Ernesto Guevara (Rosario, Argentina, June 14, 1928-La Higuera, Bolivia, October 9, 1967), known as “Che Guevara” or simply “Che”, was an Argentine doctor, politician, guerrilla fighter, writer, journalist and Cuban nationalized Argentine communist revolutionary.
He was one of the ideologues and commanders of the Cuban Revolution. Guevara participated in the organization of the Cuban State from the armed uprising until 1965. He held several high positions in his administration and government, especially in the economic area. He was president of the National Bank, director of the Department of Industrialization of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) and Minister of Industry. In the diplomatic area, he was in charge of several international missions.
Convinced of the need to extend the armed struggle throughout the Third World, Che Guevara promoted the installation of guerrilla “focos” in several Latin American countries. Between 1965 and 1967, he himself fought in the Congo and Bolivia. In the latter country he was captured, tortured and executed by the Bolivian Army in collaboration with the CIA on October 9, 1967.
His figure, as a symbol of global relevance, arouses great passions in public opinion both for and against him. For many of his supporters, he represents the struggle against social injustice, while his detractors consider him an authoritarian and violent character.
His photographic portrait, the work of Alberto Korda, is one of the most reproduced images in the world, both in its original and in variants that reproduce the outline of his face, for symbolic use.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara was the eldest of the five children of Ernesto Guevara Lynch (1900-1987) and Celia de la Serna (1906-1965). Both belonged to families of the upper class and the so-called Argentine aristocracy. A paternal great-great-grandfather, Patricio Julián Lynch y Roo, was considered the richest man in South America. Although different biographies of the later Che Guevara and the family”s own account attribute his mother to be a descendant of José de la Serna e Hinojosa, the last Spanish viceroy of Lima, this circumstance is implausible since the viceroy José de la Serna died without leaving descendants. Celia de la Serna descended from the also Spanish Juan Manuel de la Serna y de la Quintana (of Cantabrian origin, born in Ontón), who moved to the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata at the end of the XVIII century, settling in the city of Montevideo, where he married Paula Catalina Rafaela Loaces y Arandía in 1802. According to the genealogist Narciso Binayán Carmona, he was a descendant of the Spanish conqueror, explorer and colonizer Domingo Martínez de Irala (1509-1556) and Leonor “Ivoty”i Ju” Moquiracé, a Guaraní Indian who was a member of his personal harem.
Occasionally Ernesto mentions his ancestors in his writings:
Surely I inherited the slyness in me from that Basque Guevara who arrived with Mendoza, or from any turrazo gaita who slipped into my family tree macerating sweet Guarani Indians; because I have not inherited it from my Irish and Guarani ancestors. As truculent are the one as the other, although the Guarani garnish their truculence with a lot of sympathy? This name of Ayacucho in Quechua means Valley of Death. Right here, my maternal great-great-grandfather, Viceroy De la Serna, took a great beating.
The nuclear family that he integrated with his parents and siblings was socially located in the upper middle class. His father, Ernesto Rafael Guevara Lynch, led an economically comfortable life thanks to the income he obtained from the inheritance received from his parents. When his son was born, he had just bought, together with part of his wife”s inheritance, an important yerba mate plantation in Caraguatay, a rural area in the province of Misiones, in the area of Montecarlo, about 200 km north of the capital Posadas, on the Paraná River. In those times the workers of the yerba mate plantations, known as mensúes, were subjected to a regime of labor exploitation, practically slavery, as illustrated in the novel El río oscuro, by Alfredo Varela, about which the film Las aguas bajan turbias was made, set in the work of the yerba mate plantations of those years. The property was baptized with the name of La Misionera and its exploitation later led to the installation of a yerba mate mill in Rosario. The Guevaras also obtained income from the Río de la Plata shipyard, which was owned by several members of their family and was located in San Fernando, until it burned down in 1930. However, these businesses did not allow the family to prosper sufficiently, so they decided to sell the yerba mate farm in the 1940s to set up a real estate company and buy a house in Buenos Aires. In Córdoba, Ernesto Sr. and a partner set up a civil construction company, which went bankrupt in 1947. In 1948 he received another important inheritance after the death of his mother, Ana Isabel Lynch Ortiz. Some biographies incorrectly attribute to him the title of engineer and socialist ideology. He remarried and had three children. In 1987 he wrote a book with the title Mi hijo el Che.
Celia de la Serna belonged to a traditional family of large Buenos Aires ranchers. Her father committed suicide when she was two years old and her mother died when she was fifteen, leaving her in the care of her sister Carmen and an aunt. She belonged to a generation of progressive upper-class Argentine women who promoted feminism, sexual freedom and women”s autonomy, whose most faithful representative was Victoria Ocampo.
Che”s parents married on December 10, 1927, when Celia was three months pregnant. The fact was condemnable for the morals of those years, but it also indicated a less than conservative attitude on the part of his parents and especially on the part of his mother, despite the fact that a few years earlier she had been about to become a nun.
In 1948 they separated, although they continued to live under the same roof. After Ernesto, they had four more children: Celia (b. 1929), Roberto (b. 1932), Ana María (1934-1990) and Juan Martín (b. 1943).
A characteristic of Ernesto”s parents that had a considerable influence on his childhood and youth was their constant moving and relocations. Until leaving Argentina for good in 1953, Che”s family had at least twelve addresses in Buenos Aires, Caraguataí, San Isidro, Alta Gracia and Córdoba.
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Ernesto Guevara was born in the Argentine city of Rosario, in the province of Santa Fe, in 1928. His birth certificate states that his parents declared that he was born on June 14, but according to other sources, he was born on May 14, 1928, exactly one month earlier.
At that time, his parents alternated their residence in the city of Buenos Aires with the city of Caraguataí, in the province of Misiones, separated by 1800 km of waterway, where they tended yerba mate plantations of their property. It is from this place where, when Ernesto”s parents decided to return to Buenos Aires so that he could be properly assisted, using the shipping lines that crossed the Paraná River. The family version tells that the birth was brought forward and they had to disembark urgently in the port of Rosario, where the mother gave birth to Ernesto at the Centenario Hospital on June 14. Always according to the family story, the child was registered the following day with the name of Ernesto Guevara and after the mother was discharged, they settled for a few days in an apartment located on the fifth floor, corner of Urquiza Street, until both were in conditions to resume the trip to Buenos Aires.
Contrary to this general version, biographer Jon Lee Anderson offers an explanation for the mother”s presence in Misiones while pregnant and the urgency of the landing in Rosario, pointing out that the date indicated in the official birth certificate is false and that Ernesto Guevara was born on May 14, 1928, exactly one month earlier. The reason would have been the intention of the parents to hide the pregnancy of the mother at the time of the marriage, a circumstance that was later acknowledged by the father. According to this explanation, the Guevaras moved away from Buenos Aires during the pregnancy and then intentionally went to Rosario to prevent the true date of the birth from being known. Anderson supports his version in the data provided by Julia Constenla, Celia de la Serna”s biographer, as a result of his conversations with her, and in the inconsistencies of the birth certificate. Ernesto Guevara was presented at times during his life as “sietemesino”, a term that at the time was assimilated to “fruit of a premarital relationship”.
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Early years: between Caraguatay and Buenos Aires
Ernesto”s early years were spent between his parents” homes in Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Caraguatay (Paraguay), going back and forth on the steamships of the Paraná River, depending on the needs of the yerba mate production and the weather. From the beginning Ernesto received from his parents the nickname of Ernestito, to differentiate him from his father, and later Teté, by which his family and childhood friends would call him indistinctly.
In Buenos Aires they settled in the typical upper-class areas: first in the Palermo neighborhood (Santa Fe and Guise), then in the San Isidro district (Alem Street) and finally in the Recoleta neighborhood (Sánchez de Bustamante 2286). While living in San Isidro, at the age of two he had his first asthma attack, a disease he would suffer all his life and which would lead the family to move to Córdoba. His father would always blame his mother for Ernesto”s asthma, attributing it to a bronchitis aggravated by the mother”s lack of attention one cold morning while swimming at the Club Náutico San Isidro.
