The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Ernesto (Che) Guevara

1928 - 1967

Though communism may have lost its fire, he remains the potent symbol of rebellion and the alluring zeal of revolution
By ARIEL DORFMAN for Time Magazine


By the time Ernesto Guevara, known to us as Che, was murdered in the jungles of Bolivia in October 1967, he was already a legend to my generation, not only in Latin America but also around the world.

Like so many epics, the story of the obscure Argentine doctor who abandoned his profession and his native land to pursue the emancipation of the poor of the earth began with a voyage. In 1956, along with Fidel Castro and a handful of others, he had crossed the Caribbean in the rickety yacht Granma on the mad mission of invading Cuba and overthrowing the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Landing in a hostile swamp, losing most of their contingent, the survivors fought their way to the Sierra Maestra. A bit over two years later, after a guerrilla campaign in which Guevara displayed such outrageous bravery and skill that he was named comandante, the insurgents entered Havana and launched what was to become the first and only victorious socialist revolution in the Americas. The images were thereafter invariably gigantic. Che the titan standing up to the Yanquis, the world's dominant power. Che the moral guru proclaiming that a New Man, no ego and all ferocious love for the other, had to be forcibly created out of the ruins of the old one. Che the romantic mysteriously leaving the revolution to continue, sick though he might be with asthma, the struggle against oppression and tyranny.

His execution in Vallegrande at the age of 39 only enhanced Guevara's mythical stature. That Christ-like figure laid out on a bed of death with his uncanny eyes almost about to open; those fearless last words ("Shoot, coward, you're only going to kill a man") that somebody invented or reported; the anonymous burial and the hacked-off hands, as if his killers feared him more after he was dead than when he had been alive: all of it is scalded into the mind and memory of those defiant times. He would resurrect, young people shouted in the late '60s; I can remember fervently proclaiming it in the streets of Santiago, Chile, while similar vows exploded across Latin America. !No lo vamos a olvidar! We won't let him be forgotten.

More than 30 years have passed, and the dead hero has indeed persisted in collective memory, but not exactly in the way the majority of us would have anticipated. Che has become ubiquitous: his figure stares out at us from coffee mugs and posters, jingles at the end of key rings and jewelry, pops up in rock songs and operas and art shows. This apotheosis of his image has been accompanied by a parallel disappearance of the real man, swallowed by the myth. Most of those who idolize the incendiary guerrilla with the star on his beret were born long after his demise and have only the sketchiest knowledge of his goals or his life. Gone is the generous Che who tended wounded enemy soldiers, gone is the vulnerable warrior who wanted to curtail his love of life lest it make him less effective in combat and gone also is the darker, more turbulent Che who signed orders to execute prisoners in Cuban jails without a fair trial.

This erasure of complexity is the normal fate of any icon. More paradoxical is that the humanity that worships Che has by and large turned away from just about everything he believed in. The future he predicted has not been kind to his ideals or his ideas. Back in the '60s, we presumed that his self-immolation would be commemorated by social action, the downtrodden rising against the system and creating — to use Che's own words — two, three, many Vietnams. Thousands of luminous young men, particularly in Latin America, followed his example into the hills and were slaughtered there or tortured to death in sad city cellars, never knowing that their dreams of total liberation, like those of Che, would not come true. If Vietnam is being imitated today, it is primarily as a model for how a society forged in insurrection now seeks to be actively integrated into the global market. Nor has Guevara's uncompromising, unrealistic style of struggle, or his ethical absolutism, prevailed. The major revolutions of the past quarter-century (South Africa, Iran, the Philippines, Nicaragua), not to mention the peaceful transitions to democracy in Latin America, East Asia and the communist world, have all entailed negotiations with former adversaries, a give and take that could not be farther from Che's unyielding demand for confrontation to the death. Even someone like Subcomandante Marcos, the spokesman for the Chiapas Maya revolt, whose charisma and moral stance remind us of Che's, does not espouse his hero's economic or military theories.

How to understand, then, Che Guevara's pervasive popularity, especially among the affluent young?

