As a young medical student, Guevara traveled throughout Latin America and was transformed by the endemic poverty he witnessed. His experiences and observations during these trips led him to conclude that the region's ingrained economic inequalities were an intrinsic result of monopoly capitalism, neocolonialism, and imperialism, with the only remedy being world revolution. This belief prompted his involvement in Guatemala's social reforms under President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, whose eventual CIA-assisted overthrow solidified Guevara's radical ideology.
Later, in Mexico, he met Fidel Castro and joined his 26th of July Movement. In December 1956, he was among the revolutionaries who invaded Cuba under Castro's leadership with the intention of overthrowing U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Guevara soon rose to prominence among the insurgents, was promoted to Comandante, and played a pivotal role in the successful two year guerrilla campaign that deposed Batista. Following the Cuban revolution, Guevara reviewed the appeals of those convicted as war criminals during the revolutionary tribunals, ratifying sentences which in some cases (the number of death sentences is disputed) involved execution by firing squads. Later he served as minister of industry and president of the national bank, before traversing the globe as a diplomat to meet an array of world leaders on behalf of Cuban socialism. He was a prolific writer and diarist, composing a seminal manual on the theory and practice of guerrilla warfare, along with an acclaimed memoir about his motorcycle journey across South America. Guevara left Cuba in 1965 to incite revolutions first in an unsuccessful attempt in Congo-Kinshasa and later in Bolivia, where he was captured with the help of the CIA and executed.
Both notorious as a ruthless disciplinarian who unhesitatingly shot defectors and revered by supporters for his rigid dedication to professed doctrines, Guevara remains a controversial and significant historical figure. As a result of his perceived martyrdom, poetic invocations for class struggle, and desire to create the consciousness of a "new man" driven by "moral" rather than "material" incentives, Guevara evolved into a quintessential icon of leftist-inspired movements. Paradoxically and in contradiction with his ideology, Che's visage was also reconstituted as a global marketing emblem and insignia within popular culture. He has been mostly venerated and occasionally reviled in a multitude of biographies, memoirs, books, essays, documentaries, songs, and films. Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, while an Alberto Korda photograph of him entitled Guerrillero Heroico (shown), was declared "the most famous photograph in the world.
Ernesto Guevara was born to Celia de la Serna and Ernesto Guevara Lynch on June 14, 1928 in Rosario, Argentina, the eldest of five children in a family of Spanish, Basque and Irish descent. In reference to Che's "restless" nature, his father declared "the first thing to note is that in my son's veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels. Growing up in a family with leftist leanings, Guevara was introduced to a wide spectrum of political perspectives even as a boy. His father, a staunch supporter of Republicans from the Spanish Civil War, often hosted many veterans from the conflict in the Guevara home.
Though suffering crippling bouts of acute asthma that were to afflict him throughout his life, he excelled as an athlete, enjoying swimming, soccer, and golf. He was an avid rugby union player and earned himself the nickname "Fuser"—a contraction of El Furibundo (raging) and his mother's surname, de la Serna—for his aggressive style of play. His schoolmates also nicknamed him "Chancho" ("pig"), because he rarely bathed, and proudly wore a "weekly shirt."
Guevara learned chess from his father and began participating in local tournaments by age 12. During adolescence and throughout his life he was passionate about poetry, especially that of Pablo Neruda, John Keats, Antonio Machado, Federico García Lorca, Gabriela Mistral, César Vallejo, and Walt Whitman. He could also recite Rudyard Kipling's "If" and José Hernández's "Martín Fierro" from memory. The Guevara home contained more than 3,000 books, which allowed Guevara to be an enthusiastic and eclectic reader, with interests including Karl Marx, William Faulkner, André Gide, Emilio Salgari and Jules Verne. Additionally, he enjoyed the works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Vladimir Lenin, and Jean-Paul Sartre; as well as Anatole France, Friedrich Engels, H.G. Wells, and Robert Frost.
As he grew older, he developed an interest in the Latin American writers Horacio Quiroga, Ciro Alegría, Jorge Icaza, Rubén Darío, and Miguel Asturias. Many of these authors' ideas he would catalog in his own handwritten notebooks of concepts, definitions, and philosophies of influential intellectuals. These included composing analytical sketches of Buddha and Aristotle, along with examining Bertrand Russell on love and patriotism, Jack London on society, and Nietzsche on the idea of death. Sigmund Freud's ideas fascinated him as he quoted him on a variety of topics from dreams and libido to narcissism and the oedipus complex. His favorite subjects in school included philosophy, mathematics, engineering, political science, and sociology.
