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CHE GUEVARA: A HERO OR A GLORIFIED VILLAIN?

Ernesto “Che” Guevara was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary who was a prominent figure during the Cuban Revolution. At some point or another, I’m sure you have seen his whiskered face adorning an endless array of items, including T-shirts, hats, posters, tattoos, etc. His face is recognised all over the world- the young medical student who became a revolutionary icon. But was Che Guevara a Heroic Champion of the Poor or was he a Ruthless Warlord who left a legacy of repression?

Early Life:

Guevara was born into a middle-class family on June 14, 1928, in Rosario, Argentina. He was plagued by asthma in his youth but still managed to distinguish himself as an athlete. He absorbed the left-leaning political views of his family and friends, and by his teen years had already become politically active.

After graduating from high school with honours, Guevara studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires. But in the early 1950s, he left behind a privileged life as a medical student in Argentina. As a young medical student, Guevara travelled throughout South America and was radicalized by the poverty, hunger, and disease he witnessed. The poverty and misery he witnessed convinced him that saving lives requires more than medicines. He had spent many of his holidays travelling in Latin America, and his observations of the great poverty of the masses contributed to his eventual conclusion that the only solution lay in violent revolution.

First Fight against Injustice:

Colonization may have formally ended but the elites still controlled all the wealth and power in the 1950s. While the poor starved, the elites led a luxurious life seizing control over the land distribution and all the other important operations taking place including the likes of import and export trades of the country.

In 1953, Che Guevara came to Guatemala under the democratically elected government President Árbenz in order to seek help regarding this political exploitation. Jacobo Árbenz headed a progressive regime that was attempting to bring about a social revolution. Ãrbenz passed reforms to redistribute some of the uncultivated lands back to the people by compensating the landowners. But soon he was overthrown in a CIA sponsored coup. The military was protecting against the seizure of private property and Communist takeover. They were protecting corporate profits and Che saw that they would use the fear of communism to overthrow any government that threatened those profits.

The Cuban Revolution:

With the lessons he took at Guatemala, Guevara left for Mexico, where he met the Cuban brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro, political exiles who were preparing an attempt to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. Fulgencio Batista was the tyrant who came to power in a military coup. He turned Havana into a luxury playground for foreigners while keeping Cubans mired in poverty and killing thousands in police track downs. Even the then American President Kennedy called this “the worst example of economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation in the world.”

When their small armed forces landed in Cuba on December 2, 1956, Guevara was with them and among the few that survived the initial assault. Over the next few years, he would serve as a primary advisor to Castro and lead their growing guerrilla forces in attacks against the crumbling Batista regime. Che was instrumental in helping Fidel Castro seizing power by overthrowing the Batista dictatorship.

Guevara: A Tyrant?

In January 1959, Castro took control of Cuba and placed Guevara in charge of La Cabaña prison, where it is estimated that hundreds of people were executed on Guevara’s extrajudicial orders. As a commander in guerrilla army, he unleashed a reign of terror across the countryside killing any suspected spy and even the dissenters.

Many believe that his harsh discipline was a necessity against the much stronger enemy who didn’t hesitate to burn down the entire village if suspected of aiding the rebels. The new regime that he helped building did mass execution and killed hundreds of people without any trial as they took power in 1959. The executed were mainly officials and collaborates who had tormented the masses under the dictatorship of Batista. It is true that the people of Cuba were supportive of the executions, but Guevara didn’t even bother to give the accused a fair trial. In his opinion, “judicial proof was unnecessary” when it came to executing members of the former regime. Journalists, businessmen and former colleagues who didn’t agree with him were all executed on his orders.

A HERO of the poor:

Though his violent methods were much feared among the Cubans as a result of which many even decided to flee the country whenever the opportunity presented itself. But he was also the one who helped peasants build health clinics, schools and other educational institutions. Along with land reform, Guevara stressed the need for national improvement in 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. He helped establish universal education and organised volunteered literacy brigades. He taught them to read and even recited poetry to them. This raised Cuba’s literacy rate to 96% which is still one of the highest in the entire world. On the other side of the spectrum, many argue that this also allowed the Castro government to seize control over information everyone received.

CAPTURE & EXECUTION:

In 1966, Guevara departed for Bolivia with a small force of rebels to incite a revolution there. After some initial combat successes, Guevara and his guerrilla band found themselves constantly on the run from the Bolivian army. On 7 October 1967, an informant apprised the Bolivian Special Forces of the location of Guevara’s guerrilla encampment. On the next morning, they encircled the area with two battalions numbering 1,800 soldiers, triggering a battle where Guevara was wounded and taken prisoner.

For the next half-day, Guevara refused to be interrogated by Bolivian officers and only spoke quietly to soldiers. He was shot through the right calf, his hair was matted with dirt, his clothes were shredded, and his feet were covered in rough leather sheaths. Despite his haggard appearance, the soldiers recount that: “Che held his head high, looked everyone straight in the eyes and asked only for something to smoke.” On the day of his execution, Guevara was asked by one of the Bolivian soldiers guarding him if he was thinking about his own immortality. “No,” he replied, “I’m thinking about the immortality of the Revolution.”

THE LEGACY OF CHE GUEVARA:

Since his death, Guevara has become a legendary political figure. His death was publicly mourned in cities all over the globe. His story would inspire the young activists for generations to come. His name is often equated with rebellion, revolution and socialism. However, many on the other hand condemn him as brutal, cruel, murderous, and all too willing to employ violence to reach revolutionary ends. He has been both revered and reviled, being characterized as everything from a heroic defender of the poor, to a cold-hearted executioner.

Nevertheless, Guevara remains a national hero in Cuba, where his image adorns the 3 peso banknote and school children begin each morning by pledging “We will be like Che.” Guevara would live on as a powerful symbol, bigger in some ways in death than in life.

Symbols of revolution may become commodified but the idea of a more just world remains. But did he die a hero or had he already became a villain? Should revolutions be judged by ideals or their outcomes?

The question still remains as we put the history on trial.

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