Che Guevara: The Fighting Life of an Argentine Guerrilla, 1956-1967

Che Guevara (b. 1928-1967) is know single handedly for his striking portrait taken in 1960, which has become an image so popular that it is perhaps the most popular photograph ever taken. It's reproduction has appeared on countless millions of t-shirts and other miscellaneous products for years now, and certainly for years to come as his image, persona, and accomplishments remain ever popular and controversial even today. Behind the face and persona of Che, stands Ernesto Guevara, the military and political mastermind, Cuban revolutionary guerilla, and 'freedom fighter'.

Che Guevara (b.1928-1967)

Born in Argentina in the year 1928, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara was a well read and thoughtful adolescent who later became a doctor in part because of his strong sense of compassion. His travels throughout South America by motorcycle just added to his early lifestyle as a young idealist adventurer (as depicted in the 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries), a period which greatly influences his later social causes and social conscience which brought him into the center of not just the Cuban Revolution, but other major world events in the 1950’s and 1960’s during the Cold War. Che met Fidel Castro and the other conspirators who would start the Cuban Revolution as apart of the exiled group known as the 26 of July Movement in 1956. The movement took its name from Fidel’s failed assault on the Moncada Barracks in 1953 which set in play a course of events that would change Cuban history forever. By then Fidel Castro was a well respected man by most of the major rebel factions in Cuba who despised, and rightly so, the authoritarian and corrupt regime of General Fulgencio Batista (b.1901-1973) yet they still all fought frequently amongst themselves. Meanwhile Cuba remained a third world country in the rather prosperous Western Hemisphere while the richest minority, General Batista among them, amassed private fortunes at the expense of the majority of Cubans. The rebels left from Mexico and in November 1956 they landed in Cuba, loosing more than half their original force before retreating into the Sierra Maestra mountains.

General Batista, a conspirator in the 1933, 'Revolt of the Sergeants', President of Cuba from 1940-1944, and then caudillo and dictator from 1952-1959

Despite discontent amongst populace the Cuban Revolution was not the sweepingly popular affair amongst the poor and working classes as Che and Fidel had hoped for during the planning stages in Mexico. The Cuban Army remained strong and were generally ruthless, patterned after General Battista himself who became a classic example of the Latin American dictator-strongman in the mid 20th century. It was in the mountains were Castro’s rebels led by Che and Fidel’s brother Raul, managed to successfully evade Batista’s forces and consolidate power. They mounted raids and ambushes but most importantly they gathered strength through recruiting armed peasants, both men and women, and incorporating other smaller anti-Batista guerrillas into the greater movement.

Despite being outnumbered and outgunned Fidel’s army fought a successful Guerrilla campaign from 1956-1958, while they drew the populace in with popular support and promises of social revolution and reform. Che most certainly aided in the implementation of the guerrilla tactics used by Fidel’s movement, as he outlined in his own published work, 1961’s Guerilla Warfare. He became a venerable hero and symbol of the revolution despite not even being Cuban, a fact which made him feel insecure during the Revolution. Che had been wounded in the fighting and despite his at times crippling asthma rose to a prominent military rank amongst Fidel’s new war cabinet, which had developed a concrete ideology towards the end of the War with Batista's Regular Army.

Che became the hero of the Revolution with his decisive victory over the Batista army at Santa Clara in December of 1959. With less than 300 soldiers Che led an ambush that captured an armored train and a garrison of more than 2500 Cuban Army soldiers plus all of their weapons and equipment. Batista fled shortly after and Cuba as the year 1960 approached was a free republic for the first time in its history.

Fidel, his brother Raul, and the other 'Fidelistas' after their victory in the Cuban Revolution at Havana in January of 1959

From 1960-1961 Fidel consolidated power as the Communist Party of Cuba established overall political control over Cuba and the new nation sought diplomatic recognition from the Warsaw Pact nations, to the horror of the United States of America who were supporters of Batista's regime in just about every sense.