In 1948, Guevara entered the University of Buenos Aires to study medicine. But in 1951, he took a year off from studies to embark on a trip traversing South America by motorcycle with his friend Alberto Granado, with the final goal of spending a few weeks volunteering at the San Pablo Leper colony in Peru, on the banks of the Amazon River. Guevara used notes taken during this trip to write an account entitled The Motorcycle Diaries, which later became a New York Times best-seller, and was adapted into a 2004 award-winning film of the same name.
Witnessing the widespread poverty, oppression and disenfranchisement throughout Latin America, and influenced by his readings of Marxist literature, Guevara began to view armed revolution as the solution to social inequality. By trip's end, he came to view Latin America not as collection of separate nations, but as a single entity requiring a continent-wide liberation strategy. His conception of a borderless, united Hispanic America sharing a common 'Latino' heritage was a theme that prominently recurred during his later revolutionary activities. Upon returning to Argentina, he completed his studies and received his medical diploma in June 1953, making him officially "Dr. Ernesto Guevara".
On July 7, 1953, Guevara set out again, this time to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. On December 10, 1953, before leaving for Guatemala, Guevara sent an update to his Aunt Beatriz from San José, Costa Rica. In the letter Guevara speaks of traversing through the "dominions" of the United Fruit Company, which convinced him "how terrible" the "Capitalist octopuses" were. This affirmed indignation carried the "head hunting tone" that he adopted in order to frighten his more Conservative relatives, and ends with Guevara swearing on an image of the then recently deceased Josef Stalin, not to rest until these "octopuses have been vanquished." Later that month, Guevara arrived in Guatemala where President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán headed a democratically elected government that, through land reform and other initiatives, was attempting to end the latifundia system. Guevara decided to settle down in Guatemala so as to "perfect himself and accomplish whatever may be necessary in order to become a true revolutionary".
Che Guevara's movements between 1953 and 1956, including his trip north to Guatemala, his stay in Mexico and his journey east by boat to Cuba with Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries
Guevara later remarked that through his travels of Latin America, he came in "close contact with poverty, hunger and disease" along with the "inability to treat a child because of lack of money" and "stupefaction provoked by the continual hunger and punishment" that leads a father to "accept the loss of a son as an unimportant accident". It was these experiences which Guevara cites as convincing him that in order to "help these people", he needed to leave the realm of medicine, and consider the political arena of armed struggle.
In Guatemala City, Guevara sought out Hilda Gadea Acosta, a Peruvian economist who was well-connected politically as a member of the left-leaning Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA, American Popular Revolutionary Alliance). She introduced Guevara to a number of high-level officials in the Arbenz government. Guevara then established contact with a group of Cuban exiles linked to Fidel Castro through the July 26, 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. During this period he acquired his famous nickname, due to his frequent use of the Argentine diminutive interjection che, a slang casual speech filler used similarly to "eh" or "pal."
Guevara's attempts to obtain a medical internship were unsuccessful and his economic situation was often precarious. On 15 May 1954 a shipment of Škoda infantry and light artillery weapons was sent from Communist Czechoslovakia for the Arbenz Government and arrived in Puerto Barrios, prompting a CIA-sponsored coup attempt. Guevara was eager to fight on behalf of Arbenz and joined an armed militia organized by the Communist Youth for that purpose, but frustrated with the group's inaction, he soon returned to medical duties. Following the coup, he again volunteered to fight, but soon after, Arbenz took refuge in the Mexican Embassy and told his foreign supporters to leave the country. After Hilda Gadea was arrested, Guevara sought protection inside the Argentine consulate, where he remained until he received a safe-conduct pass some weeks later and made his way to Mexico.
The overthrow of the Arbenz regime cemented Guevara's view of the United States as an imperialist power that would oppose and attempt to destroy any government that sought to redress the socioeconomic inequality endemic to Latin America and other developing countries. This strengthened his conviction that Marxism achieved through armed struggle and defended by an armed populace was the only way to rectify such conditions. Gadea wrote later, "It was Guatemala which finally convinced him of the necessity for armed struggle and for taking the initiative against imperialism. By the time he left, he was sure of this."
