LAST_UPDATETue, 15 May 2018 11am

Che Guevara: The Inspirational Freedom Fighter

This article is a tribute to Ernesto "Che" Guevara (June 14, 1928 - October 9, 1967) on the 83rd anniversary of his birth.



It’s been almost forty-three years after his death by way of execution in October 9, 1967, though the name and image of Ernesto "Che" Guevara’s (birth name: Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna) are still very much alive and well. To others, 'El Che' is nothing but a spokesman of a failing ideology and a ruthless executioner who did not afford others a legal process but, to some, he is a selfless hero who had lived, fought and died for what he believes in. Nelson Mandela has referred to him as: "An inspiration for every human being who loves freedom". There’s no denying the story of Che’s political struggle has captured the popular imagination so much that his image has become an iconic symbol of counterculture worldwide. College students throughout every continent still have posters of El Che and don T-shirts emblazoned with the late Latin American revolutionary’s face. 


.As one of the most recognizable and influential revolutionary figures of the twentieth century, Che, however has been described in a bibliography by Robert J Scauzillo as “more a symbolic representation of these struggles than an intellectual or philosophical leader”. In fact, according to Latin American Historian, Marc Becker, since the 1960s specific parts of Che’s thought (particularly his foco theory of guerrilla warfare) have become discredited. Scauzillo also concluded that Che’s martyrdom “has been given more importance than what he accomplished in his lifetime.”

Whether he is seen as a winner or loser, history still favors Che as his life represents a selfless dedication to the concerns of the underclass. His fight encourages people to place the needs of the broader society above their own personal and materialistic desires, and a willingness to make extensive personal sacrifices to achieve a more just and equable social order. With his death at the hands of the military in Bolivia he became a martyr and a prophet for leftist causes and belief.



Che’s Life and Times


.Che was born in June 14, 1928, to a middle-class family in Rosario, Argentina. The eldest of five children in an Argentine family of Spanish, Basque and Irish descent, his father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, was an engineer. He was nicknamed “Che” years later by Cuban revolutionaries in Mexico. The word “Che” (roughly translated as “hey you”) came from the Guarani Indians that is commonly used in Argentina. It was in 1959, after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution that he became a Cuban citizen and legally adopted Che as part of his name.

His family was also known to have held leftist ideas, including opposition to the institutional power of the church and support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. His mother, Celia de la Serna had an important influence on the formation of his social conscience. In 1948 he enrolled in University of Buenos Aires to study medicine. Although Che eventually graduated, he was never seriously committed to the profession. Almost a decade later, after arriving in Cuba with Fidel Castro to launch an insurrectionary war against the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship, when forced to choose he decided to carry bullets instead of stethoscopes.



Conscious-Raising Motorcycle Journeys


.In his early twenties, Che made two motorcycle trips in which he observed first-hand the lives of workers and peasants for the first time. In 1950 he took a four-thousand-mile trip alone through Argentina on a moped. Later on, during 1951 and 1952 he journeyed through South America on a 500cc Norton with a radical doctor and leprologist named Alberto Granado. These trips opened his eyes to the political and economic realities of Latin America and the poverty and exploitation under which the majority of Latin American people lived. It was a cathartic experience and an ultimate turning point of Che’s life.

In 1953 he embarked on his third journey through the continent. On this particular trip he observed the mobilization of workers and the implementation of agrarian reform following the popular 1952 revolution. He then continued to Guatemala and stayed there until a US-backed coup overthrew the revolutionary government under Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. He gleaned important lessons from this experience which would give impact to his later ideology. According to Becker, Che “believed that it was necessary to destroy completely the political and military forces of the old system, something Arbenz had not done.”Che contended that if Arbenz had had more faith in the Indians, peasants and workers and had been willing to organize them into armed militias, the revolutionary would have maintained power. The role of the US in the coup also turned Che into a dedicated fighter against US imperialism in Latin America.

Che escaped to Mexico following the overthrow of Arbenz and it was here that he met Fidel Castro through the latter’s younger brother Raul. At the time, the Castros were planning an invasion of their native Cuba. It was also at this time that Che began to study Marxism and became an ideological communist. A Peruvian political exile named Hilda Gadea, whom Che married, had a particularly strong influence on the development of his ideology.



