Che Guevara is one of the most loved and hated, adored and despised revolutionaries of the twentieth century. By the time he celebrated his 32nd birthday, he had established himself not only as an intellectual and political activist but also as a well-respected guerrilla warrior. After his mysterious death before his fortieth birthday, he became a symbol of anti-imperialism and a source of inspiration for all those men and women who struggle and dream of a just world. Che Guevara was one of those committed and dedicated revolutionaries, who practiced what he preached. He not only talked about but also lived socialistic values and philosophy. He was a very creative person. He not only created poems, essays and concepts but also created revolutions and then exported them to all those cities, countries and continents that suffered because of political oppression and economic exploitation.. While he loved the poor and the oppressed he hated the capitalists and imperialists. He believed that the only way to deal with capitalism and imperialism was through armed struggle. Although after the successful Cuban Revolution he was offered honorary citizenship, a respectable post of Minister of Industries by his comrade friend and mentor Fidel Castro and was asked to represent Cuba in the United Nations, his restless soul felt suffocated in the beurocratic office and he left home to lead the guerrilla war against United States of America. After his mysterious disappearance from Cuba, American CIA, with the help of Bolivian Government hunted him down and then killed him in 1967. After his death his body disappeared except his two hands that were shown by the Bolivian authorities to prove that they had captured the most wanted man. Che Guevara’s enemies were worried his grave would became a holy shrine for all the anti-imperialistic revolutionaries of the world. They did not realize that Che Guevara’s selfless sacrifices had found him a permanent place in the hearts of millions of freedom fighters worldwide. Che Guevara might be physically dead but his legacy keeps on inspiring people to struggle to make this world a better place to live. All his life he searched and struggled for an ideal man…a New Socialist Man. He was an idealist and finally he sacrificed his life on the altar of his idealism.
After reading the biographies, diaries, letters and speeches of Che Guevara, I became quite intrigued with his personality, philosophy and political strategy. In this letter I will share with you a few glimpses of those significant factors that helped me understand and appreciate the making of a philosopher and guerrilla warrior who created and exported revolutions and dreamt of changing the world.
When I study the early life of Che Guevara I am fascinated that he was “wild” from the very beginning. (Ref 1 p 18). His parents, who themselves had hot tempers could not discipline him. He would not listen to his elders and would run away from home to the bush, an interesting characteristic for a young boy who would become a renowned guerrilla warrior as an adult.
Che Guevara was also forced to face challenges from an early age of two when he was diagnosed with asthma. His asthma was so severe that he and his parents had to spend sleepless nights watching their son gasp for air. His illness became quite a strain for the family and his parents even contemplated divorce.
Because of his asthma Che Guevara could not attend his school regularly till he was nine. That was also a mixed blessing. Being deprived of the regular teaching and discipline of the school he became emotionally very close to his mother and that special relationship lasted all their lives. Che Guevara’s mother Celia was an atheist and had asked the teachers to exempt him from the religious classes. (Ref 1 p 20). Che Guevara’s father Ernesto had a keen fascination with politics. He was quite interested in Spanish Civil War (1936-1938) and when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 he travelled to different cities in the country and made public speeches, as he was worried Hitler might invade Argentina. Being brought up by an atheist mother and a political activist father must have played a significant role in the development of the political consciousness of young Che Guevara who was born in 1928 and was still going through his formative years. Che’s mother alongside being a secular person was also a socialist at heart. She used to visit the poor to help them and invite the under-previliged to her home to serve them. Che Guevara was so impressed by his mother’s altruistic activities that he called it “the discovery of the world through the service entrance.” (Ref 1 p 39)
By the time Che Guevara became a teenager he had developed a critical mind and a rebellious personality. He questioned anything and everything including the social and political values of his community and the world. He did not want to be a follower and to become a leader he had to discover his own philosophy and his own style. To discover his own path in life he took courses in philosophy and started creating a ‘philosophical dictionary’.(Ref 1 p 37). In that dictionary he started writing quotations of great writers and philosophers on various subjects ranging from sexuality to spirituality, from religious dogma to political consciousness. His teachers were impressed that as a teenager he was seriously trying to study psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, stories of Jack London, poetry of Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman and economics of Karl Marx. Che used to get involved in heated and passionate discussions with his peers as well as elders. Alongside his critical mind, he had also developed a sharp tongue. Many of his contemporaries used to feel offended by his brutal honesty but he did not care. He believed he was in search of personal and universal truths.
