Che after 40 years

Campaign News | Tuesday, 16 October 2007

by Brian H. Pollitt

On 9 October 1967, Ernesto “Che” Guevara was murdered in the schoolhouse of the Bolivian village of La Higuera.

He had been captured some 24 hours before. Encircled by U.S.-trained Bolivian Rangers, he had tried to fight his way out but was rendered helpless when a bullet disabled his M-2 carbine while another wounded him in the leg.

High-level discussions between the C.I.A. and the Bolivian military junta in La Paz concluded with the latter’s decision to execute their prisoner. Sergeant Mario Terán - fortified by alcohol - carried out the task.

Death was not immediate. Terán had been instructed that Che was officially to have “died of his wounds” and while his initial burst of gun fire felled him, it was with multiple wounds to the arms and legs. He was killed with later shots to the chest.

Representatives of the Bolivian High Command then took a decision they were later to regret.

When captured, Che had been unkempt and emaciated and in death lay crumpled on a dirt floor. The Junta wished it to be unmistakeably clear that they had in fact killed the legendary Che Guevara.

His body was therefore flown to the neighbouring town of Vallegrande, where he was stripped to the waist and cleaned and his hair was washed and combed. When put on display to be photographed by the international media, the corpse - with opened eyes - was thus clearly that of Che Guevara.

But for many the image was also evocative of the figure and sacrifice of Jesus Christ and in rural Bolivia and more widely, the dead Guevara came to be seen not as a failed Communist guerrilla leader but as a martyr in the cause of the poor and oppressed. In future years he was thus more generally revered than reviled - and by some even sanctified.

Rumours of Che’s death spread swiftly within Cuba but were skeptically received.

He had disappeared from public view in 1965 and the international press had already reported him killed more than once in Africa and in the Dominican Republic. Moreover, during Cuba’s revolutionary war, Che had appeared to have a charmed life, acting with great tactical audacity and causing his Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro to reprimand him for his total disregard for his personal safety.

He could be - and was - wounded but otherwise he seemed indestructible. In one famous incident, when commanding the guerilla column that besieged and took the key provincial capital of Santa Clara in December 1958, he had maintained contact with his forces by casually walking around the city’s main square under the eyes (and guns) of a contingent of Batista’s troops corralled on, and firing from, the top floor of the city’s main hotel.

Some days after October 9th, however, in a televised address to the nation, Castro confirmed Che’s death, showing the photographs of his body as it had been displayed by the Bolivian military. The next day the now-iconic Korda photograph, taken in 1960, was published nationally for the first time as the black-bordered back page of the newspaper “Granma”.

A few days later, on the evening of Thursday 18 October, Castro addressed a Memorial meeting held in Havana’s Revolution Square.

In contrast to official celebrations of important anniversaries of the Revolution such as the 26th July, no public holiday was declared and those attending the Memorial Meeting did so after their day’s work. Neither was any additional public transport laid on which - given Havana’s notoriously deficient bus service - meant that many would have to walk several miles to and from the Square.

It was not clear that dark evening just how many attended the Memorial meeting but those assembled numbered at least 400 thousand. Such an impressive manifestation of the esteem in which Che was held by the Cuban populace merited some explanation.

Che had come to Cuba as an unranked member of Castro’s expeditionary force in December 1956 and became recognized as a national figure only after the Revolutionary Government took power in January1959.

As both his nickname and accent indicated, he was not Cuban but from Argentina and both then and now nationalist sentiments in Cuba were palpably strong. How then was he so rapidly to command an obvious and widespread popular admiration?

To begin with, it could be noted that Che Guevara was not the only foreigner to achieve prominence in Cuba’s long struggles for independence, firstly from Spain and then from the USA.

In the 19th century, for example, General Máximo Gomez - a citizen of the Dominican Republic - had been a key military and political leader of Cuba’s insurrectionary forces. And, as Castro was swiftly to make clear after 1959, a powerful strand in Cuban nationalist thought had always sought not just insular but continental independence.

More important, of course, were particular facets of Che’s character that exercised a strong appeal for ordinary Cubans. His personal courage was evidently one of them. Another was his physical stamina, particularly as this was demonstrated in unusually taxing circumstances. (That he suffered from crippling asthmatic attacks was well known). He was clearly a man of indomitable personal willpower.

His candour in the public airing of political or administrative problems - which distinguished him from the generality of political or administrative leaders - was also much appreciated.

