Che Guevara 1928–1967
(Full name Ernesto Guevara de la Serna) Argentine-Cuban nonfiction writer, essayist, diarist, and political theorist.
The following entry provides an overview of Guevara's career.
The Marxist revolutionary who was chief military and ideological adviser to Fidel Castro during the Cuban Revolution of 1956–1959, Guevara is still recognized by leftists all over the world as a martyr to the cause of third-world revolution. Guevara's near-mythic reputation rests largely on his military exploits and his personal example of courage, self-sacrifice, and idealism, rather than any major original contributions to Marxist theory or revolutionary practice. As a writer of nonfiction, Guevara is best known for the training manual entitled La guerra de guerrillas (1960; Guerrilla Warfare) and his posthumously published El diario de Che en Bolivia (1968; The Diary of Che Guevara). He is also the author of numerous collections of speeches and articles on such wide-ranging topics as socialist morality and economic planning.
Biographical InformationGuevara was born in Argentina into an upper middle-class family with leftist sympathies. As a boy, he developed a severe asthma condition that would plague him throughout his life and contributed to his decision to pursue a career as a doctor. Guevara received his medical degree from the University of Buenos Aires in 1953 and then traveled around South and Central America, eventually settling in Guatemala, where he worked as an inspector for the agrarian land redistribution program launched by reformist President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Soon thereafter, a military coup organized and financed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency overthrew the Arbenz government. After fruitless attempts to organize local popular resistance to the military takeover, Guevara took asylum in the Argentine embassy, where he remained for two months before fleeing to Mexico. Guevara's first-hand experience of the coup deepened his anti-American sentiments and helped convince him that armed revolution was necessary for social reforms to occur in Latin America. In Mexico Guevara met the exiled Cuban brothers Fidel and Paul Castro, who were organizing a revolutionary movement against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Guevara agreed to join the Castros' "26 of July Movement" as their physician and thereby became the sole non-Cuban among eighty-three guerrilla fighters who landed in Cuba in December of 1956. The Cuban army crushed the force immediately, but Guevara and the Castros were among the twelve survivors who managed to reach the rugged Sierra Maestra mountain range, where they began organizing the infrastructure for a prolonged guerilla insurgency. Guevara, nicknamed "Che" by his Cuban comrades, took up arms with the rest of the insurgents and displayed such leadership ability that he was named commander of a second guerrilla column composed of local peasant recruits. He also served as a trusted political advisor to commander-in-chief Fidel Castro, headed the insurgent medical corps, and organized military training camps, a radio station, a weapons plant, and a network of schools in the guerrilla zone of control. In late 1958 Guevara's soldiers routed a much larger and better equipped Cuban army contingent at the decisive battle of Santa Clara, which convinced Batista to resign from office and flee the country. Not long afterward, Guevara led the first rebel force into Havana and sealed the revolutionary victory. Guevara held a series of important positions in the early years of the new Cuban government, serving first as military commander of Havana's La Cabaña fortress and successively as a top official of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, president of the National Bank of Cuba, and Minister of Industries. In the last two posts, Guevara (who was awarded full citizenship rights by the Castro government) was largely involved in the immensely complex and difficult task of converting a sugar-based, capitalist economy heavily dependent on the United States into a state-run system with a more diversified production and trading base. In 1960 Guevara helped negotiate an historic trading pact with the Soviet Union, exchanging sugar for capital goods; after the United States imposed an economic boycott of the island later in the year, he traveled to other Eastern bloc countries to develop new commercial relations. Better versed in Marxist economic theory than Castro, Guevara envisioned a socialist outcome for the Cuban Revolution and encouraged the Cuban leader to take the definitive step toward a state-run system by nationalizing virtually all of the country's industry in late 1960. Determined to break Cuba from its over-reliance on sugar exports, Guevara sought to industrialize the island with support from the Eastern Bloc, which provided generous aid and advantageous sugar prices. He believed, however, that the emergence of a new "socialist morality" among