Freshman, Political science and physics double major
Ernesto “Che” Guevara: we all know the name, we know him as a Cuban-revolutionary fighter and we see him on t-shirts and posters everywhere, but who was he really?
Born in Argentina to a middle-class family, Che had a variety of academic resources available to him as he grew up, which was not the case for the majority of Argentinians between the 1920s and 1930s. He was particularly intrigued by philosophy and Marxist-political theory, but it was not until his years in medical school that he began the path of a revolutionary. Traveling around South America as a medical student, Che witnessed first-hand the abject,
systemic poverty that ran rampant throughout Latin America. This poverty was a direct result of dictatorial greed and hundreds of years of imperialistic oppression. Afterward, Che felt personally obligated to fight back against such injustice.
In Mexico City, in 1954, Che met Fidel Castro, who had plans to ignite a revolution in Cuba against the regime of Fulgencio Batista. To illustrate the effects of Batista’s rule on the Cuban people, as of 1954, 37% of Cubans were illiterate, 50% had no access to electricity or running water, 50% lived in bohios (run-down shacks), and healthcare was exclusively available to those with money and power. My own abuelo (grandfather), who grew up in Cuba during the 1940s while Batista was slowly assuming a dictatorial role, testifies to life under Batista as compared to life under Castro. “For however bad people think Castro is, Batista was horrible,” my abuelo describes. “There is no comparison. I had to leave under Batista.”
Che agreed deeply with Marxist philosophy in that violent revolution was the most effective method of overthrowing malicious, heartless regimes like Batista’s. As a result, Che agreed to help lead various columns of Castro’s military forces under one condition: that when they finished in Cuba, they take the revolution to the rest of Latin America. Castro may have headed the July Movement, the official name of Castro’s rebel forces, but many rebels and Cuban citizens saw Che as the wiser visionary and superior diplomat.
Throughout 1957, as Che led a military column through the countryside of Cuba, he tended to the illnesses of poor peasant farmers, spread hope of a better Cuba and employed unique but deliberate methods of recruitment. Che mostly took in those who already had arms and could read and write. When Che did accept illiterate recruits, he either personally taught them how to read or he recruited a literate non-fighter as a teacher for his troops. (He even went as far as to force his troops to practice writing and or math problems during their downtime.) In Che’s view, the revolution’s success was not only contingent upon military victory but also the rise of an educated populace. In his words, “uneducated revolutionaries are easily manipulated.”
In 1959, Batista fled Cuba, and the July Movement took control of the head cities Santa Clara and Havana; the fight had been won. For Che, however, the revolution had just begun. Although, Castro assumed power after the revolution and, in time, established his own corrupt regime, Che never lost sight of the true reason behind the revolution. Che assumed some political authority in Cuba to help develop the new nation, such as representing Cuba at the U.N., for as long as he felt was necessary and appropriate. But his goals were well beyond Cuba.
Che’s vision was to free all of Latin America from the horrors of dictatorship and imperialism. After offering aid, in 1965, to various rebel groups in the Congo, Africa, Che’s next big stop, in 1966, was Bolivia. Because Bolivia was experiencing some of the worst oppression, Che knew victory in Bolivia would ignite hope for the rest of South America. But by the time he arrived, the Bolivian government as well as the United States had established a strong anti-communist, anti-revolutionary propaganda machine, which pushed many away from the values Che felt so passionate about. In 1967, the Bolivian government, with help from the CIA, gained word of Che’s attempts to spark another movement. On October 7, 1967, the Bolivian army captured Che and assassinated him two days later.
So, what does this entire history mean? Even though Che led a violent revolution against the Batista regime and openly encouraged the use of violence, he did so to give power back to the people of Cuba. Castro took advantage of their success and molded his own dictatorship, but Che’s efforts and fight for peace did not go unheard. His philosophy on revolution could not have been worded any clearer than in his 1965 address to the UN, when he stated, “We [Cuba] declare ourselves to be within the group of non-aligned countries, although we are Marxist-Leninist, because we fight imperialism. We want peace.”
It is easy to look back at Che’s blunt language and hatred of imperialism and argue, like most critics of Che, that he is simply a liberal-media tool that appeals to young people. These critics, however, have never experienced what Che witnessed and what millions of Latin Americans suffered: the effects of dictatorship and American imperialism. So when looking back at Che with open eyes, who do you see?
Che: The Argentine (Part 1). Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Performed by Benicio del Toro, Demian Bichir, Catalina Moreno, etc. 2008. Film.
Che: Guerilla (Part 2). Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Performed by Benicio del Toro, Demian Bichir, Catalina Moreno, etc. 2008. Film.