the conditions for a successful revolution by living among and working with the peasantry. This idea was contrary to standard Marxist-Leninist ideas about the growth of an urban proletariat creating proper conditions for a revolution.
A Disappearing ActIn April 1965, Guevara disappeared from public life. He left behind his wife, his children, and his positions in the Cuban government. Che Guevara was hoping to start a new revolution.
Guevara spent much of 1965 in the Congo, attempting to organize a revolutionary force that could serve as a foco for the Congo. However, the soldiers he worked with seemed uninterested in revolutionary politics. Their leaders appeared to be only interested in political power for themselves. After several frustrating months, he withdrew from the Congo.
Starting a Revolution in BoliviaAfter the failed effort in the Congo, Guevara decided to organize a revolution in Bolivia. In November 1966, Che arrived in Bolivia disguised as a balding, middle-aged Uruguayan businessman named Adolfo Mena Gonzalez. Once safely within Bolivia, Guevara quickly shed that disguise and got to work on the revolution.
Since, the bulk of Guevara’s initial revolutionary force was Peruvian and Cuban, it was imperative that Guevara get a decent number of Bolivians to support the revolutionary cause as soon as possible. Unfortunately, Guevara was never able to do this. Guevara’s first hope was to get the support of the Bolivian Communists; however, after Che refused to let the leader of Bolivia’s Communist Party take control of the entire revolution, the Bolivian Communists wanted nothing to do with Guevara.
Guevara’s second hope was to appeal to Bolivian peasants to support the revolutionary cause. This also failed once the Bolivian government began a very effective propaganda campaign that emphasized the internationality of Guevara’s rebels and blamed these foreigners for bringing Castro-led Communism into their country. The patriotic peasants were thus not willing to help these outsider rebels.
Everything else went badly for Guevara in Bolivia. The most damaging development came when the Bolivian government discovered Guevara's presence in their country as well as his general location before Guevara had time to establish himself.
By March 1967, the Bolivian army was actively pursuing Guevara’s small group of revolutionaries, following them so closely that Guevara was unable to maintain a base camp. Constantly on the run and suffering from a severe asthma attack, Guevara was unable to muster an attack or a retreat. Hunted, Guevara’s group became splintered and many were captured or killed.
Che Guevara Captured and ExecutedThe end came in October 1967. On the morning of October 8th, Bolivian Army Rangers had surrounded Guevara and the 16 revolutionaries that remained within a gully called the Quebrada del Churo. At 1:10 p.m., a gun battle broke out. The guerrillas got separated; many were killed or captured. During the gunfight, Guevara was hit by a bullet in his left leg. While trying to scramble away, Guevara was captured. Guevara was taken to a schoolhouse in the small town of La Higuera, where he was interrogated.
The next day, the order to execute Che Guevara was given by the president of Bolivia. At 1:10 p.m. on October 9, 1967, Sergeant Mario Teran, a Bolivian soldier who had volunteered for the job, shot Guevara with a semiautomatic rifle.
Che Guevara was dead at age 39.
Guevara After DeathAt first, the Bolivians placed Guevara’s body on top of a concrete washbasin and let both soldiers and locals view his remains. Pictures were taken. Some people even cut off locks of Guevara’s hair as good luck keepsakes. Before he was to be buried, the Bolivians sawed off Guevara’s hands and placed them in formaldehyde hoping to use them as proof of Guevara’s death.
On October 11, 1967, the Bolivians secretly buried Guevara’s hand-less body in a secret grave. For three decades, the location of Guevara’s grave remained a closely kept secret.
In July 1997, Guevara’s skeleton and those of six other revolutionaries were located near the Vallegrande airstrip in southern Bolivia and returned to Cuba for reburial. In October of that year, Guevara and his companions were buried in Santa Clara, the city where he had won a decisive victory in the Cuban Revolution in 1958.
Despite the failure of attempted revolution in the Congo and in Bolivia, Guevara has had a brilliant afterlife as the symbol of a dedicated revolutionary, willing to sacrifice his life for the oppressed of the world. Ironically, his image has been turned into a commodity by the very capitalistic system he sought to overturn, reproduced on countless posters and on a vast array of other commercial products.
* According to a leading biographer of Guevara, Jon Lee Anderson (Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, page 3), Guevara’s mother told him that Guevara was actually born May 14, but she and her husband changed the date so no one would suspect she had been pregnant before the marriage.