Guevara arrived in Mexico City in early September 1954, and renewed his friendship with Ñico López and the other Cuban exiles whom he had met in Guatemala. In June 1955, López introduced him to Raúl Castro who subsequently introduced him to his older brother, Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader who had formed the 26th of July Movement and was now plotting to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. During a long conversation with Castro on the night of their first meeting, Guevara concluded that the Cuban's cause was the one for which he had been searching and before daybreak he had signed up as a member of the 26J Movement. By this point in Guevara’s life, he deemed that U.S.-controlled conglomerates installed and supported repressive regimes around the world. In this vein, he considered Batista a "U.S. puppet whose strings needed cutting."
Although he planned to be the group's combat medic, Guevara participated in the military training with the members of the Movement, and, at the end of the course, was called "the best guerrilla of them all" by their instructor, Colonel Alberto Bayo. The first step in Castro's revolutionary plan was an assault on Cuba from Mexico via the Granma, an old, leaky cabin cruiser. They set out for Cuba on November 25, 1956. Attacked by Batista's military soon after landing, many of the 82 men were either killed in the attack or executed upon capture; only 22 found each other afterwards. Guevara wrote that it was during this bloody confrontation that he laid down his medical supplies and picked up a box of ammunition dropped by a fleeing comrade, finalizing his symbolic transition from physician to combatant.
In his trademark olive-green military fatigues, 2 June 1959
Only a small band of revolutionaries survived to re-group as a bedraggled fighting force deep in the Sierra Maestra mountains, where they received support from the urban guerrilla network of Frank País, the 26th of July Movement, and local campesinos. With the group withdrawn to the Sierra, the world wondered whether Castro was alive or dead until early 1957 when the interview by Herbert Matthews appeared in The New York Times. The article presented a lasting, almost mythical image for Castro and the guerrillas. Guevara was not present for the interview, but in the coming months he began to realize the importance of the media in their struggle. Meanwhile, as supplies and morale grew low, and with an allergy to mosquito bites which resulted in agonizing walnut-sized cysts on his body, Guevara considered these "the most painful days of the war."
As the war continued, Guevara became an integral part of the rebel army and "convinced Castro with competence, diplomacy and patience." Guevara set up factories to make grenades, built ovens to bake bread, taught new recruits about tactics, and organized schools to teach illiterate campesinos (peasants) to read and write. The man who three years later would be dubbed by Time Magazine: "Castro's brain", at this point was promoted by Fidel Castro to Comandante (commander) of a second army column.
As the only other ranked Comandante besides Fidel Castro, Guevara was an extremely harsh disciplinarian. Deserters were punished as traitors, and Guevara was known to send execution squads to hunt down those seeking to go AWOL. As a result, Guevara became feared for his brutality and ruthlessness. During the guerrilla campaign, Guevara was also responsible for the execution of a number of men accused of being informers, deserters or spies. Although he maintained a demanding and harsh disposition, Guevara also viewed his role of commander as one of a teacher, entertaining his men during breaks between engagements with readings from the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Cervantes, and Spanish lyric poets.
His commanding officer Fidel Castro has described Guevara as intelligent, daring, and an exemplary leader who "had great moral authority over his troops." Castro has further remarked that Guevara took too many risks, even having a "tendency toward foolhardiness".
Guevara was instrumental in creating the clandestine radio station Radio Rebelde in February 1958, which broadcast news to the Cuban people with statements by the 26th of July movement, and provided radiotelephone communication between the growing number of rebel columns across the island. Guevara had apparently been inspired to create the station by observing the effectiveness of CIA supplied radio in Guatemala in ousting the government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán.
