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Home Food for Thought Tragedies of our Times Che Guevaara - Wikipedia

Che Guevaara - Wikipedia

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Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈtʃe ɣeˈβaɾa][4] June 14, 1928 – October 9, 1967),[1] also known as El Che, was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, physician, author, guerrilla leader, diplomat, and military theorist. A major figure of the Cuban Revolution, his stylized visage has become an ubiquitous countercultural symbol of rebellion and global insignia in popular culture.[5]

As a young medical student, Guevara traveled throughout South America and was radicalized by the poverty, hunger, and disease he witnessed.[6] His burgeoning desire to help overturn what he saw as the capitalist exploitation of Latin America by the United States prompted his involvement in Guatemala's social reforms under President Jacobo Árbenz, whose eventual CIA-assisted overthrow at the behest of the United Fruit Company solidified Guevara's political ideology.[6] Later, in Mexico City, he met Raúl and Fidel Castro, joined their 26th of July Movement, and sailed to Cuba aboard the yacht Granma, with the intention of overthrowing U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.[7] Guevara soon rose to prominence among the insurgents, was promoted to second-in-command, and played a pivotal role in the victorious two-year guerrilla campaign that deposed the Batista regime.[8]

Following the Cuban Revolution, Guevara performed a number of key roles in the new government. These included reviewing the appeals and firing squads for those convicted as war criminals during the revolutionary tribunals,[9] instituting agrarian land reform as minister of industries, helping spearhead a successful nationwide literacy campaign, serving as both national bank president and instructional director for Cuba's armed forces, and traversing the globe as a diplomat on behalf of Cuban socialism. Such positions also allowed him to play a central role in training the militia forces who repelled the Bay of Pigs Invasion[10] and bringing the Soviet nuclear-armed ballistic missiles to Cuba which precipitated the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.[11] Additionally, he was a prolific writer and diarist, composing a seminal manual on guerrilla warfare, along with a best-selling memoir about his youthful continental motorcycle journey. His experiences and studying of Marxism–Leninism led him to posit that the Third World's underdevelopment and dependence was an intrinsic result of imperialism, neocolonialism, and monopoly capitalism, with the only remedy being proletarian internationalism and world revolution.[12][13] Guevara left Cuba in 1965 to foment revolution abroad, first unsuccessfully in Congo-Kinshasa and later in Bolivia, where he was captured by CIA-assisted Bolivian forces and summarily executed.[14]

Guevara remains both a revered and reviled historical figure, polarized in the collective imagination in a multitude of biographies, memoirs, essays, documentaries, songs, and films. As a result of his perceived martyrdom, poetic invocations for class struggle, and desire to create the consciousness of a "new man" driven by moral rather than material incentives,[15] he has evolved into a quintessential icon of various leftist-inspired movements. Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century,[16] while an Alberto Korda photograph of him, titled Guerrillero Heroico (shown), was cited by the Maryland Institute College of Art as "the most famous photograph in the world".[17]

Ernesto Guevara was born to Ernesto Guevara Lynch and his wife, Celia de la Serna y Llosa, on June 14, 1928[1] in Rosario, Argentina, the eldest of five children in an middle-class Argentine family of Spanish (including Basque and Cantabrian) descent, as well as Irish by means of his aristocratic ancestor Patrick Lynch.[18][19][20] In accordance with the flexibility allowed in Spanish naming customs, his legal name (Ernesto Guevara) will sometimes appear with "de la Serna" and/or "Lynch" accompanying it.[21] Referring to Che's "restless" nature, his father declared "the first thing to note is that in my son's veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels".[22]

Very early on in life, Ernestito (as he was then called) developed an "affinity for the poor".[23] Growing up in a family with leftist leanings, Guevara was introduced to a wide spectrum of political perspectives even as a boy.[24] His father, a staunch supporter of Republicans from the Spanish Civil War, often hosted many veterans from the conflict in the Guevara home.[25]

Despite suffering crippling bouts of acute asthma that were to afflict him throughout his life, he excelled as an athlete, enjoying swimming, football, golf, and shooting; while also becoming an "untiring" cyclist.[26][27] He was an avid rugby union player,[28] and played at fly-half for Club Universitario de Buenos Aires.[29] His rugby playing earned him the nickname "Fuser"—a contraction of El Furibundo (raging) and his mother's surname, de la Serna—for his aggressive style of play.[30]