In Caraguatay, Ernesto”s parents hired a nanny for their son: Carmen Arias, a Galician woman who would live with the family until 1937 and who gave him the nickname of Teté. From his parents” yerba mate plantation and from his stay in Misiones he would acquire a taste for mate, which he was passionate about all his life.
Due to the seriousness and persistence of Ernesto”s asthma, the family looked for a place with a more suitable climate. Following the doctors” recommendations, they decided to move to the province of Córdoba, a classic destination at that time for people with respiratory conditions due to its climatic conditions and higher altitude. After spending some time in the city of Córdoba, capital of the province, the Guevara Lynch family settled in Alta Gracia.
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Alta Gracia, Córdoba. Childhood and adolescence
Ernesto Guevara lived 17 years in Córdoba, from 1930 to early 1947, covering most of his childhood and all of his adolescence. He considered himself a Cordovan and spoke with the characteristic Cordovan cantito, although later in Cuba he would adopt a markedly Cuban accent. He attended elementary school in Alta Gracia and high school in the city of Córdoba. There he also had his first sexual experiences and formed a group of friends, with whom he would later share his first social concerns and his travels through Latin America. Shortly before returning to Buenos Aires, he also lived for a few months in Villa María.
The family had several homes in Alta Gracia, but the main one was Villa Nydia, in the area of Villa Carlos Pellegrini, where the Ernesto Che Guevara Museum is currently located.
Ernesto attended elementary school at San Martín and Santiago de Liniers public schools between 1937 and 1941. He completed his secondary studies between 1942 and 1946, first at the Colegio Nacional de Monserrat (four years), finishing the cycle at the Colegio Nacional Deán Funes, located in the city of Córdoba, where the family ended up moving to in 1943.
Asthma determined to a great extent the characteristics of Ernesto Guevara”s childhood. The attacks were constant and of such severity that he was even prostrated for days at a time. It limited his possibilities of going to school, which he only entered in 1937 when he was eight years old, starting in second grade (skipping lower and upper first). It restricted his possibilities to play sports, an activity he was passionate about and which he still practiced even though many times his friends had to carry him back home. To combat his asthma he was subject to constant diets and medical treatments. On the other hand, his illness made him an extraordinary reader, a great chess fan and generated in him a strong spirit of discipline and self-control.
Alta Gracia was a small summer village of the upper class of Córdoba, located in the first sierras 39 km southwest of the city of Córdoba, capital of the province of the same name. The sierras of Córdoba, due to their dry climate and altitude, have traditionally been one of the main tourist destinations in the country, and the place par excellence sought by people with respiratory diseases.
In his early adolescence Ernesto had a preference for adventure books, such as Emilio Salgari”s Sandokan Fights and, above all, Jules Verne”s extraordinary voyages, among them Five Weeks in a Balloon, Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Years later, while in Cuba, he would ask for his three leather-bound volumes of Verne”s complete works to be sent to him.
He later developed a taste for poetry and philosophy. Among his favorite poets were Baudelaire, especially his stark and polemic work The Flowers of Evil, Pablo Neruda, especially his love poems, and Leon de Greiff. He was passionate about existentialist philosophy, which led him to prefer the works of Sartre, Kafka and Camus, and the psychological theories of Freud.
Ernesto Guevara stood out throughout his childhood and adolescence for his rebelliousness. Extremely mischievous, with harsh arguments with his parents and teachers, disheveled to the point of being called the Chancho Guevara (a nickname he gladly adopted), performing tests of great personal risk, with a very bad temper, often coming to blows in arguments, making provocative and scandalous comments, usually seeking to defend the opposing position of his interlocutors.
In those years, Córdoba and Alta Gracia in particular received a remarkable number of republican refugees from the Spanish Civil War, and also Germans linked to the Nazis. The musician Manuel de Falla had settled in Alta Gracia and some of Ernesto”s best friends, the González Aguilar brothers, were sons of a high Spanish Republican military chief, also a refugee there. On the other hand, some localities in Cordoba such as La Falda, La Cumbrecita and Villa General Belgrano were centers of German refugees with obvious Nazi sympathies. During World War II, Ernesto”s father even organized a small group to spy on Nazi activities in Cordoba, in which Ernestito also participated.
In 1942, Ernesto Guevara began his secondary studies at the Deán Funes School, located on the corner of Perú and Independencia, in the Nueva Córdoba neighborhood (in the city of Córdoba). Córdoba, which at that time had about 350,000 inhabitants, was beginning to undergo decisive transformations due to a remarkable process of industrialization for which it was called the Argentine Detroit. He attended high school (between 1942 and 1946) at a time of great changes and political transformations in Argentina. Between 1943 and 1946 Peronism was to emerge with massive support from the working class and, conversely, massive rejection from the middle and upper classes. Students were one of the groups that most actively mobilized against the nascent Peronism, under the slogan “no to the dictatorship of the espadrilles”.
Once in high school and settled in Córdoba, Ernesto”s life became more public. Contrary to what some biographies tend to say, Ernesto Guevara did not have any political or social militancy in Córdoba (nor later in Buenos Aires). He himself said so:
“I had no social concerns in my adolescence, nor did I participate in Argentina”s political or student struggles.”
Ernesto”s parents and his entire family, of course, were openly anti-Peronist, as was the vast majority of the middle and upper classes. Ernesto, on the other hand, never seems to have held anti-Peronist positions. On the contrary, it is known that his family attributed to him favorable feelings towards Peronism, that he recommended to the maids in his house and in the houses of his friends to vote for Peronism, and that he felt respect for Perón, whom he called “el capo” (the boss). Years later, in the midst of the Cuban Revolution, he used one of Eva Perón”s favorite words, “descamisados”, to baptize the group of novices under his command in the guerrilla, and shortly before, upon learning of the military coup that overthrew Perón, he wrote in a letter to his mother:
I confess with all sincerity that the fall of Perón made me deeply bitter, not because of him, but because of what he meant for all America, because despite the forced claudication of recent times, Argentina was the champion of all those who think that the enemy is in the north.
With respect to the Argentine Communist Party, Ernesto Guevara explicitly and openly rejected its position, as he “harshly criticized its sectarianism” If any clear ideology was beginning to emerge in him, in the last years of his adolescence, it was his anti-imperialist position and in particular his staunchly anti-US imperialist position, an ideology with deep roots in the Argentine social-political culture. In this sense, he scandalized his relatives and acquaintances when he opposed Argentina”s declaration of war against Nazi Germany in 1945, arguing that it was done under pressure from the United States and that it should remain neutral.
Simultaneously, in 1945, at the age of 17, he showed a great interest in philosophy and began to write his own philosophical dictionary, while discovering Latin American social literature, with exponents such as Jorge Icaza and Miguel Angel Asturias.
In November 1943 his best friend, Alberto Granado, and other students were arrested by the police during a student demonstration against the government. Together with Tomás Granado, Alberto”s younger brother, he went daily to the prison to visit him. Perhaps unexpectedly, when a large march was organized to demand the freedom of Alberto and the other political prisoners, he not only refused to participate, but argued that “the march was a useless gesture and that they would only get “beaten to shit”, and that he would only go if they gave him a revolver”.
The writer Ernesto Sabato says in a brief mention in his memoir Antes del fin, that he met Ernesto Guevara in those years:
In the tranquility of a mountain afternoon, I met a young doctor who came to visit some relatives on his way to Latin America, where he would cure the sick and find his destiny. That young man, today a symbol of the best flags, is remembered by history as Che Guevara.
Sabato”s account has no chronological correspondence. Sabato lived two years in Córdoba, between 1943 and 1945, in the town of El Pantanillo, in the remote Traslasierra Valley, behind the Sierras Grandes. In those years Guevara was still in high school in Córdoba Capital. On the other hand, Guevara”s second second Latin American trip, immediately after graduating as a doctor, began in 1953, a decade after Sabato”s account, and did not pass through Córdoba, but left by train directly to Bolivia.
At the end of 1946 Ernesto finished high school. That same year he got his first job, together with Alberto Granado, in the laboratory of the Roads Department of the Province of Córdoba. Shortly after graduating he was sent to the town of Villa María (province of Córdoba), 100 km to the south, to participate during the following months in the construction of a road.