Che also liked to shock people, whether in big or small things. He hated rules. He would not even follow the basic rules of personal hygiene and cleanliness. He rarely took a shower and his friends started calling him ‘El Loco [crazy] Guevara and ‘Chanco[Pig] as he felt proud in saying ‘ It’s been twenty-four weeks since I washed this rugby shirt” (Ref 1 p 36)
Che had a curious mind. He was as interested in science as he was in literature and philosophy so he decided to become an engineer. But when he nursed his dying grandmother, whom he was very attached to, he decided to become a physician, a doctor and a healer. So he applied to the medical school and was accepted. As a teenager he dreamed of serving the ailing and suffering humanity. He described his ambition, his goal, his ideal and his dream in these words, “I dreamed of becoming a famous investigator…of working indefatigably to find something that could be definitively placed at the disposition of humanity.” (Ref 1 p 42)
While studying medicine he was also exploring his creative, literary and philosophical interests and passions. He was so impressed by revolutionary poets like Pablo Neruda that he started composing poems himself. But his poetry was not a reflection of modernistic philosophy of ‘art for art’s sake’, it was rather for a cause, a noble cause and being a progressive writer he was fascinated with the ideal of dying for one’s cause. He wrote a poem in January 1947. when he was eighteen that said
Die, yes but riddled with
Bullets, destroyed by the boyonets, if not, no. Drowned, no…
A memory more lasting than any name
Is to fight, to die fighting
(Ref 1 p 44 )
This poem provides a glimpse of the psyche of a revolutionary, a guerrilla warrior in the making who fantacizes of becoming a social reformer and flirts with death. Revolution was Che’s beloved and he was mentally preparing himself not only to adore his beloved from a distance but also to die in her arms, with peace, dignity and grace and become a martyr as death would make him immortal. Knowing Che’s future in hindsight the poem sounds so prophetic.
One of the ironies of Che’s life was that the man who was one of the best leaders of guerrilla war in Latin America was rejected by Argentinian army because he suffered from asthma. Those naïve Argentinian officers did not realize that the commitment and dedication to sacrifice one’s life for a cause is more important than any physical illness and disability. Che was overjoyed by this rejection. His biographer Jon Lee Anderson wrote, “During his first year at the university, Ernesto was called by Argentina’s military draft. In the physical check up, his asthma was detected, and he was rejected on grounds of ‘diminished physical abilities’. The decision saved him from spending a year away from his studies in some army barracks, and he was overjoyed, telling friends he ‘thanked his shitty lungs for doing something useful for a change.” (Ref 1 p 45)
While in university Che not only studied medicine but also broadened his philosophical horizons by studying writers like Bertrand Russell and Aldous Huxley. His younger brother Roberto was shocked to see Che studying his father’s twenty five volumes of Contemporary History of the World. It appears as if he was doing his homework preparing a philosophical basis for his future role as a political activist. He was gradually becoming preoccupied with political struggles of the underdeveloped countries to gain freedom and independence. That is why he read Jaharlal Nehru’s book The Discovery of India with great interest. He was becoming aware of the dynamics of world politics and realizing that Britain and United States of America were the imperialistic powers. He was realizing how much industrialization and economic independence was essential to maintain political independence for poor and underdeveloped countries.
Che had two great passions: traveling and writing. Alongside compiling a philosophical dictionary which was composed of writings of other philosophers starting with Ibsen’s quotation “Education is the capacity to confront the situations posed by life” (Ref 1 p 69) reflecting Che’s own ideology, he started writing his own diary and like many other famous writers of 20th century including Anais Nin, Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf, used his diary as a resource for his creative and philosophical writings. Che remained passionate about his diary writing till the last days of his life.