Intellectual and literary interests

 
22-year-old Guevara in 1951

Guevara learned chess from his father and began participating in local tournaments by age 12. During adolescence and throughout his life, he was passionate about poetry, especially that of Pablo Neruda, John Keats, Antonio Machado, Federico García Lorca, Gabriela Mistral, César Vallejo, and Walt Whitman.[31] He could also recite Rudyard Kipling's "If—" and José Hernández's Martín Fierro from memory.[31] The Guevara home contained more than 3,000 books, which allowed Guevara to be an enthusiastic and eclectic reader, with interests including Karl Marx, William Faulkner, André Gide, Emilio Salgari and Jules Verne.[32] Additionally, he enjoyed the works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Vladimir Lenin, and Jean-Paul Sartre; as well as Anatole France, Friedrich Engels, H. G. Wells, and Robert Frost.[33]

As he grew older, he developed an interest in the Latin American writers Horacio Quiroga, Ciro Alegría, Jorge Icaza, Rubén Darío, and Miguel Asturias.[33] Many of these authors' ideas he cataloged in his own handwritten notebooks of concepts, definitions, and philosophies of influential intellectuals. These included composing analytical sketches of Buddha and Aristotle, along with examining Bertrand Russell on love and patriotism, Jack London on society, and Nietzsche on the idea of death. Sigmund Freud's ideas fascinated him as he quoted him on a variety of topics from dreams and libido to narcissism and the Oedipus complex.[33] His favorite subjects in school included philosophy, mathematics, engineering, political science, sociology, history and archaeology.[34][35]

Years later, a February 13, 1958, declassified CIA 'biographical and personality report' would make note of Guevara's wide range of academic interests and intellect, describing him as "quite well read" while adding that "Che is fairly intellectual for a Latino."[36]

Motorcycle journey

In 1948, Guevara entered the University of Buenos Aires to study medicine. His "hunger to explore the world"[37] led him to intersperse his collegiate pursuits with two long introspective journeys that would fundamentally change the way he viewed himself and the contemporary economic conditions in Latin America. The first expedition in 1950 was a 4,500-kilometer (2,800 mi) solo trip through the rural provinces of northern Argentina on a bicycle on which he installed a small engine.[38] This was followed in 1951 by a nine-month, 8,000-kilometer (5,000 mi) continental motorcycle trek through most of South America. For the latter, he took a year off from his studies to embark with his friend Alberto Granado, with the final goal of spending a few weeks volunteering at the San Pablo leper colony in Peru, on the banks of the Amazon River.[39]

 
A map of Guevara's 1952 trip with Alberto Granado. The red arrows correspond to air travel.
black and white photograph of two men on a raft, fitted with a large hut. The far bank of the river is visible in the far distance
 
Guevara (right) with Alberto Granado (left) aboard their "Mambo-Tango" wooden raft on the Amazon River in June 1952. The raft was a gift from the lepers whom they had treated.[40]

In Chile, Guevara found himself enraged by the working conditions of the miners in Anaconda's Chuquicamata copper mine and moved by his overnight encounter in the Atacama Desert with a persecuted communist couple who did not even own a blanket, describing them as "the shivering flesh-and-blood victims of capitalist exploitation".[41] Additionally, on the way to Machu Picchu high in the Andes, he was struck by the crushing poverty of the remote rural areas, where peasant farmers worked small plots of land owned by wealthy landlords.[42] Later on his journey, Guevara was especially impressed by the camaraderie among those living in a leper colony, stating "The highest forms of human solidarity and loyalty arise among such lonely and desperate people."[42] Guevara used notes taken during this trip to write an account, titled The Motorcycle Diaries, which later became a The New York Times best-seller,[43] and was adapted into a 2004 award-winning film of the same name.

The journey took Guevara through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Miami, Florida, for 20 days,[44] before returning home to Buenos Aires. By the end of the trip, he came to view Latin America not as collection of separate nations, but as a single entity requiring a continent-wide liberation strategy. His conception of a borderless, united Hispanic America sharing a common Latino heritage was a theme that recurred prominently during his later revolutionary activities. Upon returning to Argentina, he completed his studies and received his medical degree in June 1953, making him officially "Dr. Ernesto Guevara".[45][46]

A motorcycle journey the length of South America awakened him to the injustice of US domination in the hemisphere, and to the suffering colonialism brought to its original inhabitants.

