Freedom Fighter or Terrorist? The Life and Death of Che Guevara

Smithsonian Magazine

As is the case with many ‘revolutionary’ figures, discussions about Ernesto “Che” Guevara are seldom impartial. To his proponents, he is an icon who helped overthrow tyrannical governments. To his detractors, he is nothing more than a terrorist who enslaved those he ‘freed’ in an even more totalitarian regime than the last. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Early Life

Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was born in Rosario, Argentina on June 14, 1928. His upbringing was a far cry from his later life, as his family was middle class and young Guevara studied medicine at Buenos Aires University. He traveled extensively throughout Central and South America and witnessed profound poverty and oppression. Guevara returned from his travels a changed man. He earnestly believed armed rebellion was the only solution to the problems faced by the poor and oppressed in these countries.

Guevara began traveling again in 1953 and wrote a letter to his aunt outlining his disgust at the Capitalist system of the United Fruit Company. He swore on an image of Stalin that he would not rest until the ‘octopuses have been vanquished.’ By late 1953, Guevara settled in Guatemala City and established contact with Fidel Castro. It was during this period of his life that he gained the nickname ‘Che’ as he used this expression repeatedly. It is the equivalent of ‘bro.’

History.com

The Cuban Revolution

Guevara arrived in Mexico City in September 1954, where he worked at the General Hospital and gave lectures on medicine at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He finally met Castro in June 1955, and the Cuban rebel outlined his plan to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. After a lengthy discussion that carried on into the night, Guevara was convinced that the Cuban cause was the thing he had been searching for and he immediately signed up as a member of Castro’s 26th of July Movement.

He initially planned on being the medic for the combat group, but still participated in the military training. It was intense and involved teaching the rebels the finer points of guerrilla warfare. Apparently, Guevara was the best trainee in the entire group as he achieved the highest score on every test.

The Cuban Revolution officially began near the end of November 1956 when 82 men arrived in Cuba from Mexico. Their initial foray was a complete disaster, as all but 22 of the men were killed by Batista’s soldiers. Guevara reportedly placed his medical supplies on the ground and picked up ammunition dropped by a dead comrade in what proved to be a symbolic moment in his life.

The conditions suffered by Cubans shocked Guevara. When he lived amongst farmers in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, he discovered that over 40% of the adults were illiterate; there were no schools, no electricity, and limited healthcare access. By now, he was promoted to the post of commander of Castro’s second army column as the rebels turned the tide of the war in their favor. One of Guevara’s biggest victories came at the Battle of Las Mercedes in July-August 1958 where he prevented government troops from surrounding his men and pushed them back.

The hit and run tactics used by the rebels wore down the enemy, and by late December, the end was near. Although Guevara was outnumbered 10:1 at times, he overcame the odds and secured the decisive victory of the war at the Battle of Santa Clara. On January 1, 1959, Batista fled Havana with $300 million and Guevara entered Havana, Cuba’s capital, the following day. Castro arrived and assumed control of Havana and the nation of Cuba on January 8, 1959.

Advertisement