During his studies in the medical school, Che was convinced that medicine can play a significant role in improving the quality of life of people by education and preventing diseases caused by infections and malnutrition. He gradually became a strong supporter of social medicine.
Alongside health and social issues Che was also affected by the political changes of not only Argentina but all of Latin America. He was becoming aware that United States in spite of posing as a symbol of peace, justice and democracy was controlling the masses in poor countries and exploiting them for her economic gains. He also realized that United States was undermining social and political reforms in Latin American countries by supporting army generals and autocratic dictators. As time passed Che became more and more disturbed by his observations and experiences.
Che travelled to different parts of America and then settled in Gutamala for a while. It was there he witnessed the first battle between Capitalism and Communism between America and Gutamala. Anderson wrote, “ Accused of tilting toward Communism, Guatemala’s left-leaning government was coming under mounting attack from Washington for its own 1952 agrarian reform bill… By the end of 1953, the battle lines were cleverly drawn between Guatemala and Washington…” (Ref1 p 123) It was in Guatemala that the rebel found the cause and after realizing “how terrible these capitalistic octopuses are”, Che decided to become an ‘authentic revolutionary.” (Ref 1 p 126). During his stay in Guatemala Che was getting more and more stirred up by the role of U.S.A in Latin America. He was appalled to see how Catholic Church was joing hands with American CIA.
There was a time when Che entertained the idea of combining his socialism with his medical profession by becoming a revolutionary doctor but then he changed his mind as the profession of medicine was too clean for his taste and personality.
During his stay in Guatemala Che met Hilda and they fell in love not only with each other but also with socialist revolution. But their love for revolution was still in the infatuation stage. They were not ready to make a commitment and risk their lives. Che was quite impressed by Ho Chi Minh and his anti-imperialistic philosophy and struggle. Che was fascinated with all those leaders who had inspired their countrymen to take a stand against American domination and exploitation.
Che’s first encounter with violence was when Guatemala was attacked by American planes. He was quite thrilled by the experience. The latent guerrilla warrior in him enjoyed the violence while the doctor in him wanted to help the wounded so he volunteered his services to health brigade. The conflict between the warrior and the healer stayed with him for most of his life. His both instincts, to kill and to heal were intimately connected.
After Guatemala was attacked by the Americans there was a collective outcry and people from different walks of life and schools of thought got together under one flag because they had a common enemy…America. As the crisis escalated American President Eisenhower on one hand authorized more fighter bombers to attack Guetamala and on the other hand “engaged in a blocking maeuver to thwart Guetamala’s request for a special session of the UN Security Council to discuss the crisis.” (Ref 1 p 149) Although Che was an Argentine but he identified with Guetamala because he empathized with all those oppressed people of Latin America who were the victims of Washington. Che was appauled to see the influence US had on UN. Gradually he lost all hope in US as well as UN because all the Western countries supported US and left Guetamala to defend herself alone. He felt sad to see Guetamala at the mercy of America.
Gradually Che became so bitter that he decided to join ‘an armed militia organized by the Communist Youth” (Ref 1 p 151). It was in Guetamala that the rebel found his cause by joining the armed struggle against American imperialism. At one time Che suggested to Hilda that Guetamalans could win against America if they fought a guerrilla war. When Americans gained influence in Guetamala and asked Guetamala military to support Castello Armas all Communists were arrested. Hilda had to go to jail and Che had to find refuge in Argentinian embassy. While Che was doing his soul-searching in the embassy he decided to go to Mexico rather than going back to his homeland. Those were the days Mexico had become the mecca for all left wing revolutionaries. Hilda finally escaped the prison and joined Che in Mexico.
