The fall of marxist firebrand, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara

Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Photo by Alberto Korda/Wikimedia Commons)

By Natascha Tahabsem
Boston University News Service

It was Oct. 8, 1967. Ernesto Guevara couldn’t breathe, his chest rumbling. Surrounded by CIA-led Ranger platoons, he and his band of bedraggled guerrillas abandoned their bivouac and set out along Churro Ravine — a deep slit through densely wooded land, 75 miles north of the Bolivian town of Camiri. 

Guevara had secretly left his post in Cuba in 1965 to foster revolution across African and South American countries, through clandestine guerrilla expeditions and armed struggle. His earlier guerrilla endeavors had earned him a consequential part in Fidel Castro’s 1959 overthrow of Cuba’s U.S.-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and later an illustrious career as the country’s minister of industry and national bank president. But by the mid-’60s, amid a U.S. embargo of Cuba, he had grown disenchanted with Castro’s governance and its reliance on the Soviet Union.

“The Russians, on whom the Cubans depended in order to survive the embargo, [also] wanted Guevara out of the way,” wrote Bjorn Kumm of the New Republic in a 1967 first-person report on Guevara’s death. “On his last official journey around the world, in the spring of 1965, Che had caused a sensation … when he made a scathing attack on the Russians. [So, when he left Cuba without a word], it did not seem far-fetched to assume he had been liquidated.”

It had later emerged that Guevara’s first post-Cuba expedition had been to the African Congo — a fleeting and futile effort.

“The human element failed. We cannot liberate, all by ourselves, a country that does not want to fight. It’s not good men but supermen that are needed,” Guevara wrote in a 1965 letter to Castro, describing his struggles. 

“This is the story of a failure,” read one of his diary entries in the same year. 

Next on Guevara’s list had been Bolivia, where he had hoped he could make his case to the campesinos and the underprivileged. 

But now, the air, thick with dust and teeming with “monstrous flies, mosquitoes and spiders,” stung his men’s eyes and made meals of their skin, reported the New York Times in 1967. 

The only way out of this infernal ravine was blocked by the Bolivian Rangers. Led by Lieutenant Eugenio Perez, they wanted to “[drive] the guerrilla force south,” according to a CIA file at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, declassified in 1997. 

In the thick foliage above, mortar snouts poked out, shelling the ravine. Sudden bursts of machine-gun fire drowned out Guevara’s thoughts, and with his comrades, he responded, taking out three Bolivian soldiers at once. 

“[Two companies of 180 Rangers] opened up with their rifles and automatic weapons at a withering, point-blank range of 150 feet,” read a 1967 Time report.

Boulders tumbled down slopes, shattering as they went. A Ranger platoon, by order of a Captain Prado, clambered to cut off the guerrillas’ escape, but Guevara and his men were nowhere to be found.

Guevara and Castro first met in Mexico City in 1955. Guevara, who was born in Argentina but had been living in Guatemala, had openly positioned himself on the left end of the spectrum and had become so politically involved there that he fled to Mexico after a CIA-backed military operation deposed the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz.

After their first conversation, Guevara agreed to join Castro’s guerrilla expedition to Cuba, which later became known as the 26th of July Movement, according to the preface of The Bolivian Diary, a 200-page record of his journey into Bolivia. Castro, who had been in exile at the time, took a liking to the Marxist firebrand and his burgeoning interest in the Cuban cause. Guevara also rose to prominence among Castro’s rebels, who “nicknamed him ‘Che,’ a popular form of address in Argentina.” 

This landed him, along with a force of 80 guerrilla fighters, in Cuba in 1956. 

“Guevara set sail for Cuba aboard the yacht Granma as the doctor to the guerrilla group,” read the chapter. “[But] within several months, he was named by Castro as the first Rebel Army commander.”

There, in the Cuban province of Oriente, Guevara and Castro’s band of rebels were nearly wiped out in a skirmish with Batista’s army. But the revolutionary managed to reach the mountains of Sierra Maestra with a few survivors, where he spent two years building and sustaining a “guerrilla army nucleus.”

“The rebels slowly gained in strength, seizing weapons from Batista’s forces and winning support and new recruits,” read Britannica. “The complex Guevara, though trained as a healer, also, on occasion, ordered the execution of suspected traitors and deserters. He recorded in writing the two years spent overthrowing Batista’s government in ‘Pasajes de la Guerra Revolucionaria.’”