The fear of Cuban communism led to then American President John F. Kennedy’s (b.1917-1963) green light on the CIA operated and backed Bay of Pigs Invasion from April 17-19, 1961. Meanwhile Che and the Cuban Revolutionary Army (FAR) continued the revolution by enacting some social and reform and attempting to defeat counter-revolutionary forces known as the Contra Bandits, many of whom were Batista supporters or former army men.

Totally defeated by the new Cuban army the failed invasion was an embarrassment for President Kennedy and the CIA backed anti-Castro rebels (trained in the US),who’s defeat became a propaganda victory for the new regime, which was exploited by Che and the other party officials in their diplomatic cables with the East and West. The “Cuba Project” came about on the original directive of then President (from 1953-1961) Eisenhower who had been just as worried about Castro’s rise to power as Kennedy would be once in office.

After training a small infantry force of a little more than 1,500 men, and a small air force clandestinely in Florida and other southern US states, the CIA planned for a successful amphibious assault with the cover of overwhelming firepower (delivered from two ships and around 8-10 bomber aircraft), without appearing to have a major hand in the rapid counter-revolution which would ensue after the population rose against Castro.

Anti-Castro brigadistas training before the Bay of Pigs Invasion

The mission was far from a secret after some pilots defected and Fidel’s new army had intelligence that an invasion force was coming, certainly orchestrated by the Americans, Che refereed to these anti-Castro brigadistas as 'Yankee mercenaries'. These anti-Castro forces set sail for their invasion target, the Bay of Pigs on the southern coast of the island. From the start the operation was quagmire, a half cocked diversionary raid several days before totally failed, initial air strikes by B-26 invaders were somewhat effective but not as devastating as had been planned and the enemy forces were either dug in or advancing quickly to the site of the invasion.

On April 16 however President Kennedy gave the go-ahead and that evening the anti-Castro rebels landed on the Bay of Pigs. Well armed they had tanks and American World War II vintage weapons which they used with skill to establish a beach head initially. Che had been one of the first commanders on the scene though his involvement was seemingly downplayed and then quickly overshadowed with Fidel’s arrival to the front with the newly formed Tank brigades which the Soviets had furnished for the FAR.

Coupled with militiamen and auxiliary forces armed with Warsaw Pact weapons and Soviet-made equipped artillery units, the FAR pounded the brigadista positions on Red and Blue Beach into submission from the ground and through the air. The new Cuba did not however become a direct Warsaw pact ally until after their famous victory at the Bay of Pigs. Around 100-150 brigadistas were killed during the invasion, the rest were captured or escaped. The prisoners were paraded in front of the world as American mercenaries and filibusters, with Che allegedly telling several of them that they were not worthy of death by firing squad, as a revolutionary would be.

Castro’s forces suffered as many as 5,000-6,000 killed or wounded during the invasion and Che was ingloriously wounded by his own hand while brandishing a pistol in an attempt to rally his men, he accidentally shot himself through the chin and could have died.

Commandant Che occupied an important place in the new Cuban Republic's political and diplomatic realms from 1960-1965 especially after the joint military-diplomatic triumph of the Bay of Pigs. For Fidel and his regime he was an important symbol of the revolutionary fighting spirit and of the Cuban and Global revolution itself, lasting well beyond his death into today.

Che's memory would insure that the socialist cause would survive in all nations in any regions which are underdeveloped and/or oppressed from the 70's to the modern day. His famous December 1964 speech in front of the United Nations member states prophetically ended with the decree of "Patria o Muerte!", Homeland or Death!

Che seems to of had a falling out with Castro and his establishment in the mid 1960's, spending the rest of his life from 1964 onwards traveling to various diplomatic hotspots for the cause. After Cuban independence was secure, the revolution a total success, his travels would take him abroad to the Soviet Union and many of its sister republics. He traveled to the Peoples Republic of China, Ireland, Tanzania, Egypt, Algeria, Czechoslovakia and several other notable African nations amongst others. Che’s most significant travels took him to the Congo in 1965 which was in the midst of a major war.