In 1947 the Guevara-De la Serna family suffered a collapse. His father”s construction company went bankrupt, and the Guevaras decided to separate and move to Buenos Aires. In May of that year, his grandmother fell ill, which led Ernesto to resign from his job and move to the Argentine capital, where he would remain after the old woman”s death.
Shortly before leaving, in Villa María, he wrote the poem transcribed in the box on the right, in which he appeals to his willpower to overcome destiny.
Ernesto made great friends during his childhood and adolescence in Córdoba; two of them stood out.
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Buenos Aires, medicine and travel
Ernesto Guevara stayed in Buenos Aires from January 1947 until July 7, 1952, when he left on his first trip to Latin America.
The first year the family lived in the house of his maternal grandmother, recently deceased, located in Arenales and Uriburu, in the exclusive neighborhood of Recoleta, or Barrio Norte, three blocks away from the School of Medicine of the University of Buenos Aires, where he would start studying in 1948 to graduate as a doctor on April 11, 1953. The following year his father sold the yerba mate, bought a house in Aráoz 2180, in the neighborhood of Palermo and opened a real estate agency on the corner of Paraguay and Aráoz.
During this period Ernesto dedicated himself to his career and started working as an assistant in a clinic specialized in allergies that was dedicated to asthma research, directed by Dr. Salvador Pisani. In medical school he met Berta Gilda Tita Infante, a militant communist university student from Córdoba, with whom he would maintain a strong friendship for the rest of his life.
In Buenos Aires, Guevara played rugby, a sport typical of the upper class of Buenos Aires, first at the important San Isidro Club and then, due to his limitations with asthma, at the small and defunct Yporá Rugby Club (1948) and at the Atalaya Polo Club (1949).
He also continued his intense reading activities and the writing of his philosophical notebooks. In these years he showed a growing dedication to social philosophy. In his third notebook he reveals a great interest in the thought of Karl Marx. He also paid great attention to Nehru”s ideas on the process of decolonization and industrialization in India, annotating and warmly recommending his book The Discovery of India.
In 1950 he fell in love with María del Carmen Chichina Ferreyra, a 16-year-old girl belonging to one of the richest and most aristocratic families in Córdoba. The relationship lasted more than two years, despite the frontal opposition of the family, who saw him as a “sickly hippie” because of his appearance, his radical and provocative ideas, and his desire to get married and spend the honeymoon in an RV trip through Latin America.Years later Chichina would say of Ernesto:
I was fascinated by his stubborn physique and his anti-solemn character; his shamelessness in his clothes made us laugh and, at the same time, a little embarrassed. We were so sophisticated that Ernesto seemed an opprobrium to us. He accepted our jokes without flinching.
While in Buenos Aires, Ernesto Guevara began to travel precariously, by hitchhike, bicycle or motorcycle, with little money, farther and farther away. Guevara”s travels would mean a social and human experience, which would put him in contact with the workers and humble people of Argentina and Latin America, and would eventually lead him to join the guerrilla group that would carry out the Cuban Revolution.
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Trip to northwestern Argentina (1950)
In his travel notebook Guevara included the following reflection:
When he returned to Buenos Aires, the engine manufacturer offered him an advertisement, which included a photo of Ernesto Guevara on his bicycle and a letter from him saying:
It has worked perfectly during my long trip and I only noticed that towards the end it was losing compression, which is why I am sending it to you for repair.
The advertisement was published in the popular sports magazine El Gráfico on page 49 of the May 19, 1950 edition.
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Voyages on the YPF oil tanker (1951)
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First Latin American trip (1952)
In 1952, Ernesto Guevara made with Alberto Granado the first of his two international trips to America. They left on January 4, 1952, from San Francisco, Córdoba on Granado”s motorcycle, called the Poderosa II. The trip lasted seven months and after passing through Buenos Aires, Miramar and Bariloche, they entered Chile through Lake Todos los Santos. In Chile they passed through Osorno, Valdivia, Temuco and Santiago, where they abandoned the motorcycle, which had broken down for good. They went to the port of Valparaíso from where they traveled as stowaways on a cargo ship to Antofagasta. From there by land, mainly in trucks, they visited the gigantic copper mine of Chuquicamata and then headed for the Peruvian border, up the mountain range through the province of Tarata, in the Tacna region, to Lake Titicaca. In April they reached Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire. They visited the Inca cities of the Sacred Valley of the Incas and Machu Pichu and then left for Abancay, capital of the Apurimac Region, where they visited the leprosarium of Huambo, near the city of Andahuaylas.
On May 1, 1952, they arrived in Lima where they established a close relationship with the doctor Hugo Pesce, a well-known leprosy specialist, disciple of José Carlos Mariátegui and leader of the Peruvian Communist Party, who would have a decisive influence on the life decisions that Guevara would adopt. Dr. Pesce took them to the Portada de Guía Hospital, a leprosarium located on the outskirts of Lima, where they treated patients with Hansen”s disease and lived for a few months. From there they went to Pucallpa where they embarked to Iquitos and settled down to collaborate with the San Pablo leprosarium on the banks of the Amazon River, where doctors and patients gave them a raft called Mambo-Tango to continue their journey navigating the river downstream. By raft they reached the Colombian border town of Leticia, where they served as coaches of the town”s soccer team. They flew by seaplane to Bogota, where they stayed in the facilities of the university city of the National University of Colombia and its hospital, the San Juan de Dios. At that time, Colombia was going through the time of La Violencia, where they were arrested but soon released. They traveled by bus to Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, where Granado obtained a job in a leprosarium on Pesce”s recommendation. Ernesto, on the other hand, had to finish his studies, so he decided to return, using a cargo plane belonging to a relative that had a stopover in Miami, where he worked as a domestic employee of a stewardess and dishwasher in a restaurant. On July 31, 1952 he returned to Buenos Aires.
Both Guevara and Granado kept travel diaries, known worldwide as Diarios de motocicleta (Motorcycle Diaries), on which Walter Salles” 2004 film was based. For both of them, the trip meant direct contact with the most neglected and exploited social sectors of Latin America. For Ernesto Guevara it was important to begin to define his ideas and feelings about the serious social inequalities in Latin America, the role of the United States and what the solutions could be. The influence of the physician Hugo Pesce on Ernesto was very great, both because of his Mariateguist vision of Marxism, which redefined the role of the indigenous and peasants in the social changes in Latin America, and because of his personal example of life as a physician dedicated to the health problems of the poor and marginalized. Upon publishing his first book, La guerra de guerrillas, Che Guevara sent a copy of it to Pesce, telling him that he recognized that it had provoked “a great change in my attitude towards life”.
A sample of these early ideas was presented on June 14, 1952, on his 24th birthday, when the staff of the St. Paul leprosarium gave him a party. Guevara wrote down his impressions of that day under the title “St. Guevara”s Day”, and tells of having said the following words to his hosts:
We believe, and after this trip more firmly than before, that the division of America into uncertain and illusory nationalities is completely fictitious. We constitute a single mestizo race, which from Mexico to the Strait of Magellan presents remarkable ethnographic similarities. That is why, in an attempt to remove any burden of meager provincialism, I toast to Peru and to a United America.
Upon returning to Buenos Aires, Guevara reviewed his diary and wrote some Travel Notes where, among other things, he says:
The character who wrote these notes died when he stepped on Argentine soil again. The one who orders and polishes them, “me”, is not me; at least I am not the same inner me. This aimless wandering through our “Capital America” has changed me more than I thought it would.
He finished his medical studies at the UBA (Universidad Nacional de Buenos Aires). In six months he passed the 14 subjects he lacked, and on April 11, 1953 he received his medical degree, registered under file 1058, record 1116, folio 153 of the Faculty of Medical Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires.
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Second Latin American trip (1953-1954)
In 1953 Ernesto Guevara started with his childhood friend Carlos Calica Ferrer the second of his two international trips to America. The objective was to go to Caracas where Alberto Granado was waiting for them.