During the political crisis in Guetamala there were hundreds of Communists who had taken asylum in different embassies. American Government encouraged Castello Armas to capture them and murder them by accusing them of criminal charges but Armas refused to cooperate as he was worried it might backfire on him. He was afraid such a drastic and inhumane step could put his government in jeopardy. (Ref 1 p 155)
By the time Che arrived in Mexico he was mentally preparing himself to follow the road of revolution. His mental status is reflected in his letter to his family in response to the gifts he received. He wrote, “ My slogan is little luggage, strong legs and a fakir’s stomach.” (Ref 1 p 157) Mentally he had been secretly travelling on the road to becoming a guerrilla warrior.
It was interesting for me to read that by the time Che moved from Guetamala to Mexico, he was already in the eyes of American Intelligence. The CIA records showed ‘a single sheet of paper about a twenty-five-year-old Argentine physician who had arrived in town the previous January to study medical care and social revolution.” Later on the file for ‘Ernesto Guevara, known as Che, ‘became one of the thickest in the CIA’s global records.” (Ref 1 p 159)
While Che was struggling to find a job in Mexico to survive he was also contemplating about his political future. He was exploring different ways to join the armed struggle as “Ernesto was convinced that the American intervention in Guetamala was merely the first skirmish in what would be a global confrontation between the United States and Communism”. He could see “the storm is coming…” (Ref1 p 163)
While Che and Hilda were volunteering their services in a hospiatal in Mexico, they unexpectedly met their Cuban friend Nico Lopaz who they had known in Guetamala. Lopaz told them that Cuban revolutionaries were trying their best to get their leaders Fidel and his brother Raul Castro released from the prison and putting pressure on Batista, the dictator to have elections in Cuba. (Ref 1 p 165)
Since America was supporting Cuban dictator Batista, he won the unopposed elections. President Eisenhowere was so pleased that he sent Vice President Richard Nixon to congratulate Batista. After winning the election Batista as an act of generosity released Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and eighteen other prisoners from Isle of Pines on Mother’s Day not realizing how these prisoners will change the history of Cuba.
Fidel Castro, who was a revolutionary at heart, became more determined to change the future of his country after being in prison. Castro organized his supporters in Cuba and then went to Mexico to plan a revolution. In Mexico Castro met Che and was impressed to see him in awe with the revolution. Although he was an Argentine, he was willing to join the war of liberation for Cuba. He volunteered his services and joined Castro in his struggle to overthrow Batista. It did not take much time for Che and Castro to join hands as “they identified a common nemesis…the United States.” (ref 1 p 178)
Castro and Che worked together to train and organize a guerrilla army before they decided to take the challenge to free Cuba from the autocratic influences of Batista and America. Che identified so strongly with the struggle of Cubans that he wrote in one of his letters, “ My future is linked with that of the Cuban Revolution. I either triumph with it or die there…” (Ref 1 p 197) It is obvious that Che was already ready to sacrifice his life for his cause, his ideal, his dream, his revolution.
I find it quite fascinating from a psychological point of view that Che, who was from Argentina was willing to sacrifice his life for Cubans. His identity had gone through a major transformation. He could identify with all the oppressed of Latin America. He shared his metamorphosis in these words, “ I identified totally with my comrades of the cause…The concept of “I” disappeared totally to give place to concept “Us”…”(Ref 1 p 200). There were many occasions he was asked why he was fighting for Cuba and he would say, “I consider my fatherland to be not only Argentina, but all of America” (Ref 1 p 309) Che, because of his introspective nature was able to articulate the psychological change many social reformers experience but are unable to formulate
When Che joined the revolutionary army as a soldier he also accepted Fidel Castro as his leader and commander and wrote a wonderful poem in his honour stating,
“Let’s go, ardent prophet of the dawn,
along remote and unmarked paths
to liberate the green caimon you so love…
When the first shot sounds
and in virginal surprise the entire jungle awakens,
there, at your side, serene combatants…you will have us (Ref 1 p 201)
Che was aware that guerrilla warriors were the travellers of dangerous roads of unknown destinations.
