Che Guevara

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Che Guevara

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Article abstract: Guevara is best known as a theorist and practitioner of revolutionary guerrilla warfare in Latin America. Guevara’s writings and his ill-fated military experience in Bolivia have influenced Latin American revolutionary strategy as well as created posthumously a heroic international symbol for those who share his political ideals.

Early Life

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born in Rosario, Argentina, on June 14, 1928, to politically conscious upper-middle-class parents. In spite of a severe asthmatic condition that persisted throughout his life, Ernesto became an active youth with adventurous personality traits. The young Guevara demonstrated leadership capabilities in sports requiring much physical endurance and skill, and was an enthusiastic hiker and traveler. Guevara undertook his most ambitious journey in 1952, when he was one year short of finishing an M.D. degree at the University of Buenos Aires. Guevara and a student companion motored and hitchhiked northward over the continent from Chile to Caracas, Venezuela.

After returning to complete his medical degree, Guevara again set out in the same direction, observing social conditions in a number of countries. In 1954, Guevara reached Guatemala, where he became a sympathetic witness to the radical reform program of Jacobo Arbenz’s government. When rebels sponsored by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) overthrew this regime in late 1954, Guevara, who had endangered himself by attempting to organize support for Arbenz, received asylum in the Argentine Embassy. In early 1955, Guevara arrived in Mexico City. There he joined a group of Cuban revolutionaries under Fidel Castro who were seeking to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Following clandestine military training, Guevara, now known to his colleagues by the Argentine nickname “Che,” participated in the contingent’s landing by boat on the coast of Cuba’s Oriente Province in early December, 1956. During the next two years, Guevara distinguished himself in military actions and reached the rank of major with command of his own guerrilla column.

Life’s Work

Guevara emerged from the victorious armed struggle as an important leader in Castro’s July 26th Movement and a trusted adviser to the Cuban revolutionary chief. On January 9, 1959, the revolutionary regime bestowed Cuban citizenship upon the Argentine-born revolutionary. Guevara soon became one of the best-known figures associated with Castro’s regime. Guevara undertook numerous diplomatic and commercial missions on behalf of the new government. Between 1959 and 1965, Guevara held several important posts in the areas of economic planning and finance. Guevara headed the Department of Industry within the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (1959), managed the National Bank (1959-1961), and served as minister of industry from 1961 to 1965. Guevara represented the most radical tendency within the Cuban revolutionary regime. Through his writings and speeches, he came to be regarded as the leading Castroist theorist on socialist economic development and revolutionary warfare. While his views were clearly Marxist and even communist in a broad sense, Che’s views were frequently at odds with those of the Soviet leadership and the Moscow-oriented Latin American Communist parties.

In his administrative posts, Guevara promoted a program of accelerated industrialization to diversify the Cuban economy. When it became clear that this overambitious project was failing and adversely affecting agricultural output, Soviet advisers recommended that the Cubans put aside this goal and return to the country’s traditional emphasis on the production and export of sugar. Although Guevara was forced to adopt this policy in 1963, he refused to abandon the long-term goal of industrialization and insisted that the Soviet Union had a moral obligation to finance Cuba in this effort. Guevara’s advocacy of moral rather than material incentives to stimulate worker productivity and create the new...

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communist man coincided with the Maoist position in the Sino-Soviet dispute.

Guevara’s ideas on revolutionary strategy and tactics also put him in conflict with the Soviets and their allied Communist parties in Latin America. The Argentine’s concepts on revolutionary struggle are found in his now famous La guerra de guerrillas (1960; Che Guevara on Guerrilla Warfare, 1961) and in a 1963 article entitled “Guerrilla Warfare: A Method.” Guevara projected the Cuban example of hit-and-run tactics by small, highly mobile, rural-based partisan bands as the proper path to revolutionary transformations in Latin America. Armed struggle based in the countryside, Guevara asserted, was a more effective means of creating a revolutionary attitude in the masses than the long-term political tactics advocated by the urban-based Communist parties. Revolutionaries need not wait until all the conditions for revolution were present. The insurrectionary guerrilla foco (center) itself could create them.

Guevara asserted that a small nucleus of properly trained and politically dedicated fighters could establish and consolidate a guerrilla foco in any Latin American country if they obtained the cooperation of local inhabitants and possessed a knowledge of the terrain superior to that of the enemy. The struggle would be long and protracted, passing through several tactical phases as the guerrilla force gained in strength and recruits and expanded the scope of its operations.

In Guevara’s scheme, the revolution unfolded without the direction of the Communist parties. The fighters, through their direct revolutionary experience and involvement with the local citizenry, acquired a political education and revolutionary commitment superior to that provided by textbook theories and rigid ideological formulations.

