Worldwide, His Face Is the Symbol of Fight Against Status Quo
Most of my friends who did not study History or Political Science have heard of Che Guevara and can pick out his image in a collection of photos, but some can't explain why he is famous.
A 1960 photo of him wearing a military beret, his eyes focussed on something far away, has become a universal symbol of the fight against the status quo.
In universities worldwide, the syllabus of History 101 and Political Science 101 is never complete without a session on Che.
He is one of the most famous historical figures of the 20th Century, and the mention of his name arouses strong emotions among his admirers and his critics.
To his admirers, he is the charismatic, intelligent, and courageous fellow who stood up for the rights of the oppressed, but to critics, he is a cold-blooded murderer who had no qualms about killing people who did not think like him.
Che was a man of many talents. In his student years, he not only excelled in academics but also in sports. He played rugby and soccer, and he was always at the top of his class. He would become famous as a guerilla fighter, writer, political thinker, cabinet minister, banker, and diplomat in later years.
His journey to becoming all these things began in 1952 when he was a medicine student at the University of Buenos Aires in his native Argentina. He was 23. He took a one-year break from campus to tour several Latin American countries on a motorcycle. Alberto Granado, a friend, accompanied him, and the journey took them to Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama.
He wrote detailed notes about the places he visited, the people he met, and the random thoughts that the trip inspired. In 2003, his family compiled the notes and published them into a bestselling book titled The Motorcycle Diaries.
As he travelled, Che was upset by the poor working conditions in mines and plantations, especially those owned by giant US multinationals. He also noticed that most people in these countries were afflicted by poverty, hunger, and disease. At this time, most Latin America was ruled by ruthless dictators, most of whom were puppets of the USA.
From The The Motorcycle Diaries, it is clear that this trip shaped the philosophy and political views that dominated the rest of his life.
He writes: "I began to come into close contact with poverty, with hunger, with disease, and with the inability to cure a child because of a lack of resources...And I began to see there was something that, at that time, seemed to me almost as important as being a famous researcher or making some substantial contribution to medical science, and this was helping those people."
He decided to devote his life to fighting for the dignity of the downtrodden wherever they may be in the world.
After graduating as a medical doctor, he left Argentina to begin his revolutionary journey. He first settled in Guatemala, but he later moved to Mexico from where Fidel Castro was preparing to topple the government of then Cuba's President Fulgencio Batista.
He enrolled in Castro's July 26 Movement and relocated to the Mexican jungle where Castro's men were learning guerilla warfare. In training, Che emerged as the best guerilla fighter among all of Castro's men.
In November 1956, Castro and his fighters launched the attack that marked the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. The fighting would go on until January 1 1959, when Fulgencio Batista fled the country and Fidel Castro became President.
A few months into the war, Castro noticed Che Guevara's brilliance and made him second-in-command. Although Fidel Castro was the inspiration behind the revolution, Che Guevara was the brains behind it. He is said to be the man behind most tactical decisions that delivered victory to the July 26 Movement.
Most of Che's critics accuse him of human rights violations during the war. They say he ordered the execution of hundreds of people he regarded as spies and deserters.
Following the revolution, he became one of the most powerful members of Castro's cabinet. For a long time, he combined key portfolios of industry and finance and at the same time served as the head of the country's Central Bank. He also travelled widely around the globe - doing diplomacy and building networks for Fidel Castro.
He single-handedly shepherded the Soviet-Cuban relations, and he was a crucial player in the 1962 USSR-US missile crisis.
Che was a firm believer of Marxism, and, as minister for finance, he tried to shepherd Cuba's economy along a strict Marxist path. However, some of his decisions disregarded the fundamentals of economics, so they did not yield the desired results.
As minister of industries, he oversaw the forceful takeover of assets of American companies, a process that made him an enemy of US.
In 1965, he resigned from Castro's government and renounced his Cuban citizenship.
Che wanted to replicate the Cuban revolution in other parts of the world, and his target was countries whose leaders he considered puppets of the USA.
He travelled to DRC, where he joined forces with rebels, led by Laurent Kabila, planning to overthrow the government of Mobutu Sese Seko. However, after a few months, he became disillusioned by Kabila's lack of discipline and pulled out.
"Kabila," Che wrote, "was unwilling to show his face at the front, spending his time, along with other Congolese leaders, in Cairo, Dar es Salaam and Paris in the best hotels, issuing communiqués and drinking Scotch in the company of beautiful women. The troops couldn't understand why an Argentine doctor was leading them into combat while their local leader was wining and dining."
In 1966, he moved to Bolivia, where he launched a guerilla outfit that intended to overthrow the government of US-backed President Rene Barrientos. However, in 1967, he was captured and executed.
He was 39 years old when he died.