A trivial anecdote serves to make the point: “How can socialism be respected if all we can make is this kind of rubbish?” he remarked in January 1963, when trying (in the presence of a visiting foreign delegation) to light his cigar with the first of several spluttering matches manufactured by his own Ministry of Industries. Warming to his theme, he continued by recounting the efforts of fraternal Czechoslovak chemists to devise a formula adequate for Cuba’s production of an equivalent to Coca Cola. He deemed the resultant beverage to taste like “battery acid”.

His distaste for the diplomatic niceties was displayed on more serious stages and graver issues when he represented the Cuban government on a visit to North Africa.

All of Cuba’s modern armaments had been supplied by the USSR free of charge and, in a widely reported discussion with Egyptian students and others, he criticized Cuba’s most important ally for requiring other anti-imperialist Third World countries to pay for Soviet weaponry. He was censured for this at the highest political level within Cuba but versions of his tactless conduct were circulated and well-received on the streets.

Che was also recognized both to be an exceptionally hard worker and one who rejected the various perks available to those in high office. When appointed President of the National Bank, his low opinion of monetary rewards - indeed of money itself - was signaled when Cuba’s newly printed bank notes appeared bearing his deliberately informal signature - “Che”.

When acting as Minister of Industries, the lights of his office were often seen burning late at night. (This was when he wrote most of the letters and articles that were to be published in nine volumes after his death). Visitors unfamiliar with his work regime could be disconcerted to find him presiding over early morning meetings in fatigues rumpled after a brief night’s sleep on his office couch.

But one quality above all commanded the respect of ordinary Cubans: Guevara embodied in signal fashion the unity of words and deeds.

He was a great advocate of the supremacy of moral over material incentives in Cuba’s socialist development and his theoretical zeal in this sparked sharp debate in the country’s ideological journals. (For Marx, after all, the dominant distributive principle in the ‘first stage’ of socialist development had been a different one, namely: “From each according to his ability to each according to his work”).

For Che, the most important expression of moral incentives was unpaid voluntary work, especially in arduous tasks such as the manual cutting of sugar-cane. And in this, as in everything else he advocated, he matched his words with his actions, being found in the forefront of every kind of campaign where voluntary labour was mobilized to cut cane, dig ditches, work in the docks or shift 325 lb bags in the warehouses of the sugar mills.

It was widely known that Che envisaged the creation of a ‘New Man’ as a prerequisite for the development of ‘true’ socialism.

This ‘New Man’ was an austere figure, equally accomplished as a producer or a warrior, and motivated by a passion to abolish poverty and oppression and to create, defend and spread socialist society.

What was recognized and respected within Cuba, of course, was that Che Guevara himself was the embodiment par excellence of all the attributes of that ‘New Man’. Many also realized that it was an idealistic creation. Old and young might be encouraged to “be like Che” but few could actually become like him.

In his address to Cuba’s Memorial meeting of October 1967, Fidel Castro himself seemed to acknowledge this. He remarked, in his eulogy, that Che was “a man from another century”.

In the years following his death, Che was to become an increasingly familiar figure in a myriad of countries.

Korda’s iconic photograph was reproduced both more and less faithfully on countless banners, posters, walls and leaflets world-wide, spreading the legend of Guevara as a romantic, revolutionary hero whose name could be invoked in the most diverse conditions and for the most diverse causes.

Comparatively few of those embellishing their political actions with his physical image were well-versed in his writings on the theory and practice of socialism or on theories of revolutionary warfare. If they had been, they might have understood more clearly why, on the one hand, Che had reputable critics who dissented from many of his views, while, on the other, the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre could describe him after his death as “the most complete human being of our age”. But in commemorating the 40th anniversary of his death, it seems enough for the moment to remember Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara as a principled internationalist revolutionary whose courageous example still inspires multitudes in their struggles against poverty and oppression.


After his death, Che Guevara’s body was flown to Vallegrande to be photographed in the laundry house of the town’s small hospital. This currently serves as the base for some 20 Cuban doctors who provide free medical assistance to the local population under Cuba’s programme of medical assistance to Bolivia.

Sergeant Mario Terán, who killed Che, spent the years that followed in hiding, fearful of retaliation. In 2006, he was found to be virtually blind, having developed cataracts in both eyes. His sight was restored by Cuban ophthalmic surgeons working in La Paz as part of the joint Cuban-Venezuelan sight-saving programme ‘Operación Miraglo’.

Brian H. Pollitt

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