In 1964, the relationship between Guevara and Moscow-style communism deteriorated further as he publicly criticized the Soviets for insufficient support of the new underdeveloped nations and Third World revolutionary movements. Later, in March of 1965, Guevara suddenly disappeared from public view. Castro’s explanation that Guevara had chosen to serve the revolutionary cause somewhere in another capacity did not silence speculation on other reasons behind his absence. Some charged that Guevara was purged or removed because his views on economic development and foreign policy threatened to alienate Moscow. Guevara had encountered strong opposition from Old Guard Communists within the Cuban government. There were also unsubstantiated reports about a possible mental or emotional collapse.

It is probable that Guevara became dissatisfied with the bureaucratic routines of his administrative duties and disappointed with the results of his industrialization drive. On several occasions, Guevara confided to friends his desire to return to direct involvement with revolutionary struggle, particularly in Latin America. Although in sympathy with many of Guevara’s views, Castro was not willing in 1965 to embark on a course totally independent from Moscow and accepted his friend’s resignation. Yet the Cuban leader did agree to back Guevara in his desire to advance the cause of revolution abroad. Between July, 1965, and March, 1966, Guevara, with Castro’s assistance, secretly took a contingent of Cubans to the Congo to aid a revolutionary movement against the pro-Western regime. After a frustrating experience, Guevara withdrew from the Congo when the Chinese, who were now feuding with Castro, pressured the Congolese rebel movement to dispense with the Cubans.

Guevara, whose whereabouts and fate remained a mystery, returned to Havana and began to prepare a project for which he had long shown an interest—the establishment of an insurrectionary foco in the Andean or southern cone region of South America. Bolivia was finally selected as the site to begin operations because of its strategic central location as a country bordering on most other states of the continent. In his plan for spreading insurrection to other countries, Guevara described his strategy as one of creating many Vietnams; he envisioned that American intervention to defeat these uprisings would tie down and exhaust the Yankee colossus and also provoke anti-imperialist reactions leading to revolutionary successes.

Guevara’s ideas had now gained ascendency in Havana. With Castro’s help, Guevara assembled a mixed force of Cuban and Peruvian revolutionaries who entered Bolivia in late 1966, establishing a secret base in the heavily wooded Ñancahuazú River Valley of southeastern Bolivia. Guevara’s Bolivian affair was jeopardized by mistakes from the beginning. Ironically, Guevara violated many of his own rules for successful guerrilla warfare. Guevara’s haste to get on with his plans and the group’s carelessness resulted in a premature start of combat in March, 1967, before the necessary preparations and groundwork for support inside Bolivia were arranged. The Bolivian Communist Party refused to cooperate with this venture, and the site of operations was also poorly chosen. Throughout this campaign the guerrilla force remained hopelessly isolated without logistical, political, or mass support. After some initial victories over inexperienced army recruits, the guerrillas’ position became increasingly perilous. The Bolivian army, which became more formidable as it benefited from American counterinsurgency training and equipment, closed in on the guerrilla band. On October 8, a government ranger unit wounded and captured Guevara. A Bolivian army officer executed the famous revolutionary leader the following day in the village of La Higuera.


Che Guevara’s impact on his times became a heated topic after the sensational termination of his exciting career in Bolivia. Nevertheless, Guevara merits a place in the history of twentieth century Latin American social and political thought. The revolutionary leader’s book on guerrilla warfare is still considered a classic work in this field. Guevara’s ideas inspired many radical groups in Latin America to go off to the countryside or mountains in an effort to follow and apply the Cuban example.

After his death, Guevara also became a popular hero and legendary symbol on a worldwide scale; he was particularly a heroic cult figure for the rebellious youthful generation and New Left groups in the 1960’s. The Cuban government proceeded to hold forth “El Che” as a model for schoolchildren to study and emulate. Guevara’s idealism, revolutionary dedication, and courage in giving his life for his political ideals are traits most frequently cited by his admirers. On the other hand, Guevara’s detractors attempt to depict him as a bloodthirsty, mentally unstable, or psychopathic adventurer and a failure in everything he undertook.

Guevara’s major contribution to Latin American revolutionary movements may be the lessons drawn from studying his unsuccessful Bolivian campaign. This experience indicates that regular troops trained in counterinsurgency tactics are likely to defeat isolated rural guerrilla forces. Revolutionary warfare based in the countryside requires cooperation from local rural inhabitants and the existence of a national organizational apparatus for providing both material and political support. Guerrilla warfare should be combined with other forms of struggle waged throughout the country.


Debray, Régis. Che’s Guerrilla War. Translated by Rosemary Steed. Baltimore: Penguin, 1975. A detailed analysis of what went wrong with Guevara’s Bolivian campaign. The author is a French Marxist intellectual who collaborated closely with Castro and Guevara to further elaborate their theories on revolutionary struggle; he also was a firsthand witness to Guevara’s experience in Bolivia.