Castro Embraces Che


.Che joined Fidel and his small band of guerrilla army in 1956 when they traveled to Cuba’s eastern region to begin a guerrilla war against the Batista regime. Che was chosen for his medical skills and was the only non-Cuban included in the group. For two years, they fought in the Sierra Maesttra mountains and, eventually, Che rose to the rank of Rebel Army commander.

After the victory of the Cuban Revolution on New Year’s Day in 1959, Che assumed a series of positions in the new government. He was first named to head the national bank and in 1961 he took on the post of ministry of industry. He also led a Cuban delegation to the Inter-American Economic and Social Council sponsored by the Organization of American States in Uruguay, where he strongly denounced the motives of John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress program. This alliance was a ten-year development program that sought, through mild social and economic reforms, to prevent in other Latin American countries radical social revolutions such as that in Cuba. In fact, Che's book Guerrilla Warfare probably led Kennedy to his conclusion that those who make peaceful change impossible make violent revolution inevitable.

Che travelled to other countries more and more as an ambassador for Cuba but later left the Caribbean island in 1965 to spread the revolutionary struggle. He first surfaced in Africa fighting in the Congo and then returned to Latin America in a mission to begin a hemisphere-wide guerrilla uprising. Che became increasingly vocal in denouncing US imperialism. He believed that people throughout Latin America were ready for a revolutionary uprising. In his last public statement, a message to the Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Ospaaal, also known as the Tricontinental), he spoke of creating "two, three, or many Vietnams," which would strike a deadly blow against imperialism. Much like Simón Bolívar and José Martí before him, Che was a true internationalist who believed that the destiny of Latin America was singular and unified. To him, national borders simply served to divide people in their struggle to achieve a more just social order.



The Pan-American War


.Che chose Bolivia as the place to launch this pan-American war because of its strategic geographic location rather than out of concern for local conditions . This turned out to be a costly mistake. Che alienated the Bolivian Communist Party based in La Paz, depriving him of a critically important base of support for his efforts. Moreover, at that time, the Guaraní Indians living in the sparsely populated eastern jungle had received land in a government-sponsored agrarian reform program and felt little animosity toward the Bolivian army (members of which were often recruited from their own ranks). The local population had few reasons to defend a foreign guerrilla army that was culturally different, did not speak their language, and did not reflect local concerns. Ironically, in a short essay from 1963 entitled Guerrilla Warfare: A Method, he emphasized the importance of popular support to a guerrilla struggle. Without this backing, a disaster was inevitable.

In the several months of skirmishes with the Bolivian military, Che’s side was always on the defensive. The army captured Che and his few remaining guerrilla fighters on October 8, 1967, near the small village of La Higuera. The next day they executed him and publicly displayed his body. The army buried his body in a mass grave, where it remained until it was repatriated to Cuba in 1997 with a hero's welcome.



Che’s Legacy


.Che's death, which happened two years after Malcolm X’s assassination (February 21, 1965), ushered in a year of violent repression of political opposition movements around the world. In April and June of 1968 assassins killed civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in the US. During May student and worker protests paralyzed Paris, France. In August Chicago police attacked Vietnam War protestors at the Democratic National Convention. The Mexican army shot an estimated three hundred protestors in October at the Plaza of Three Cultures in Mexico City. Che's death did not mean the end of revolutionary actions, and it only helped to polarize further an already tense global political situation.


.Since his death, Cubans and Che’s supporters throughout Latin America observes October 8 as 'The 'Day of the Heroic Guerrilla' in memory of Che Guevara. Like the late First Lady of Argentina, Eva Perón (a.k.a. Evita), Che became a more potent symbol in death than he had ever been in life. He was a doctor, an intellectual, a visionary, a revolutionary freedom fighter, Fidel Castro’s right-hand man, an ambassador, a minister, a martyr, an icon and an inspiration who went down in history as the one of the greatest legends in the history of politics, war and popular culture. Ernesto "Che" Guevara may be physically dead but his the fighting spirit still lives on.





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