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The Inconvenient Truth Behind Revolutionary Icon Che Guevara

Che Guevera
Che Guevera has become the literal face of revolution. But his story is about much more than his personification of "utter cool" to all those who want to defy the establishment. ©HowStuffWorks

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As the literal face of revolution, Ernesto Guevara — you probably know him by his familiar nom de guerre, Che — is hard to miss. His bearded, semi-beatific mug can be found anywhere that people long to bring down oppressors and prop up the little guy. And in a lot of places, too, where it's simply cool to wear Che on a T-shirt.

As a real flesh-and-blood revolutionary, though, Che Guevara was not all that. His short, clench-fisted life battling "the man" was littered with more defeat than victory, and pockmarked throughout (something his millions of admirers often forget) with some dastardly, decidedly unheroic criminal acts. Even his death, at age 39 in 1967, was in reality just sad and unceremonious, hardly the stuff of, say, Scottish hero William Wallace.

Still, in death, this unquestioned thorn in the status quo's side has become the inescapable symbol of everything that dreamers think a revolutionary should be: strong, principled, a threat to the rich and powerful, a champion of the weak, a leader of the downtrodden.

"In the course of my professional interest in revolution, I've been all over the world. Peru. Colombia. Mexico. Pakistan. Multiple trips to Afghanistan. Iraq. Cambodia. Southern Philippines. All over the place," says Gordon McCormick, who has taught a course on guerrilla warfare at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, for almost 30 years. "No matter where you go, you see photos of Che. This guy has an international appeal, particularly in Latin America. You can go down to Mexico and you see cars driving around with mudguards with his image on them. He's everywhere. He is a motivator for would-be revolutionaries the world over."

Who Was Che Guevara?

Born in Argentina to well-to-do left-leaning parents, Guevara early on developed an unquenchable reading habit that included poetry and the classics. In his early 20s, he traveled throughout South America, where he was introduced to the plight of the poor and working class. (The 2004 movie "The Motorcycle Diaries" chronicled one of his trips.)

Guevara returned to Argentina to complete a degree in medicine, then headed out for more travels around Latin America. The poverty he witnessed, and the often corrupt and unseeing governments throughout the area, led him to embrace the ideas of Marxism and revolution.

It wasn't until 1955, though that Guevara finally had a chance to act on his burgeoning revolutionary ideas. While in Mexico City working as a doctor, Guevara met Cuba's Fidel Castro. After a long night of discussions, Guevara agreed to help Castro in his fight to overthrow the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

On Jan. 1, 1959, Castro and his revolutionary army pushed Batista out of power. Guevara, as comandante of Castro's second army column, moved into Havana the next day. A new Cuba was born, and Guevara became — perhaps more than Castro — the world's most recognized revolutionary.

Che Guevara
Che Guevara is seen here atop a mule in Las Villas province, Cuba, in November 1958. He and Fidel Castro led a vicious house-to-house battle here between rebel guerrillas and the Cuban army. More than 3,000 people were killed in 48 hours.
Public Domain

The Real vs. Romanticized Che Guevara

Castro immediately put Guevara in charge of doling out justice against Batista loyalists who remained in Cuba, and that's where the romanticized image of Che begins to fray. Reports vary, but as supreme prosecutor on the island, Guevara was responsible for executions that numbered in the dozens — at least — and may have been in the hundreds, or maybe more. For those familiar with Che, it was not out of character. During the revolutionary war, Che also was said to have executed deserters, many by his own hand.

For all who lift up Che as an example of the righteous revolutionary, there are those — many Cuban American exiles — who see him only for what he did to their beloved Cuba. Author Humberto Fontova in "Exposing the Real Che Guevara: And the Useful Idiots who Idolize Him:"

If Cuban Americans strike you as too passionate, over the top, even a little crazy, there is a reason. Practically every day, we turn on our televisions or go out on the streets only to see the image of the very man who trained the secret police to murder our relatives — thousands of men, women, and boys. This man committed many of these murders with his own hands. And yet we see him celebrated everywhere as the quintessence of humanity, progress, and compassion. ... That man, that murderer, is Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

Jon Lee Anderson, who wrote what many consider the definitive biography of Che in 1997, titled "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life," addressed Che's brutality in the introduction to the graphic version of his biography in 2016:

During the nineties, when my biography first appeared, it didn't seem especially noteworthy to readers that Che had served as the fledgling Cuban revolution's supreme prosecutor, presiding over the summary convictions and executions by firing squad of more than three hundred war criminals of the ancient regime — murderers and torturers, mostly. Two decades on, however, this facet of Che provokes unease in young readers who seem surprised to discover that Che was a flesh-and-blood revolutionary, and that, ergo, he killed people.
Che Guevara
Che Guevara is seen here during a United Nations debate with U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Adlai Stevenson at the U.N. General Assembly in December 1964. Guevara rejected denuclearization of the Western Hemisphere as long as U.S. bases were maintained in Puerto Rico and Panama.
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Guevara Tries to Extend His Power Beyond Cuba

A few months after taking over, Castro appointed Guevara to head the new government's agrarian reform, among other posts. But Guevara, a full-fledged hero of the revolution, soon grew tired of the daily grind of governing.