After the successful deposition, Guevara marched into Havana by Castro’s side on Jan. 8, 1959. He became an honorary Cuban citizen, by order of Castro, the new head of state, and a symbol of rebellion to pro-revolution Cubans and leftists across South America. He was “as prominent in the newly established Marxist government as he had been in the revolutionary army, representing Cuba on many commercial missions,” according to Britannica. In addition to serving as the Marxist state’s minister of industry, he became commander of the La Cabaña Fortress prison, led a nationwide literacy campaign, and instituted agrarian reform.

Over the course of his political career in Cuba, Guevara, then an increasingly polarizing figure, often voiced his disdain for myriad government bodies — largely for their espousal of capitalism, imperialism, or neocolonialism. By the time he left Havana for a life of revolution and guerrilla warfare, he had created a name for himself that far transcended Latin American borders, becoming one of the most wanted — and romanticized — political figures of the 20th century.

At around 3 in the afternoon, in the stifling ravine, a Bolivian sergeant by the name of Huanca “encountered a group of six to eight guerrillas and opened fire,” according to the declassified CIA files. Two Cubans on Ernesto Guevara’s side, Anotondo and Orturo, were shot dead. “[The Rangers] lost one soldier here, and another was wounded. Guevara and Willy, a Bolivian guerrilla, tried to break out in the direction of the mortar section,” only to be sighted by the machine gun crew. 

Time could have stopped then. The words of Juan Peron, Argentina’s former army general, could have crossed Guevara’s mind as the bullets and shards hailed down, dotting the baked earth like scattered rosary beads.

“You will not survive in Bolivia, [Che]. Suspend that plan,” Peron had once warned him, according to historian and politician Enrique Pavón Pereyra. “Do not commit suicide.”

A sudden burst of blood. One bullet ripped through the muscle of Guevara’s right thigh; another hit the barrel of his M-l semiautomatic carbine, rendering it useless. 

Willy carried him “up about 60 feet of a steep climb to a tiny level spot and then up again. They climbed by grabbing hold of briars and thorns,” wrote Paris Match correspondent Michele Ray, who investigated the guerrilla leader’s capture and death in late-’60s Bolivia. “Their hands were covered with blood [when] four soldiers sprung up in front of them.” 

The Rangers continued to fire, riddling Guevara’s body with cuts and bullets.

Bolivia had meant more to Guevara than a task to check off. He had set his eyes on the South American country while he was touring Latin America as a young medical student in the ‘50s. 

“Bolivia had had a glorious revolution; its army had been completely wiped out in three days of heavy battle in April 1952; the tin mines had been nationalized, the large estates broken up,” wrote Kumm. “But … life … was still bad. It was easy for … Guevara to conclude later that the Bolivian revolution had failed because it hadn’t gone the whole hog as had the Cuban’s.”

Three days after his arrival in La Paz, Bolivia, in 1967, Guevara moved southeast toward the Kfancahuazu region, where he intended to build a camp base, recruit campesinos, train them in the art of guerrilla warfare and embark on his revolutionary journey. 

“A successful revolution in Bolivia would mean intervention on a massive scale by U.S. troops, Che believed, and this actually was what he was aiming for,” added Kumm. At one point, Guevara harbored a frantic inclination toward creating “two, three, many Vietnams,” to challenge the United States and bleed it dry.

But the treacherous terrain of the southeast region cut his efforts short, proving perilous, and the fresh recruits appeared to be “impenetrable as stone,” he later wrote in an entry of The Bolivian Diary.

Despite this, Guevara managed to put together a guerrilla force of some 50 Bolivian and Cuban men, operating as the National Liberation Army of Bolivia. In mountainous Camiri and beyond, they faced off the Bolivian army over the months and often triumphed, despite the terrain, which led the Bolivian government to overestimate their power and double up their own. 

Part of “Guevara’s plan was to challenge that country’s military dictatorship,” read the preface of The Bolivian Diary. And to this end, albeit momentarily, he was successful. 

Clad in red-splattered battle fatigues and high-strap sandals, Guevara sat on a bench in a dark, mud-built, and tumbledown classroom in La Higuera, a village situated some 93 miles southwest of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. He was bound by the wrists and heavily guarded, his back leaning against an adobe wall. 