George Galloway, British politician[47]

Guevara later remarked that through his travels in Latin America, he came in "close contact with poverty, hunger and disease" along with the "inability to treat a child because of lack of money" and "stupefaction provoked by the continual hunger and punishment" that leads a father to "accept the loss of a son as an unimportant accident". It was these experiences which Guevara cites as convincing him that in order to "help these people", he needed to leave the realm of medicine, and consider the political arena of armed struggle.[6]

Guatemala, Árbenz, and United Fruit

 
A map of Che Guevara's travels between 1953 and 1956, including his journey aboard the Granma.

On July 7, 1953, Guevara set out again, this time to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. On December 10, 1953, before leaving for Guatemala, Guevara sent an update to his Aunt Beatriz from San José, Costa Rica. In the letter Guevara speaks of traversing through the dominion of the United Fruit Company; a journey which convinced him that Company's capitalist system was a terrible one.[48] This affirmed indignation carried the more aggressive tone he adopted in order to frighten his more Conservative relatives, and ends with Guevara swearing on an image of the then recently deceased Joseph Stalin, not to rest until these "octopuses have been vanquished".[49] Later that month, Guevara arrived in Guatemala where President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán headed a democratically elected government that, through land reform and other initiatives, was attempting to end the latifundia system. To accomplish this, President Árbenz had enacted a major land reform program, where all uncultivated portions of large land holdings were to be expropriated and redistributed to landless peasants. The biggest land owner, and one most affected by the reforms, was the United Fruit Company, from which the Árbenz government had already taken more than 225,000 acres (91,000 ha) of uncultivated land.[50] Pleased with the road the nation was heading down, Guevara decided to settle down in Guatemala so as to "perfect himself and accomplish whatever may be necessary in order to become a true revolutionary."[51]

In Guatemala City, Guevara sought out Hilda Gadea Acosta, a Peruvian economist who was well-connected politically as a member of the left-leaning Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA, American Popular Revolutionary Alliance). She introduced Guevara to a number of high-level officials in the Arbenz government. Guevara then established contact with a group of Cuban exiles linked to Fidel Castro through the July 26, 1953, attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. During this period, he acquired his famous nickname, due to his frequent use of the Argentine diminutive interjection che, a vocative casual speech filler used to call attention or ascertain comprehension, similarly to both "bro" or the Canadian phrase "eh".[52] During his time in Guatemala, Guevara was helped by other Central American exiles, one of whom, Helena Leiva de Holst, provided him with food and lodging,[53] discussed her travels to study Marxism in Russia and China,[54] and to whom, Guevara dedicated a poem, " "Invitación al camino".[55]

On May 15, 1954, a shipment of Škoda infantry and light artillery weapons was dispatched from Communist Czechoslovakia for the Arbenz Government and arrived in Puerto Barrios.[56] As a result, the United States government—which since 1953 had been tasked by President Eisenhower to remove Arbenz from power in the multifaceted CIA operation code named PBSUCCESS—responded by saturating Guatemala with anti-Arbenz propaganda through radio and dropped leaflets, and began bombing raids using unmarked airplanes.[57] The United States also sponsored a force of several hundred Guatemalan refugees and mercenaries who were headed by Castillo Armas to help remove the Arbenz government. Though the impact of the U.S. actions on subsequent events is debatable, by late June, Arbenz came to the conclusion that resistance against the "giant of the north" was futile and resigned.[57] This allowed Armas and his CIA-assisted forces to march into Guatemala City and establish a military junta, which would twelve days later on July 8, elect him President.[57] Consequently, the Armas regime then consolidated power by rounding up hundreds of suspected communists and executed hundreds of prisoners, while crushing the previously flourishing labor unions and restoring all of United Fruits previous land holdings.[57]

Guevara himself was eager to fight on behalf of Arbenz and joined an armed militia organized by the Communist Youth for that purpose, but frustrated with the group's inaction, he soon returned to medical duties. Following the coup, he again volunteered to fight, but soon after, Arbenz took refuge in the Mexican Embassy and told his foreign supporters to leave the country. Guevara's repeated calls to resist were noted by supporters of the coup, and he was marked for murder.[58] After Hilda Gadea was arrested, Guevara sought protection inside the Argentine consulate, where he remained until he received a safe-conduct pass some weeks later and made his way to Mexico.[59]