In Guayaquil, Ernesto decided to go to Guatemala to see the revolution that Colonel Jacobo Arbenz was leading there. Calica then separated from Ernesto to go to Caracas, where Alberto Granado was waiting for him, staying there for ten years. After complicated negotiations, Ernesto embarked with Gualo García to Panama, where he stayed for a few months, under critical economic conditions. From there they crossed to Costa Rica, then to Nicaragua by hitchhiking. There they met Rojo and the brothers Walter and Domingo Beveraggi Allende, continuing with the latter by car to Guatemala, passing through Honduras and El Salvador. On December 24, 1953 they arrived without money in Guatemala, where they would settle.
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Ernesto Guevara spent a little more than nine months in Guatemala. His life there was difficult, contradictory and complex, regarding his personal life, his ideas and the definition of the role he wanted to play.
In 1954 Guatemala was in a critical political situation. Ten years earlier, a student movement, part of the broad Latin American University Reform movement, had overthrown dictator Jorge Ubico Castañeda and imposed a democratic system for the first time in Guatemalan history, electing Juan José Arévalo as president. Arévalo, an educator trained in Argentina who adhered to an ideology he called “spiritual socialism”, initiated a series of political and social reforms. His successor (elected in 1951), Colonel Jacobo Arbenz, deepened such measures and in 1952 initiated a major land reform process, which seriously affected the interests of the U.S. company United Fruit, which had strong ties with President Eisenhower”s administration. Maintaining that it was a communist government, the United States then began to operate to destabilize Guatemala and overthrow the Arbenz government. The coup d”état began on June 18, 1954, with the bombing of the city by military planes and the invasion from Honduras of a coup army under the command of Carlos Castillo Armas and with the open support of the CIA. The struggle lasted until July 3 when Castillo Armas took the capital and began a long period of military dictatorships.
Guevara arrived six months before the coup. During that time he tried repeatedly to work as a state doctor, but the various efforts never materialized and his economic problems were very serious.
In those days Guatemala was a hotbed of exile groups and progressive and leftist militants, mainly from Latin America. Soon after his arrival he met Hilda Gadea (1925-1974), a Peruvian exile and APRA leader who collaborated with the Arbenz government and who would later become his first wife. Meanwhile, he would meet the family of the Nicaraguan exile Edelberto Torres, where he in turn met a group of Cuban exiles who participated in the capture of the Moncada Barracks, among them Antonio Ñico López.
Ñico López and Ernesto established a solid friendship. It was precisely Ñico who gave him the nickname of “Che”, due to Ernesto”s permanent use of that typical word of the Rio de la Plata dialect, used to summon the other.
Guevara”s ideas had evolved, becoming much more politically committed, with a clear sympathy for communism. Despite this, he would remain aloof from any political organization and when shortly after, the communist Guatemalan Workers Party (PGT) told him that he had to join the party in order to work as a doctor for the State, he indignantly rejected the request.His incipient political thinking was first expressed openly in a letter sent to his aunt Beatriz on December 10, 1953, shortly before arriving in Guatemala where he says, among other things:
On the passage I had the opportunity to pass through the domains of the United Fruit, convincing me once again how terrible these octopuses are. I have sworn before a picture of the old and lamented comrade Stalin not to rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated. In Guatemala I will perfect myself and achieve what I lack to be an authentic revolutionary. Your nephew, the one with the iron health, the empty stomach and the shining faith in the socialist future. Chau. Chancho.
In Guatemala he began to design a book entitled The Role of the Physician in Latin America in which he considered “preventive social medicine” and the physician as a central axis for a revolutionary transformation aimed at establishing a socialist society.
At the end of May 1954, Guevara left Guatemala for El Salvador to renew his visa, taking the opportunity to visit San Salvador and the Mayan ruins of Chalchuapa and Quiriguá, the latter again in Guatemala.
Upon returning to Guatemala, the government”s situation was desperate and the attack was imminent. On June 16, military mercenary planes began bombing Guatemala City and two days later an army under the command of Castillo Armas entered the country from Honduras. Ernesto signed up for the health brigades and the communist youth brigades that patrolled the streets at night. His brigade bore the name of Augusto César Sandino and was led by Nicaraguan volunteer Rodolfo Romero, whom several years later Che would call upon to organize the guerrillas in Nicaragua. The communist militias unsuccessfully demanded that the government hand over weapons.
On June 27, 1954, the chiefs of the Guatemalan Army decided not to recognize the authority of Arbenz and demanded his resignation. Six days later Castillo Armas entered the capital to establish a dictatorship and repeal the social measures adopted by the democratic government.
From the fall of the Arbenz government, Che Guevara would draw fundamental conclusions that would later directly influence his actions during the Cuban Revolution. In particular, Guevara concluded that it was essential to purge the army of potential coup plotters, because at crucial moments they were unaware of the chain of command and turned against the government. A few days later in a letter to his mother he concluded:
Treason is still army patriotism, and once again the aphorism that indicates the liquidation of the army as the true principle of democracy is proven.
He would also write to his friend Tita Infante:
The newspapers of Las Americas published lies. First of all, there was no assassination or anything like it. There should have been a few shootings at the beginning but that is another matter. If those shootings had taken place, the government would have retained the possibility of striking back.
Hilda was arrested and Ernesto took refuge in the Argentine embassy where he was included among the communist refugees, and at the end of August the safe-conduct arrived for him, going immediately to look for Hilda, who had been released shortly before. However, the relationship between the two seemed to be over and in mid-September Ernesto went alone to Mexico.
Also read, history – Central Powers
Che Guevara would stay a little more than two years in Mexico. There he defined his political ideas, got married, had his first daughter and joined the 26th of July Movement led by Fidel Castro with the aim of forming a guerrilla group in Cuba to overthrow the dictator Batista and start a social revolution.
In 1954 Mexico was a sort of sanctuary for the politically persecuted from all over the world. On the other hand, Mexico had developed a solid popular culture with a Latin American identity derived from the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the first triumphant social revolution in history, represented in the famous murals of Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco; in the reformist UNAM, in a cinema with its own language with stars such as Cantinflas and María Félix, as well as in musical manifestations of its own identity such as the bolero and the ranchera.
In Mexico, Guevara worked for a while as a photographer for the Argentinean Agencia Latina, which closed shortly after, and then for the General Hospital and the Children”s Hospital for a small salary as an allergist and researcher.
At that time, shortly after the beginning of the Cold War and as a legacy of McCarthyism, the accusation of “communism” became widespread in Latin America as a tactic to discredit and repress democratic and social movements. Juan José Arévalo warned about this mechanism in his book AntiKomunismo en América Latina (1959).
In June 1955, Raúl Castro settled in Mexico in order to prepare for his brother”s arrival, from where he would organize a guerrilla group to return to Cuba. As soon as he arrived, he met Ernesto Guevara; the two hit it off from the very first moment. Raul Castro, unlike Fidel, had belonged to the Communist Party, called in Cuba the Popular Socialist Party (PSP) and was much more radical in his attitudes and positions.
On July 7, 1955, Fidel Castro arrived in Mexico. Two weeks later he offered Ché to join the 26th of July Movement as a doctor and he immediately accepted. Almost simultaneously Hilda Gadea informed him that she was pregnant and on August 18 they got married, although it was obvious that for Guevara it was a decision forced by the circumstances. Both moved to an apartment at 40 Nápoles Street, in Colonia Juárez. As a honeymoon in November they visited the Mayan ruins of Chiapas and the Yucatan Peninsula: Palenque, Chichen-Itza and Uxmal.
In February 1956, a group of about twenty people began training in guerrilla warfare under the command of Spanish Colonel Alberto Bayo Giroud. On February 15 his daughter Hilda Beatriz Guevara was born. Shortly afterwards he wrote the last lines of the diary he had started in Buenos Aires when he left for his second Latin American trip:
A long time has passed and many new events have been declared. I will only state the most important ones: since February 15, 1956 I am a father; Hilda Beatriz Guevara is the first born. My projects for the future are nebulous but I hope to finish a couple of research papers. This year may be important for my future. I have already left the hospitals. I will write in more detail.
