Of all the romantics and adventurers to pass through Bolivia, none has matched the iconic status of Che Guevara, the Argentine-born hero of the Cuban revolution who was killed in the backwoods southwest of Santa Cruz while attempting to launch a continent-wide guerrilla war. Born in the Argentine town of Rosario to upper middle-class parents on May 14, 1928 (though his birth was registered a month later to conceal the fact that he was conceived before his parents were married), Ernesto Guevara de la Serna studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires and qualified in 1953, but never practised as a doctor in his homeland: he preferred life on the road as a self-styled vagabond and adventurer, travelling virtually penniless throughout Latin America both during and after his studies, including a brief period in Bolivia during the revolutionary upheaval of the early 1950s.
A meeting of minds
By 1954 his travels brought him to Guatemala, where he witnessed the CIA-backed military overthrow of the progressive Arbenz regime, an event that confirmed both his growing commitment to revolutionary Marxism and his fervent opposition to US imperialism. It was also here that he was given the nickname Che, after his typically Argentine habit of peppering his speech with the Guaraní-derived word, used to mean “hey you” or “mate”. From Guatemala he headed to Mexico City, where he met Fidel Castro, an exiled Cuban rebel planning to return to his country to launch a guerrilla campaign to overthrow the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Che was signed up as the expedition’s doctor, but over the next two years of fighting, he proved himself amongst the most ruthless, determined, fearless, politically radical and tactically astute of the guerrilla commanders. By the time Fidel Castro took power in January 1959, Che was one of his closest associates. For several years he served Cuba as president of the National Bank, roving ambassador and Minister of Industry. His mixture of good looks, incendiary rhetoric and self-sacrifice made him appear the living embodiment of the revolutionary “New Man”.
From Cuba to the Congo
However, his radicalism and his continued insistence on promoting revolution in other countries proved a liability to Castro’s Soviet allies, who feared being drawn into a war with the US and were suspicious of Che’s Maoist leanings. Che saw the Cuban revolution as the first step in a continent-wide revolution against US imperial control, and believed the guerrilla strategy used in Cuba – whereby a small rural foco or nucleus of determined fighters could radicalize the peasantry and create the conditions for revolution, as detailed in his book Guerra de Guerrillas – was a scientific model that could be exported all over the world. In 1965 he formally resigned his Cuban citizenship, ministerial position and rank of commandante, left his family behind and set off to spread revolution. After an unsuccessful stint leading a Cuban guerrilla contingent supporting rebels in the Congo, he turned his attention to Bolivia, where he hoped to start a guerrilla conflagration that would spread into neighbouring countries (including his native Argentina) and draw the US into a “second Vietnam”, culminating in a continent-wide revolution. Bolivia’s rugged terrain, strategic position in the centre of the continent and proximity to Argentina made it an attractive location, though in fact the choice was to prove a fatal mistake – in all South America, Bolivia was the only country where radical land reform had already been carried out, and so the revolutionary potential of the peasantry was low.
On the run in Bolivia
In 1966, Che set off to Bolivia with a few chosen Cuban companions and set up his base at Ñancahuasu, a farm on the fringes of the Chaco in the Andean foothills, 260km southwest of Santa Cruz. In hindsight, Che’s Bolivian venture was doomed from the start. Opposed to Che’s guerrilla strategy and anxious to run things on its own territory, the Bolivian Communist Party quickly withdrew its support. The few Bolivian recruits he did manage to enlist proved unreliable and squabbled with the Cubans, and the guerrillas’ presence was betrayed by deserters even before initial preparations were complete. Unable to attract a single recruit from the local peasantry, Che’s small band (they never numbered more than fifty) quickly found itself on the run, divided into two groups blundering through harsh terrain with little food or water while the Bolivian army, backed by US military trainers and CIA advisers, closed in from all sides. Without sufficient medicine, Che himself was crippled by asthma, and reduced to travelling by donkey. On September 26, 1967, Che’s ragged fighters marched through the hamlet of La Higuera, straight into an army ambush in which three guerrillas were instantly killed. Che and the sixteen other survivors retreated into a canyon, the Quebrada del Churo, where they were quickly surrounded. On October 8 they were captured by a company of elite US-trained Bolivian Army Rangers. In the ensuing shoot-out, Che was hit in the calf; another bullet destroyed his carbine, and he was captured. Filthy and emaciated, he was taken to La Higuera and held in the schoolhouse for interrogation by Bolivian army officers and a Cuban-born CIA agent. The next day, the order to execute Che came through from the Bolivian high command. His dreams of a continent-wide revolution were ended by two bursts from a semi-automatic rifle fired by a sergeant who volunteered for the task. According to legend, Che’s last words were: “Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”
His body was flown to Vallegrande and displayed to the press before being secretly buried, as if his enemies feared him more in death than in life. In many ways, they were right to do so, as Che’s example inspired thousands of young men and women across Latin America.