Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born to a middle-class family in Rosario, Santa Fe Province, Argentina on June 14, 1928. Disgusted by the corrupt Argentine militarist government, Guevara became a dedicated Marxist while still in his teens. As a student, he vowed to dedicate his life to revolutionary causes and in 1953 he received a medical degree from the University of Buenos Aires. He left Argentina later that year to take part in a Communist revolt in Guatemala. There he adopted his revolutionary nickname, nom de guerre Che, the local slang for "pal." When the revolution in Guatemala failed the following year, Che fled to Mexico where he was introduced to another Communist revolutionary in exile, Fidel Castro. Joining Castro's July 26 Movement, named after the date of Castro's aborted 1953 revolution in Cuba, Che Guevara sailed with Castro and over 80 guerrilla troops to Cuba where they landed on December 2, 1956, bent on overthrowing General Fulgencio Batista's government. After the invasion force was almost decimated by government troops and air strikes, Castro, Guevara and about 10 others hid out on the Sierra Mastera mountains of southern Cuba. In July 1957, Che was assigned command of half of Castro's forces with the rank of Comandante, a title he shared only with Castro himself. For the next year and a half, he led his insurgents against the government forces in the province of Las Villas, while growing hatred to Batista's government fueled widespread support to Castro's forces, which steadily grew in size. Che's successful attack against the government troops in Santa Clara in December 1958 sealed the victory of Castro's forces. Batista's fled into exhile on January 1, 1959 and Castro's troops then marched unopposed into Havana a week later. After Castro assumed power, Che became one of his most trusted advisors and a leading international revolutionary. Che became the Cuban minister of agriculture and in 1960 wrote a book titled "Guerilla Warfare," a manual for Third World insurgents as part of his plan to bring Communism throught the world. Che resigned his post in Cuba in 1965 and traveled widely to Africa and other insurgent hot spots in the world, including the Belgian Congo, to organize Communist revolts as well as train Cuban contingents there and teach them the French colonial language. In November 1966, Che surfaced in Bolivia to organize another revolt by the local Communist peasants. But the revolution in Bolivia only received lukewarm support from many of the poorly-educated, non-Spanish-speaking peasants who preferred to support the government, not caring for foreign insurgents. After a long and drawn out campaign, Che's revolt in Bolivia came to an abrupt end on October 7, 1967 when he and the surviving members of his group were captured by government Bolivian soldiers. Two days later, on October 9, 1967, Che was executed by a Bolivian firing squad, who were apparently acting under orders from the CIA which were training the Bolivian army.
Ernesto 'Che' Guevara - Biography. The Internet Movie Database. Retrieved on January 26th, 2009, from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0251868/bio.
By the time Ernesto Guevara, known to us as Che, was murdered in the jungles of Bolivia in October 1967, he was already a legend to my generation, not only in Latin America but also around the world.
Like so many epics, the story of the obscure Argentine doctor who abandoned his profession and his native land to pursue the emancipation of the poor of the earth began with a voyage. In 1956, along with Fidel Castro and a handful of others, he had crossed the Caribbean in the rickety yacht Granma on the mad mission of invading Cuba and overthrowing the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Landing in a hostile swamp, losing most of their contingent, the survivors fought their way to the Sierra Maestra. A bit over two years later, after a guerrilla campaign in which Guevara displayed such outrageous bravery and skill that he was named comandante, the insurgents entered Havana and launched what was to become the first and only victorious socialist revolution in the Americas. The images were thereafter invariably gigantic. Che the titan standing up to the Yanquis, the world's dominant power. Che the moral guru proclaiming that a New Man, no ego and all ferocious love for the other, had to be forcibly created out of the ruins of the old one. Che the romantic mysteriously leaving the revolution to continue, sick though he might be with asthma, the struggle against oppression and tyranny.
His execution in Vallegrande at the age of 39 only enhanced Guevara's mythical stature. That Christ-like figure laid out on a bed of death with his uncanny eyes almost about to open; those fearless last words ("Shoot, coward, you're only going to kill a man") that somebody invented or reported; the anonymous burial and the hacked-off hands, as if his killers feared him more after he was dead than when he had been alive: all of it is scalded into the mind and memory of those defiant times. He would resurrect, young people shouted in the late '60s; I can remember fervently proclaiming it in the streets of Santiago, Chile, while similar vows exploded across Latin America. !No lo vamos a olvidar! We won't let him be forgotten.
More than 30 years have passed, and the dead hero has indeed persisted in collective memory, but not exactly in the way the majority of us would have anticipated. Che has become ubiquitous: his figure stares out at us from coffee mugs and posters, jingles at the end of key rings and jewelry, pops up in rock songs and operas and art shows. This apotheosis of his image has been accompanied by a parallel disappearance of the real man, swallowed by the myth. Most of those who idolize the incendiary guerrilla with the star on his beret were born long after his demise and have only the sketchiest knowledge of his goals or his life. Gone is the generous Che who tended wounded enemy soldiers, gone is the vulnerable warrior who wanted to curtail his love of life lest it make him less effective in combat and gone also is the darker, more turbulent Che who signed orders to execute prisoners in Cuban jails without a fair trial.