The training took place at a ranch in the municipality of Chalco, some 50 km southeast of Mexico, where they were receiving a commando course and guerrilla warfare training given by Colonel Alberto Bayo Giroud. Che hid his asthma, excelled in military training and became one of the leaders of the group.
On November 25, 1956, from the Port of Tuxpan, 82 men, among them Ernesto Guevara, left for Cuba on a yacht named Granma.
On March 10, 1952, a coup d”état led by General Fulgencio Batista had overthrown the democratic President Carlos Prío Socarrás, of the Authentic Party, in an international framework that was going through the first moments of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Batista installed a bloody dictatorship with the argument of fighting communism. However, the scandalous level of corruption and violation of human rights led to the formation of a generalized opposition in favor of an insurrection to oust Batista from power, with the participation of opposition political parties, trade unions, the student movement, and even sectors of the business community, landowners, the armed forces and the U.S. government itself, which went so far as to cut off the supply of arms to Batista. The deposed president himself, Carlos Prío Socarrás, expressed this revolutionary climate by saying: “I will triumph by any means, even the most extreme”; in this context, the 26th of July Movement would act, a revolutionary evolution of the Orthodox Party, with a basically nationalist-anticommunist ideology, seeking at all times to articulate its forces with other opposition sectors, with the project of establishing a nationalist democratic government. Both former President Carlos Prío Socarrás of the Authentic Party, as well as the CIA, supported the Castro guerrilla economically in its early years. Meanwhile, Fidel Castro – who had been a prominent youth leader of the other major party, the Orthodox Party, and who had become famous for the attempt to take the Moncada Barracks in 1952 – openly proclaimed to hold an anti-communist position. For its part, despite maintaining close relations with Fidel Castro and the guerrillas in Sierra Maestra, the Popular Socialist Party (communist) criticized the guerrilla experience, attributing to it a purely adventurist coup intention. Finally, several political forces at that time had armed organizations in addition to the 26th of July Movement, such as the Revolutionary Directorate of the 13th of March, the Popular Socialist Party and the Second National Front of the Escambray.
The U.S. press and public opinion gave great coverage and showed great sympathy for Fidel Castro and his guerrillas in Sierra Maestra, legitimizing the armed movement and providing a diffusion of the motives and actions of the guerrillas that the 26th of July Movement could never have achieved under the conditions of censorship and repression that dominated in Cuba.
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The disaster of the arrival in Cuba
On November 25, 1956, a group of 82 guerrillas of the 26th of July Movement who had trained in Mexico embarked in the port of the municipality of Tuxpan (Veracruz) on their way to Cuba on the Granma yacht. Led by Fidel Castro, the group also included Raúl Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, Juan Almeida and Che Guevara, among others.
The voyage lasted seven days, two days longer than planned, due to which the group that was to support their arrival in Cuba had already withdrawn. Before dawn on December 2, the yacht ran aground on the southwest coast, near the beach of Las Coloradas, in the Gulf of Guacanayabo, so the rebels had to leave most of the ammunition, food and medicines on the ship.
Three days later, while still trying to organize, the group was ambushed by the army in Alegría de Pío. Most of the group died in combat, were executed or arrested. The rest dispersed and only rejoined in Sierra Maestra on December 21. Guevara was superficially wounded in the neck and fell into a kind of stupor from which he was pulled out by Juan Almeida Bosque, to reorganize a group of eight men in a desperate situation due to hunger, thirst and persecution by the army.
On that occasion Che Guevara was severely reprimanded by Fidel Castro due to the loss of the weapons, which had been hidden by order of the former in a peasant”s house, later raided by the army. As a symbol of degradation Castro took the pistol from Che. Years later he would recall that Fidel”s “bitter recrimination” remained “engraved in my mind for the rest of the campaign and to this day”.
The debacle of the disembarkation was front page news and in the list of dead given by the government the two Castro brothers and Ernesto Guevara appeared, deeply affecting their family. However, on the last day of the year they received a handwritten note from him, stamped by the Cuban post office, which read:
Dear old people: I am perfectly fine, I spent only 2 and I have five left. I am still working on the same, the news are sporadic and will continue to be so, but trust that God is Argentine. A big hug to all, Teté.
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Sierra Maestra is an elongated mountain range located on the coast at the southeastern tip of the island of Cuba, just over 800 km from its capital, Havana, located at the other end. Its highest point is the Turquino peak (1974 masl), located approximately in the center. It is 250 km long and 60 km wide. At the eastern end of the chain, the last foothills connect with the city of Santiago de Cuba, while in the central part it connects to the north with the city of Bayamo. In the 1950s, the region was completely covered with dense and humid tropical rainforest. It was a marginal zone, inhabited by some 60,000 peasants, called guajiros in Cuba, dedicated to survival agriculture on precariously held land, and also by bandits, smugglers, fugitives and landowners who imposed their power at gunpoint. Today the area contains several national parks.
Once the guerrilla group was established in Sierra Maestra, the 26th of July Movement was organized throughout the country in order to support the guerrillas in the highlands, while in the cities of the plains they sought to establish alliances with other opposition parties, trade unions, the student movement and the U.S. embassy itself. The existence of two sectors in the 26th of July Movement, called El Llano and La Sierra, and the tensions that would appear between them would be very important in the future. Among the most important leaders acting in El Llano were Frank País, Vilma Espín, Celia Sánchez, Faustino Pérez, Carlos Franqui, Haydée Santamaría, Armando Hart, René Ramos Latour (Daniel), mostly anti-communist democrats.
In Sierra Maestra, Che Guevara acted as a medic and combatant. Despite suffering from severe asthma attacks in a country with one of the highest asthma rates in the world due to its climate, he quickly stood out for his fearless courage, tactical vision and ability to command.
Guevara also imposed his personality by being strict in the face of acts of indiscipline, treason and criminality; not only in his own troops, but also with respect to enemy soldiers and peasants living in the area. This facet became evident on February 17, 1957, when they discovered that one of the guerrillas, Eutimio Guerra, was a traitor who had given the enemy the situation of the group, which allowed the army to bomb their position in the Caracas peak and then ambush them in the Altos de Espinosa, putting them on the verge of definitive defeat. Fidel Castro then decided that he would be shot for treason, but without indicating who would execute him. In the face of the general indecision, it was Che Guevara who executed him by shooting him in the head, demonstrating a coldness and hardness in the face of wartime crimes that would make him famous; on the contrary, Guevara seems to have acted with tolerance towards the mistakes of his own men and the enemy prisoners. On several occasions he intervened with Fidel Castro to prevent executions, as well as medically attended to wounded soldiers, strictly forbidding the torture or shooting of prisoners.
During the first months of 1957 the small guerrilla group maintained itself precariously with little support from the rural population in the area, with little military discipline, harboring infiltrators, harassed by a network of peasant spies (chivatos) and by government troops. A series of small combats followed, such as the attack on the detachment of La Paz (2 soldiers killed), Arroyo del Infierno (three soldiers killed), the aerial bombardment of Caracas hill (no casualties), the ambush of Altos de Espinosa (one guerrilla killed).
At the end of February, an interview with Fidel Castro conducted by Herbert Matthews in Sierra Maestra appeared in the New York Times, the most widely read newspaper in the United States. The impact was enormous and began to generate great sympathy for the guerrillas in national and international public opinion. At that time, in order to strengthen relations with the peasants living in the Sierra, the Guajiros, the guerrilla group began to offer the medical services of Che Guevara, who began to be known in the region.
On April 28, Fidel Castro achieved another powerful coup: he gave a press conference for the U.S. radio and television network CBS, at the top of Turquino Peak, Cuba”s highest mountain.
By the end of May the guerrilla army had grown to 128 well-armed and trained combatants and on May 28 it produced its first action of a certain magnitude, the attack on the El Uvero barracks, where 6 guerrillas and 14 soldiers died and there were many wounded on both sides. After the combat Castro made the decision to leave Che Guevara in charge of the wounded so as not to delay the main group in view of the imminent persecution by the government troops. Guevara then attended to all the wounded, from both sides, and reached a gentlemen”s agreement with the barracks doctor to leave the most seriously wounded under the condition that they would be respected when they were detained, a pact that was fulfilled by the Cuban army.