.For his revolutionary mission Fidel Castro bought a yacht Gramma from an American boarded his 82 comrades including Che and left for Cuba on November 25, 1956. (Ref 1 p 207) After arriving in Cuba those 82 dedicated soldiers fought a guerrilla war in the jungles of Cuba for nearly two years. For Che it was a profound experience. He not only had close encounters with death, he also had an opportunity to prove to himself and others that in spite of his asthama he was a remarkable warrior and a brave leader. During those two years of war against Batista Che crossed a line, a line that every guerrilla warrior has to cross and show willingness not only to die but also to kill for his cause of liberation, for independence, for justice, for peace. Anderson wrote, “Ernesto [Che] Guevara was now at war, trying to create a revolution…He had crossed a boundary that was invisible to outsiders and had entered a domain where lives could be taken for an ideal and where the end did justify the means…he awoke each day with the prospect of killing and dying for this cause.” (Ref 1 p 233)
Che’s life during the guerrilla war was a profound paradox: he was willing to embrace violence to establish peace. On one hand he was a murderer and on the other hand a healer, one moment a killer and the next moment a saviour. There were moments during the war when he had to choose between the first aid and the ammunition boxes. During those two years he saved and killed many human beings: his enemies, spies as well as traitors. He played contradictory roles with perfection. It seemed as if like a well experienced actor he was able to play multiple roles on the stage of revolution. To perform his roles well he had developed emotional distance a ‘remarkable detachment’ from violence (Ref 1 p 237). Castro was so impressed by his courage, dedication and leadership that he made him the commander. In spite of his strictness he was well respected by his comrades.
After the revolution succeeded and Fidel Castro came into power, he offered Che some of the highest posts in the government. Che became the Minister of Industries and President of the National Bank. Che had a dream of industralizing Latin America as he believed that economic independence was as important as the political independence.
Before Che took over the responsibilities as a Minister he wanted to get rid of his enemies. So he arranged for secret trials and ordered executions of hundreds of military and police officers of Batista Government. There was a time he was known as ‘supreme prosecutor’ (ref 1 p 387) His friends and family members were shocked to see how Che had hardened during the guerrilla war. One side of his personality had become cruel and brutal. When one of his friends challenged his dark side Che told him that in guerrilla war you could not afford to be weak. He stated “ Look, in this thing either you kill first or else you get killed.” (Ref 1 390)
As a Minister of Industries Che travelled all over the world including countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. He wanted to present the Cuban Revolution as a role-model so that it would inspire other revolutionaries to start an armed struggle against imperialism. He made a special trip to Russia to build a Communist bridge between Russia and Cuba. He was the one who convinced Russian Government to offer economic and military support and protect Cuba from Washington. There were a number of attempts by CIA to kill Che, Fidel and Raul but the attempts did not succeed. The American Government even tried to overthrow Cuban Government in the Battle of Pigs but was unsuccessful. There was a time Russian Government agreed to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. Che was thrilled to hear that decision as he was fantasizing using nuclear weapons against America as he hated American Government with passion. Russian Government wanted to teach America a lesson and take revenge of what America had done in Turkey. Khrushchev stated, “The Americans only understand force. We can give them back the same medicine they gave us in Turkey [where the United States had installed nuclear missiles pointing at the USSR]…” (Ref 1 p 525) Che was worried that before Russian Government would install the nuclear missiles in Cuba , America would find out the details and sabortage the plan. When he expressed his worries Khrushchev tried to reassure him by saying, “You don’t have to worry; there will be no problem from the US. And if there is a problem, we will send the Baltic Fleet.” (Ref 1 p 529). Ironically American CIA was observing every move of Che and they were suspicious of his relationship with Russia. Che’s fears came true and America found out the secret plan and it got aborted before it reached full term. Che felt betrayed when he found out that Khrushchev made a secret deal with Kennedy and Castro lost control with anger. “Only a day later, Fidel learned that Khrushchev had made a deal with JFK behind his back—offering to pull out the missiles in exchange for a promise not to invade Cuba and a withdrawal of US Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Fidel was incredulous and furious, and reportedly smashed a mirror with his fist when he was told.” (Ref 1 p 544) Nobody would have imagined that Che, who was fascinated with violence, in his own bizzarre and surreilistic way “would bring the world to the brink of nuclear war.” (Ref 1 p 530)
Che gradually became disillusioned with Russian Government also. He could see that Russians were not committed to the principles of socialism. They were not practicing what they preached. Being a sincere, outspoken and brutally honest person he warned them that they were ‘doomed to “return to capitalism” and fail in their revolution. (Ref 1 p 697)
During his stay in Cuba Che attended UN meetings in New York in 1964 representing Cuba and openly criticized American policies by stating “Cuba is one of the trenches of freedom in the world. Situated a few steps away from US imperialism, we have shown by our actions, our daily example, that in the present conditions a people can liberate themselves and keep themselves free.” (Ref 3) He had chosen America as his enemy number one and in return became enemy number one of America.
