A New York Times reporter was visiting with us recently, and she noticed the Che buttons gracing each of our shirts. “Oh, I love Che!” she said enthusiastically, which surprised us since she worked for the self-styled “newspaper of record,” an outlet that for over half a century echoed the State Department’s relentless attacks on the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara himself. But times change, and people as well as institutions are, of course, filled with contradictions, so, why not?

“You love Che? How come?”

“Oh,” she went on, “I was just in Cuba for the first time, and Che’s picture was everywhere. And he’s so appealing—those piercing eyes look right through you, and that valiant stance is so awesome. I bought Che T-shirts for my nephews, and Che coffee mugs for my parents!”

Well, it’s true: Che’s heroic image—larger than life—is everywhere you look, and not just in Cuba, but all over the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe. The famed Alberto Korda portrait—the one where Che gazes intently into the distance, eyes uplifted, beret slightly askew—has been reproduced more than almost any other image in the history of photography: on billboards and banners, commemorative plates and political posters, murals and mosaics. The iconic Che lives large in the popular culture, and the commodified Che is within easy reach of everyone.

But Che Guevara was also a flesh-and-blood human being—flawed, contradictory, trembling, and real—and as we mark the anniversary of his murder on October 9, 1967, it feels important to reflect on the Che who burned, intense and vital, for 39 years. This Che was a Marxist revolutionary and anti-imperialist, who saw the ravages of US foreign policy and fiercely fought against them; he was an internationalist, a believer in popular uprisings to end oppression and poverty—and for this he was assassinated with the active support and participation of the United States.

Dead now for 50 years, Che wasn’t much older than those of us who were radicalized in the 1960s, and he was formed by conditions not altogether different than those that affected us. To us, Che was a symbol of boldness, intelligence, internationalism, self-sacrifice, solidarity and, as he said, “at the risk of appearing ridiculous,” love. Che rejected personal gain and privilege for the leaders in a struggle for a fair and just society; he lived as he asked others to live.

It’s been said that Che was a citizen of the world. Perhaps more accurately, Che was a citizen of a world that did not yet exist.

Che’s earliest political ideas were forged in the bohemian home of his parents, offbeat Argentine aristocrats with more blue blood than money. Books and magazines covered the furniture, and the young Che, who had a capacious capacity for learning, imbibed it all. He read assiduously, including his father’s entire 25-volume collection of the Contemporary History of the Modern World, the collected works of Jules Verne, Freud, Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Mussolini, Stalin, Zola, Jack London, and Lenin. He read The Communist Manifesto, dipped into Das Kapital, and intended to write a biography of Marx. 

By the time he reached college, Che was an activist, demonstrating early on against the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain. He got a summer job shipping out with the Merchant Marines, and traveling and keeping a journal became a lifelong habit. In 1952, Che headed across Argentina and toward Chile with a friend on a Norton 500cc motorcycle, freeloading food and lodging whenever they could. They visited the copper mines in Chile and the tin mines of Bolivia; his Motorcycle Diaries documented the trip and highlighted the injustices he encountered in every corner of the continent, with each new horror pointing an accusing finger to the north. With his characteristically caustic tongue, he commented that the Yankees had taken everything and left the native people “only an ox.”

Still, for Che, the road to Cuba ultimately went through Guatemala. Che moved there at the end of 1953, after graduating medical school, in hopes of getting a job as a doctor. He never did. Instead, he immersed himself in the swirl and ferment of the socialist experiment then unfolding in Guatemala, where reformer Jacobo Árbenz had been elected just a few years before. But six months after Che’s arrival, the CIA succeeded in overthrowing Árbenz, who had stepped on corporate America’s toes by nationalizing some of the vast land holdings of the United Fruit Company. Che joined the resistance and finally had to flee the country. He left for Mexico with his girlfriend, soon to be wife, Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian radical more experienced and more advanced politically than he. It was she who continued and solidified his political education.

Che brought with him three truths from his experiences in Guatemala. These truths, which were opposed by the Moscow-oriented communist parties of Latin America, were, first, that the monopoly land holdings had to be broken up and given to the peasants who work them; that the population had to be armed to defend their victories; and, finally, that the old ruling repressive apparatus had to be eliminated.

It was in Mexico City that Che met Fidel Castro, who was organizing a movement to overthrow the US installed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Che described Castro as “a young man, intelligent, very sure of himself and of extraordinary audacity; I think there is a mutual sympathy between us.” After hours of intense conversation, Castro invited Che to join the guerrilla movement, and Che signed up on the spot to be the doctor for the group. He later wrote that,

The truth is that after the experiences of my wanderings across all of Latin America, and to top it off, in Guatemala, it didn’t take much to incite me to join any revolution against a tyrant, but Castro impressed me as an extraordinary man. He faced and overcame the most impossible things. He had an exceptional faith that once he left for Cuba, he would arrive. And that once he arrives, he would fight. And that fighting, he would win. I shared his optimism….[It was time] to stop crying and fight.

