Rebel With a Cause
A bluffer’s guide to Cuba’s most famous revolutionary
Text: Phil Boucher / Photos: Wenn, Rex
He invaded Cuba and was executed in Bolivia, yet Che was actually born in Argentina as the eldest of five children in a family of Spanish and Irish descent. On June 14, 2008 – 80 years after his birth – a three-tonne, four-metre tall bronze statue of ‘Che’ was unveiled in his home town of Rosario, made from 75,000 pieces of old candlesticks, padlocks and keys sent from all over the world.
B is for Bolivia
In 1967 Guevara set up a secret military training camp in remote Ñancahuazú region of the Bolivian jungle. It was a total disaster: his 50-man guerrilla army ran out of food, water, shoes and blankets. At the same time they contracted a weird jungle illness that made their hands and feet swell to the point that you couldn’t make out their fingers or toes. By the time they were captured, Guevara and his bandits were raiding local towns purely to steal medicine.
C is for Castro
Guevara met Fidel Castro for the first time in June 1955 and immediately joined Castro’s 26th of July Movement as a medic. Yet he excelled at military training, was rapidly promoted to Comandante and played a pivotal role in the Cuban revolution, where Castro’s guerrilla army overthrew the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
D is for Diary
In 1951, Guevara took a year off his medical studies at the University of Buenos Aires to roar around South America on an old motorbike. The 8,000 mile journey put him face-to-face with the poverty, hunger and corruption that scars the region and Guevara later used his notes from the journey to write the best-selling book The Motorcycle Diaries. In 2004 the story was made into an award-winning film.
E is for Ernesto
This is the Guevara’s real first name. He was given the nickname ‘Che’ in Guatemala. It means “pal”.
F is for Formaldehyde
Shortly after his execution Guevara’s hands were amputated, encased in formaldehyde and sent to Buenos Aires for fingerprint identification. It was only in 1997, when author Jon Lee Anderson discovered his handless body beneath an air strip near Vallegrande, Bolivia, that Guevara’s body parts were reunited. On October 17, 1997, a ‘complete Che’ was laid to rest with military honours in the Cuban city of Santa Clara.
G is for Granma
On November 25, 1956, Castro’s guerrilla army set sail from Mexico onboard a rickety, leaking old cabin cruiser called the Granma. As soon as it neared the Cuban coast, Batista’s army opened fire and just 22 of Castro’s men survived the landing. Guevara wrote that it was during this bloody fight that he laid down his medical supplies and picked up a box of ammunition, changing from doctor to soldier in the process.
H is for Hero
Guevara is a national hero in Cuba, where his image adorns the 3 Cuban Peso note and school children begin each morning by pledging “We will be like Che.”
I is for Irony
He committed his life to communist revolution, yet Guevara’s image has become one of the capitalist world’s most instantly recognizable images, adorning everything from t-shirts to hats, mugs, Frisbees and bikinis. He also remains a hated figure among Cuban exiles, who call him “the butcher of La Cabaña.”
J is for JFK
When the US invaded the Bay of Pigs in 1961, Guevara commanded a force in Cuba’s western Pinar del Rio province and suffered a grazed cheek when his pistol fell out of its holster and accidentally sent a bullet whizzing past his nose. Later that year at an economic conference in Uruguay, Guevara passed a secret note to U.S. President John F. Kennedy. It read: “Thanks for Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs). Before the invasion, the revolution was shaky. Now it’s stronger than ever.”
K is for Krushchev
Despite being a communist, Guevara developed a deep hatred of the USSR after the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. He had played a crucial role in bringing the Soviet missiles to Cuba and believed Russian Premier Nikita Krushchev has sold Cuba out by removing the warheads in the face of US sabre-rattling. Guevara fumed that if the missiles had been under Cuban control, they would have fired them off.
L is for Last Words
Moments before his execution, Guevara was asked if he was thinking about his own immortality. “No,” he replied, “I’m thinking about the immortality of the revolution.” He also said to his executioner, “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”
M is for Marx
Guevara called capitalism a “contest among wolves” where “one can only win at the cost of others”. His mission was to create a “new man and woman” driven by moral rather than material desires.