The overthrow of the Arbenz regime and establishment of the right-wing Armas dictatorship cemented Guevara's view of the United States as an imperialist power that would oppose and attempt to destroy any government that sought to redress the socioeconomic inequality endemic to Latin America and other developing countries.[51] In speaking about the coup, Guevara stated:

The last Latin American revolutionary democracy – that of Jacobo Arbenz – failed as a result of the cold premeditated aggression carried out by the United States. Its visible head was the Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a man who, through a rare coincidence, was also a stockholder and attorney for the United Fruit Company.[58]

Guevara's conviction that Marxism achieved through armed struggle and defended by an armed populace was the only way to rectify such conditions was thus strengthened.[60] Gadea wrote later, "It was Guatemala which finally convinced him of the necessity for armed struggle and for taking the initiative against imperialism. By the time he left, he was sure of this."[61]

Mexico City and preparation

 
Guevara with Hilda Gadea at Chichén Itzá on their honeymoon trip.

Guevara arrived in Mexico City on 21 September 1954, and worked in the allergy section of the General Hospital and at the Hospital Infantil de Mexico.[62][63] In addition he gave lectures on medicine at the Faculty of Medicine in the National Autonomous University of Mexico and worked as a news photographer for Latina News Agency.[64][65] His first wife Hilda notes in her memoir My Life with Che, that for a while, Guevara considered going to work as a doctor in Africa and that he continued to be deeply troubled by the poverty around him.[66] In one instance, Hilda describes Guevara's obsession with an elderly washerwoman whom he was treating, remarking that he saw her as "representative of the most forgotten and exploited class". Hilda later found a poem that Che had dedicated to the old woman, containing "a promise to fight for a better world, for a better life for all the poor and exploited."[66]

During this time he renewed his friendship with Ñico López and the other Cuban exiles whom he had met in Guatemala. In June 1955, López introduced him to Raúl Castro who subsequently introduced him to his older brother, Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader who had formed the 26th of July Movement and was now plotting to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. During a long conversation with Fidel on the night of their first meeting, Guevara concluded that the Cuban's cause was the one for which he had been searching and before daybreak he had signed up as a member of the July 26 Movement.[67] Despite their "contrasting personalities", from this point on Che and Fidel began to foster what dual biographer Simon Reid-Henry deems a "revolutionary friendship that would change the world", as a result of their coinciding commitment to anti-imperialism.[68]

By this point in Guevara's life, he deemed that U.S.-controlled conglomerates installed and supported repressive regimes around the world. In this vein, he considered Batista a "U.S. puppet whose strings needed cutting".[69] Although he planned to be the group's combat medic, Guevara participated in the military training with the members of the Movement. The key portion of training involved learning hit and run tactics of guerrilla warfare. Guevara and the others underwent arduous 15-hour marches over mountains, across rivers, and through the dense undergrowth, learning and perfecting the procedures of ambush and quick retreat. From the start Guevara was Alberto Bayo's "prize student" among those in training, scoring the highest on all of the tests given.[70] At the end of the course, he was called "the best guerrilla of them all" by their instructor, General Bayo.[71]

Guevara then married Gadea in Mexico in September 1955, before embarking on his plan to assist in the liberation of Cuba.[72]

Cuban Revolution

Invasion, warfare, and Santa Clara

 
Guevara atop a mule in Las Villas province, Cuba, November 1958

The first step in Castro's revolutionary plan was an assault on Cuba from Mexico via the Granma, an old, leaky cabin cruiser. They set out for Cuba on November 25, 1956. Attacked by Batista's military soon after landing, many of the 82 men were either killed in the attack or executed upon capture; only 22 found each other afterwards.[73] During this initial bloody confrontation Guevara laid down his medical supplies and picked up a box of ammunition dropped by a fleeing comrade, proving to be a symbolic moment in Che's life.[74]