After the battle of Santa Clara, January 1, 1959
In late July 1958, Guevara would play a critical role in the Battle of Las Mercedes by using his column to halt a force of 1,500 men called up by Batista's General Cantillo in a plan to encircle and destroy Castro's forces. Years later, Major Larry Bockman of the United States Marine Corps would analyze and describe Che's tactical appreciation of this battle as "brilliant." As the war extended, Guevara led a new column of fighters dispatched westward for the final push towards Havana. In the closing days of December 1958, Guevara directed his "suicide squad" in the attack on Santa Clara, that became the final decisive military victory of the revolution. In the six weeks leading up to the Battle of Santa Clara there were times when his men were completely surrounded, outgunned, and overrun. Che's eventual victory despite the formidable odds and being outnumbered 10:1, remains in the view of some observers a "remarkable tour de force in modern warfare." Radio Rebelde broadcast the first reports that Guevara's column had taken Santa Clara on New Year's Eve 1958. This contradicted reports by the heavily controlled national news media, which had at one stage reported Guevara's death during the fighting. Batista, upon learning that his generals were negotiating a separate peace with the rebel leader, fled to the Dominican Republic the next day on January 1, 1959.
After the revolution
On January 8, 1959, Castro's army rolled victoriously into Havana. In February, the revolutionary government proclaimed Guevara "a Cuban citizen by birth" in recognition of his role in the triumph. When Hilda Gadea arrived in Cuba in late January, Guevara told her that he was involved with another woman, and the two agreed on a divorce, which was finalized on May 22. On June 2, 1959, he married Aleida March, a Cuban-born member of the 26th of July movement with whom he had been living since late 1958.
During the rebellion against Batista's dictatorship, the general command of the rebel army, led by Fidel Castro, introduced into the liberated territories the 19th century penal law commonly known as the Ley de la Sierra. This law included the death penalty for extremely serious crimes, whether perpetrated by the dictatorship or by supporters of the revolution. In 1959, the revolutionary government extended its application to the whole of the republic and to those it considered war criminals, captured and tried after the revolution. According to the Cuban Ministry of Justice, this latter extension was supported by the majority of the population, and followed the same procedure as those in the Nuremberg Trials held by the Allies after World War II.
To implement this plan, Castro named Guevara commander of the La Cabaña Fortress prison, for a five-month tenure (January 2 through June 12, 1959). Guevara was charged with purging the Batista army and consolidating victory by exacting "revolutionary justice" against those considered to be traitors, chivatos (informants) or war criminals. Serving in the post as commander of La Cabaña, Guevara reviewed the appeals of those convicted during the revolutionary tribunal process. On some occasions the penalty delivered by the tribunal was death by firing squad. Raúl Gómez Treto, senior legal advisor to the Cuban Ministry of Justice, has argued that removing restrictions on the death penalty were justified in order to prevent citizens themselves from taking justice into their own hands, as happened twenty years earlier in the anti-Machado rebellion. With 20,000 Cubans estimated to have been killed at the hands of Batista's accomplices, and a survey at the time showing 93% public approval for the tribunal process, the newly empowered Cuban government along with Guevara concurred. Although the exact numbers differ, it is estimated that several hundred people were executed during this time.
Meeting with French existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in March 1960. Guevara was fluent in French.
On June 12, 1959, as soon as Guevara returned to Havana, Castro sent him out on a three-month tour of 14 countries, most of them Bandung Pact members in Africa and Asia. Sending Guevara from Havana allowed Castro to appear to be distancing himself from Che and his Marxist sympathies, that troubled both the United States and some of Castro's 26th of July Movement members. He spent 12 days in Japan (July 15–27), participating in negotiations aimed at expanding Cuba's trade relations with that nation. During this visit, Guevara secretly visited the city of Hiroshima, where the American military had detonated an atom-bomb 14 years earlier. Guevara was "really shocked" at what he witnessed and by his visit to a hospital where A-bomb survivors were being treated.
Upon returning to Cuba in September 1959, it was evident that Castro now had more political power. The government had begun land seizures included in the agrarian reform law, but was hedging on compensation offers to landowners, instead offering low interest "bonds", which put the U.S. on alert. At this point the affected wealthy cattlemen of Camagüey mounted a campaign against the land redistributions, and enlisted the newly disaffected rebel leader Huber Matos, who along with the anti-Communist wing of the 26th of July Movement, joined them in denouncing the "Communist encroachment." During this time Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo was offering assistance to the "Anti-Communist Legion of the Caribbean" who was training in the Dominican Republic. This multi-national force comprised mostly of Spaniards and Cubans, but also of Croatians, Germans, Greeks, and right-wing mercenaries, were plotting to topple Castro.
These developments prompted Castro to further clean house of "counter-revolutionaries", and appoint Guevara as Director of the Industrialization Department of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform on October 7, 1959 and as President of the National Bank of Cuba on November 26, 1959. This allowed him to retain his military rank.