González, Luis J., and Gustavo A. Sánchez Salazar. The Great Rebel: Che Guevara in Bolivia. Translated by Helen R. Lane. New York: Grove Press, 1969. One of the most objective accounts of this subject. The authors interviewed officials, soldiers, and captured guerrillas, and had access to tape recordings of prisoner interviews.

Guevara, Ernesto. The Complete Bolivian Diaries of Che Guevara and Other Captured Documents. Edited by Daniel James. New York: Stein & Day, 1968. Guevara’s daily notations and observations from the time of his arrival in Bolivia in late 1966 up to his capture. Also included are the shorter but useful diaries of three Cuban personnel who took part in this episode.

Harris, Richard. Death of a Revolutionary: Che Guevara’s Last Mission. New York: Norton, 1970. A very interesting and accurate analysis of Guevara’s experience in Bolivia. The introductory chapter summarizes Guevara’s early life. The author is sympathetic to his subject but strives for objectivity.

Sauvage, Léo. Che Guevara: The Failure of a Revolutionary. Translated by Raoul Frémont. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. This book tries to answer questions about what really happened to Guevara in terms of his relations with Castro and in terms of his death. Includes an index.

Che Guevara

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Article abstract: Military significance: One of the original members of Fidel Castro’s Granma force, Guevara helped create a military doctrine that guided many leftist rebel leaders in several wars of liberation after 1960.

Che Guevara initially hoped to become a prominent medical doctor, but after meeting Fidel Castro in Mexico City in July, 1956, he decided to fight in the Cuban Revolution. During his educational training, Guevara traveled extensively throughout South America and determined that the region’s poverty was a direct result of the United States’ efforts to control economic, political, and military affairs in the Americas. After his unsuccessful attempt to fight in the revolutionary struggle in Guatemala in 1954, he decided to forsake medicine for a career as communist revolutionary. By the time Castro organized his army and set sail for Cuba in December of 1956, Guevara had secured a powerful position within the Cuban movement and agreed to serve as both a medical doctor and guerrilla leader.

The Granma force landed off the southeastern coast of Cuba in the Sierra Maestra on December 2, 1956, and encountered considerable opposition from the Cuban army. Lacking supplies, food, medicine, and manpower, Guevara quickly developed certain ideas and tactics that enabled him to become one of the primary guerrilla warfare strategists of the twentieth century. Like Chinese leader Mao Zedong and others, he realized that in order to wage a successful campaign, a rebel army must gain the support of the peasantry. He established a system of agrarian reform, issued currency, and helped harvest crops, and as a result, he was able to obtain critical resources and recruits. He understood the difficulties of obtaining weapons from outside sources, and consequently, he learned how to manufacture homemade bombs from discarded materials. He systematically attacked military barracks, ambushed government troops, and captured critical military supplies. Guevara also maintained that in a people’s war, the commander must accept a combat role at the front.

Guevara’s actions inspired the Cuban people and generated considerable support for the revolution when the fighting moved into urban areas. During the critical battle for Santa Clara in December, 1958, Guevara’s forces dismantled railroad tracks and prevented the escape of many government troops. These actions helped Guevara capture a government train with an impressive cache of weapons including more than six hundred rifles, several machine guns, a twenty-millimeter cannon, and some bazookas and mortars. Other civilians provided food and shelter, manufactured Molotov cocktails, and constructed barricades. These actions enabled the revolution to succeed by January of 1959.

Guevara’s greatest contribution to military history occurred when he published his manifesto, La Guerra de Guerrillas (1960; Guerrilla Warfare, 1961). This book instructed future guerrillas in the art of war. It advised rebels how and when to engage the enemy and outlined the conditions necessary for revolution. It provided information on how to manufacture mines and explosives as well as specific details on how to launch a Molotov cocktail from a rifle. Guevara diagramed how to dig antitank traps and build shelters to withstand artillery attacks. He also furnished information on the proper use of propaganda and intelligence. Simply put, his book was a blueprint for a revolution.

After he purged the anti-Castro elements from the Cuban military, Guevara attempted to internationalize Cuba’s revolution. Encouraged by the Soviet Union’s support for Third World wars of national liberation, he traveled to the Congo and unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow Joseph Desiré Mobutu’s pro-Western regime. Defeat, however, did not discourage Guevara. He was still determined to generate a continental revolution in Latin America, and in 1966, he entered Bolivia. However, this campaign failed miserably. The Bolivian army, with the help of the United States and the Central Intelligence Agency, cornered Guevara and ultimately executed the guerrilla leader on October 9, 1967.

Further Reading:

Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Grove Press, 1997.

Castaneda, Jorge G. Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Castro, Fidel. Che: A Memoir by Fidel Castro. Melbourne: Ocean Press, 1994.

Guevara, Che. Bolivian Diary. New York: Pathfinder Books, 1994.

Guevara, Che. Guerrilla Warfare: A Method. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.


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