An acrid smell of sweat, tobacco, and alcohol wafted into the space with each passing visitor. One soldier brought Guevara a pipe, lit, stuffed to the rim, and finely prepared, which he took into his mouth. A doctor scuttled in to stitch up and disinfect his thigh wound, which turned out to be slight. A Cuban-exile turned CIA operative who went by “Felix,” sent to Bolivia to coordinate Guevara’s capture, sought a casual conversation. 

“Che, I admire you,” Felix told the guerrilla leader during his visit, a conversation detailed by the CIA operative in an interview with Kathleen Walter. “You used to be a head of state in Cuba, and you’re like this because you believe in your ideas, even though I know they’re mistaken.”

Outside, where the town’s narrow stone streets converged, waves of raucous laughter broke out occasionally. The Rangers, it appeared, had been occupied with alcohol and the contents of Guevara’s rucksack, each taking his pick and making trades, wrote Ray.

“[They] found a book entitled ‘Essays on Contemporary Capitalism,’ several codes, two war diaries, some messages of support and a personal notebook,” among other items, according to Time.

“It seems that this,” read one notebook entry in small, tight letters like an afterthought, “is reaching the end.” 

The command was clear. It contradicted the order Felix had first received when the Rangers crossed into La Higuera with Guevara — the one that had strictly bade he be kept alive and untouched. Coming to the agent from the other end of the radio line, it said “500, 600,” code for “Guevara, dead.”

The rationale behind the summary execution was that Guevara’s trial “would have gone on forever — it would have been a circus,” reflected a Bolivian captain in 2007. “The Bolivian government decided to avoid that problem. There were no prisons secure enough to hold him in Bolivia at that time. They said, ‘Let’s end this story once and for all.’” 

Felix entered the ramshackle schoolhouse in the early afternoon and relayed the news to Guevara. Only hours earlier, he had asked to be photographed alongside the prisoner and elicited a laugh from him when he said, “Watch the birdie, comandante.”

When he shared the news, he noticed that Guevara’s face had lost its color, according to his interview with Walter. 

“It is better like this,” the rebel leader reportedly told him. “I never should have been captured alive.”

It was 5 o’clock on Oct. 10, 1967. The eyes of Ernesto Guevara, wide and thickly lashed, looked on despite the fetor of his bloodied, bullet-splattered body. 

His autopsy report, signed by doctors Abraham Batista and Carto Martinez on the same day, showed that his teeth, though nicotine-stained, were in good order, that a single scar scored the entire left side of his back and that he had taken bullets to the shoulder blades, the ribs, the thighs, the forearms, the throat, the lungs, and the heart. 

Within hours, word of his demise rippled across Bolivia — that he had been captured and killed for fomenting rebellion, lashed to the landing shafts of a helicopter, and flown into nearby Vallegrande by the Bolivian Air Force. Hearing the news, some officials involved in his capture were riddled with guilt, others overcome with joy. In pairs or triads, doctors, soldiers, and cameramen, holding tissues or lapels to their noses, lined the rust-flaked laundry sink over which the revolutionary lay, still and bare, his skin plastered to his cheekbones and ribs. 

Outside Hospital Señor de Malta, barricades held back scores of residents, who were eager to see what became of the once fiery guerrilla leader and die-hard figure of the Cuban Revolution. Guards created a makeshift priority lane to ferry in the rest of the nurses, foreign correspondents, and military men. 

“At first, I thought Che was still alive,” wrote Kumm in 1967. “It looked as if the doctors were administering a blood transfusion. Through two openings in the neck, they were injecting liquid from a vessel being held by a soldier standing with his legs wide apart above the body … I was [later] told they were filling the body with formalin to embalm it.”

Hours passed. Some lit cigarettes as they marveled at how the body bore a resemblance to Christ. Some held old photographs of Guevara near his face in a game of comparisons. Mothers passed by with their children to satiate their curiosity. One group of men, holding rifles, huddled behind Guevara’s head to pose for photographs. Some collected fingerprints and snipped locks of matted hair to save as relics or as tokens of his capture. 

Whispered schemes of retaliatory decapitation, the severing of extremities, and a mass grave burial filled the space. 

Yet still, the eyes looked on, nonchalant, paying no regard to the passage of time.

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