October 12, 2007
This week is the 40th anniversary of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s infamous death in Bolivia, and his legacy is still hotly contested. There’s a website called TheCheStore.com. On it, you can buy t-shirts, caps, “collectables,” and camouflage gear–all pasted with the iconic image of South America’s most famous revolutionary. It’s one of many commercial endeavors devoted to selling gear–including watches, key chains, and even bikinis–decorated with Guevara’s image. The New York Times pointed out that Guevara’s face is now “as much a marketing tool as an international revolutionary icon.” Richard L. Harris is re-releasing his book Death of a Revolutionary: Che Guevara’s Last Mission, and Stephen Soderbergh is working on a movie called Guerrilla, starring Benicio Del Toro as Guevara, to be released next year. We live in an age where Guevara “sells.”
This man, born as Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, was born in Argentina to a family of wealth. He studied medicine in his youth, but while traveling, met leftist revolutionaries Fidel and Raúl Castro. It was then that they formed a plan to overthrow Cuba’s capitalist government and replace it with a socialist one. They fought a long guerrilla war, and Castro finally seized power on January 1, 1959. He recruited Guevara to lead Cuba from a primarily agrarian economy to an industrialized one.
Governing is hard work, and it requires tolerance and patience. It’s debatable whether those are skills that Castro possessed, but Guevara most certainly did not. When Guevara’s impatience with governing had reached its limit, he traveled to other communist countries in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa. While in Africa, he felt the Congo was ripe for a socialist revolution in the same way Cuba had been, so he returned to lead the guerilla mission there. But Guevara miscalculated the political situation, and language barriers prevented him from truly becoming one of the Congolese fighters. By his own admission, the endeavor was a failure. Instead, he turned his attention to Bolivia, hoping to incite a socialist “Latin Revolution.” He failed there too, and was executed after being captured by the Bolivian army.
Guevara was intelligent and hugely prolific, compulsively keeping volumes of diaries throughout his life; his seminal work, Guerilla Warfare, was published posthumously in 1969. The books in his personal library were jammed in the margins with his own notes and thoughts. During a journey highlighted by the Oscar-winning “Diarios de Motocicleta” (The Motorcycle Diaries), he provided medical treatment to Peruvian Indians, who were living examples of social injustice, suffering from poverty and disease. Early in life he resolved to aid those who like himself, battled asthma. (Guevara suffered from the disease for his entire life.)