Eighty-two revolutionaries crammed into a small boat called the Granma, and sailed across the dangerous Florida straits landing in Cuba later than they had planned and in the wrong place. Batista’s troops massacred them. Only 12 were left. It was a start.

Che Guevara became a military commander, and helped to win the decisive battle of Santa Clara, cutting Cuba in half, and forcing the dictator to flee.

With Batista gone and the country in the hands of a new revolutionary government, Che became a crucial figure in the new Cuba. He was president of the National Bank of Cuba and Minister of Industry and wrote and helped to administer the Agrarian Reform Act, which distributed land to the peasants who worked it, land that had been owned by US corporations. But when the new government offered to pay for the land in the amount that was listed on tax forms, the corporations refused, and instead attempted to bring the Cuban economy to a halt. When the land was distributed, the CIA encouraged Cuban counterrevolutionaries to burn down sugar crops. When the new government nationalized the land, the oil refineries, then the telephone company, the nickel mines, and much more, the United States imposed a brutal economic blockade, which cost the Cubans billions of dollars. When the Cuban government implemented the most successful literacy campaign in history, Cuban counterrevolutionaries, supported by the CIA, assassinated teachers.

The Cuban people took control of their own land and industry, but the United States fought it at every turn (including by making dozens of attempts to assassinate Castro, to terrorize the population, to invade and disrupt), and this became the story of the Cuban socialist revolution. To this day, most critics don’t fully appreciate the role of US imperialism in assaulting and undermining the gains of the revolution, trying to ensure its failure, and then blaming shortcomings and errors on socialism.

About the Cuban experience Che had written: “The example of a revolution and the lessons it applies for Latin America have destroyed all coffee house theories; we have demonstrated that a small group of men supported by the people without fear of dying can overcome a disciplined regular army and defeat it.”

But in revolution, timing is everything, and in Bolivia the movement was on the decline, not on the rise. Che mistakenly elevated guerilla warfare from a tactic to a strategy and went there misreading the actual situation. He thought he could create a guerilla force and spark a revolution. He got no help from the Bolivian Communist Party, nor from the leaders of Soviet Union, for that matter,who viewed Che as a threat to their policy of peacefully co-existing with imperialism. There was no organic mass movement of Bolivians as there had been in Cuba. Nor was there a revolutionary organization. Unlike the Cuban peasants, the Bolivian peasants, mostly indigenous, were suspicious, not supportive of Che and his small band.

The United States was not caught off guard this time. They instantly identified the guerilla band’s location. Bolivian Rangers were flown in and trained and supervised by American Special Forces troops, who had learned their lessons well in Vietnam. Che’s group was quickly encircled, and Che captured. The next day, he was shot in the chest by a Bolivian army sergeant. The order came from the military dictators in La Paz, who had received prior approval from the CIA, and was relayed to Washington by CIA contract agent Felix Rodriguez, who was on the scene and had provided the intelligence for his capture.

When Walt Rostow, President Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Advisor, who helped coordinate Che’s capture out of White House office, learned of his death, he wrote a memo on White House stationery to Johnson saying that the troops the US trained “finally got him.”

Fifty years later, Che’s vision remains unrealized, suspended in the distant past. Che thought globally and had a vision of the “new man” living in a society of abundance where the exploitation of people by people has ended. But the imbalance between the global north and global south remains vast, the reach of US power over distant lands barely diminished. The gap separating the richest from the poor has widened.

So while we are not at all interested in heroizing or romanticizing Che, we do want to remember what he taught us, and what we need to keep in our own rebel backpacks as we continue to fight for a world at peace and in balance, a place of joy and justice.

So why do we remember Che today? Victor Hugo described in the following lines why Jean-Paul Marat, a leader of the French revolution, and also a physician, remains a timeless symbol of social revolution:

“They guillotined Charlotte Corday and they said Marat is dead. No. Marat is not dead. Put him in the Pantheon or throw him in the sewer;  it doesn’t matter—he’s back the next day. He’s reborn in the man who has no job, and the woman who has no bread, in the girl who has to sell her body, in the child who hasn’t learned to read; he’s reborn in the unheated tenement, in the wretched mattress without blankets, in the unemployed, in the proletariat, in the brothel, in the jail house, and your laws that show no pity, in your schools that give no future, and he reappears in all that is ignorance and he re-creates himself from all that is darkness.

Oh, beware, human society: you cannot kill Marat until you have killed the misery of poverty.”