Che and four men (Joel Iglesias, Alejandro Oñate (Cantinflas), “Vilo” Acuña and a guide) then had to take charge of hiding, protecting and healing the seven wounded guerrillas for fifty days. During this period, Guevara not only cared for and kept everyone protected, but also imposed discipline on the group, recruited new guerrillas, obtained the decisive support of one of the farmers of a large estate in the area and established a supply and communication system with the city of Santiago. When he rejoined the rest, on July 17, Che had a small autonomous army of 26 fighters. By then the rebels had already managed to liberate a small territory west of Turquino Peak and 200 disciplined and confident men. That day Fidel Castro decided to form a second column with 75 men, which he would later call the Fourth Column to generate the sensation of a larger number of troops. Simultaneously he promoted Che Guevara to the rank of captain and five days later appointed him commander of the formation. Up to that moment only Fidel Castro had the rank of commander. From now on he was to be addressed as “Comandante Che Guevara”.
Guevara would distinguish himself by integrating his troops with guajiros and blacks, who were then the most marginalized sector of the country, at a time when racism and racial segregation was still a powerful force, even among the members of the 26th of July Movement, and he baptized the novices that integrated the column as “descamisados”, the famous word that Eva Perón used to address the Argentine workers, also despised with the term “little black heads”. One of these, Enrique Acevedo, a fifteen year old teenager whom Guevara named head of the Disciplinary Commission of the column wrote his impressions in a diary:
Everyone treats him with great respect. He is harsh, dry, sometimes ironic with some. His manners are gentle. When he gives an order, you can see that he really commands. It is carried out immediately.
The government troops were led by Ángel Sánchez Mosquera who implemented a dirty war policy in the region. On November 29, 1957 they attacked causing two deaths, among them that of Ciro Redondo. Che was wounded (in one foot) as well as Cantinflas and five other combatants and the base of El Hombrito was completely destroyed. The column then moved to the place called La Mesa, where they rebuilt the base with all its infrastructure and also started up a radio station, Radio Rebelde, which began broadcasting on February 24, 1958 and is still on the air.
By the beginning of 1958, Fidel Castro had become the most requested man by the international press and dozens of journalists from all over the world went to Sierra Maestra to interview him. For his part, Che Guevara became the central character of the press that defended Batista. Evelio Lafferte, a lieutenant of the Cuban army taken prisoner and who later became a member of Che”s column recalled:
The propaganda against him (it was said that he was a hired killer, a pathological criminal…, a mercenary, that he provided services to international communism… that they used terrorist methods that socialized women and took away their children…). They said that the soldiers who were taken prisoner were tied to a tree and their bellies were cut open with a bayonet.
In February, the army took out 23 militants of the 26th of July Movement and shot them in the first foothills of the mountains, to pretend that they had won a victory against the Castro guerrillas. The event was a scandal that further discredited the Batista government. On February 16, the guerrilla army attacked the Pino del Agua barracks with several casualties on both sides. Shortly after, the Argentine journalist Jorge Masetti, of Peronist tendency, who would later become one of the founders of the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina and the organizer in Salta (Argentina) in 1963 of Che Guevara”s first guerrilla attempt outside Cuba, arrived.
Ché would come into conflict with the leaders of the 26th of July Movement who acted in the plains. They considered him an extremist Marxist with too much influence over Fidel Castro, and he considered them “rightists” with a timid conception of the struggle and willing to please the United States.
On February 27, 1958, Fidel Castro decided to expand the guerrilla operations by creating three new columns under the command of Juan Almeida, Raul Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos, whom he appointed as commanders. Almeida was to operate in the eastern zone of Sierra Maestra, Raul Castro was to open a Second Front and establish himself in the Sierra Cristal, north of Santiago. In April, Camilo Cienfuegos was appointed military chief of the area between the cities of Bayamo, Manzanillo and Las Tunas, while Castro established his headquarters in La Plata.
On May 3, a meeting was held in Altos de Mompié of the 26th of July Movement, which turned out to be key and in which it was drastically reorganized to impose the hegemony of Fidel Castro and the group of the highlands over the members of the plains. Che Guevara, who played a fundamental role in the meeting, wrote in 1964 an article referring to the event:
The most important thing is that two conceptions that were in conflict during the whole previous stage of the war were analyzed and judged. The guerrilla conception would emerge triumphant, consolidating Fidel”s prestige and authority…. A single leadership capacity was already emerging, that of the Sierra, and concretely, a single leader, a commander in chief, Fidel Castro.
By then Batista”s army, under the command of General Eulogio Cantillo, was preparing a broad offensive on the rebels. Fidel Castro then ordered Che Guevara to leave the Fourth Column and take charge of the Military School in Minas del Frio, where the rookies were being trained. He received the order with some annoyance, but he feverishly began to organize the rearguard, even building an airstrip near La Plata. In those days Camilo Cienfuegos wrote to him:
Che. Soul brother: I received your note, I see that Fidel has put you in charge of the Military School, I am very happy because in that way we will be able to count on first class soldiers in the future, when they told me that you were coming to “give us the gift of your presence”, I was not very pleased, you have played a very important role in this conflict; if we need you in this insurrectional stage, Cuba needs you even more when the war ends, so the Giant is right to take care of you. I would very much like to always be by your side, you were my boss for a long time and you will always be my boss. Thanks to you I have the opportunity to be more useful now, I will do my best not to make you look bad. Your eternal greaves. Camilo.
While in Minas del Frio Ernesto Guevara had a sentimental relationship and began to live with Zoila Rodriguez Garcia, a guajira who lived in Sierra Maestra and who, like all her family, actively collaborated with the guerrillas. In a later testimony, Zoila tells the story of their relationship:
A very great and beautiful love arose in me, I committed myself to him, not only as a fighter, but also as a woman. One day he asked me to bring him a book from his backpack; it had golden letters, I asked him if it was gold. She was amused by the question, laughed and answered: “This book is about communism”. I was embarrassed to ask him what “communism” meant, because I had never heard that word before.
On May 6, the offensive began. The army had 10,000 men, two thirds of whom were conscripts. The plan was to wear down the guerrillas, who then numbered 280 men and some women, with massive bombardments of napalm and explosives to surround them in an ever-tightening circle.
During the first weeks of the offensive, the government forces were on the verge of defeating the guerrillas, who suffered heavy losses and disorganization in their ranks, while the spirit of defeat and desertions increased. For his part, Guevara organized a new column with the recruits from the school of Minas del Frio, which was given the number Eight and the name of Ciro Redondo in homage to the lieutenant who had fallen in combat the previous year. When Raúl Castro -who was in Sierra Cristal-, kidnapped 49 Americans on his own initiative on June 26, Ché criticized his behavior as “dangerous extremism”.
However, the government troops were unable to corner the guerrillas, who were constantly slipping away, and by July the rebels began to regain the initiative. On July 20 they won their first major victory at Jigüe and on the same day most of the opposition forces signed the Pact of Caracas, recognizing Fidel Castro as commander in chief.
On July 28 the column commanded by Ché besieged the government troops in Las Vegas, who fled abandoning the position. On July 30, René Ramos Latour, Che Guevara”s main adversary in the 26th of July Movement, died in combat, although he wrote in his diary:
Deep ideological divergences separated me from René Ramos and we were political enemies, but he knew how to die fulfilling his duty, in the front line and whoever dies this way is because he feels an inner impulse that I denied him and that at this hour I rectify.
On August 7, 1958 the army began its mass retreat from Sierra Maestra. Batista”s weakness became evident and Fidel Castro then decided to expand the war to the rest of Cuba. Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos were to march north to divide the island in two and prepare the attack on the strategic city of Santa Clara, key to the road to Havana, while Fidel and Raul Castro would remain in the East to control the region and finally attack Santiago de Cuba.
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The Battle of Santa Clara
On August 31, 1958 the columns of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos left on foot towards western Cuba. It took them six weeks to reach the mountainous area of the Escambray, in the former province of Las Villas, integrated by the current provinces of Villa Clara, Sancti Spíritus and Cienfuegos, in the center of the island, after crossing some 600 km of swampy areas, harassed by government airplanes and platoons.