Only a small band of revolutionaries survived to re-group as a bedraggled fighting force deep in the Sierra Maestra mountains, where they received support from the urban guerrilla network of Frank País, the 26th of July Movement, and local campesinos. With the group withdrawn to the Sierra, the world wondered whether Castro was alive or dead until early 1957 when the interview by Herbert Matthews appeared in The New York Times. The article presented a lasting, almost mythical image for Castro and the guerrillas. Guevara was not present for the interview, but in the coming months he began to realize the importance of the media in their struggle. Meanwhile, as supplies and morale diminished, and with an allergy to mosquito bites which resulted in agonizing walnut-sized cysts on his body,[75] Guevara considered these "the most painful days of the war".[76]

During Guevara's time living hidden among the poor subsistence farmers of the Sierra Maestra mountains, he discovered that there were no schools, no electricity, minimal access to healthcare, and more than 40 percent of the adults were illiterate.[77] As the war continued, Guevara became an integral part of the rebel army and "convinced Castro with competence, diplomacy and patience".[8] Guevara set up factories to make grenades, built ovens to bake bread, taught new recruits about tactics, and organized schools to teach illiterate campesinos to read and write.[8] Moreover, Guevara established health clinics, workshops to teach military tactics, and a newspaper to disseminate information.[78] The man whom Time dubbed three years later "Castro's brain" at this point was promoted by Fidel Castro to Comandante (commander) of a second army column.[8]

As second in command, Guevara was a harsh disciplinarian who sometimes shot defectors. Deserters were punished as traitors, and Guevara was known to send squads to track those seeking to go AWOL.[79] As a result, Guevara became feared for his brutality and ruthlessness.[80] During the guerrilla campaign, Guevara was also responsible for the sometimes summary execution of a number of men accused of being informers, deserters or spies.[81] In his diaries, Guevara described the first such execution of Eutímio Guerra, a peasant army guide who admitted treason when it was discovered he accepted the promise of ten thousand pesos for repeatedly giving away the rebel's position for attack by the Cuban air force.[82] Such information also allowed Batista's army to burn the homes of peasants sympathetic to the revolution.[82] Upon Guerra's request that they "end his life quickly",[82] Che stepped forward and shot him in the head, writing "The situation was uncomfortable for the people and for Eutimio so I ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 pistol in the right side of the brain, with exit orifice in the right temporal [lobe]."[83] His scientific notations and matter-of-fact description, suggested to one biographer a "remarkable detachment to violence" by that point in the war.[83] Later, Guevara published a literary account of the incident, titled "Death of a Traitor", where he transfigured Eutimio's betrayal and pre-execution request that the revolution "take care of his children", into a "revolutionary parable about redemption through sacrifice".[83]

 
Smoking a pipe at his guerrilla base in the Escambray Mountains

Although he maintained a demanding and harsh disposition, Guevara also viewed his role of commander as one of a teacher, entertaining his men during breaks between engagements with readings from the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Cervantes, and Spanish lyric poets.[84] Together with this role, and inspired by José Martí's principle of "literacy without borders", Guevara further ensured that his rebel fighters made daily time to teach the uneducated campesinos with whom they lived and fought to read and write, in what Guevara termed the "battle against ignorance".[77] Tomás Alba, who fought under Guevara's command, later stated that "Che was loved, in spite of being stern and demanding. We would (have) given our life for him."[85]

His commanding officer Fidel Castro has described Guevara as intelligent, daring, and an exemplary leader who "had great moral authority over his troops".[86] Castro further remarked that Guevara took too many risks, even having a "tendency toward foolhardiness".[87] Guevara's teenage lieutenant, Joel Iglesias, recounts such actions in his diary, noting that Guevara's behavior in combat even brought admiration from the enemy. On one occasion Iglesias recounts the time he had been wounded in battle, stating "Che ran out to me, defying the bullets, threw me over his shoulder, and got me out of there. The guards didn't dare fire at him ... later they told me he made a great impression on them when they saw him run out with his pistol stuck in his belt, ignoring the danger, they didn't dare shoot."[88]

Guevara was instrumental in creating the clandestine radio station Radio Rebelde (Rebel Radio) in February 1958, which broadcast news to the Cuban people with statements by the 26th of July movement, and provided radiotelephone communication between the growing number of rebel columns across the island. Guevara had apparently been inspired to create the station by observing the effectiveness of CIA supplied radio in Guatemala in ousting the government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán.[89]