the Cuban people was the most expedient means of developing the island's economy. Consequently, he favored moral rather than material incentives to raise production and advocated voluntary work programs to strengthen revolutionary consciousness and solidarity. In early 1965 Guevara mysteriously disappeared from public view, with many speculating that he had disagreed with Castro over economic policy and had subsequently been "removed." Castro's official explanation that Guevara had freely departed Cuba to advance the cause of socialist revolution abroad was substantiated when Guevara later appeared in Africa with two hundred Cuban troops to assist Congolese rebels. In 1966 he returned to Havana, where he made plans to apply his military theories on guerrilla insurgency in South America. Guevara's ultimate goal was to create "two, three, many Vietnams" to challenge the hegemony of the United States—his greatest "imperialist" enemy. With Castro's support, he assembled a force of Cuban and Peruvian revolutionaries who secretly entered Bolivia in late 1966. Joined by Bolivian rebels, the group began its guerrilla campaign in southeastern Bolivia in March 1967 after its presence was revealed to local peasants. Guevara's far-reaching plans, however, proceeded disastrously since neither the local peasantry nor the Bolivian Communist Party provided the expected support. The Bolivian army, actively assisted by the C.I.A., finally annihilated the guerrillas. Guevara was captured on 8 October 1967 and, after being identified by Cuban agents of the C.I.A., was executed.
Guevara's major political works reflect his attempt to adapt established Marxist revolutionary principles to Latin America's unique historical and social conditions. He drew on his combat experience in Cuba to write Guerrilla Warfare, a manual of guerrilla strategy, tactics, and logistics that was published in Cuba in 1960. In this work the author openly stated his hope that the Cuban example would trigger similar revolutions elsewhere in Latin America and argued that a dedicated guerrilla force of only a few dozen combatants could successfully initiate an insurgency virtually anywhere in the continent. Guevara's guerrilla manual found a readership not only among revolutionaries but within the ranks of the U.S. Army, where strategists were actively seeking solutions to the growing counter-insurgency war in South Vietnam. Guevara later wrote a series of articles describing his personal experiences in the Cuban insurgency that were published in book form as Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria (1963; Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War). The Nation reviewer Jose Yglesias found this collection "simple, beautiful, and politically prophetic." Guevara's Diary, however, is considered by many critics his most significant work. Seized by the Bolivian army after the destruction of Guevara's guerrilla force, the manuscript created a media sensation, and publishers in Europe and the United States offered over one hundred thousand dollars in a bidding war for publishing rights. The matter was settled, however, when Fidel Castro acquired the manuscripts and international publishing rights from Bolivia's Minister of the Interior. Written in a German calendar notebook in a direct, unadorned style, The Diary is an intensely personal document recording Guevara's successes, failures, and frustrations as he attempted to establish the Bolivian guerrilla movement. Guevara summarized the group's activities at the end of each month, analyzing what had gone right as well as what had gone wrong. Scholars agree that the work provides invaluable insights into Marxist revolutionary theory in the field of guerrilla warfare. Guevara also addressed his conception of the socialist "new man" and other political and social issues confronting postcapitalist society in numerous speeches and articles published in Cuban journals. In these pieces, he wrote on such important international economic issues as the problem of third-world foreign debt, trade relations between industrialized and less-developed countries, and the controversy over "market socialism" versus centralized planning in the noncapitalist world. Frequently used in studying the philosophical and economic policies of China and the former Soviet Union, many of these articles and speeches have been translated into English and appear in the collections Che Guevara Speaks (1967) and Venceremos! (1968).
Critical reaction to Guevara's works generally focuses on his ideas and not on his literary style and expertise. For example, while commentators point out that Guevara's Diary presents a uniquely personal picture of his life and political idealism during his days as a Bolivian rebel leader, it is his speeches and writings that continue to attract a wide popular and critical readership. Guevara's works are additionally considered key elements in any analysis of the growth and popularity of Marxist-Socialist ideology in Hispanic-American countries.