Che Guevara (whose real name was Ernesto Guevara) was born in Rosario, Argentina in 1928. After studying medicine at the University of Buenos Aires he worked as a doctor. While in Guatemala in 1954 he witnessed the socialist government of President Jacobo Arbenz overthrown by an American-backed military coup. Disgusted by what he saw, Guevara decided to join the Cuban revolutionary, Fidel Castro, who at the time was in Mexico.
In 1956 Che Guevara, Castro and eighty other men and women arrived in Cuba in an attempt to overthrow the government of General Fulgencio Batista. This group became known as the July 26 Movement. The plan was to set up their base in the Sierra Maestra mountains. On the way, they were attacked by government troops. By the time they reached the Sierra Maestra there were only sixteen men left with twelve weapons between them. For the next few months Castro's guerrilla army raided isolated army garrisons and were gradually able to build-up their stock of weapons.
When the guerrillas took control of territory they redistributed the land amongst the peasants. In return, the peasants helped the guerrillas against Batista's soldiers. In some cases the peasants also joined Castro's army, as did students from the cities and occasionally Catholic priests.
In an effort to find out information about the rebels people were pulled in for questioning. Many innocent people were tortured. Suspects, including children, were publicly executed and then left hanging in the streets for several days as a warning to others who were considering joining the revolutionaries. The behavior of Batista's forces increased support for the guerrillas. In 1958 forty-five organizations signed an open letter supporting the July 26 Movement. National bodies representing lawyers, architects, dentists, accountants and social workers were amongst those who signed. Castro, who had originally relied on the support of the poor, was now gaining the backing of the influential middle classes.
General Fulgencio Batista responded to this by sending more troops to the Sierra Maestra. He now had 10,000 men hunting for Castro and his 300-strong army. Although outnumbered, Castro's guerrillas were able to inflict defeat after defeat on the government's troops. In the summer of 1958 over a thousand of Batista's soldiers were killed or wounded and many more were captured. Unlike Batista's soldiers, Castro's troops had developed a reputation for behaving well towards prisoners. This encouraged Batista's troops to surrender to Castro when things went badly in battle. Complete military units began to join the guerrillas.
The United States supplied Batista with planes, ships and tanks, but the advantage of using the latest technology such as napalm failed to give them victory against the guerrillas. In March 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower, disillusioned with Batista's performance, suggested he hold elections. This he did, but the people showed their dissatisfaction with his government by refusing to vote. Over 75 per cent of the voters in the capital, Havana, boycotted the polls. In some areas, such as Santiago, it was as high as 98 per cent.
Fidel Castro was now confident he could beat Batista in a head-on battle. Leaving the Sierra Maestra mountains, Castro's troops began to march on the main towns. After consultations with the United States government, Batista decided to flee the country. Senior Generals left behind attempted to set up another military government. Castro's reaction was to call for a general strike. The workers came out on strike and the military were forced to accept the people's desire for change. Castro marched into Havana on January 9,1959 and became Cuba's new leader.
In its first hundred days in office Castro's government passed several new laws. The costs of rent were cut by up to 50 per cent for low wage earners; property owned by Fulgencio Batista and his ministers was confiscated; the telephone company was nationalized and the rates were reduced by 50 per cent; land was redistributed amongst the peasants (including the land owned by the Castro family); separate facilities for blacks and whites (swimming pools, beaches, hotels, cemeteries etc.) were abolished.
After his success in fighting alongside Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara went to Africa. He admitted that his attempts to foment revolution in the Democratic Republic of Congo were a disaster.
In 1960 Che Guevara visited China and the Soviet Union. On his return he wrote two books Guerrilla Warfare and Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War. In these books he argued that it was possible to export Cuba's revolution to other South American countries. Che Guevara served as Minister for Industries (1961-65) but in April 1965 he resigned (some say he was fired, actually) and redirected his efforts to being a guerrilla leader in Bolivia.
Che Guevara chose
because of its central location on the continent, a hub of sorts from which to "radiate" his beliefs outward toward other South American countries. He also believed social and economic conditions were such that Bolivians would be easily won over. Finally, he believed Bolivia, as far as it was from the U.S., was an unlikely place for interference from the "gringo" government.
In 1966 several of his followers purchased a small hacienda prior to his arrival in November in Bolivia, called the Casa de Calamina (which literally means "house with a tin roof"). At first sight, the rugged mountain terrain, deep gorges and impenetrable vegetation around Vallegrande looked something like the Sierra Maestra mountains in eastern Cuba, where the revolution there was born. But Bolivia is not Cuba and the peasant farmers were mistrustful of him. After several months in the inhospitable countryside, Guevara and his men were tired and hungry and did not have the support of the local community they were seeking. He was captured, tired and hungry.
In February 1967 Che Guevara led some 30 followers into Vallegrande to try to obtain food; however, the Bolivian Army was alerted to their presence and tried to follow them back to camp, but were unable to. On 11 March two guerrillas defected and turned themselves in to Army Headquarters in
and gave up the location of the guerrilla's camp.
The army sent soldiers from Vallegrande, Camiri and Gutierrez to search for the guerrillas but on the 23rd of March, the Che and his guerrilleros set a trap that killed 5 soldiers and 1 civilian, and wounded 14 others.
Shortly thereafter Che Guevara invited a French and an Argentine journalist to camp and asked them to spread the news about the revolution. His men led them to out of the jungle to the edge of a tiny town called Muyupampa. Before they were able to make their way out of the country to do as they had been asked, they were identified by a deserter and captured. They gave the government valuable information.
then requested assistance from the US who sent in the CIA to train Bolivian operatives and set up a camp to train Bolivian soldiers.
In 1967 Félix Rodríguez was recruited to train and head a team that would attempt to capture Che Guevara. When Guevara was captured by Bolivian General Gary Prado and several other CIA-backed soldiers in the tiny town of
it was Rodriguez who interrogated him before he ordered his execution in October, 1967.
His body was displayed in the laundry room of a local medical center to the press and public before mysteriously disappearing. It was not found again until 1997 when it was found under an airstrip in
It was returned to Che Guevara’s family in Cuba for burial. Since this discovery, a tour has been set up in Bolivia. Visitors can trek the
"Ruta del Che"
and chronologically follow the events that led up to Guevara's capture and death by visiting the various towns named above, in which monuments and museums have been established.
Portions of this article were found at http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk.
To tour the region of Bolivia where Guevara and his men lived and worked, the location where he was executed, a museum in his honor, and other
tours in Bolivia,
contact Ruta Verde Bolivia.