Guevara would set up his camp in Caballete de Casas, an inaccessible plateau located at 630 meters above sea level, in the current municipality of Sancti Spíritus, where he created a military school following the model used in the Sierra Maestra to train new volunteers, as well as a hydroelectric plant, a hospital, several workshops and factories and a newspaper: El Miliciano. Other guerrilla forces were active in the area, such as the Second National Front of the Escambray led by the Spaniard Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, the Revolutionary Directory led by Faure Chomón and Rolando Cubela, and the Popular Socialist Party (communist). Also active were the local guerrilla and political forces of the 26th of July Movement whose main leader was Enrique Oltuski. In general, these forces had quarrels among themselves and full unification was never possible. At that time, Che would also meet Aleida March, an active militant of the 26th of July Movement with anti-communist ideas, who would become his second wife in 1959 and with whom he would have four children.
On November 3, 1958, Batista held elections in an attempt to attenuate the generalized opposition and produce an electoral solution that would isolate the guerrilla groups. These and the opposition groups sabotaged the elections, which registered a very low turnout, completely delegitimizing the elected candidate, Andrés Rivero Agüero, who never became president.
At the end of November the government troops attacked the position of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. The fighting lasted a week, at the end of which Batista”s army retreated in disorder and with heavy losses of men and equipment. Guevara and Cienfuegos then counterattacked, following a strategy of isolating the government garrisons from each other, dynamiting roads and railroad bridges. In the following days the regiments capitulated one by one: Fomento, Guayos, Cabaiguán (where Ché fractured his elbow and was splinted and his arm put in a sling), Placetas, Sancti Spíritus.
Then, Cienfuegos” column went to take Yaguajay, in an important battle that lasted from December 21 to 31, while Guevara took Remedios and the port of Caibarién on December 26 and the following day the Camajuaní barracks, where the government troops fled without fighting.
This cleared the way to attack Santa Clara, Cuba”s fourth city and the last government stronghold before Havana. Batista fortified Santa Clara sending 2000 soldiers and an armored train, under the command of the most capable officer at his disposal, Colonel Joaquin Casillas. In total the government forces amounted to 3500 soldiers to face 350 guerrillas. On December 28 the attack began. The battle was bloody and extended for three days throughout the city. One of the most outstanding men of Column Eight, Roberto el Vaquerito Rodríguez, died there. Guevara had established that the priority of the battle was the armored train, which was finally taken on December 29 in the afternoon.
The seizure of the armored train was the triggering event for the fall of Batista. Once the news was known, the dictator made the decision to flee Cuba, which he did a few hours later, at three o”clock in the morning of January 1, 1959, with his family members and several officials, among them the elected president Andrés Rivero Agüero and his brother who was the mayor of Havana.
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Once in power, the opposition formed a new government. The president was Manuel Urrutia Lleó and the prime minister was José Miró Cardona. The ministers were Regino Boti (Economy), Rufo López Fresquet (Treasury), Roberto Agramonte (Foreign Affairs), Armando Hart (Education), Enrique Oltuski (Communications), Luis Orlando Rodríguez (Interior), Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado (Revolutionary Laws) and Faustino Pérez (Recovery of Illegally Acquired Property). Fidel Castro remained as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. It was a moderate and pronouncedly anti-communist government. Initially, Commander Ernesto Guevara was appointed head of the San Carlos de La Cabaña Fortress, but later he performed several key functions, including director of the Industrialization Department of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA), minister of Industry and president of the National Bank, in addition to representing Cuba internationally on several occasions, including those that led to the signing of trade and military agreements with the Soviet Union.
Ernesto Guevara was also part of the group composed of Antonio Núñez Jiménez, Pedro Miret, Alfredo Guevara, Vilma Espin, Oscar Pino Santos and Segundo Ceballos, which operated from the beginning of the revolution in the utmost secrecy, behind the back of the government, excluding Fidel Castro. This group met every night at Guevara”s house in Tarará, a seaside resort near Havana. The group functioned under the supervision of Fidel Castro and its purpose was to elaborate and define key laws, such as the agrarian reform and the creation of INRA, acting as a true parallel government.
One of the first decisions of the new government were the revolutionary trials as part of the process known as the Purifying Commission against people considered war criminals or closely associated with the Batista regime, and later on new opponents such as the commander of the Second National Front of the Escambray, Jesús Carreras Zayas, accused of supporting a rebellion in 1960. Between January and April 1959, about a thousand were denounced and tried by summary trials of which 550 were shot. Ernesto Guevara, as head of La Cabaña during the first months of the revolution, was in charge of the trials and execution of the detainees in the fortress. Guevara”s personal opinion on the executions was publicly exposed before the United Nations on December 11, 1964:
To this end, Guevara established a judicial system with courts of first instance and a court of appeal under his presidency, which conducted their proceedings in public hearings, with prosecutors, defense lawyers and witnesses.The legitimacy of the revolutionary trials and the executions by the Cuban government are the subject of intense debates that oppose head-on those who sympathize with the Cuban Revolution from those who oppose it.
On February 7, 1959 the government sanctioned a new Constitution that included an article specially drafted for Che Guevara, granting citizenship to any foreigner who had fought Batista for two years or more and held the position of commander for one year. A few days later President Urrutia declared Ernesto Guevara a Cuban citizen by birth.
In the months following the seizure of power, the more moderate sectors of the government were being displaced by the more radical sectors, among which Che Guevara was one of its most prominent figures. From his experience in the fall of the government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, Che Guevara was convinced that the United States would not allow the economic and social reforms proposed by the revolution, and that if it could not neutralize them through the conservative officials in the government, it would promote increasingly aggressive measures, even going as far as invasion if necessary. For that reason Guevara was in favor not only of purging the army and the government of conservative elements, but also of radicalizing the revolution to install a socialist system, prepare for an open confrontation with the United States, seek the support of the Soviet Union and open new guerrilla pockets in Latin America to carry out a revolution of continental scope. In this sense, his influence on the path that the Cuban Revolution finally followed was remarkable.
Before holding a formal position, Guevara actively participated in the drafting of the agrarian reform law and the creation of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA), promoting the most radical version of this law, which absolutely prohibited the latifundia and left without effect the constitutional requirement of prior compensation. Ernesto Guevara thought that there was an inseparable link between the agrarian reform and the guerrilla and said the following:
Simultaneously, journalists Jorge Masetti and Carlos María Gutiérrez proposed to Che Guevara to create a news agency independent from the big international agencies, taking as a model the Agencia Latina de Noticias that Juan Perón had created and in which Guevara himself had worked in Mexico. The project was approved and Cuba created the Prensa Latina agency, still in existence, whose first director was Masetti himself and in which intellectuals such as Gabriel García Márquez or Rodolfo Walsh, among others, would work.
On May 7, 1959, the agrarian reform law and the creation of INRA were approved. Shortly afterwards, on May 22, Che Guevara married Aleida March and on June 12 he left on the first of his international diplomatic trips, with the aim of opening new markets for sugar, a fundamental product of the Cuban economy, by then almost exclusively dependent on the U.S. market. Among the destinations of his trip, he visited countries and leaders that were promoting experiences of profound social changes, which would later constitute what came to be called the Third World movement, among them Egypt, where he met with General Gamal Abdel Nasser; Indonesia, where he met with Sukarno; India, where he met Jawaharlal Nehru and Yugoslavia, with Josip Broz Tito. Among other important results of the trip, Cuba established commercial relations with the Soviet Union, which finally committed to buy half a million tons of sugar. At that time, Cuba”s quota in the U.S. market was almost 3 million tons.
Something that has really developed in me is the feeling of the massive as opposed to the personal; I am the same loner I was, seeking my way without personal help, but now I possess a sense of my historical duty. I have no home or wife or children or parents or brothers or sisters, my friends are my friends as long as they think as I do politically and yet I am content, I feel something in life, not only a powerful inner strength, which I always felt, but also the power to inject it into others and the absolutely fatalistic sense of my mission that strips me of fear.