N is for Nicknames
Along with ‘Che’, Guevara was called “Fuser” (raging) because of the aggressive way he plated Rugby. At school he also picked up the moniker “Chancho” (pig) because he rarely washed and proudly wore a “weekly shirt”.
O is for October
On October 15, 1967 Fidel Castro told the Cuban public that Guevara was dead and proclaimed three days of public mourning. On the third day a crowd of over a million walked through Havana to honour their fallen idol.
P is for Photograph
In March 1960 the French munitions freighter La Coubre exploded in Havana harbour, killing well over a hundred. At the memorial service for the victims, photographer Alberto Korda took the photograph now known as Guerrillero Heroica. Time Magazine has since declared it “the most famous photograph in the world.”
Q is for Quiroga
Along with being a warrior, revolutionary, political leader, diplomat and doctor, Guevara was a keen student of philosophy and poetry. Along with Latin American writers Quiroga, Igaca, Dario and Asturias he was passionate about Keats, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud, Kafka, Camus, and Satre and could recite Kipling’s ‘If’ from memory.
R is for Revolution
Along with trying to spark off left-wing revolutions throughout South America, Guevara also led a communist uprising in Congo during 1965. Unfortunately, his Afro-Cuban guerillas came up against a team of CIA-backed South African mercenaries, while his every move was monitored by the US National Security Agency from the floating spy ship the USNS Valdez.
S is for South America
Except for Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Guevara visited every country in Latin American. His political life also took fire for the first time in Guatemala in 1954, when he stumbled into the midst of a CIA-sponsored coup to topple President Jacobo Guzman and he took up arms for the first time to fight ‘the yanqui’. Guevara only escaped by hiding in the Argentinian embassy and sneaking across the border.
T is for Terán
On the morning of October 9, 1967 Bolivian President René Barrientos ordered that Guevara be executed. His guards drew lots and the ‘winner’ was Sergeant Mario Terán. When it came to the crucial moment Terán hesitated, pulled the trigger of his semiautomatic and hit Guevara in the arms and legs. As Guevara stifled a scream on the floor, Terán shot him fatally in the chest. In all Terán shot Guevara nine times: five times in the legs, once in the right shoulder and arm, once in the chest, and lastly in the throat.
U is for United Nations
Guevara was far more than a revolutionary. In December 1964, he travelled to New York as the head of the Cuban delegation and addressed the United Nations. He then left for Paris and embarked on a three-month diplomatic tour that took in China, Egypt, Algeria, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Dahomey, Congo, Tanzania and the Republic of Ireland.
V is for Vanishing
After the Cuban revolution Guevara became the second most powerful man in Cuba. Yet in 1965 he completely disappeared from view and Fidel Castro told the world he’d fled Cuba to spark revolutionary causes abroad. Even to this day Castro’s critics say this explanation is suspect, particularly as Guevara didn’t surface until his death in Bolivia.
W is Warrior
Despite having limited military training, Guevara played a critical role in the Cuban revolution. His tactics at the Battle of Las Mercedes in July 1958, have been described as ‘brilliant’ by Major Larry Bockman of the US Marine Corps, after he used a small column of men to defeat a force of 1,500. Guevara’s “suicide squad” also secured a victory at the battle of Santa Clara in December 1958, the decisive victory in the war.
X is for X-File
When Guevara was captured in Bolivia he was carrying a 30,000-word hand written diary documenting his experiences in the Bolivian jungle. In July of 2008, the Bolivian government unveiled the two frayed notebooks for the first time and announced plans to reveal the contents on the Internet.
Y is for the Yuro Ravine
When the Bolivian Special Forces swooped on Guevara in the isolated Yuro Ravine, he was shot twice and had his gun rendered useless until he shouted: “Do not shoot! I am Che Guevara and worth more to you alive than dead!”
Z is for Zealot
Even among Castro’s revolutionaries Guevara developed a reputation for brutality and harsh discipline. He sent death squads to hunt down deserters during the revolutionary war and executed a number of men accused of being informers, deserters or spies. After the war he was charged with purging the Cuban army by exacting “revolutionary justice”. It’s estimated that several hundred people were executed during this time.