Historical story

The man behind the myth

Che Guevara is the only historical figure whose face can be seen regularly in the streets. On walls, T-shirts and as a tattoo. His reputation already assumed mythical proportions during his lifetime. But what was he really like?

In 2011, Time magazine ranked Ernesto "Che" Guevara just behind Hitler in ninth place in its list of world leaders who had withstood the test of time. At first glance, this seems like a lot of honor. After all, Guevara's most important achievement was his involvement in the Cuban revolution that definitively expelled the dictator Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959, and the consequences of this were mainly limited to Cuba.

Not that we want to downplay the impact on the population of the revolution. Argentine Guevara, a medical graduate, was one of the first to enter Havana, followed by several hundred rebels. The actual leader Fidel Castro followed a week later. Partly because of Guevara, Castro took the Marxist-Leninist path and the new regime proceeded with nationalizations and land expropriations. Guevara has held senior positions such as Director of the National Bank and Minister of Industry.

Cuba became alienated from its old ally the United States because of the left-wing course. As Cuba's chief envoy, Guevara flew all over the world in search of support and markets for Cuban sugar. Politicians, journalists and the public everywhere were impressed by this charismatic advocate of the revolution, and here we must seek his real influence. His mission appealed to all over the world. Who was this man?

'El Loco Guevara'

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Ernesto Guevara was born in Rosario, Argentina, in 1928, the oldest of five children. His parents had aristocratic roots, but contrary to what is often thought, they were not rich. Because father was unemployed for a long time, the family had to spend more and more on the assets inherited by mother and to live smaller. Both were Catholic, but not practicing and held leftist views. For example, they were outspoken supporters of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War; parents of Ernesto's friends had died there.

As a result of his asthma, Ernesto often had to stay at home in his youth and this partly explains his reading. His parents owned hundreds of books, including intellectual masterpieces by the likes of Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, Charles Baudelaire and Pablo Neruda. Ernesto was genuinely interested in this, but also flirted with it. As a seventeen-year-old he made for himself a 160-page 'philosophical dictionary' with biographies, definitions and quotes.

At the same time, he was a recalcitrant teenager with no outspoken political views, if we don't count the then usual distaste for the US in his circles. He liked to provoke peers and knew few genes. For example, he liked to announce that he never took a bath. Because of the dangerous stunts he performed with his bicycle or otherwise, his nickname was 'El Loco Guevara', the crazy Guevara.

Via Guatemala to Cuba

Guevara's political awakening began when he traveled through Latin America as a medical student in the early 1950s. He had an unstoppable urge for adventure. During the motorcycle trip he made with his friend Alberto Granado from Buenos Aires to Venezuela in 1952, he kept a diary (published in 1993 under the name Motorcycle Diaries and made into a film in 2004). This shows that Guevara was concerned about the social inequality he encountered along the way, but the image of two twenty-somethings eager to discover the world with limited means.

A second trip, after his graduation, was crucial for his political development. To his relief, he had been rejected from Argentine military service because of his lung condition. He got deeper and deeper into the cross-border, left-wing anarchist action milieu of Latin America. As a young doctor, a profession that gave him a certain prestige, he went to Guatemala. Here was a left-wing regime that attracted revolutionaries from all over Latin America but also aroused the fear of the United States.

Guevara staged a right-wing CIA-backed coup in 1954. His image of the US, however unfavorable and further deteriorated by the power of the large American multinationals at the expense of the local population, fell to an all-time low. In 1955 he had the opportunity to tackle an American-backed dictator:in Mexico City he met Fidel Castro, who wanted to oust Batista with his small guerrilla movement and appealed to Guevara's need for camaraderie.


Guevara didn't have to think twice about it. He later wrote to a friend:“I am still an adventurer, but now my adventures serve a good purpose.” In the guerrilla war, he unexpectedly found his calling. He came as a doctor, but turned out to be a fighter. He was a good leader, able to withstand hardship, and was calm and sharp under extreme circumstances. He was also very driven; his brain never stood still, he always had new plans.

Gunfights gave him a kick and he took great risks, to which he also exposed his men. He was demanding and could get very angry. Guevara was both admired and feared. He held contempt for the less courageous or inspired warriors. He found Cubans who had worked for the Batista regime to be inferior creatures with whom you should have no compassion.