Perhaps in these orphaned times of incessantly shifting identities and alliances, the fantasy of an adventurer who changed countries and crossed borders and broke down limits without once betraying his basic loyalties provides the restless youth of our era with an optimal combination, grounding them in a fierce center of moral gravity while simultaneously appealing to their contemporary nomadic impulse. To those who will never follow in his footsteps, submerged as they are in a world of cynicism, self-interest and frantic consumption, nothing could be more vicariously gratifying than Che's disdain for material comfort and everyday desires. One might suggest that it is Che's distance, the apparent impossibility of duplicating his life anymore, that makes him so attractive. And is not Che, with his hippie hair and wispy revolutionary beard, the perfect postmodern conduit to the nonconformist, seditious '60s, that disruptive past confined to gesture and fashion? Is it conceivable that one of the only two Latin Americans to make it onto TIME's 100 most important figures of the century can be comfortably transmogrified into a symbol of rebellion precisely because he is no longer dangerous?

I wouldn't be too sure. I suspect that the young of the world grasp that the man whose poster beckons from their walls cannot be that irrelevant, this secular saint ready to die because he could not tolerate a world where los pobres de la tierra, the displaced and dislocated of history, would be eternally relegated to its vast margins.

Even though I have come to be wary of dead heroes and the overwhelming burden their martyrdom imposes on the living, I will allow myself a prophecy. Or maybe it is a warning. More than 3 billion human beings on this planet right now live on less than $2 a day. And every day that breaks, 40,000 children — more than one every second! — succumb to diseases linked to chronic hunger. They are there, always there, the terrifying conditions of injustice and inequality that led Che many decades ago to start his journey toward that bullet and that photo awaiting him in Bolivia.

The powerful of the earth should take heed: deep inside that T shirt where we have tried to trap him, the eyes of Che Guevara are still burning with impatience.


Guevara, Ernesto (1928-67), Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary and cultural ideal for a generation enamoured of style over substance, known as ‘Ché’ from a verbal mannerism distinctive of his native land. His contribution to military theory was the idea of a guerrilla ‘focus’ to create revolutionary conditions by attracting the disaffected and provoking repression, a variant of the French Revolutionaries' politique du pire (the politics of painting things as black as possible), which overlooks the fact that ruthless repression usually succeeds.

Of Spanish-Irish descent, he grew up in a provincial bourgeois home. Although he suffered from asthma, he was a vigorous athlete as well as a scholar who travelled extensively in Latin America and was appalled by the poverty he observed. After completing his first medical degree he witnessed the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup against the socialist Arbenz regime in Guatemala, which imbued him with an abiding hatred for the USA. Moving to Mexico, he met the Castro brothers and joined their November 1956 expedition against Cuban dictator Batista in Cuba. Wounded in an ambush shortly after landing, he was one of the handful who made it to the Sierra Maestra mountains.

The only thing that can be said in defence of his inaccurate account of the Cuban Revolution and the conclusions he drew from it is that he must have believed it, or else he would not have staked his life on repeating it elsewhere. It succeeded because revolutionaries in the cities absorbed Batista's attention, because his army was militarily useless, and because the USA cut off support. Once the dictator fled on 1 January 1959, the triumvirate of the Castro brothers and Guevara deliberately provoked the Americans to do their worst. When this proved to be the astoundingly inept Bay of Pigs invasion, the revolution was affirmed and Cuba's appeal both to the USSR as a beachhead in the western hemisphere and to wounded Latin American nationalism became irresistible.

Over the next years Guevara occupied key economic posts with an unbroken record of costly failure. Dogmatically committed to the idea that voluntarism could replace incentives, he preferred the glamour of propaganda and exhortation to the dreary work of trying to bring to completion the unrealistic projects he launched, and Cuba is still littered with rusting monuments to his crash industrialization programme. During his international forays he also trampled on Soviet sensibilities by questioning their world revolutionary leadership, but by 1964-5 Cuba was so deeply in debt to the USSR that its independence became tenuous and his own position untenable. Although his friendship with Fidel remained strong to the end, Cuba was also not big enough for two Messiahs.