Guevara being received in China by Chairman Mao Zedong, at an official ceremony in the Government palace, November 1960
On March 4, 1960, the French freighter La Coubre, carrying munitions from the port of Antwerp, exploded twice while being unloaded in Havana Harbor, killing well over 100 people. Guevara provided first aid to victims. It was at the memorial service for the victims of this explosion the following day that Alberto Korda took the famous photograph now known as Guerrillero Heroico.
Guevara desired to see a diversification in Cuba's economy, as well as an elimination of material incentives in favor of moral ones. He viewed capitalism as a "contest among wolves" where "one can only win at the cost of others," and thus desired to see the creation of a "new man and woman". An integral part of fostering a sense of "unity between the individual and the mass", Guevara believed, was volunteer work and will. To display this, Guevara "led by example", working "endlessly at his ministry job, in construction, and even cutting sugar cane" on his day off. He was known for working 36 hours at a stretch, calling meetings after midnight, and eating on the run. Alongside his work schedule he wrote several publications advocating a replication of the Cuban revolutionary model, promoting small rural guerrilla groups (foco theory) as an alternative to massive armed insurrection. During this time his wife Aleida encouraged him to explore classical music, which he came to love, with Beethoven as his favorite. Other luxuries which he afforded himself were maté, his favorite beverage, and Montecristo No. 4's, his cigar of choice.
Guevara did not participate in the fighting of the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion, having been ordered by Castro to a secretly prearranged command post in Cuba's western Pinar del Río province, where he fended off a decoy force. During this deployment, he suffered a bullet grazing to the cheek when his pistol fell out of its holster and accidentally discharged.
In August 1961, during an economic conference of the Organization of American States in Punta del Este, Uruguay, Che Guevara sent a note of "gratitude" to U.S. President John F. Kennedy through Richard N. Goodwin, a young secretary of the White House. It read "Thanks for Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs). Before the invasion, the revolution was shaky. Now it's stronger than ever." In response to U.S. Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon presenting the Alliance for Progress for ratification by the meeting, Guevara antagonistically attacked the United States claim of being a "democracy", stating that such a system was not compatible with "financial oligarchy, discrimination against blacks, and outrages by the Ku Klux Klan." Guevara continued, speaking out against the "persecution" that in his view "drove scientists like Oppenheimer from their posts, deprived the world for years of the marvelous voice of Paul Robeson, and sent the Rosenbergs to their deaths against the protests of a shocked world."
Guevara, who was practically the architect of the Soviet-Cuban relationship, played a key role in bringing to Cuba the Soviet nuclear-armed ballistic missiles that precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. During an interview with the British Communist newspaper The Daily Worker a few weeks after the crisis, Guevara still fuming, stated that if the missiles had been under Cuban control, they would have fired them off. Sam Russell, the British correspondent who spoke to Guevara at the time came away with "mixed feelings", calling him "a warm character" and "clearly a man of great intelligence", but "crackers from the way he went on about the missiles."
Capture and execution
Félix Rodríguez, a Cuban exile turned CIA Special Activities Division operative, headed the hunt for Guevara in Bolivia. On October 7, an informant apprised the Bolivian Special Forces of the location of Guevara's guerrilla encampment in the Yuro ravine. They encircled the area, and Guevara was wounded and taken prisoner while leading a detachment with Simeón Cuba Sarabia. Che biographer Jon Lee Anderson reports Bolivian Sergeant Bernardino Huanca's account: that a twice wounded Guevara, his gun rendered useless, shouted "Do not shoot! I am Che Guevara and worth more to you alive than dead."
Guevara was tied up and taken to a dilapidated mud schoolhouse in the nearby village of La Higuera on the night of October 7. For the next day and a half Guevara refused to be interrogated by Bolivian officers and would only speak quietly to Bolivian soldiers. One of those Bolivian soldiers, helicopter pilot Jaime Nino de Guzman, describes Che as looking "dreadful". According to De Guzman, Guevara was shot through the right calf, his hair was matted with dirt, his clothes were shredded, and his feet were covered in rough leather sheaths. Despite his haggard appearance, he recounts that "Che held his head high, looked everyone straight in the eyes and asked only for something to smoke." De Guzman states that he "took pity" and gave him a small bag of tobacco for his pipe, with Guevara then smiling and thanking him. Later on the night of October 8, Guevara, despite having his hands tied, kicked Bolivian Officer Espinosa into the wall, after the officer entered the schoolhouse in order to snatch Guevara's pipe from his mouth as a souvenir. In another instance of defiance, Guevara spat in the face of Bolivian Rear Admiral Urgateche shortly before his execution.