Deserters immediately deserved the bullet, he said. It is certain that Guevara was personally involved in the executions of deserters as well as military and political opponents and had no remorse for this. This is the reason for fierce charges from descendants of Cubans who fled or were killed after the revolution. They ridicule the admiration for Guevara.

To them, he is a psychopath and a cold-blooded killer. They are based, among other things, on what people told who were imprisoned in the infamous La Cabafia prison after the revolution, where Guevara was in charge for some time after the revolution. They reported that he dragged prisoners from their cells to give them a shot in the neck on the spot.


Guevara's biographer Jon Lee Anderson does not deny the executions but somewhat condones them; it would be murderers, rapists, traitors and torturers. Criminals, in short, who, according to the law, deserved the death penalty. Anderson conveniently assumes that fair trials were conducted in the relative chaos after January 1, 1959. According to other researchers, this is not the case.

Yet historians hardly pay attention to Guevara's role in the revolutionary tribunal that imposed and carried out hundreds of death sentences after the successful seizure of power. You rarely read about his uncompromising dogmatism and his increasing unwillingness to see the world other than as a battleground between the oppressed and oppressors.

For example, during the 1962 missile crisis, which nearly plunged the world into nuclear war, Guevara wrote that he was willing to risk a clash because "liberation" had to remain the goal, even if it would cost millions of lives. This radicalization started shortly after the Cuban revolution.

Hunted in the jungle

It was clear from the start that Cuba was not Guevara's final destination. He was not a natural administrator and his plans for the island turned out to be too ambitious or unrealistic. Guevara started working on his own ambitious dream:to liberate and unite all of Latin America.

First he used Cuba as a platform . As the official representative of this country, for example, in New York in 1964 he made a famous speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations. Dressed in the army green of the Cuban revolution, he set himself up as a spokesman for the 'third world'. He lashed out at "white imperialism" in Africa and captivated the US for its interventionism in Latin America and Asia and its own racial inequality.

In 1965 he went to Congo to support Marxist rebels and when that mission failed, he tried to start a revolution in Bolivia. Hunted in the jungle, he lost touch with reality and humanity. In his 1967 pamphlet Crear dos, tres, muchos Vietnam (Make two, three, many Vietnams) he preached hatred and glorified violence to defeat “the imperialists.” Like the Viet Cong, comrades everywhere had to face the United States, "the great enemy of mankind":"Vietnams" all over the world!

In October 1967, Guevara was captured and executed by Bolivian government forces in a ravine near La Higuera in the south.

Most complete human being

That he had made the supreme sacrifice certainly contributed to his worldwide fame, but his reputation was already at mythical proportions. Western intellectuals and rebellious students ran away with him, Central and Eastern European youths took him as an example in their aversion to both Soviet domination and Western individualist capitalism. He was captivated by his perseverance (that he had asthma everyone knew), his cosmopolitan attitude and intellect, his advocacy against oppressors and, most importantly, his sharp pen.

Writing was vital for Guevara. He meticulously kept a diary, wrote poems (for intimates) and, in addition to a handbook on guerrilla warfare, published all kinds of philosophical and political essays. Among other things, about 'the new man', who was not driven by materialism, but by principles and virtue. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who met Guevara in Cuba in 1960, was delighted to call the Argentinian the most complete man of his time – no doubt, Guevara spoke French quite well.

Beautiful photo material

After his death, there was increasing international criticism of the violation of human rights in Cuba, but Guevara was able to become an icon, a martyr. He became the personification of the young, noble freedom fighter (although he was 39 when he died).

It helped that there was so much wonderful photo material of him, in part actively disseminated by the Cuban regime who created a cult around him. Shortly after Guevara's death, the Italian left-wing publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli printed thousands of posters depicting the famous hero portrait that Cuban photographer Alberto Korda had made of Che in 1960 in Havana.

This is still staring at you from T-shirts or bags and all over Africa and Latin America you can see it painted on walls, alongside the heads of heroes like Nelson Mandela, Hugo Chavez, Martin Luther King and Bob Marley. The myth surrounding Guevara has masked his dark side and made him a one-dimensional figure. Anyone who wants to be inspired or is looking for support, who feels like a rebel or wants to make it clear that he is on the right side, stick a poster of Che on the wall or tattoo him on his body. And it will remain that way for a long time to come.