In 1965 he resigned all offices and his citizenship in order to give Fidel a fig leaf of political deniability and went to Africa, where he led a Cuban contingent in the chaos of the ex-Belgian Congo, well after any possibility of making a difference had evaporated (see Congo, UN operations in). Meanwhile Fidel had found himself obliged to make his renunciation letters public and Guevara found himself with nowhere to go. In the face of his desire to return to certain death in Argentina, Fidel persuaded him to lead an expedition to Bolivia as a means to that end, while convincing the Bolivian communists that the intention was to create a centrally located continental guerrilla training school.

Guevara made a bad start worse by his doctrinaire commitment to the ‘focus’ concept in the absence of any local preconditions, and by a desire to record every detail of what he believed was a fresh new chapter in the history of Latin America. Once its attention was drawn to his presence, the Bolivian army had little difficulty in wiping out the ‘focus’ and capturing him. They shot him because he was less trouble to them dead than alive.

The dozens of idealistic Latin Americans who had already died seeking to emulate his example became thousands over the next decade. Internationally, he became the idol of the worldwide student revolts of 1968, for which his sexual promiscuity, undisciplined spontaneity, and massive ego made him an entirely appropriate icon.


Ernesto Guevara (1928-1967) was an Argentine revolutionary, guerrilla theoretician, and the trusted adviser of Cuban premier Fidel Castro.

Ernesto Guevara was born on June 14, 1928, in Rosario. Of Spanish and Irish descent, he suffered from asthma, spending his childhood in a mountain town near Rosario. At an early age he read history and sociology books and was particularly influenced by the writings of the Chilean Communist poet Pablo Neruda. At 19 Guevara entered the medical school of the University of Buenos Aires.

In 1952 "Che" Guevara ("Che" is an Argentine equivalent of "pal") broke off his studies in order to set out with a friend on a transcontinental trip which included motorcycling to Chile, riding a raft on the Amazon, and taking a plane to Florida. He returned to Argentina to resume his studies, graduating with a degree of doctor of medicine and surgery in 1953.

Late in 1953 Guevara left Argentina, this time for good. He moved to Guatemala, where he had his first experience of a country at war. He supported the Jacobo Arbenz regime, and when it was overthrown in 1954 Guevara sought asylum in the Argentine embassy, remaining there until he could travel to Mexico.

It was here that Guevara met the Castro brothers. At the time Fidel Castro was planning an expedition against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, and Guevara agreed to go along as a doctor. On Dec. 2, 1956, the expeditionaries landed in eastern Cuba, becoming the nucleus of a guerrilla force which operated in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. The guerrillas contributed to the crumbling of the Batista regime on Dec. 31, 1958.

In January 1959 Guevara was one of the first rebel commanders to enter Havana and take control of the capital. He held several posts in the Castro government:commander of La Cabaña fortress, president of the National Bank, and minister of industries. But always, most important of all, he was one of Castro's most influential advisers. Guevara visited Communist countries in the fall of 1960 to build up trade relations with the Soviet bloc and criticized United States policy toward Cuba. He also directed an unsuccessful plan to bring rapid industrialization to Cuba and advocated the supremacy of moral over material incentives to increase production. Guevara also masterminded Cuba's subversive program in Latin America and wrote extensively on this subject. In his first book, Guerrilla Warfare (1960), he provided basic instructions on this type of conflict.

Guevara's official tasks did not cure him of his restlessness. He continued to travel. In December 1964 he addressed the United Nations General Assembly and then set out on a long journey to Europe, Africa, and Asia. After his return to Havana he surprisingly disappeared from public view. His wanderings took him to Africa to lead a guerrilla movement which failed. He returned to Cuba, preparing a team of Cuban army officers who would accompany him to his next fighting area, Bolivia.

Guevara expected that a spreading guerrilla operation in Bolivia would force United States intervention, thus creating "two, three, or many Vietnams." Instead the Bolivian army tracked down and annihilated the guerrillas and captured Guevara on Oct. 8, 1967. The next day Guevara was executed.











This web page was last updated on: 10 December, 2008