In the early days of October of 1967, Bolivian soldiers trained by U.S. Special Forces and aided by the CIA captured Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the guerrilla sage who had returned to his native South America in order to lead a continental revolution against imperialism. Shot at least once in the calf during the battle at Quebrada de Yuro, Che had been unable to escape. According to one account, he told his pursuers as they closed in on him, “Do not shoot! I am Che Guevara and am worth more to you alive than dead.”
Che was taken to a nearby village, where he was confined to an old schoolhouse. A photo of him taken during his captivity, the last photo of him alive, shows a man very different from the heroic figure presented in Alberto Korda’s famous portrait (see below) taken seven years earlier: Che is scrawny, disheveled, with matted hair and beard. He looks like a drunk hobo; visibly (but not mentally) defeated.
Mere minutes before the photo was taken on October 9, 1967, an order of execution had arrived by phone. The message was relayed to Bolivian troops by Cuban exile turned CIA operative Félix Rodríguez, who later claimed he was there only to ensure the guerrilla leader’s capture, and that the execution had been completely out of his hands, though new information proves otherwise. (Rodríguez had led the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, and would eventually serve his adoptive country by aiding counterrevolutionaries in Vietnam and El Salvador.)
Bolivian sergeant Mario Terán volunteered to carry out the execution. First he needed a few drinks to work up his nerve. When he finally did enter the room a little after one in the afternoon, Che rose to his feet, having heard the blasts from another captive’s execution in another building. Terán hesitated, prompting Che’s last words: “Shoot me, you coward! You are only going to kill a man!” Under instructions to make Che’s death appear as though he were killed in action, the executioner aimed carefully. Nine shots later, Che was dead at the age of 39.
Around the anniversary of his murder, it seems appropriate to reflect on Che’s legacy. Some years my opinion of his personality and principles is more glowing than in others. Admittedly I was less critical of Che when I was younger. Young people willingly idolize a rebel.
Che is perhaps the most contentious figure of the 20th century, no man or woman generating more adoration and contempt. He was, of course, a communist, which normally consigns anyone to the realm of bitter and entrenched controversy. Having come to a firm rejection of Marxist-Leninism in recent years, I, like many other anti-communist supporters of Che and Cuba, find myself at once agreeing with much of what he articulated and condemning his prescriptions for the oppressed societies of the world.
That’s because Che represents everything contradictory in even the most beautiful within humanity. He was both a compassionate philosopher (a man who asserted that “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love”) and a brutal warrior (who, since witnessing the 1954 coup in Guatemala first-hand, believed firing squads were a good method of defending order). Che exhorted the Cuban people to be careful “not to fall into extreme dogmatism and cold scholasticism,” yet advocated the institutionalization of Stalinist ideology. He was a staunch revolutionary who imposed a strict orthodoxy. He was a lover of humanity who felt that the creation of a new society required the creation of new human beings who transcended human nature through a revolutionary, socialist spirit.
This dichotomy mimics that of Cuba itself, and how people feel about Che usually matches up with how they feel about the Cuban government. There are certainly some people who find nothing wrong with Che or Cuba, in principle or practice. But, for me at least, solidarity with Che and the July 26 Movement should not extend much further than initial diagnoses: that is, one can and should agree that poverty, inequality and ignorance are the great plagues of Latin America; and that foreign exploitation (namely, in the form of Uncle Sam) is its great scourge. The point of contention, though, should lie in the method for solving these issues. If the 21st century has taught us anything, it’s that Marxist-Leninism is a doomed programme, incompatible with the modern, post-industrial, globalized world.
And whereas Che went so far as to disavow the right of dissent and political plurality in a 1961 interview, a disavowal made law of the land in Cuba ever since, any decent understanding of democracy recognizes the right of people to voice (and vote) their own opinions.
Ultimately, however, instead of vilifying Che and the Castro brothers, and though I often disagree with much of what is said and done by Havana these days, I cannot help but identify with them. For while I myself am not a Castroist, I still strongly support the goals of the Revolution, seconding most (if not all) of Revolutionary literature, especially that written by Che himself.
There is no doubt that, had the U.S. government placed the well-being of the Cuban people above its own greed, Cuba would be a much different country today—many times closer to being like the one dreamed up by José Martí and Che. Instead, Washington chose to stifle the collective dream of a people living on a island 90 miles away, fearing the fulfillment of that dream would, as Che put it, set a “bad example” for the rest of Latin America, and indeed the world. Considering the numerous progressive movements that have risen up since Che’s death—in El Salvador, in Nicaragua, in Brazil, in Chile, in Venezuela, in Libya, in Egypt, in the former Soviet republics, and in cities across the United States, movements that bare Che’s image and claim to carry on his revolutionary spirit— the powers that be in the United States clearly weren’t wrong.
That we’re still debating over Che, a full 47 years after his death, is a testament to the impact he left on the world, especially its politics. We should be debating over him. We should read his works, especially those of us whose ancestors came from Latin America. Che had something to say about who Latin Americans are as a people, what their history is, and what their future could be.
Critics claim he was a bloodthirsty adventurer who “had no respect for human life,” as Rodríguez recently told the BBC; but so says the man whose actions saw to it that at least one man was killed in cold blood. Nevertheless, George Washington ordered the hanging of plenty of Loyalist spies during America’s own revolution, and Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest American president of them all, was commander in chief of an army that killed hundreds of thousands of rebels, including civilians and POWs. Lincoln also had the mass execution at Mankato. Brutality is a reality.
Above all, Che was a man of good principle and committed action. He saw wrongs in the world and tried to fix them wherever they were, traveling as far away as the Congo to fight a war for freedom being waged by a people with whom he had no shared history. He considered himself Cuban for a time through a similar solidarity, one that had him devoted to the poor and disenfranchised peoples across the globe.
“Many will call me an adventurer,” he wrote in his last letter to his parents in 1965. “That I am… only one of a different sort: one who risks his skin to prove his truths.”
He gave everything to the cause of liberation; to bring about, among many other things, a united Americas free of exploitation and human alienation. He risked more than his reputation. He risked everything that he was and will ever be. He died fighting “to prove his truths.”
That is how we remember Che.
Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.