The following morning on October 9, Guevara asked to see the "maestra" (school teacher) of the village, 22-year-old Julia Cortez. Cortez would later state that she found Guevara to be an "agreeable looking man with a soft and ironic glance" and that during their conversation she found herself "unable to look him in the eye", because his "gaze was unbearable, piercing, and so tranquil." During their short conversation, Guevara complained to Cortez about the poor condition of the schoolhouse, stating that it was "anti-pedagogical" to expect campesino students to be educated there, while "government officials drive Mercedes cars" ... declaring "that's what we are fighting against."
Later that morning on October 9, Bolivian President René Barrientos ordered that Guevara be killed. The executioner was Mario Terán, a sergeant in the Bolivian army who had drawn a short straw after arguments over who would get to shoot Guevara broke out among the soldiers. To make the bullet wounds appear consistent with the story the government planned to release to the public, Félix Rodríguez ordered Terán to aim carefully to make it appear that Guevara had been killed in action during a clash with the Bolivian army.
Moments before Guevara was executed he was asked if he was thinking about his own immortality. "No", he replied, "I'm thinking about the immortality of the revolution." Che Guevara then told his executioner, "I know you've come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man." Terán hesitated, then opened fire with his semiautomatic rifle, hitting Guevara in the arms and legs. Guevara writhed on the ground, apparently biting one of his wrists to avoid crying out. Terán then fired several times again, wounding him fatally in the chest at 1:10 pm, according to Rodríguez. In all Guevara was shot nine times. This included five times in the legs, once in the right shoulder and arm, once in the chest, and finally in the throat.
Guevara's body was then lashed to the landing skids of a helicopter and flown to nearby Vallegrande where photographs were taken, showing a figure described by some as "Christ-like" lying on a concrete slab in the laundry room of the Nuestra Señora de Malta hospital.
A declassified memorandum dated October 11, 1967 to United States President Lyndon B. Johnson from his National Security Advisor, Walt Whitman Rostow, called the decision to kill Guevara "stupid" but "understandable from a Bolivian standpoint." After the execution, Rodríguez took several of Guevara's personal items, including a watch which he continued to wear many years later, often showing them to reporters during the ensuing years. Today, some of these belongings, including his flashlight, are on display at the CIA. After a military doctor amputated his hands, Bolivian army officers transferred Guevara's body to an undisclosed location and refused to reveal whether his remains had been buried or cremated. The hands were preserved in formaldehyde to be sent to Buenos Aires for fingerprint identification. (His fingerprints were on file with the Argentine police.) They were later sent to Cuba. On October 15, Castro acknowledged that Guevara was dead and proclaimed three days of public mourning throughout the island. On October 18, Castro addressed a crowd of almost one million people in Havana and spoke about Guevara's character as a revolutionary.
French intellectual Régis Debray, who was captured in April 1967 while with Guevara in Bolivia, gave a jailhouse interview in August 1968, where he extrapolated on the reasons for Guevara's demise. Debray, who had lived with Guevara's band of guerrillas for a short time, espoused that in his view they were "victims of the forest" and thus "eaten by the jungle." Debray described a destitute situation where Guevara's men suffered malnutrition, lack of water, absence of shoes, and only possessed six blankets for 22 men. Debray recounts that Guevara and the others had been suffering an "illness" which caused their hands and feet to swell into "mounds of flesh" to the point where you could not discern the fingers on their hands. Despite the futile situation, Debray described Guevara as "optimistic about the future of Latin America" and remarked that Guevara was "resigned to die in the knowledge that his death would be a sort of renaissance", noting that Guevara perceived death "as a promise of rebirth" and "ritual of renewal."
