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Latin America Shawn Dispatch

Che Guevara - Giving Everything, Always, Until Victory
"...the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of a real revolutionary without this quality."
Ernesto Che Guevara, 1965

Che Guevara, immortalized
Che's mother called him "The eternal stranger." Do you think the things he was fighting for are worth the sacrifices he made?
Latin America's history has been marked by often tumultuous politics, and many wars and revolutions. Governments collapse, or are overthrown and countries bicker over borders to no end. The result for many of the common people is a constant struggle to overcome poverty and oppression. And although new leaders and ideologies frequently rise, they seem to fall just as fast. Many leaders are forgotten as soon as their reign is over, yet others' greatness lingers long after their death, the impression of their image inspiring people long after their bodies have turned to dust.

Want to know more about Che? Check out the following links: El Comandante "Che" Guevara has lots of information, photos and video. Vallegrande is all about where Che was captured and killed, and includes photos and video.
We have crossed paths many times with one such leader, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. After assisting Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution, Che led an army of only 100 revolutionaries through the mountains and jungles of Bolivia. The revolution was crushed after only 11 months, but his struggles and ideas are still remembered throughout the world. This picture of Che, with his long hair and intensive gaze, has become a symbol to young revolutionaries everywhere. It is smacked on everything from tourist souvenirs to flags and clothing - even album covers. Whether you agree with Che's way of fighting back, he still inspires people for his steadfast commitment to combating poverty and injustice.

Che when he was 22, on his balcony in Buenos Aires, in a photo taken by his father
Che was born in Argentina in 1928 and grew up in Buenos Aires - where we are right now! He studied medicine because he wanted to help people. When he was 24, he took 8 months and traveled around mostly South America, wanting to learn about the people, especially the people who suffered in poverty. He vowed he would return as a doctor to help these people. His route was sort of the reverse of ours, except that he went to Central America a few years later.

It is interesting that he was in Guatemala when the United States directed the overthrow of the government. This is one of the topics we learned about in our 6-week stay in Guatemala - see our dispatch on the "1954 coup". This overthrow helped shape Che's opinion that people have to fight to truly stand up for their rights.

Che with Castro in one of their earliest photos together
Soon after that, in Mexico, he met a man who would go on to lead the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro. Che joined Castro, a move that set aside Che's role as doctor and saw him become a Commander in the Cuban Revolution. Together they oversaw this Revolution which brought Castro power in 1960. Castro is still the leader there today. (Unfortunately, we didn't get to go to Cuba. Well, we sort of did: Mamá Rumba - The Next Best Thing.

Even though Cuba is a small island country, the impact of the Cuban Revolution was to have a profound effect on world politics throughout the 1960's and '70's. Pointedly, Cuba's revolution and Fidel Castro's rise to power happened in conjunction with the cold war between the United States and Russia. With Cuba as a newfound communist presence and only 100 miles south of Florida it was now a key strategic point for the Soviets. Further, Russia's friendliness towards the new government led to their subsequent attempt to build nuclear missile bases on the island. This situation made the United States extremely nervous and brought the world's two superpowers to the brink of war. The United States' opposition to Cuba continues today in many ways.
Castro, citing Che Guevara as his right hand man and main political advisor, immediately appointed Che the Minister of Industry. This gave him the task of converting the country into a communist system. As the fight against the world-wide spread of Communism was becoming a panicked frenzy, Che's position made him a very unpopular man in the US. Cuba was not only too close for comfort, but Havana had been a major commercial trading port for the US that was now no longer available.

Unfortunately, Che was not much more popular with Russia. He strongly argued against the idea of Cuba becoming another puppet state of the Soviet Empire and said so public. For this he was ultimately ostracized and when Castro felt that Cuba could not survive without making a strong alliance with the Soviets, Che was forced to resign.

Click image for larger view
Che Guevara's travels throughout Central America and South America
Che left Cuba in 1965 and spent a year traveling the world incognito before reappearing in Bolivia (where we just had our Team reunion before coming to Argentina) in 1966. During this time, Bolivia was under autocratic military rule. Working conditions and the standard of living for the lower classes were awful. Fueled by his beliefs, Che and his very small army set out to liberate Bolivia. They marched through the countryside, attacking army supply lines guerrilla-style and tried to rally support from the communities that he encountered. However, Che discovered very quickly that he was up against more than just the Bolivian military. Since he had made enemies of both the US and USSR, both nations were now committed to sealing the fate of his campaign.

Richard Gott called Che "Perhaps the greatest Latin American since Bolivar." He was admired for his commitment to the cause ha believed in. Do you agree Che was so great? What makes a person great? (Do you remember who Bolivar was? Check out our update from Peru on the Independence of the Americas.)
Propaganda, in the end, proved the most effective weapon. Usually when Che arrived in remote villages, he found frightened people that believed he was a ruthless murderer. Instead of joining Che's quest for liberation, the locals turned away in fear, unwilling to cooperate. This left Che's already puny army without means to match the forces rising against them.

Che's body on display by the Bolivian military
Further, The United States made sure that Bolivia was adequately prepared against Che and his army. They sent Green Berets and CIA operatives to train and guide the Bolivian army. The United States had a lot at stake. Having common borders with Peru, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Paraguay, Bolivia is a very strategic country in South America and the US thought a Communist Bolivia could become a serious threat.

Finally, on October 9, 1967, with the help of the CIA, the Bolivian army trapped and captured Che and his small band of guerrillas . They took Che to a one room school house in the village of La Higuera, where he was held over night. The CIA claimed that they wanted Che captured alive for interrogation. However, supposedly under orders from a CIA operative, Che Guevara was shot to death by a Bolivian army sergeant.

Thirty years later, matters of great controversy still surround the life and death of Ernesto Che Guevara. Although there are many different opinions about this man and his ideas, there is no doubt that Che made his mark on history.


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