Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, from Asthmatic Doctor to World Icon

Before I visited Cuba I had of course heard of Che Guevara. Now I feel I know him.

Che was born in Rosario in 1928, Argentinian but part Irish through his paternal grandparents. All his life he struggled with asthma, but this did not stop him loving and playing rugby and qualifying as a doctor.

Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara became disillusioned with the former colonial Americas, which were largely governed by corrupt dictators once the Spanish empire broke up.

His meeting with Fidel Castro was fate. Fidel had fled to Mexico in 1956 fearing for his life in his homeland. Che was already in the country cautiously spreading revolutionary rhetoric and there he met Fidel’s brother Raul, who impressed by Guevara’s views, introduced him to his brother.

Paintings of Che Guevara, Bayamo, Cuba
Images of an Icon, Bayamo

Che was soon welcomed into the July 26th movement, the name given to the revolutionary brothers in recognition of the date of the failed 1953 coup in which many revolutionaries perished (for related post click here), initially joining as group doctor.

So impressed did Fidel become with Che’s strategic prowess that he soon became his confidante, sounding board and a key driving force behind their plans to take control of Cuba.

Without Che (colloquial Spanish meaning ‘hey you’) there may not have been a successful revolution, certainly not as quickly as happened thirty months or so after their fateful first meeting.

Guevara later became a prominent leader in Fidel’s socialist government, being placed in charge of much of Cuba’s new direction. He became an international high profile figure, reviled by the Americans and revered by the Cubans.

Che Guevara Banner, Hotel Nacional, Havana
Che Guevara Banner, Hotel Nacional, Havana

Never had a non-national risked so much and been so responsible for the freedom of a nation.

Che oversaw the cleansing of Cuba of the enemies of the people, a fact that saw his notoriety surge in some quarters but his hero status rise still further with millions of others.

He remained as Fidel’s right hand man during such tumultuous events as the Bay of Pigs affair (the CIA’s failed attempt at backing counter-revolution) and the Cuban missile crisis that brought the prospect of nuclear war the closest it has ever been to reality.

Che ran his side of the government from offices in Havana’s main fort that had been built in the 18th century to repel European invaders. There is now a small museum paying homage.

Che Guevara Exhibition Poster, Havana
Che Guevara Exhibition Poster, Havana
Che Guevara Exhibit, Havana
Che Guevara Exhibit, Havana
Havana Fortifications, Cuba
Havana Fortifications

He even became governor of the Bank of Cuba meaning that his signature appeared on all Cuban bank notes.

By 1965 though, Che felt his job in Cuba was complete – there were other countries in the Americas that needed his assistance to overthrow despotic dictatorships. His final letter to Fidel can be viewed here.

In October 1967 he was captured in revolutionary action in Bolivia and held prisoner. The order was given to shoot him dead in such a way that it appeared he had died in battle.

The soldier sent to do the deed could not however bring himself to kill such a great man. In a final act of courage, selflessness and concern for the soldier’s own well-being, Che taunted his chosen assassin by calling him a coward and goading him into action.

In truth he realised his time was up and he wanted a quick end. He also realised that his martyrdom would give great strength to revolutionary movements everywhere.

Che’s last request was to implore the soldier to tell his wife to remarry.

The news of Che’s death on October 9th 1967 was met by a huge outpouring of emotion in Cuba and much of Latin America.

Guevara’s body was thrown into an unmarked grave with other revolutionaries and was not discovered until the late ’90s.

The remains of all the victims were finally brought to Cuba in 1997 for state burial in Santa Clara, the city of Che’s greatest victory in late 1958 (see previously linked post).

Reconstruction of the military train that Che destroyed in 1958, a crucial act in the revolutionaries victory
Reconstruction of the military train that Che destroyed in 1958, a crucial act in the revolutionaries victory

Fidel lit the eternal flame that burns at the mausoleum and museum dedicated to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, hero of the Cuban people and arguably the 20th century’s greatest icon.

An image that adorns a multitude of t-shirts and other memorabilia globally.

Such as the esteem in which Che is held, that no possessions can be taken in with you to the museum/mausoleum, including water.

Photos are definitely off limits, although that didn’t stop one philistine from another group from trying to sneak one with his phone.

Outside there is a huge statue of the great man that can be seen for miles around.

Che Guevara Statue, Santa Clara, Cuba

It is a fitting tribute to somebody that ordinary Cubans owe so much.

One comment

  1. I always thought that going off to Bolivia like that was an odd thing to do. I guess I will never make a revolutionary.

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