Che's Congo intervention

Drawn to the struggle in the Congo ideologically, Che quickly threw himself into the conflict as the commander of a 200 strong combat brigade and the leader of the Cuban military 'advisers' sent to help train the Chinese equipped ‘Simba’ forces fighting for independence against the United Nations, Belgium, and the Western Mercenary armies stationed in the Congo.

The outbreak of the Congo Crisis began when Belgium started the diplomatic process of granting independence to the Congo, which it had brutally controlled for years under the imperialist system. Under King Leopold II Belgian control and a greater European demand for mass quantities of rubber led to the deaths of millions of Congolese under the slave-like labor practices imposed in the cruel rubber plantation system of the 1880's into the early 1900's.

The Congo Crisis itself started after the Congo, known then as Zaire (from 1971-1997), and today as the Democratic Republic of Congo, gained its independence in 1960. Two rival governments sprang up, one Western (Democratic) backed and the other Eastern (Marxist-Leninist or Maoist) backed, with two other regions later seceding in 1960.

The most important of these secessionist states was the State of Katanga which was protected from the rebel African movements and the United Nations forces by Belgian paratroopers and Foreign Mercenaries hired to protect the economic interests in Katanga. From 1959 to 1965 the Congo experienced many rebellions, proxy conflicts, and geopolitical shifts partly as a result of so many different political and military movements vying for influence.

Mercenaries like Irishman and World War II veteran Mike Hoare and his 5 Commando, who served in the Congo throughout the War, proved Che's theories that the West relied on capital and dirty money to finance the counter-revolutions and Contra armies he faced at every turn. Indeed the anti-Castro Air Force of the Bay of Pigs also served in the Congo War flying sorties from Katanga in support of the mercenary brigades against the Warsaw backed guerilla movements. In general the mercenaries of the African conflicts in 1960's-1980's were a diverse bunch coming from Rhodesia, South Africa, America, the British Isles, Canada, and even German veterans of the Western or Eastern Fronts during World War II.

Following the defeat of the Simba rebels Che left the Congo, living secretly in Africa and later Prague while he recouped from the War and wrote an account of his time in the Congo. Again however Che was quickly sucked into another rebel guerrilla movement, this time in the jungles of Bolivia against the US backed Bolivian military regime. Once he entered Bolivia Che helped to "spearhead" the creation of the National Liberation Army (ELN). By early 1966, Che had attracted enough attention to get the CIA actively interested in his whereabouts and plans. Bolivia was in the process of revamping its military with the help of the United States who gave them the same equipment and weapons which were being used in the Vietnam War to combat the guerrilla forces of the Viet Cong.

Che's Last campaign: Bolivia 1966-1967

Che's mission to Bolivia from 1966-1967 proved to be a fateful adventure from the start. The CIA had been tracking him for sometime and had sent Bay of Pigs veteran and CIA intelligence officer Felix Rodriguez (b.1941-alive as of 6/12) to Bolivia to help aid in the Bolivia Army Ranger's counter-insurgency campaign against the ELN. Frustrated by frequent and severe asthma attacks and the tiny amount of inept Bolivian ELN recruits, Commandante Che struggled to start the uprising which he hoped would overthrow the corrupt and totally antiquated Bolivian government. During a jungle ambush gone a-rye in October 1967, Che was captured by the Bolivian military and imprisoned.

Felix Rodriguez and Che shortly before his death

On October 9th, 1967 with his identity confirmed and with sanctioning from the Bolivian Government the Army executed Che Guevara, his body was tied to a helicopter and flown to Vallegrande where pictures were taken to confirm his death. Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, the Argentine guerrilla, Cuban patriot and diplomat, and now martyr for the cause (whatever that may have been), was dead at the age of 39. To this day Rodriguez remains content with relaying the order to execute Che Guevara with the implicit authorization of the Bolivian government. The National Liberation Army was finally defeated in the early 1970's by the Bolivian military junta.

Che atop a donkey during the Bolivian campaign