On Oct. 8, 1967, Ernesto “Che” Guevara—a revolutionary hero—was captured in battle in the jungles of Bolivia. Che was leading Bolivian and Cuban guerrillas in a struggle to free Bolivia from capitalist and imperialist exploitation.
On Oct. 9 the Bolivian military—at the behest of the CIA—executed Che. Trying to conceal the summary execution, the soldiers shot him multiple times in the leg. Che’s body was then photographed and exhibited in a gruesome display of imperialist arrogance.
Che and Fidel Castro—leader of the Cuban revolution—were seen as heroes for the oppressed people of Latin America, Africa and Asia. This is why the imperialists felt it necessary to display Che’s body.
Although Che was killed in battle, the revolutionary legacy of his career as a guerrilla fighter and communist thinker lives on. Despite decades of vilification during his death and commercialization following it, Che remains a potent symbol for the revolutionary struggle for national liberation and socialism.
Che Guevara was born on June 14, 1928, in Rosario, Argentina, the eldest of five children. His parents, Ernesto Guevara Lynch and Celia de la Serna, were involved in various political campaigns.
Celia de la Serna was an ardent feminist. She held endless meetings in her own home during the many struggles led by Argentine women during the 1920s and 30s. Ernesto Guevara Lynch enrolled Che, at 11 years old, in an anti-fascist youth group called Accion Argentina.
Che was deeply impacted by the anti-imperialist struggle and political ferment of Latin America and elsewhere during his youth.
Travels through Latin America
Che entered medical school in 1948 and obtained his medical degree in 1953. During this time, he took two trips through Latin America. One motorcycle trip through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela with his biochemist friend, Alberto Granada, in 1952, is chronicled in “The Motorcycle Diaries.”
The two encountered stunning poverty alongside the natural beauty of Latin America.
They met people struggling against poverty, who made deep impressions on them. In “The Motorcycle Diaries,” Che wrote of two communist coal miners they met in Chuquicamata: “The couple, numb with cold, huddling together in the desert night, was a living symbol of the proletariat the world over. They didn’t have a single miserable blanket to sleep under, so we gave them one of ours.”
These trips gave Che an intense ambition to combat misery and injustice, laying the basis for the revolutionary he would become.
At the end of 1953, Che traveled to Guatemala, where he stayed until the bourgeois nationalist president, Jacobo Arbenz, was overthrown by a CIA-sponsored coup in September 1954.
Throughout the year he spent in Guatemala, the CIA and right-wing Guatemalan forces were plotting the overthrow. Arbenz had nationalized United Fruit Company’s immense landholding. In retaliation, the CIA unleashed a destabilization campaign.
Che joined a militia to fight against the coming attack. He already considered himself a Marxist. The lessons of the coup proved to him in practice what he had studied in theory.
In 1954, as the puppet Castillo Armas and the Guatemalan army unleashed brutal repression in Guatemala, Guevara fled to Mexico.
Meeting Fidel, revolutionary victory
In Mexico, Che met Raul and Fidel Castro and a number of other revolutionary Cuban exiles.
Fidel Castro had led a group of Cuban rebels in an attack on the Moncada military barracks controlled by U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista on July 26, 1953. Many died and the remainder were imprisoned and tortured. The revolutionaries, when released from prison, traveled to Mexico to plan their next steps.
Raul Castro introduced Che to Fidel. In their first meeting, Fidel told Che of their plans to return to Cuba to launch a revolutionary war. He invited Che to join them.
Che wrote: “Yico [an exiled Cuban revolutionary in Guatemala] was right when he told us that if Cuba had produced anything good since Marti it was Fidel Castro. He will make the revolution. … It’s only someone like him that I could go all out for.”
The rebels landed in Cuba on the boat Granma in December 1956. Although the landing was disastrous and the majority of their comrades were killed, it was the beginning of a revolutionary war that would lead to the victory of the Cuban working class.
During this time, Che proved to be an outstanding military leader. He quickly became a leader of the July 26 Movement, eventually becoming a top commander.
On Dec. 29, 1958, Che and Camilo Cienfuegos led the attack on Santa Clara—a decisive battle in the revolutionary struggle. The fierce battle raged for three days and routed the government forces. At the same time, Fidel led forces in the seizure of Santiago de Cuba.
Batista was forced to flee on Jan.1, 1959—the revolution had triumphed.
The Cuban revolution began the long and difficult task of building socialism—90 miles from the coast of the U.S. imperialists. Rents and utilities were immediately cut in half. Racial discrimination was banned. Land reform was instituted.
Che was honored for his role in the revolution and declared a citizen of Cuba in February. He played a huge role in the economic and social development of Cuba during the period of the revolution.
Che was designated as the head of the Dept. of Industry in October 1959. In November, he was named president of the national bank. He was instrumental in the rapid reorientation of the Cuban economy from 1959 to 1961.
U.S.-owned plantations, refineries, mines and factories were nationalized.
Che emphasized the role of consciousness and collective versus individual incentives in the construction of a new socialist society. But he did not only speak about the development of a new society. Along with other leaders of the Cuban revolution, Che worked hundreds of hours in the sugar cane fields, factories and warehouses, and at construction sites.
Cuba’s revolution radically transformed Cuban society. The revolution also had great significance for the oppressed peoples of the world. Cuba did not isolate itself from the world struggle but saw itself as part of that struggle.
Che, like other Cuban leaders, was dedicated to the liberation of the world’s working and oppressed people. For this reason, he secretly left Cuba in 1965 for the Congo. Che and 100 volunteers joined the revolutionary forces there.
Che spent eight months in the Congo before returning to Cuba in December 1965. He again gathered a group of volunteers that trained to go to Bolivia. He arrived in Bolivia in October 1966. A group of Cuban and Bolivian revolutionaries launched a guerilla struggle there in March 1967.
The campaign in Bolivia, beset by internal difficulties, still won some victories. Che had already drawn the wrath of the Pentagon and the CIA, both of which now focused on the campaign in Bolivia. Washington made the destruction of the rebel group a top priority.
The guerrillas fought fiercely but were surrounded on Oct. 8 1967. Che was captured and executed.
Nine days later, Fidel Castro spoke to a rally of over one million people in Havana. Declaring Oct. 8 the “Day of the Heroic Guerrilla,” he said, “Che died defending no other interest, no other cause than the cause of the exploited and oppressed of this continent. Che died defending no other cause than the cause of the poor and humble of this earth … Before history, people who act as he did, people who do and give everything for the cause of the poor, grow in stature with each passing day and find a deeper place in the heart of the people with each passing day.”