“The true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary who does not have this quality.”
Ernesto “Che” Guevara Lynch was born in Misiones, a remote jungle backwater in Argentina to aristocratic but radical parents: his father said “in my son’s veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels”. Ernesto was diagnosed asthmatic at the age of two. Whereas his condition was chronic in Buenos Aires, when they moved to Alta Gracia, a dry highland province, it stabilised. His parents monitored his health, the humidity, his clothing and diet in an attempt to reduce the severity of the symptoms. Even as a child, it is said that he “showed an unusually strong self discipline by adhering to his asthma diets”.
Often his parents made him stay at home, for fear of an attack. He became a precocious reader, as this was one of the only things he could do when asthma struck. The family home contained more than 3,000 books and Guevara read very widely in world literature, politics and poetry. He would make handwritten notebooks of notes and quotations from his favourite authors. Later, he was a prolific writer and diarist.
At school, he displayed a fiercely competitive personality, perhaps as compensation for his sickliness. Despite his illness, Guevara was an excellent sportsman – rugby, athletics, cycling, shooting were all activities into which he poured all of his energies.
In 1948, he began to study medicine at Buenos Aires University. In his vacations, he made his famous trips by motorcycle through Argentina, Chile and Peru. On these journeys, he encountered the poor and dispossessed – lepers, workers, peasants – with whom he identified and whose cause he subsequently passionately espoused. By 1953 he had graduated as Dr Ernesto Guevara.
In 1954 in Guatemala, he experienced the overthrow of the Arbenz regime by the CIA on behalf of the United Fruit Company, and this contributed to his hatred of American imperialism. At this time also, Guevara came into contact with Fidel Castro and other Cuban exiles. Subsequently, Guevara trained in guerilla warfare in Mexico, prior to the 1956 assault on Cuba with the band of revolutionaries who embarked aboard the Granma.
Commandante Guevara was second only to Castro in the revolutionary movement, and played a major role in the Cuban revolution. In the guerilla campaign in the mountains, the two contradictory sides of Guevara’s personality were demonstrated: his love and care for his fighters, whom he helped to educate and entertain, but also his ruthlessness, for example in shooting informers, deserters and spies. As a military leader, he was intelligent and brave, with a tendency towards foolhardiness, according to his leader Castro. By 1959, the dictator Batista had fled and the Castro regime took over. In the following months, Guevara commanded the La Cabana prison, and was responsible for exacting revolutionary justice against the war criminals and others from the old regime. Commandate Guevara told the tribunals
“Don’t drag out the process. This is a revolution. Don’t use bourgeois legal methods, the proof is secondary. We must act through conviction. We’re dealing with a bunch of criminals and assassins.”
Several hundred prisoners were shot as Guevara watched from on top of a wall, lying on his back, cigar in mouth, to encourage the firing squads.
Che Guevara proved to be less effective as an economic leader than a military one. He became president of the Cuban national bank, with his signature “Che” on the bank notes signalling his distaste for money. However, he had more success with the Cuban Literacy Campaign, which taught more than 700,000 people to read and write. In 1962, he was one of the main architects of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he was seemingly unconcerned at the risk of “millions of atomic war victims”. Speaking at the United Nations in 1964, Guevara denounced apartheid, imperialism and the poverty of the Latin American masses. However, he rejected the pro-Soviet tendency in global and Cuban politics, and his thinking had moved towards a Maoist approach. Perhaps partly for that reason, he decided to leave Cuba
First, Che Guevara travelled to Congo, unsuccessfully trying to promote resistance to Mobutu. He blamed incompetence and in-fighting for the failure. After that, he offered his services to FRELIMO in Mozambique, but they were declined. In 1966, following his disappointments in Africa, Guevara disguised himself, and went to promote revolution in Bolivia. But perhaps because he favoured conflict to compromise, he was unable to develop good relations with local leaders. In addition, he was now up against the CIA and US Special Forces, his men lacked training and equipment, and his radio communications had failed. In the jungle, he became increasingly ill with asthma, having to make guerilla raids just to obtain medicine. Finally, he was taken captive by Bolivian special forces. On October 9, 1969 he was executed on orders of the Bolivian President. A half-drunken sergeant shot him nine times, so that the authorities could say that Guevara had been killed trying to escape. CIA men were in close attendance.
In death, Guevara became a hero. The photographs of his bearded corpse made him appear Christlike. Jean Paul-Sartre, Susan Sontag, Nelson Mandela and many others have regarded him as a hero and an inspiration, a man who was prepared to die for his beliefs. Thanks to the 1968 image by Jim Fitzpatrick, he became an icon of teenage rebellion and fashion chic. Reminiscent of his adolescent reading of Jack London, he was the epitome of the macho adventurer.
I became a schoolboy communist after reading Lenin and the Bolsheviksby Adam B Ulam, trying, like Ernesto, to cast off my bourgeois origins and express solidarity with the dispossessed. As an activist, it felt as if Guevara could be reclaimed as a disabled hero, a symbol for a movement with transformative aspirations and revolutionary rhetoric. Later, the darker side of Che Guevara’s personality and actions became repugnant to me, just as the binaries of leftism and disability radicalism had become unconvincing.
In his last letter to his children, Guevara had written “Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world. This is the most beautiful quality in a revolutionary.” In such quotations, Che Guevara indeed comes across as a symbol of freedom and compassion. Yet in practice, he was also a brutal man, capable of executing one individual or many in cold blood, without any qualms. An early fan of Nietszche, he embraced death and despised weakness. Some have suggested that his brutality may partly have been related to his disability. Because he had fought against his asthma, suppressed his own needs and triumphed through an act of will, Guevara showed no patience or forgiveness for the frailty of others. The man who trained as a doctor ended up as a ruthless killer.