Che Guevara and Fidel Castro
Fifty years ago, on 9 October 1967, Ernesto Che Guevara was murdered in a remote village in Bolivia by soldiers of the Bolivian army and America's Central Intelligence Agency. It was the end of a dream. It was a snuffing out of revolutionary passion. It was the end of a man who believed in his fellow men, who was convinced the world could be transformed into a better place. It was the end of the giant entity history has come to know as Che.
This is the way he defined his life's mission, long before his life was brought to a brutal end: I don't care if I fall as long as someone else picks up my gun and keeps on shooting. Caught a day earlier by Bolivian soldiers in the jungles near the Bolivian village of La Higuera on 8 October 1967, thirteen days into the siege he and his fellow guerrillas had been forced into, Che was bound hand and foot and made to lie down on the floor of a classroom in a school. Beside him lay the bodies of two of his murdered comrades.
Tired and worn out and obviously in a state of humiliation, Che was subjected to systematic questioning by Bolivian officers as well as by Felix Rodriguez, an agent of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. His self-esteem intact, the man who had with Fidel Castro caused the revolution in Cuba on New Year's Day in 1959 would not give anything away, save only to murmur, sadly, that he had failed.
The CIA agent Rodriguez, for all his antipathy to Che, seemed to empathize with him in his moment of defeat. At one point, he took Che outside and put his arms around the bedraggled guerrilla as a photographer recorded the scene on his camera. It was surreal. It was to be the last image of Che Guevara alive. Soon afterward, a ruffian named Teran, instructed to shoot Che below the face, fired at his leg. Che bit his wrist in order not to scream out in pain. Teran fired again and again. The last bullet, the ninth, hit Che in the throat. The blood filled his lungs. He was dead.
What followed once Che was killed remains a story that was to turn into a modern legend, almost of an epic sort. His body, with its eyes open (giving onlookers the eerie feeling that Che was alive) was placed on display for the public. Once the display was done, it was washed by a nurse who was later to tell people she felt she was giving Jesus Christ his last rites. There were reports that some of those present at that final ritual of a bath surreptitiously clipped off bits of Che's hair to keep them as mementoes.
The Bolivian government, then led by the military ruler Rene Barrientos, was inclined to decapitate the dead Che and keep the head as a sign of its triumph in tracking down the individual its functionaries considered the most dangerous man in the world. The thought was as macabre as it was sinister and was quickly discarded. What followed was something simpler, though no less revolting. Che's hands were sawn off and were later sent to Havana, to convince the Cuban authorities that their hero had indeed died in the jungles of Bolivia. It was a somber Fidel Castro who informed his people of the tragic end of the man who, having left his native Argentina, had identified with the Cuban revolution and then set out to revolutionize the world.
The end of Che Guevara was in several ways the end of an era of idealism for people across vast tracts of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Che believed, and millions believed with him, that socialism offered a way out of the woods for the world's underprivileged and disenfranchised. He inhabited an era where feudalism in Latin America and pseudo-capitalism in parts of Africa and Asia threatened to undermine not only tradition but also the future of those who peopled these regions. Cuba, Che had convinced himself, could be a powerful symbol of revolution, of the socialism that could act as a catalyst for change.
Steeped in the social circumstances of the region, the man trained to be a doctor went on long rides through the hamlets and villages of Argentina, in the process discovering anew the tough, hardened faces of deprivation. Poverty was a hallmark of life in South America. In his final moments, when a Bolivian army officer asked him why he had come to Bolivia with his revolution, Che answered, "I am a Cuban, an Argentine, a Peruvian, a Bolivian, a Chilean, an Ecuadorian."
Those final words defined him. In a career that would not rest on laurels, Che would reach out to every segment of society that suffered at the hands of exploitative forces. He was in the Congo when he thought men like Laurent Kabila needed to offer a clear vision about emancipation to a nation wracked by conflict since the murder of the patriot Patrice Lumumba in 1961. It was Che's belief, like that of any other Marxist, that revolution was not to be confined to geography but had to move beyond and across frontiers if it was to be purposeful. Revolution is an inclusive affair. Socialism is always about internationalism and because it is, Che persuaded himself into thinking that he could be among those who needed to play a leading role in spreading the socialistic message across the globe.
There was restlessness in Che, even at a time when it was widely believed the triumph of Fidel Castro and his band of guerrillas in Havana in 1959 would have the Argentine sit back and formulate the policies that constituted governance. Che served as a minister in Castro's government and in that capacity he went out into the wider world informing global leaders of what it meant to be a Cuban revolutionary and what it would mean once the Cuban revolution was replicated around the world.
Che was eminently equipped to carry out this responsibility. He was, besides being a guerrilla, a doctor and an intellectual. There was no ambiguity in him about the modalities in which revolution was to be brought to the dirt poor homes of the world's poor. He exchanged ideas with Mao Zedong on the nature of revolution; he was at home with Ahmed Ben Bella in a free Algeria; and he marvelled at the way Gamal Abdel Nasser went about constructing the edifice of Arab nationalism in Egypt.
At the United Nations in 1964, he was clear in his conviction that the world, including its capitalist regions, needed to be enlightened on the utilitarian aspects of socialism. His words were a robust defense of the beauty inherent in leftwing thinking. He minced no words in his excoriation of imperialism.
And then Ernesto Che Guevara went out into the night. Divesting himself of all the perks and perquisites of power, he went into disguise as a middle-aged western businessman before walking away into what he believed would soon become a wider, more substantive world of equality, of truly Marxist dimensions.
And then he died. He was only thirty nine. In that brief span of a fullness of life, Che Guevara reflected on the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca and John Keats. In the writings of Jawaharlal Nehru and Franz Kafka and Albert Camus he sought the meaning of existence. He was, as Jean-Paul Sartre was to say of him, 'the most complete human being of our time'.
Ernesto Che Guevara's remains were located, along with those of his comrades, thirty years after his assassination in a secluded spot near an airstrip in Vallegrande. In a world that had changed, if ever so slightly, for the better, the remains were dispatched to Havana. On 17 October 1997, they were buried in Santa Clara with full military honours.
(Ernesto Che Guevara --- statesman and revolutionary --- was born on 14 May 1928 and killed on 9 October 1967).
The writer is Associate Editor, The Asian Age
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