"Castro, his objective was to win in Cuba, govern the country. Che Guevara could care less. He was a complete failure as a bureaucrat. Didn't like it. Didn't do a good job," McCormick says. "He was, in his own mind, and actually in fact who he was ... an international action figure.

"He had created this role for himself. He, in a sense, had created his own identity. And then he lived by it. And in that sense was authentic. He actually was authentic."

The Cuban Revolution pushed Guevara into a position of international prominence. He spoke before the United Nations, in his trademark military fatigues, in 1964. He traveled all over the world. But he was a revolutionary without a revolution.

When he jumped back into the trenches as a kind of revolutionary soldier of fortune, Guevara's passion and authenticity, the loyalty he commanded among his followers, did not translate into victory. A trip to support insurgents in the Congo in 1965 lasted seven months and ended in total failure.

And his decision to take a small band of soldiers to help in Bolivia's uprising put an end to Guevara.

"It is ironic that Che Guevara comes down to us as a model of the ideal revolutionary, on the one hand," McCormick says, "and yet his theory of revolution — as demonstrated by what occurred in Bolivia, and prior to that in Congo, and arguably should have happened in Cuba — is a theory of failure."

The Death of Che Guevara

Guevara took about 50 men to support a revolutionary army against the Bolivian government, and quickly slipped deep into the jungles of the country to employ the guerrilla tactics he had used in Cuba and elsewhere (as described in his book "Guerrilla Warfare," originally published in 1961).

But his strategy and tactics were doomed almost from the start. He didn't recruit a single local to help in his fight, largely because no one in his group spoke the dialect of the Bolivians in that part of the country. He failed to coordinate with the communist party there. And he probably didn't realize that it wasn't just the Bolivians that he was fighting. The U.S. had supplied, trained and supported many of the forces employed against the Bolivian insurgents.

After several months of skirmishes and the death of several of his men, a wounded and bedraggled Guevara was captured by the Bolivian army Oct. 8, 1967. He was executed under orders from Bolivian President René Barrientos, on the afternoon of Oct. 9, 1967. According to a U.S. Department of Defense intelligence report, Guevara said to his executioner — a young Bolivian sergeant who had volunteered to shoot the prisoner — "Know this now, you are killing a man."

After the execution, his body was flown to a nearby town, where it was put on display at the local hospital. His hands were dismembered and flown to Argentina for fingerprint verification. He then was buried in an unmarked grave. Guevara's remains weren't discovered until a retired Bolivian general told the author Anderson of their location in 1995.

It is, as McCormick points out, the perfect coda to a modern-day Greek tragedy.

"And then, of course, at the very, very end of the play, he is killed in cold blood. Face to face. And according to eyewitness reports, takes it in stride," says McCormick, who wrote a paper on Guevara titled "Ernesto (Che) Guevara: The Last "Heroic" Guerrilla," in 2017. "It's the perfect tragedy. And you don't have to know Greek tragedy, or even know a lot about what happened to Che Guevara, to at some visceral level to appreciate that quality.

"It resonates with people. I think that explains in part his enduring appeal, even among those who in no way respect his politics or even many of his methods."

Che Guevara
This iconic portrait of Guevara that we now see on T-shirts and graffiti was shot by fashion photographer Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, who later changed his name to Alberto Korda.
Public Domain

Che's Dual Legacy

Boxer Mike Tyson has a prominent Che tattoo. So does Argentine football star Diego Maradona. Omar Sharif portrayed Che in a 1969 film, and Benicio Del Toro did so to acclaim in 2008. Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen once sported a runway bikini with Che's image on it. His face has adorned T-shirts and been on countless storefronts. It's been on "South Park" and on "The Simpsons."

Guevara, these days, is the personification of utter cool to all those who want to defy the establishment. Yet that image doesn't do him justice. In its simplicity, it is not just.

Che Guevara was an intellect, a poet, a physician, a visionary a leader. "He smiles, he's well-educated, he's well read, he has a sense of humor," McCormick says. "He's the kind of guy you'd like to sit down and have a tequila with and share a cigar."

But more than any of that, Che Guevara was a true revolutionary. That's not to be forgotten.

"The guy's a killer. He's absolutely ruthless. He is absolutely ruthless, which is part and parcel to who in fact he made himself to be," McCormick says. "He is a first-generation international revolutionary fighting against 'the man.' And he has to be ruthless. It's not an act. That is what makes him authentic."

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