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Diplomacy and Conflict • Guerrilla Warfare

Ernesto Che Guevara was an Argentinian revolutionary and contributor to the Latin American revolutionary tradition after his involvement in the Cuban guerrilla war (1956–1958) and his ill-fated campaign in Bolivia (1966–1967).

Early Influences

Born Ernesto Guevara in 1928 to a middle-class family in Rosario, Argentina, he trained as a medical doctor, graduating in 1953. A formative experience was a major continental journey he undertook throughout the Americas in 1953 . During this time he witnessed the early months of the Bolivian national revolution and the last months of the October revolution in Guatemala during the government of Jacobo Arbenz. The U.S Cold War-inspired destabilization of Arbenz and radicalized Guevara, as did his later encounter in Mexico with several Cuban revolutionary exiles, including Fidel Castro. He joined Castro's expedition to Cuba in December 1956 and fought with the July 26 Movement rebels until the victory of January 1959.

Marxism in Cuba

In Cuba Guevara became first president of the National Bank and then minister of industry in the early postrevolutionary government, where he espoused unorthodox Marxist economic ideas about the scope and timing of economic transformation. His notion of the New Man and his advocacy of centralized planning and the urgency of abolishing capitalist mechanisms and motivation pitted him against more orthodox Marxist and Soviet advisors. The Guevara line triumphed in the early and middle 1960s, leading to a reliance on moral rather than material incentives and experiments with the abolition of money. What was sometimes called Sino-Guevarism climaxed in the disastrous Ten Million Ton Sugar Harvest Campaign of 1968. Following this event, Cuba's economic policy retreated from guevarista utopianism.

Guevara left Cuba in 1965, possibly because of disagreement with the island's political leadership and certainly because of a long-standing commitment to promoting revolution worldwide. In his early years in Cuba Guevara had been a proponent of the heretical political and military ideas of what became known as foco theory. The foquistas, including the French philosopher Régis Debray, challenged orthodox Communist Party emphasis on parliamentary and legal struggle, and instead advocated the viability and urgency of establishing rural, peasant-based centers (focos) that would detonate revolutionary commitment and encourage Latin American elite and U.S. repression.

Revolution in Bolivia

Guevara went first to central Africa (Congo) and then to Bolivia, where he landed in 1966. It is now believed that Guevara's project to initiate an insurrection there was prompted by a desire to use Bolivia as a focus for the transformation of neighboring countries rather than a belief in the viability of making revolution in Bolivia itself, where a major social revolution had begun in 1952. Guevara's overwhelming concern was the need to provide a diversion that would weaken U.S. resolve and resources then dedicated to waging war in Vietnam.

The foquistas were aware that the post-Cuba Cold War in Latin America would increase U.S resolve to prevent more revolutionary outbreaks by modernizing Latin American militaries and developing modernization and reform projects like the Alliance for Progress. But they underestimated the speed with which sections of the Bolivian armed forces were transformed under U.S aid and training once Guevara was located in Bolivia.

Guevara's revolutionary expedition was also handicapped by tense relations with the Bolivian Communist Party and its leader, Mario Monje, who was offended by Guevara's insistence on maintaining leadership of the revolutionary foco. There was also little peasant support for the guevarista force, which was made up of both Bolivian recruits and experienced Cubans. Difficult terrain also complicated the expedition's work and eventually the revolutionaries split up into two groups that never met up again.

The most controversial issue surrounding the collapse of Guevara's efforts in Bolivia is the question of whether Cuban support for the guerrillas was lukewarm. Some Guevara biographers have suggested that Soviet and Cuban relations with the revolutionaries was partly shaped by Soviet annoyance at the impact the new revolutionary front might have on its relations with the United States. So far evidence to support this line of argument is weak.

Death and Legacy

A Bolivian army unit captured Guevara on October 8, and, the following day, murdered him. One of his hands was removed to facilitate identification by U.S. intelligence. A copy of Guevara's diaries was smuggled to Cuba, where it was published (along with a CIA-brokered edition) as Che's Bolivian Diaries. His body was only uncovered in an unmarked site in Bolivia in 1997 and, together with the remains of a number of other Cuban companions who had died in Bolivia, was repatriated to Cuba for internment in a monument dedicated to his career in Santa Clara city.


Further Reading

Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. London: Bantam, 1997; Castañeda, Jorge. Companero: The Life and Death of Che. New York; Vintage, 1998; Lowy, Michael. The Marxism of Che Guevara: Philosophy, Economics and Revolutionary Warfare. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974.

MLA Citation

Carr, Barry. "Che Guevara." World at War: Understanding Conflict and Society, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldatwar.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/757471. Accessed 21 Apr. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2180538

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