No one embodies the romanticism of the Cuban Revolution more than Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the handsome, brave and principled guerrilla who fought alongside Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra during the revolutionary war of 1956–59. Referred to in Cuba today simply as “El Che”, he is probably the most universally liked and respected of the Revolution’s heroes, his early death allowing him to remain untarnished by the souring of attitudes over time, and his willingness to fight so energetically for his principles viewed as evidence of his indefatigable spirit.

The early years

Born to middle-class, strongly left-wing parents in Rosario, Argentina, on June 14, 1928, the young Ernesto Guevara – later nicknamed “Che”, a popular term of affectionate address in Argentina – suffered from severe asthma attacks as a child. Despite this life-long affliction, he became a keen soccer and rugby player while at the University of Buenos Aires, where, in 1948, he began studying medicine.

Before he graduated in 1953, finishing a six-year course in half the time, Che had taken time out from his studies and made an epic journey around South America on a motorbike (which he chronicled later in The Motorcycle Diaries), with his doctor friend Alberto Granado. These travels, which he continued after graduation, were instrumental in the formation of Guevara’s political character, instilling in him a strong sense of Latin American identity and opening his eyes to the widespread suffering and social injustice throughout the continent. He was in Guatemala in 1954 when the government was overthrown by a US-backed right-wing military coup, and had to escape to Mexico.

Guevara and the Revolution

It was in Mexico, in November 1955, that Guevara met the exiled Fidel Castro and, learning of his intentions to return to Cuba and ignite a popular revolution, decided to join Castro’s small rebel army, the M-26-7 Movement. The Argentine was among the 82 who set sail for Cuba in the yacht Granma on November 24, 1956, and, following the disastrous landing, one of the few who made it safely into the Sierra Maestra. As both a guerrilla and a doctor, Guevara played a vital role for the rebels as they set about drumming up support for their cause among the local peasants while fighting Batista’s troops. His most prominent role in the conflict, however, came in 1958 when he led a rebel column west to the then province of Las Villas, where he was to cut all means of communication between the two ends of the island and thus cement Castro’s control over the east. This he did in great style, exemplified in his manoeuvres during the Battle of Santa Clara.

El Hombre Nuevo

Guevara insisted on enduring the same harsh conditions as the other rebels and refused to grant himself any comforts that his higher status might have allowed. It was this spirit of sacrifice and brotherhood that he brought to the philosophies which he developed and instituted after the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, during his role as Minister for Industry. The cornerstone of his vision was the concept of El Hombre Nuevo – the New Man – which became his most enduring contribution to Cuban communist theory. Guevara believed that in order to build communism a new man must be created, and the key to this was to alter the popular consciousness. The emphasis was on motivation: new attitudes would have to be instilled in people, devoid of selfish sentiment and with a goal of moral rather than material reward, gained through the pursuit of the aims of the Revolution.

Guevara’s final years

Despite working out these abstract theories, Guevara remained at heart a man of action and, after serving four years as a roaming ambassador for Cuba to the rest of the world, he left for Africa to play a more direct role in the spread of communism, becoming involved in a revolutionary conflict in the Congo. In 1966 he travelled to Bolivia where he once again fought as a guerrilla against the Bolivian army. There, on October 8, 1967, aged 39, Guevara was captured and shot. The exact location of his burial was kept secret until 1995, when it was revealed by a Bolivian general. Two years later, in 1997, his body was exhumed and transported to Santa Clara, where it now lies in the mausoleum of the Complejo Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara.

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