The situation quickly became polarized. Immediately after the fall of Batista, military and terrorist activities began to be organized against the new government, as well as the preparation of troops to invade Cuba. Since 1959, the dictator Trujillo in the Dominican Republic supported a guerrilla army called the Legión Anticomunista del Caribe (Anti-Communist Legion of the Caribbean) with the plan to invade Cuba.
In the United States, the CIA began to organize sabotage and encourage the organization of anti-Castro guerrilla groups based on former Batista officials, such as La Rosa Blanca, and the growing number of Cuban exiles opposed to the increasingly radical and pro-communist measures of the Cuban Revolution.
From his economic positions, Che Guevara promoted the nationalization of national and foreign companies and key sectors of the economy, centralized planning and voluntary work. Guevara also sought to develop heavy industry through the iron and steel industry, in order to break the economic specialization and dependence on sugar. He counted on the support of a group of young people who were trained as specialists with him, since Column 8 was in Escambray, among whom Orlando Borrego, his vice minister, who would occupy high economic positions in the future, stood out. He also supported the suppression of university autonomy, one of the main banners of the Latin American movement of the University Reform.
On July 28, 1960, before the First Congress of Latin American Youths, held in Havana, Ché put forward a concept that he would later develop extensively: the idea of the “new socialist man”, which he conceived as a new human type that would develop along with socialism, and in which the feeling of solidarity and commitment to society would prevail over personal self-interest and selfishness. Volunteer work was for him a fundamental expression of the new man. He personally dedicated every Saturday to volunteer work, in the production lines of factories, the harvest, as a worker in construction sites, and promoted this attitude among other officials, who did not always welcome his austerity and his proposal to set an example with personal behavior.
One of the characteristics for which Che Guevara stood out in public service was a strict austerity and lack of privileges for himself and his family, which he insisted on extreme. For example, when he was appointed president of the National Bank, he renounced the 2,000 pesos that corresponded to him for the position, keeping only his salary as commander, which was 250 pesos. When his parents visited him in Cuba in 1959, he put a car at their disposal but informed them that they had to pay for gasoline. He did not take his wife on international trips and forbade military personnel under his orders to attend cabarets, brothels and any party that did not strictly obey the needs of the mission.
He was a highly organized character; he had in that sense nothing Latin American about him, he was rather German. Punctual, exact, he was amazing for all those who have known Latin America.
The trip was very successful and both the Soviet Union and China committed to buy most of the Cuban harvest. In China he met Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. In Democratic Germany he would meet Tamara Bunke, a German-Argentinean, who shortly after would move to Cuba and who would later join Che”s guerrillas in Bolivia, under the name of Tania. But above all, the main result of the trip was to consolidate the alliance between Cuba and the Soviet Union. A U.S. State Department intelligence report evaluates the result of Guevara”s trip as follows:
By the time the visit ended, Cuba had financial trade agreements, as well as cultural ties, with all the countries of the bloc, diplomatic relations with all but East Germany, and scientific and technical assistance agreements with all but Albania.
On April 17, 1961 the Bay of Pigs invasion took place from Nicaragua, where they were fired and harangued by the dictator Luis Somoza Debayle, by an army of 1500 mostly Cuban men, trained in Guatemala, using ships of the United Fruit Company, with the open support of the CIA. The next day it was evident that the Cuban army had controlled the situation. The CIA then asked President Kennedy, who had assumed the presidency less than three months earlier, for open U.S. intervention with the Air Force, but he refused. For this reason the anti-Castro Cuban community in the United States publicly maintained that President Kennedy was a traitor.
On the occasion of this trip, Guevara met with the democratic presidents of Argentina, Arturo Frondizi, and Brazil, Jânio Quadros. Both presidents were overthrown shortly after in military coups supported by the United States and in both cases, the meeting with Che was one of the arguments used by the military coup leaders.
The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion caused the dismissal of CIA Director Allen Dulles and his replacement by John McCone. In November 1961 the CIA established a gigantic program called Operation Mongoose, directed by Edward Lansdale, with the aim of organizing acts of sabotage, terrorism, selective assassinations of Cuban leaders, military attacks and infiltrations that would destabilize the Cuban government and lead to its collapse by October 1962.The isolation offensive against Cuba advanced in January 1962 when the American countries took the decision to exclude it from the OAS.
In response, in late June 1962, the Soviet Union and Cuba made the decision to install atomic missiles in Cuba, which they believed was the only way to deter the United States from invading Cuba.
Besides being for the Soviet-US relations another step forward in the Cold War (in August 1961 the Berlin Wall had been built, in February 1962 there had been the novel exchange of prisoners as a consequence of the U-2 spy plane case, and the US involvement in the Vietnam conflict continued). Che Guevara had an active participation in the elaboration of the treaty between the Republic of Cuba and the Soviet Union, traveling there at the end of August to close it. The fact would lead to the so-called Cuban missile crisis that put the world on the brink of nuclear war and would end with a difficult agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev, both pressured by the warmongering sectors of their respective countries, by which the United States undertook not to invade Cuba and to withdraw the missiles it had installed in Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union, and the latter to withdraw the Cuban missiles.
On December 4, 1962 the British socialist newspaper Daily Worker published an interview with Ernesto Guevara conducted by Sam Russell. There he crudely expressed his annoyance at the agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev stating:
If the rockets had remained, we would have used them all and aimed them at the very heart of the United States, including New York, in our defense against aggression. But we don”t have them, so we will fight with what we have.
From the very moment the Cuban Revolution took power, Che began to organize and promote guerrilla experiences in Latin America, especially in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina. All of them failed, but in some cases they laid the foundations for future guerrilla movements, such as the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua and the Tupamaros in Uruguay.
In that context, sometime between March 17 and April 17, 1964, Che Guevara met with Juan Domingo Perón in the house where the latter lived in his exile in Madrid. The meeting was kept in the utmost secrecy and has been made known thanks to journalist Rogelio García Lupo.Che gave Perón funds to support his return to Argentina, an attempt that was prevented by the Brazilian government that same year.Perón would have committed himself to support guerrilla initiatives against Latin American dictatorships, which he actually did until 1973.
The guerrilla failure in Argentina led him to evaluate the possibility of participating in places other than his country and even other continents. In that sense, Africa began to appear as a suitable possibility.
Che Guevara used to say to the future guerrilla fighters who were training in Cuba to open new revolutionary focusses a phrase that not only had a strong impact on those who received it, but also defined the attitude he had assumed towards life:
Pretend that you are dead and that what you live from now on is borrowed.
At the beginning of 1965 he wrote a famous letter to Fidel Castro renouncing all his positions and Cuban nationality and announcing his departure to “new battlefields”. It is in that letter that appears, in the signature, the phrase “hasta la victoria siempre” (until victory always), widely spread since then. The letter was read by Castro during the First Congress of the Cuban Communist Party and broadcast on television in October of that same year, causing a huge sensation, both inside and outside Cuba (see letter on Wikisource). By then Che Guevara had disappeared from public life and his whereabouts were unknown.
On April 19 he arrived under the false identity of Ramón Benítez to the city of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, then presided over by the anti-colonialist leader Julius Nyerere, from where Cuban support to the Congolese rebels would be organized. Cuba had decided to support the struggle of the National Liberation Committee (CNL) of the Congo. The previous year, the CNL had managed to establish for a few months, a “liberated zone” under the name of the People”s Republic of Congo, with capital in Stanleyville (today Kisangani) and at that time maintained a government in exile led by Cristophe Gbenye and struggled to maintain control over a large area in the eastern region of the country, on the border with Tanzania and Burundi, on Lake Tanganyika. Che Guevara maintained direct contact with Laurent-Désiré Kabila, then a second-ranking military leader.
Cuban participation in the Congolese rebellion was a disastrous experience. The notebooks written by Guevara begin with the following sentence:
Shortly afterwards, between September and October 1966, Che Guevara met again with Perón in Madrid, to ask for the support of Peronism for his guerrilla project in Bolivia. Perón promised not to prevent those Peronists who wanted to accompany Guevara from doing so, but he did not accept to involve the Peronist movement as such in a guerrilla action in Bolivia, although he did commit the support of Peronism when Ché”s guerrilla moved its action to Argentine territory.