If you’ve lived almost anywhere in the world at some point in the past 70 years, then you will have no problem recognizing this image:
For those of you who have been living under a rock, this is Che Guevara, the legendary Argentinian Marxist revolutionary who has become a symbol of anti-capitalism and leftist philosophies throughout the world.
If you’ve seen this picture on a few hundreds hats, shirts, bags and bumper stickers, and always wondered why the man is loved by so many people – and hated by others – it’s time to end the mystery.
Che Guevara – The Early Years
Che Guevara was born in June 1928. His real name was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, but he was nicknamed “Ché” (which means ‘pal’ or ‘buddy’) later in his life by his friends because he excessively used the word “Ché” to address his friends and comrades.
As a young man, Che Guevara studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires, and took a motorcycle trip through South America with his friend, Alberto Granada, an adventure that has since been immortalized in the movie, The Motorcycle Diaries. On that trip, Che’s entire philosophy changed, after seeing the abject poverty and negative effects of capitalist interests in the region. He was radicalized, and his life would never be the same.
Che became involved in Guatemala’s social reforms as a young man, but when the leadership of that country was overthrown as the result of a CIA-backed coup, to serve the capitalistic interests of the United Fruit Company, it was the last straw. Che Guevara continued to develop into an anti-capitalist figure, both in Guatemala and later in Mexico, where he first met the Castro brothers. He had a similar mindset as the ambitious Cuban brothers, and later traveled to Cuba with them, where he rose in the ranks of leadership. His transition was complete. From conservative academic doctor to radicalized revolutionary leader in the span of a few years.
The Cuban Revolution
Guevara was passionately devoted to the cause of the everyman, and the deposition of capitalistic interests affecting and controlling the lives of the lower classes. However, he also proved to have a brilliant military mind, and his guerrilla tactics employed during the two-year Cuban Revolution likely turned the tide of the war against Fulgencio Batista. This was a leader that was completely backed by American interests, so Che and the Castro brothers decided to reclaim the country as their own.
Che’s notoriety only grew, and he was soon named second-in-command. Once the Revolution was over, the victorious Che showed his brutal nature as a leader in the new government. This is where the story of Che Guevara takes a darker turn, and much of the reason why Che Guevara is seen with an equal amount of devotion as derision.
Che Guevara was the leader to institute firing squads to execute the previous leaders of Cuba, who were deemed war criminals. Later on in his term as a leader in the Cuban government, he helped battle back the Bay of Pigs Invasion, earning him an even bigger target on his back from the US government. He was also instrumental in bringing about the Cuban Missile Crisis, as he encouraged cooperation with Russia, sparking one of the most tense moments in the Cold War.
The End and the Legacy
Two years before he died, Che Guevara decided to take his revolutionary ideas to other parts of the world where people were afflicted and suffering. He had already inspired tens of thousands of insurgents in various parts of South America, Mexico and Cuba, and the storm of Communism was on the rise. First traveling to Congo, and then traveling to Bolivia, he was eventually captured by the CIA and executed.
The end of his life made him a martyr, and the hundreds of thousands of people who had been inspired and led by him have kept his spirit burning in every way possible. Despite his deplorable methods of seizing and retaining power, and his blurred lines of social justice in the newly formed Cuban government, he remains a cultural icon for millions of people. His image is used in popular media and advertising constantly, and even 50 years later, his iconic image stirs the revolutionary spirit in people.
The reason the story of Che Guevara is so intriguing is because the jury is still technically “out” on him as a leader, revolutionary and person. Some call him a murderer, others a brave liberator who fought against many of the injustices that we are still suffering today as a result of capitalistic influence.
He was also not a one-dimensional man. He was a prolific writer, essayist, and worked as a diplomat in some crucial moments in 20th century history. His theories on military tactics remain critical texts, and he is respected in many circles. He was hailed as a hero by the people of Cuba for his agrarian land reforms and his devotion to the common people, even creating a nationwide literacy campaign.
Were some of Che’s actions violent, cruel and illegal? Yes. Were some of his actions beneficial and life-changing for oppressed populations? Yes.
The debate will never truly be closed on Che Guevara, as his martyrdom will forever stand for more than his individual life. For any people who feel oppressed by capitalist overlords, or prevented from enjoying life and freedom, Che’s bust will continue to inspire. Some of his writings were radical and frightening, while others have a timeless quality that are particularly quotable: “I don’t care if I fall as long as someone else picks up my gun and keeps on shooting.”
With all the facts of his life – albeit abbreviated – laid out here before you, perhaps you understand the difficult question that multiple generations have faced since Che Guevara was killed.