Che Guevara's Monument and Mausoleum in Santa Clara, Cuba
In late 1995, retired Bolivian General Mario Vargas revealed to Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, that Guevara's body was located near a Vallegrande airstrip. The result was a multi-national search for the remains, which would last more than a year. In July 1997, a team of Cuban geologists and Argentine forensic anthropologists discovered the remnants of seven bodies in two mass graves, including one man with amputated hands (like Guevara). Bolivian government officials with the Ministry of Interior later identified the body as Guevara when the excavated teeth "perfectly matched" a plaster mold of Che's teeth, made in Cuba prior to his Congolese expedition. The "clincher" then arrived when Argentine forensic anthropologist Alejandro Inchaurregui inspected the inside hidden pocket of a blue jacket dug up next to the handless cadaver and found a small bag of pipe tobacco. Nino de Guzman, the Bolivian helicopter pilot who had given Che a small bag of tobacco, later remarked that he "had serious doubts" at first and "thought the Cubans would just find any old bones and call it Che"; however he stated "after hearing about the tobacco pouch, I have no doubts." On October 17, 1997, Guevara's remains, with those of six of his fellow combatants, were laid to rest with military honors in a specially built mausoleum in the city of Santa Clara, where he had commanded over the decisive military victory of the Cuban Revolution.
Removed when Guevara was captured was his 30,000-word, hand-written diary, a collection of his personal poetry, and a short story he authored about a young Communist guerrilla who learns to overcome his fears. His diary documented events of the guerrilla campaign in Bolivia with the first entry on November 7, 1966 shortly after his arrival at the farm in Ñancahuazú, and the last dated October 7, 1967, the day before his capture. The diary tells how the guerrillas were forced to begin operations prematurely due to discovery by the Bolivian Army, explains Guevara's decision to divide the column into two units that were subsequently unable to re-establish contact, and describes their overall unsuccessful venture. It also records the rift between Guevara and the Communist Party of Bolivia that resulted in Guevara having significantly fewer soldiers than originally expected and shows that Guevara had a great deal of difficulty recruiting from the local populace, due in part to the fact that the guerrilla group had learned Quechua, unaware that the local language was actually Tupí-Guaraní. As the campaign drew to an unexpected close, Guevara became increasingly ill. He suffered from ever-worsening bouts of asthma, and most of his last offensives were carried out in an attempt to obtain medicine.
The Bolivian Diary was quickly and crudely translated by Ramparts magazine and circulated around the world. There are at least four additional diaries in existence—those of Israel Reyes Zayas (Alias "Braulio"), Harry Villegas Tamayo ("Pombo"), Eliseo Reyes Rodriguez ("Rolando") and Dariel Alarcón Ramírez ("Benigno")—each of which reveals additional aspects of the events. In July 2008, the Bolivian government of Evo Morales unveiled Guevara's formerly sealed diaries composed in two frayed notebooks, along with a logbook and several black-and-white photographs. At this event, Bolivia's vice minister of culture, Pablo Groux, expressed that there were plans to publish photographs of every handwritten page later in the year.
Over forty years after his execution, Che's life and legacy still remain a contentious issue. The contradictions of his ethos at various points in his life have created a complex character of unending duality, polarized in the collective imagination.
Some view Che Guevara as a hero; for example, Nelson Mandela referred to him as "an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom" while Jean-Paul Sartre described him as "not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age." Guevara remains a beloved national hero to many in Cuba, where his image adorns the $3 Cuban Peso and school children begin each morning by pledging "We will be like Che." In his native homeland of Argentina, where high schools bear his name, numerous Che museums dot the country, which in 2008 unveiled a 12 foot bronze statue of him in his birth city of Rosario. Additionally, Guevara has been sanctified by some Bolivian campesinos as "Saint Ernesto", to whom they pray for assistance.
Conversely, others view him as a spokesman for a failed ideology and as a ruthless executioner. Detractors have theorized that in much of Latin America, Che-inspired revolutions had the practical result of reinforcing brutal militarism and internecine conflict for many years. Guevara remains a hated figure amongst many in the Cuban exile community, who view him with animosity as "the butcher of La Cabaña."
A high-contrast monochrome graphic of his face has become one of the world's most universally merchandized and objectified images, found on an endless array of items, including t-shirts, hats, posters, tattoos, and bikinis, ironically contributing to the consumer culture he despised. Yet, Guevara still remains a transcendent figure both in specifically political contexts and as a wide-ranging popular icon of youthful rebellion.