To quell the rebellion, Cuban government troops began executing rebel prisoners on the spot, and regularly rounded up, tortured, and shot civilians as a tactic of intimidation.[90] By March 1958, the continued atrocities carried out by Batista's forces led the United States to announce it would stop selling arms to the Cuban government.[78] Then in late July 1958, Guevara played a critical role in the Battle of Las Mercedes by using his column to halt a force of 1,500 men called up by Batista's General Cantillo in a plan to encircle and destroy Castro's forces. Years later, Major Larry Bockman of the United States Marine Corps would analyze and describe Che's tactical appreciation of this battle as "brilliant".[91] During this time Guevara also became an "expert" at leading hit-and-run tactics against Batista's army, and then fading back into the countryside before the army could counterattack.[92]

 
After the Battle of Santa Clara, January 1, 1959

As the war extended, Guevara led a new column of fighters dispatched westward for the final push towards Havana. Travelling by foot, Guevara embarked on a difficult 7-week march only travelling at night to avoid ambush, and often not eating for several days.[93] In the closing days of December 1958, Guevara's task was to cut the island in half by taking Las Villas province. In a matter of days he executed a series of "brilliant tactical victories" that gave him control of all but the province's capital city of Santa Clara.[93] Guevara then directed his "suicide squad" in the attack on Santa Clara, that became the final decisive military victory of the revolution.[94][95] In the six weeks leading up to the Battle of Santa Clara there were times when his men were completely surrounded, outgunned, and overrun. Che's eventual victory despite being outnumbered 10:1, remains in the view of some observers a "remarkable tour de force in modern warfare".[96]

Radio Rebelde broadcast the first reports that Guevara's column had taken Santa Clara on New Year's Eve 1958. This contradicted reports by the heavily controlled national news media, which had at one stage reported Guevara's death during the fighting. At 3 am on January 1, 1959, upon learning that his generals were negotiating a separate peace with Guevara, Fulgencio Batista boarded a plane in Havana and fled for the Dominican Republic, along with an amassed "fortune of more than $300,000,000 through graft and payoffs".[97] The following day on January 2, Guevara entered Havana to take final control of the capital.[98] Fidel Castro took 6 more days to arrive, as he stopped to rally support in several large cities on his way to rolling victoriously into Havana on January 8, 1959. The final death toll from the two years of revolutionary fighting was 2,000 people.[99]

In mid-January 1959, Guevara went to live at a summer villa in Tarará to recover from a violent asthma attack.[100] While there he started the Tarara Group, a group that debated and formed the new plans for Cuba's social, political, and economic development.[101] In addition, Che began to write his book Guerrilla Warfare while resting at Tarara.[101] In February, the revolutionary government proclaimed Guevara "a Cuban citizen by birth" in recognition of his role in the triumph.[102] When Hilda Gadea arrived in Cuba in late January, Guevara told her that he was involved with another woman, and the two agreed on a divorce,[103] which was finalized on May 22.[104] On June 2, 1959, he married Aleida March, a Cuban-born member of the 26th of July movement with whom he had been living since late 1958. Guevara returned to the seaside village of Tarara in June for his honeymoon with Aleida.[105] In total, Guevara would ultimately have five children from his two marriages.[106]

La Cabaña, land reform, and literacy

 
(Right to left) rebel leader Camilo Cienfuegos, Cuban President Manuel Urrutia, and Guevara (January 1959)

The first major political crisis arose over what to do with the captured Batista officials who had been responsible for the worst of the repression.[107] During the rebellion against Batista's dictatorship, the general command of the rebel army, led by Fidel Castro, introduced into the territories under its control the 19th century penal law commonly known as the Ley de la Sierra (Law of the Sierra).[108] This law included the death penalty for serious crimes, whether perpetrated by the Batista regime or by supporters of the revolution. In 1959, the revolutionary government extended its application to the whole of the republic and to those it considered war criminals, captured and tried after the revolution. According to the Cuban Ministry of Justice, this latter extension was supported by the majority of the population, and followed the same procedure as those in the Nuremberg trials held by the Allies after World War II.[109]