Che remained in Cuba for a few years and helped to establish the new regime but being a guerrilla warrior at heart he could not remain an administrator for very long. His restless soul longed for jungles and the battle ground. He had tasted blood and the thrill of the guerrilla war. In the depths of his soul he believed that guerrilla warrior was like a mystic following the motto of “little luggage, strong legs and a fakir’s stomach”. He heard the call and left Cuba to organize armed struggle against imperialism. He wanted to export revolution to all the continents of the world. He believed in a global war against American Imperialism. In 1965 he mysteriously disappeared from Cuba and took a new identity.
While Che was in hiding he was training guerrilla warriors. He gradually realized that he was naïve and idealistic in some ways. There were times he could not find leaders like Fidel Castro to lead the revolution and warriors who had the same dedication and discipline like him. During his underground days he came more and more angry, resentful and bitter against America. Finally he released an article in which he expressed his profound views that people who believed in socialistic revolution had to embrace hate not love because he saw “Hatred as an element of the struggle; a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us above and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to, and transforming him into an effective, violent, seductive and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.” (Ref 2 p) Che believed in fighting fire with fire but finally the fire of his enemy consumed him.
It took America two years to find him and hunt him down in Bolivia with the help of Bolivian Government. After killing him in 1967 his dead body was secretly burried except his two hands that were amputated to prove that Che was killed. Che, all his life played with fire and death. He was dangerously adventorous and risked his life many times for his cause, his ideal and his revolution. Many felt he was ‘driven perhaps by some suicidal impulse.” (ref 3 p 9) In Che the homicidal and suicidal impulses were mysteriously and mystically intertwined. A man with tremendous potential, courage, insight and wisdom was killed before his 40th birthday.
It took another thirty years for his dear ones to put pressure on Bolivian authorities to find the secret grave and discover the dead body. Finally they succeeded and then his dead body was brought back to Cuba where he was buried with great honour in 1997. Even after his death Che has remained a symbol of armed struggle against imperialism. He was so committed and dedicated that instead of leading a luxurious life as a Minister, he chose to sacrifice his life for revolution. In Bolivia even his worst enemy who saw him before the execution stated that he died with dignity and grace.
After his death Che became a myth, a legend, and a role-model for millions of revolutionaries who wear him on their t-shirts as for them he ‘represents the highest and noblest attainment an individual can achieve.” (Ref 3 p 9) Even Jean Paul Sartre, the great existentialist philosopher of 20th century complimented him by stating that Che was “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age.” (Ref 4)
As American imperialism grows in the world, so does the popularity of Che as he has become one of the greatest symbols of armed struggle against imperialism. He had the infinite capacity to love and hate at the same time.
1. Anderson Jon Lee…Che Guevara…A Revolutionary Life Grove Press New York USA 1997
2. Guevara Che …Guerrilla Warfare …Scholarly Resources USA 1997
3. Guevara Che…Che Guevara Speaks…Pathfinder Publishers USA 2000
4. James Daniel…Che Guevara …A Biography…
Cooper Square Press USA 2001