Ernesto “Che” Guevara

Ernesto Che Guevara Poster
Ernesto Che Guevara Poster

An iconic Latin American revolutionary whose visage remains emblematic of leftist and Marxist struggles throughout the continent and world, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna joined Fidel Castro’s 26 July Movement in late 1955.

An exceptionally effective guerrilla leader, his charisma, intelligence, and revolutionary idealism soon made him one of the leading figures of the early years of the Cuban revolution.

He was the primary impetus behind the notion of the socialist “New Man,” at the core of many Cuban government policies in the early 1960s, in which revolutionary fervor was seen as more fundamental than material incentives (such as wages and benefits) in propelling workers to produce.

Convinced that Cuba’s successes could be duplicated in other countries through what he called the “foco” theory of revolution, in which a small band of revolutionaries could spark a mass insurrection and topple dictatorships, he journeyed to Bolivia in 1967 to test his theory.

The anticipated popular uprising failed to materialize, and after a few months he was captured and executed by the Bolivian military. His writings on revolution and guerrilla warfare remain classics of the era.

Born on June 14, 1927, to a wealthy landowning family in Rosario, Argentina, Guevara was a frail and sickly boy, suffering asthma that plagued him throughout his life. Raised Roman Catholic, because of his asthma he was educated mainly at home by his mother, Celia de la Serna y Llosa, and his four siblings.

His father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, was a businessman and for a time ran a mate (tea) farm owned by his wife. Both were committed leftists.

From his mother, to whom he remained emotionally close throughout his life, he acquired his lifelong passion for books, learning, and politics. In 1943 when Guevara was 16, his family moved to Córdoba.

Ernesto Guevara with Fidel Castro
Ernesto Guevara with Fidel Castro

After completing his high school studies he began studying engineering. In 1947 he and his family moved to Buenos Aires, where he entered the university to study engineering before switching to medicine.

In 1951 he and a friend embarked on a yearlong motorcycle journey through South America, where he saw firsthand the continent’s poverty and social injustices (as portrayed in his journals and dramatized in the 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries).

Graduating from medical school in 1953, he journeyed through Bolivia and Peru to Guatemala, where he witnessed the social revolution under President Jacobo Arbenz.

After Arbenz’s overthrow in a U.S.-orchestrated coup in 1954, which steeled Guevara’s anti-imperialism, Guevara journeyed to Mexico and established contact with Cuban exile Fidel Castro. Convinced that Castro was the visionary revolutionary he had long sought, he joined Castro’s 26 July Movement and soon became one of its leaders.

The group embarked for Cuba in November 1956, and for the next two years Guevara played a central role in the guerrilla war against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, earning a reputation as a skilled and sometimes ruthless commander.

After Batista’s ouster in January 1959, Guevara was appointed to the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, and later became president of the National Bank, minister of industries, and ambassador to the United Nations. During this period he developed his ideas regarding the socialist New Man and his foco theory of revolution.

After failing in several attempts to launch socialist revolutions in other countries (including Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Congo), in late 1966 he traveled to Bolivia in the hope of sparking a mass insurrection.

On October 8, 1967, he and his bedraggled forces were captured by the Bolivian military, and the next day he was executed. He is widely considered one of the most important revolutionary figures of the 20th century.