Who was Che Guevara?


Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

More than a mortal, more than a revolutionary, Che Guevara is pure mystique, a pop-culture phenom born of a cool graphic image.

Che, the brand, has been unparalleled in its reach across cultures and purposes, from the militant to the materialistic to the rampantly mundane, emblazoned on every imaginable surface: T-shirts, posters, belt buckles, lighters, lip gloss, curtains, shot glasses, skateboards, action figures, nesting dolls, tattoos, maracas, bikinis.

He's Hello Kitty - with a body count.

Che, the brand, beamed from the cover of a CD holder sold at Target, on infant onesies at the Burlington Coat Factory, even on a revolutionary flag at a Barack Obama campaign office in Houston. (Burlington and later Target pulled its Che merchandise after protests led by young Cuban-Americans at babalublog.com, a popular Miami-based Web site. Obama's camp issued a brief statement in February saying the office in question was "funded by volunteers" and not an official headquarters.)

Che, the revolutionary, was far less successful. Despite his critical role in the rebel takeover of Cuba in 1959 and his firebrand writings, the medical student-turned-guerrilla failed at every other revolt he endeavored. His last mission led to his capture and death in Bolivia in 1967 at age 39. He would have been 80 last week.

But there was one guerrilla mission he excelled at, notoriously so. As warden at La Cabana fortress prison in the months following the Castro takeover, he became the revolution's chief executioner. How many "enemies of the revolution" faced his firing squad during the first six months of 1959 ranges between 160 and more than 500. That stint earned him the nickname of the "Butcher of Cabaña."


BORN: Ernesto Guevara de la Serna in Rosario, Argentina, on June 14, 1928.

DIED: October 1967 in La Higuera, Bolivia, after his capture by the Bolivian army and CIA operatives.

EARNED HIS GUERRILLA STRIPES: Alongside Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution, from 1956 to '59, when rebels overthrew the government of strongman Fulgencio Batista.

JACK OF ALL TRADES: In the early years of the Cuban revolution, Guevara served as jail warden, minister of industry and - ironically for a militant who once urged "the struggling masses" to rob banks - as president of the National Bank of Cuba, during which time he issued bank notes signed "Che." Guevara was one of the architects of Cuba's totalitarian police state.

FAILED GUERRILLA MISSIONS: The rebel who wrote the ultimate guerrilla manual in his 1960 handbook, Guerrilla Warfare, embarked on several botched missions.

His secret operation to organize rebels in the Congo was so disastrous, the Castro government deep-sixed the details for years. Guevara left the Congo for his doomed - and final - mission, in Bolivia.

'KILLING MACHINE': Guevara described his guerrilla self as "bloodthirsty" and "violent" and a "coldblooded killing machine." These were traits he put into action during the bloody rebel uprising of the late 1950s, with point-blank executions and other displays of brutality.


On what a good guerrilla must have:

"Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine." (From Message to the Tricontinental, 1967.)

On the role of women in a guerrilla force:

"It is very pleasant for the soldier enduring the harsh conditions of life to count on a well-seasoned meal: besides, it's easier to keep a woman in her domestic chores."

On black people:

"The Negro is indolent and a dreamer, spending his meager wage on frivolity and drink; the European has a tradition of work and saving." (Guevara in his Motorcycle Diaries, on black Venezuelans he encountered during his legendary travels.)

On targeting the United States:

"If the rockets had remained, we would have used them all and directed them against the very heart of the United States, including New York, in our defense against aggression." (Guevara to the Daily Worker of London in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis.)

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