This erasure of complexity is the normal fate of any icon. More paradoxical is that the humanity that worships Che has by and large turned away from just about everything he believed in. The future he predicted has not been kind to his ideals or his ideas. Back in the '60s, we presumed that his self-immolation would be commemorated by social action, the downtrodden rising against the system and creating - to use Che's own words - two, three, many Vietnams. Thousands of luminous young men, particularly in Latin America, followed his example into the hills and were slaughtered there or tortured to death in sad city cellars, never knowing that their dreams of total liberation, like those of Che, would not come true. If Vietnam is being imitated today, it is primarily as a model for how a society forged in insurrection now seeks to be actively integrated into the global market. Nor has Guevara's uncompromising, unrealistic style of struggle, or his ethical absolutism, prevailed. The major revolutions of the past quarter-century (South Africa, Iran, the Philippines, Nicaragua), not to mention the peaceful transitions to democracy in Latin America, East Asia and the communist world, have all entailed negotiations with former adversaries, a give and take that could not be farther from Che's unyielding demand for confrontation to the death. Even someone like Subcomandante Marcos, the spokesman for the Chiapas Maya revolt, whose charisma and moral stance remind us of Che's, does not espouse his hero's economic or military theories.
How to understand, then, Che Guevara's pervasive popularity, especially among the affluent young?
Perhaps in these orphaned times of incessantly shifting identities and alliances, the fantasy of an adventurer who changed countries and crossed borders and broke down limits without once betraying his basic loyalties provides the restless youth of our era with an optimal combination, grounding them in a fierce center of moral gravity while simultaneously appealing to their contemporary nomadic impulse. To those who will never follow in his footsteps, submerged as they are in a world of cynicism, self-interest and frantic consumption, nothing could be more vicariously gratifying than Che's disdain for material comfort and everyday desires. One might suggest that it is Che's distance, the apparent impossibility of duplicating his life anymore, that makes him so attractive. And is not Che, with his hippie hair and wispy revolutionary beard, the perfect postmodern conduit to the nonconformist, seditious '60s, that disruptive past confined to gesture and fashion? Is it conceivable that one of the only two Latin Americans to make it onto TIME's 100 most important figures of the century can be comfortably transmogrified into a symbol of rebellion precisely because he is no longer dangerous?
I wouldn't be too sure. I suspect that the young of the world grasp that the man whose poster beckons from their walls cannot be that irrelevant, this secular saint ready to die because he could not tolerate a world where los pobres de la tierra, the displaced and dislocated of history, would be eternally relegated to its vast margins.
Even though I have come to be wary of dead heroes and the overwhelming burden their martyrdom imposes on the living, I will allow myself a prophecy. Or maybe it is a warning. More than 3 billion human beings on this planet right now live on less than $2 a day. And every day that breaks, 40,000 children - more than one every second! - succumb to diseases linked to chronic hunger. They are there, always there, the terrifying conditions of injustice and inequality that led Che many decades ago to start his journey toward that bullet and that photo awaiting him in Bolivia.
The powerful of the earth should take heed: deep inside that T shirt where we have tried to trap him, the eyes of Che Guevara are still burning with impatience.
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Dorfman, Ariel (1999). TIME 100: Che Guevara. Time Inc. Published on June 14, 1999. Retrieved on January 26th, 2009, from http://www.time.com/time/time100/heroes/profile/guevara01.html
1 Ernesto Guevara's nickname was Che. What is your nickname, and how did you get it?
2 Che Guevara vowed to dedicate his life to revolutionary causes. Who or what will you dedicate your life to and why?
3 Che Guevara fought against injustice and inequality. In what way is your society unjust or unfair?
4 Under what circumstances would you be prepared to go to war?
5 What values and beliefs do people of your generation share?
6 What is your image of the 1960s?
7 What are some similarities between this decade and the 1960s?
8 What are some differences between this decade and the 1960s?
9 What kind of goods have you seen with Che Guevara's image on it?
10 Whose image is commonly used by the media in your country?
11 Do you wear or possess anything with a person's image on it?
12 How are Che Guevara and Jesus Christ similar? How are they different?
13 Forty thousand children die of hunger related diseases every day. What practical things can people do to end global hunger?
14 Che Guevara suffered from asthma. What, if anything, do you suffer from?
15 Half the world's population live on less than 2 dollars a day. What is the best way to get rid of global poverty?
16 If you had only 2 dollars a day, what would you buy? What would you do?
17 Some people say that consumption is good and necessary for a healthy economy. What do you think?
18 Che Guevara had his hands removed after he was killed. Is that such a terrible thing?
19 Are you willing to be an organ donor after you die? Why or why not?
20 What are your final thoughts and feelings about Che Guevara?