To implement a portion of this plan, Castro named Guevara commander of the La Cabaña Fortress prison, for a five-month tenure (January 2 through June 12, 1959).[110] Guevara was charged with purging the Batista army and consolidating victory by exacting "revolutionary justice" against those considered to be traitors, chivatos (informants) or war criminals.[111] Serving in the post as commander of La Cabaña, Guevara reviewed the appeals of those convicted during the revolutionary tribunal process.[9] The tribunals were conducted by 2–3 army officers, an assessor, and a respected local citizen.[112] On some occasions the penalty delivered by the tribunal was death by firing squad.[113] Raúl Gómez Treto, senior legal advisor to the Cuban Ministry of Justice, has argued that the death penalty was justified in order to prevent citizens themselves from taking justice into their own hands, as happened twenty years earlier in the anti-Machado rebellion.[114] Biographers note that in January 1959, the Cuban public was in a "lynching mood",[115] and point to a survey at the time showing 93% public approval for the tribunal process.[9] Moreover, a January 22, 1959, Universal Newsreel broadcast in the United States and narrated by Ed Herlihy, featured Fidel Castro asking an estimated one million Cubans whether they approved of the executions, and was met with a roaring "¡Si!" (yes).[116] With thousands of Cubans estimated to have been killed at the hands of Batista's collaborators,[117][118] and many of the war criminals sentenced to death accused of torture and physical atrocities,[9] the newly empowered government carried out executions, punctuated by cries from the crowds of "¡paredón!" ([to the] wall!),[107] which biographer Jorge Castañeda describes as "without respect for due process".[119]

I have yet to find a single credible source pointing to a case where Che executed "an innocent". Those persons executed by Guevara or on his orders were condemned for the usual crimes punishable by death at times of war or in its aftermath: desertion, treason or crimes such as rape, torture or murder. I should add that my research spanned five years, and included anti-Castro Cubans among the Cuban-American exile community in Miami and elsewhere.

Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, PBS forum[120]
 
Guevara in his trademark olive-green military fatigues and beret

Although there are varying accounts, it is estimated that several hundred people were executed nationwide during this time, with Guevara's jurisdictional death total at La Cabaña ranging from 55 to 105 (see reference).[121] Conflicting views exist of Guevara's attitude towards the executions at La Cabaña. Some exiled opposition biographers report that he relished the rituals of the firing squad, and organized them with gusto, while others relate that Guevara pardoned as many prisoners as he could.[119] What is acknowledged by all sides is that Guevara had become a "hardened" man, who had no qualms about the death penalty or summary and collective trials. If the only way to "defend the revolution was to execute its enemies, he would not be swayed by humanitarian or political arguments".[119] This is further confirmed by a February 5, 1959, letter to Luis Paredes López in Buenos Aires where Guevara states unequivocally "The executions by firing squads are not only a necessity for the people of Cuba, but also an imposition of the people."[122]

Along with ensuring "revolutionary justice", the other key early platform of Guevara's was establishing agrarian land reform. Almost immediately after the success of the revolution on January 27, 1959, Guevara made one of his most significant speeches where he talked about "the social ideas of the rebel army". During this speech, he declared that the main concern of the new Cuban government was "the social justice that land redistribution brings about".[123] A few months later on May 17, 1959, the Agrarian Reform Law crafted by Guevara went into effect, limiting the size of all farms to 1,000 acres (400 ha). Any holdings over these limits were expropriated by the government and either redistributed to peasants in 67-acre (270,000 m2) parcels or held as state run communes.[124] The law also stipulated that sugar plantations could not be owned by foreigners.[125]

 
Guevara visiting the Gaza Strip in 1959.
 
Guevara speaking with Tito during a visit to Yugoslavia

On June 12, 1959, Castro sent Guevara out on a three-month tour of 14 mostly Bandung Pact countries (Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Yugoslavia, Greece) and the cities of Singapore and Hong Kong.[126] Sending Guevara away from Havana allowed Castro to appear to be distancing himself from Guevara and his Marxist sympathies, which troubled both the United States and some of Castro's July 26 Movement members.[127] While in Jakarta, Guevara visited Indonesian president Sukarno to discuss the recent revolution in Indonesia and to establish trade relations between their two nations. Both men quickly bonded, as Sukarno was attracted to Guevara's energy and his relaxed informal approach; moreover they shared revolutionary leftist aspirations against western imperialism.[128] Guevara next spent 12 days in Japan (July 15–27), participating in negotiations aimed at expanding Cuba's trade relations with that nation. During the visit, he refused to visit and lay a wreath at Japan's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier commemorating soldiers lost during World War II, remarking that the Japanese "imperialists" had "killed millions of Asians".[129] In its place, Guevara stated that he would instead visit Hiroshima, where the American military had detonated an atom-bomb 14 years earlier.[129] Despite his denunciation of Imperial Japan, Guevara also considered President Truman a "macabre clown" for the bombings,[130] and after visiting Hiroshima and its Peace Memorial Museum, he sent back a postcard to Cuba stating, "In order to fight better for peace, one must look at Hiroshima."[131]

