October 8 marks the 46th anniversary of the death of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The Argentine, a symbol of Latin America’s revolutionary movements in the Cold War, met his end in 1967 in the Bolivian highlands, where he was trying to jumpstart a popular revolution as part of his “foco” insurgency theory: creating a successful insurgent movement in one country would foment similar ones throughout Latin America).
Much has been written about Guevara’s life, partially because he was a prolific writer and extroverted individual himself. For example, his essays on guerrilla combat tactics were published as a single volume in 1969 called Guerrilla Warfare. The popular obsession with his life helped the The Motorcycle Diaries, become a success when it was released in 2004. Needless to say, Guevara has been a symbol of revolutionary idealism for the past decades, and even today new generations of Latin Americans (and others around the world) faithfully read his work and wear clothing bearing his image.
His accomplishments in the Cuban Revolution have been widely glorified, particularly his successes with Fidel Castro’s guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, as well as the high-level status that he enjoyed in the Cuban government (i.e. as Minister of Industry and President of the National Bank). And it is precisely his decision to leave the Cuban government, where he could have enjoyed a comfortable (and probably well-paid) lifestyle in revolutionary Havana to go spread his vision of Communism throughout Latin America and the rest of the world that made him an icon to the masses at the time and for generations to come.
It is probably this glorification of Guevara that has concealed some of his other less-than-glorious moments. When discussing Che’s accomplishments, his supporters do not usually bring up the executions that he carried out when Fidel Castro’s guerrillas took control of the country and began punishing the supporters of the former regime of Fulgencio Batista. Moreover, as idealistic as Guevara was in his desire to go fight for the oppressed masses elsewhere, he never achieved the success that he had in Cuba. His time fighting alongside a guerrilla movement in the Congo in 1965 was a total failure. And, in spite of a somewhat promising start, his attempts to start an insurgency in Bolivia to overthrow then-President René Barrientos were similarly unsuccessful.
In the years after his death, several documentaries and scholarly works have appeared, explaining that Che’s guerrilla fighters in Bolivia were little more than a starving mob when the Bolivian soldiers of the U.S.-trained Second Ranger Battalion encountered them in 1967. (Published on July 2013, Hunting Che is a well-documented book that discussed the decisive role the U.S. military and intelligence services played in aiding the Bolivian military against Che — a review of the book by this author can be found here). Even though Barrientos and the U.S. government had fears that Guevara had an army of hundreds of Bolivian and Cuban fighters hiding in the highlands, and that Guevara was behind the major protests rocking Bolivia suffered at the time, considered on the evidence Guevara’s chances of success in the landlocked nation were always quite slim.
Upon being taken prisoner in 1967, Guevara was shot by Bolivian soldiers, as the government in La Paz saw him as too dangerous to keep behind bars and wanted to make an example out of him. In 1995, Bolivian General Mario Vargas finally revealed the location of Guevara’s remains which, along with those of six fellow guerrillas, were then taken to Cuba, where a mausoleum was built for him in the city of Santa Clara (the site of his most famous victory during the Cuban Revolution). Whether one sees this is a fitting symbol of the revolutionary glory or a reminder of the hollower parts of his legacy will depend, of course, on whether one owns the now-classic Guevara t-shirt (available the world over, thanks to globalized capitalism).