AMAZING  STORIES …..from the Past

iconic guerrilla

Albert Korda's famous photograph of Che Guevara dates from1960 and was initially unpublished. A few days after the revolutionary's death, demonstrators in Milan held up the first placards bearing the image.

Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, an asthmatic Argentinian doctor, was hailed as one of the liberators of Cuba. He ended his days disgraced and out of favour, and was executed in the Bolivian rainforest. Yet he remains for many the quintessential revolutionary.

The city of Havana was buzzing with sheer joy as Cuba's citizens celebrated the deposal of the hated dictator Fulgencio Batista by troops of the liberation army. The revolutionaries had seized control of Havana and on January 8, 1959, they entered the city in a triumphant victory parade. At the head of the parade was Fidel Castro, the 'Lider Maximo' or 'Great Leader' of the country, his brother Raul, and the hero of the decisive battle, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.


Ernesto Guevara was not an obvious candidate to become a guerrilla fighter. Born on June 14, 1928, in the Argentinian city of Rosario, his family was upper middle class and he suffered from asthma. But he was not to be constrained either by his background or his illness. He was deliberately unconventional, a sloppy dresser who washed infrequently, with the result that his friends nicknamed him 'pig'. But the young man had another more serious side. When his father's business ventures ran into difficulties, he got a job with the city engineer's department to help the family with its financial problems.

Guevara's own illness was probably an important factor in his decision to study medicine in Buenos Aires. In the winter of 1951, during his time at medical school, he set off with his friend Alberto Granado to travel around south America, on the journey, he came to know the continent and many of its problems and contradictions: peasants scratching a harsh existence from tiny plots of land, despotic landowners, displaced Amerindian peoples and priests who studiously ignored the plight of their flocks in their sermons. "This aimless wandering around ... has changed me more than I could have imagined," he confided in his diary. Following this trip, he felt a burning desire to change the world; he now knew what his goal in life was to be.

After qualifying as a doctor in 1953, Guevara left Argentina to work in a leprosy ward in Bolivia. Next year he moved to Guatemala where the country's president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman had instituted a radical programme of land reform. A military coup was organized by the USA to topple Guzman and Guevara tried to organize resistance against those carrying out the putsch. It was during this period that he became a confirmed communist.


Guevara's travels took him ever further north. While working at a hospital in Mexico City he married a Peruvian woman, Hilda Gadea Acosta, the mother of his daughter Hilda Beatriz. During this time, Guevara came to know Raul and Fidel Castro. The young Cuban brothers had fled from Batista and were looking for a doctor to join their small guerrilla group. They planned to depose the Cuban ruler, who had been in illegal control in Havana since March 1952, after staging a military coup. Ernesto took up their offer. He became known to his comrades as 'Che', a term that translates roughly into English as 'mate' or 'comrade'.

On November 25, 1956, Che Guevara, the Castro brothers and 79 other Cuban exiles boarded the yacht Granma. The crossing to Cuba was nightmarish, with the ship in constant danger of foundering. When the exhausted group finally made landfall on December 2, 1956, they were discovered by a coastguard ship and came under attack from the Cuban airforce. Then, on December 5, they became involved in a firefight with the dictator's troops. Just 15 guerrillas escaped from the fierce skirmish and withdrew into the Sierra Maestra.

From the mountains, the small band, led by the Castro brothers and Che Guevara, organized an uprising against the Cuban armed forces, winning wide support among the people. The rebels began to enjoy ever greater military success, emerging victorious time and again from encounters with the regular army. Finally, on New Year's Eve, 1958, they captured the city of Santa Clara. Che was the hero of this final set-piece battle. Just over two years after their disastrous landing, the revolutionaries entered the capital Havana, after the dictator Batista had fled to the Dominican Republic. A few days later, the city prepared a triumphant welcome for Fidel Castro.

[Despite his asthma, the young Guevara was a keen athlete and a sports fan throughout his life. He excelled in strenuous sports such as rugby. Here in a photo, he and Fidel Castro, are playing a game of baseball]


On February 7, 1959, the government proclaimed Guevara 'a Cuban citizen by birth'. He was appointed chief of the National Institute for Land Reform and then President of the National Bank, signing Cuba's new banknotes with the three letters 'CHE.' Despite his official government posts, his principal role was as the leading ideologue of the new regime. As early as 1959, Guevara helped organize revolutionary expeditions in Panama and the Dominican Republic, all of which failed. On June 2, 1959, he married again, to his comrade-in-arms Aleida March. 

Che's present-day fame was sealed by a particular incident in 1960. The French freighter La Coubre, laden with 70 tonnes of weapons, exploded in Havana harbour on March 4, killing 75 and injuring more than 200 people. As Guevara stood with Castro at a memorial service for the victims, he approached the edge of the podium. The photographer Alberto Korda captured the now world-famous shot showing Che Guevara with a pensive exjgrlsssion under a beret adorned with a red star.

On February 23,1961 Che Guevara was appointed Cuba's Minister for Industry. But he was increasingly unhappy with the day-to-day business of government. As Minister, he negotiated with the Soviet Union about arms supplies, a situation that triggered the dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In the aftermath, fierce criticism was directed at the Soviet advisors, while the Russians were loath to support Guevara's plans to industrialize Cuba, preferring instead to revive the traditional monoculture of sugar-cane.

To escape the intractable political situation in Cuba, Guevara travelled to Africa, where he planned to establish a guerrilla network that could Operate simultaneously in Africa, Asia and South America. His attempt to instigate a revolution in the Congo based on the guerrilla tactics used in Cuba was a failure.

[At 1.10 pm on October 9 Guevara was executed by NCO Mario Teran and his corpse placed on a stretcher and photographed as proof that he was dead]

He spent the next six months in Africa and eastern Europe, putting together a memoir of the experience.

In October 1965 Castro publicly read out a letter of resignation from Che Guevara. Even today it is not clear who was the author of the document. Shortly after Guevara returned to Cuba he embarked on his final revolutionary enterprise - to spark revolution in Bolivia. Guevara and his guerrilla group clashed with the Bolivian army in March 1967. After seeing proof of his presence in the country Bolivian president Rene Barrientes apparently called for Guevara's head to be displayed on a pike in La Paz. On October 8, 1967, the surviving members of his force walked into an ambush in the Quebrada del Churo gorge.

Guevara himself was forced to surrender after a bullet hit his leg. He was held prisoner in the schoolhouse in the jungle village of La Higuera, where his captors carried out orders from Barrientes that he was to be executed. But instead of disposing of a dangerous guerrilla fighter, the Bolivian government created a legend, whose picture has been carried ever since as an icon of revolution by demonstrators around the world.