Upon Guevara's return to Cuba in September 1959, it was evident that Castro now had more political power. The government had begun land seizures included in the agrarian reform law, but was hedging on compensation offers to landowners, instead offering low interest "bonds", a step which put the United States on alert. At this point the affected wealthy cattlemen of Camagüey mounted a campaign against the land redistributions, and enlisted the newly disaffected rebel leader Huber Matos, who along with the anti-Communist wing of the 26th of July Movement, joined them in denouncing the "Communist encroachment".[132] During this time Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo was offering assistance to the "Anti-Communist Legion of the Caribbean" which was training in the Dominican Republic. This multi-national force, composed mostly of Spaniards and Cubans, but also of Croatians, Germans, Greeks, and right-wing mercenaries, was plotting to topple Castro's new regime.[132]

 
Guevara in 1960, walking through the streets of Havana with his wife Aleida March (right)

Such threats were heightened when, on March 4, 1960, two massive explosions ripped through the French freighter La Coubre, which was carrying Belgian munitions from the port of Antwerp, and was docked in Havana Harbor. The blasts killed at least 76 people and injured several hundred, with Guevara personally providing first aid to some of the victims. Cuban leader Fidel Castro immediately accused the CIA of "an act of terrorism" and held a state funeral the following day for the victims of the blast.[133] It was at the memorial service that Alberto Korda took the famous photograph of Guevara, now known as Guerrillero Heroico.[134]

These perceived threats prompted Castro to further eliminate "counter-revolutionaries", and to utilize Guevara to drastically increase the speed of land reform. To implement this plan, a new government agency, the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA), was established to administer the new Agrarian Reform law. INRA quickly became the most important governing body in the nation, with Guevara serving as its head in his capacity as minister of industries.[125] Under Guevara's command, INRA established its own 100,000 person militia, used first to help the government seize control of the expropriated land and supervise its distribution, and later to set up cooperative farms. The land confiscated included 480,000 acres (190,000 ha) owned by United States corporations.[125] Months later, as retaliation, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sharply reduced United States imports of Cuban sugar (Cuba's main cash crop), thus leading Guevara on July 10, 1960, to address over 100,000 workers in front of the Presidential Palace at a rally called to denounce United States "economic aggression".[135] Time magazine reporters who met with Guevara around this time, described him as "guid(ing) Cuba with icy calculation, vast competence, high intelligence, and a perceptive sense of humor."[8]

Along with land reform, one of the primary areas that Guevara stressed needed national improvement was in the area of literacy. Before 1959 the official literacy rate for Cuba was between 60–76%, with educational access in rural areas and a lack of instructors the main determining factors.[136] As a result, the Cuban government at Guevara's behest dubbed 1961 the "year of education", and mobilized over 100,000 volunteers into "literacy brigades", who were then sent out into the countryside to construct schools, train new educators, and teach the predominantly illiterate guajiros (peasants) to read and write.[77][136] Unlike many of Guevara's later economic initiatives, this campaign was "a remarkable success". By the completion of the Cuban Literacy Campaign, 707,212 adults had been taught to read and write, raising the national literacy rate to 96%.[136]

Guevara was like a father to me ... he educated me. He taught me to think. He taught me the most beautiful thing which is to be human.

— Urbano (a.k.a. Leonardo Tamayo),
fought with Guevara in Cuba and Bolivia[137]

Accompanying literacy, Guevara was also concerned with establishing universal access to higher education. To accomplish this, the new regime introduced affirmative action to the universities. While announcing this new commitment, Guevara told the gathered faculty and students at the University of Las Villas that the days when education was "a privilege of the white middle class" had ended. "The University" he said, "must paint itself black, mulatto, worker, and peasant." If it did not, he warned, the people would break down its doors "and paint the University the colors they like."[138]

 

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