CUBA – Over 20,000 people, including social activists, regional leaders and Cuban functionaries, will tomorrow (October, 9) throng la Higuera, a village where historical Cuban revolutionary and world icon Che Guevera met his death. Guevara was an Argentine born revolutionary who helped topple Cuba’s US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, wrote a lot on Marxism and guerilla warfare and sought to export socialism worldwide. For the 53 years since his death, Guevara has become an icon whose life and death have been romanticized.
The jungle where he was captured and the schoolhouse where he was killed are tourist attractions and Guevara’s face, with his thick black hair, scruffy beard and familiar beret has been printed on T-shirts, walls, banners and millions of taxis, matatus, buses and private cars across the world have a sticker of him on their windscreens. Many prominent figures in the world, including former boxing champion Mike Tyson, have Guevara’s face tattooed on their bodies as a show of solidarity with the man who is arguably the poster boy of revolutionary struggle and a counter-cultural symbol of rebellion across the world.
Born on 14 June 1928, Guevara was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, physician, author, guerrilla leader and military theorist. As a young medical student, Guevara traveled throughout South America and was radicalized by the poverty, hunger, and disease he witnessed.
His burgeoning desire to help overturn what he saw as the capitalist exploitation of Latin America solidified his socialist political ideology and later on in Mexico city, he met Raul and Fidel Castro, joined their July, 26, movement and sailed to Juba with the intention of overthrowing U.S-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Guevara soon rose to prominence among the insurgents, was promoted to second in command and played a pivotal role in the victorious two-year guerrilla campaign that deposed the Batista regime. Following the Cuban Revolution, Guevara performed a number of key roles in the new government. These included reviewing the appeals and firing squads for those convicted as war criminals during the revolutionary tribunals, instituting agrarian land reform as minister of industries, helping spearhead a successful nationwide literacy campaign, serving as both national bank president and instructional director for Cuba’s armed forces, and traversing the globe as a diplomat on behalf of Cuban socialism.
Cuban former president Fidel Castro said Che Guevara was a daring and an exemplary leader who had great moral authority over his troops. Castrol further remarked that Guevara took too many risks that bordered on foolhardiness.
Guevara’s teenage lieutenant Joel Iglesias recounts how Guevara’s military exploits won him admiration from everybody, including his enemies. He recounted the time he had been wounded in battle stating; ‘Che ran out to me, defying the bullets, threw me over his shoulder and got me out of there. The enemy did not dare fire at him…later I got to learn that he made a great impression on them when they saw him run out with his pistol stuck in his belt, ignoring the danger, they didn’t dare shoot.
In Algiers, Algeria on 24th February 1965, Guevara made what turned out to be his last public appearance on the international stage when he delivered a speech at an economic seminar on Afro-Asian solidarity in which he accused the socialist countries of conspiring with the exploiting western countries. Two weeks after his Algiers speech, Guevara dropped out of public life and then vanished all together. His whereabouts were a great mystery in Cuba and some Cubans attributed it to the failure of the Cuban industrialization scheme he had advocated while minister of industries and pressure exerted on Castro by Soviet officials who approved of Guevara’s pro-Chinese communist stance.
On 3rd October 1965, Castro publically acknowledged receiving a letter from Che Guevara in which he reaffirmed his enduring solidarity with the Cuban revolution but declared his intention to leave Cuba to fight for the revolutionary cause abroad. He also resigned from all his positions in the Cuban government and renounced his honorary Cuban citizenship. It is reported that as he did this, he was already in Africa, particularly in the Congo offering his knowledge and experience as a guerilla to the ongoing conflict in the Congo.
Guevara, his deputy Victor Dreke and 12 other Cuban revolutionaries arrived in the Congo and were later joined by about 100 Afro-Cubans.
For some time, they allied with guerilla leader Laurent Desire Kabila who had helped supporters of the overthrown President Patrice Lumumba to lead an unsuccessful revolt months earlier. As an admirer of the late Lumumba, Guevara felt that his death could be avenged but soon became disillusioned with the poor discipline of Kabila’s troops and later dismissed him, stating “nothing leads me to believe he is the man of the hour”.
But like Gamel Abdul Nasser had warned, Guevara’s mission in Congo became a disaster and later that year, suffering from dysentery and disheartened after seven months of defeat, Guevara left Congo with the six Cuban survivors of his 12-man column. He stated that he had planned to send the wounded back to Cuba and fight in Congo alone until his death but months later while recounting why he did not fight to the death, he said; “The human element failed. There is no will to fight. The rebel leaders are corrupt and nothing can be done.”
Guevara was reluctant to return to Cuba and spent the next six months living clandestinely at the Cuban embassy in Dar es Salaam and later at a Cuban safe house in Prague. While in Europe, he made a secret visit to former Argentine President Juan Peron to whom he confided his plan to formulate a communist revolution to bring all Latin America under socialist control beginning with Bolivia. Peron warned him that the move would be suicidal but Guevara had already made up his mind. As Guevara prepared to attack Bolivia, he secretly travelled back to Cuba in July 1966 to visit Castrol as well as to see his wife and to write a last letter to his five children to be read upon his death which ended with him instructing them; ‘Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world.
This is the most beautiful quality in a revolution.’
Before departing for Bolivia, Guevara altered his appearance by shaving off his beard and much of his hair, also dying it grey to hide his identity. Guevara’s guerilla force, numbering about 50 men and operating as the National liberation Army of Bolivia scored some early successes against the Bolivian army but the campaign failed miserably because Guevara was unable to attract inhabitants of the local area to join his militia during the eleven months he attempted recruitment, lost radio contact with Cuba, ran out of supplies and was plagued by illness and vicious insects. As if this wasn’t enough, the United States soon got wind of Guevara’s presence in Bolivia and sent CIA agents and military advisors to assist the regime of Rene Barrientos.
On October, 7, 1967, an informant apprised the Bolivian Special Forces of the location of Guevara and on the morning of October 8, they encircled the area triggering a battle where Guevara was wounded. It is reported that a wounded Guevara, his gun rendered useless threw up his arms in surrender and shouted to the soldiers; ‘Do not shoot. I am Che Guevara and I am worth more to you alive than dead’. He was tied up and taken to a dilapidated mud schoolhouse in the nearby village of La Higuera on the evening of October 8, a remote village that has since turned into a tourist attraction. Cornered and in eminent danger, Guevara asked for something to smoke and one of the soldiers offered him some tobacco.
Later at night, Guevara despite having his hands tied kicked a Bolivian army officer against the wall after he attempted to grab his pipe from his mouth as a souvenir while he was still smoking it and spat in the face of another soldier who attempted to interview him moments before his execution on October, 9, 1967 on the orders of the Bolivian president Rene Barrientos.