Vol 2, Num 1 :: 2003.01.03 — 2003.01.16
Ernesto “Che” Guevara, with the events of his short life and the mystery of his death, has attained a lingering celebrity, a near sainthood, on par with the likes of Elvis, John Lennon and Bob Marley. He is one of the most remarkable characters of the second half of the 20th century.
Looking back, my first encounter with Che Guevara was with his famous portrait, boldly emblazoned on a T-shirt of the brazenly Marxist metal band Rage Against the Machine. My friend had that shirt, and we all thought it was so cool, but we had no idea who the man on the front of it was—the guy with the red star on his beret and the cool confidence in his eyes.
A few months later I found his portrait again, this time printed in a pamphlet put out by some radical leftwing organization, trying to rally troops at a punk rock show to take up arms against the forces of capitalism. This second encounter, coupled with such incendiary rhetoric and radical motives really pushed my curiosity to the limit, and I had to learn more about who Che Guevara was and what it was that he did.
Ernesto Guevara was born in 1928 in Argentina. His parents, both Marxists and very much opposed to the fascist Peron government of that time, raised their children with strict and unusual values, described by a close family friend as “a passion for justice, the rejection of fascism, religious indifference, an interest in literature and a love for poetry, and a prejudice against money and the ways of making it.” These values were only reinforced in Che’s mind as he grew older
Very early on it was clear that Che was an extraordinary child. He was very athletic and, though often plagued by asthma and other respiratory problems, became an extremely good soccer and rugby player. He also had notable academic gifts and was an above-average student with a great mind for strategy and a love for the game of chess. He graduated from high school and decided to become a doctor. After graduating from medical school in 1953, Che and a close friend spent several years touring around South America on motorcycles, living in poverty and working odd jobs. On this trip, Che had a chance to put his medical training to work as he and his friend spent time in leper colonies in the jungles of the Amazon River. He also witnessed first hand the plight of the poor workers and the squalor of poverty that affected so many people, often at the hands of wealthy and corrupt governments, landowners and foreign government interests. These revelations touched Che deeply and reinforced the values instilled in him by his parents. He committed his life to bringing about sweeping reforms to the governing systems in South Americam — not just through demonstrations and protest, but through armed revolution.
In 1954, while living and studying in Mexico City, Che was introduced to a group of young Cuban men who had recently been exiled. Among them was a charismatic revolutionary named Fidel Castro who had already made one attempt at overthrowing the Batista government and was recruiting more men for a second campaign. Che was very much taken in by Castro’s enthusiasm and fire, and signed on to be the doctor for Castro’s small army. The two young men became close friends. In August of 1956, with a ragtag army of about 100 men, Castro and Guevara set out across the Gulf of Mexico in a small fishing boat towards Cuba. Batista had got wind of the invasion party, and his army was waiting for the boat as it pulled onto shore. After a quick gun battle all but eighteen of the original 100 men were killed. Castro and Che were among the survivors who fled deep into the forests and mountains of the Cuban countryside. Guevara was quickly promoted to general and the rebels started recruiting new troops to continue their campaign. They allied themselves with local resistance groups and soon were a formidable force. Che became an important leader among the men. Using guerrilla warfare, this small army of rebels began to lead successful campaigns against the superior numbers and weaponry of Batista’s army.
After nearly three years of fighting in the jungles of Cuba, the Marxist rebels managed to sever all communication and rail lines into Havana, successfully bringing the capital city under siege. And within a few short months, Batista fled the country and the rebels, led by Castro and Guevara, took over the country. Castro named himself president and appointed Che the minister of Finance and Agriculture.
For many years Che held several governmental and diplomatic positions in the Castro government. He represented Cuba in the United Nations, worked closely with the Russian Government, and continued to train and finance bands of revolutionary soldiers. He wrote many manuals on the art of guerilla warfare. He attempted to lead rebellions in the African country of the Congo, and in 1967 he led troops into Bolivia. After several unsuccessful battles against the Bolivian army, he was captured and eventually executed by a firing squad. He was 39 years old.
The myth of Che Guevara started almost immediately after his death. Castro commissioned statues of “El Che” to be constructed and hung huge banners around the city bearing his portrait and the words “Remember Che.” For years Che was held up as an example of the noble martyr for the cause, a victim of the tyranny of capitalism and corrupt power. Leftist organizations and student groups around the globe, from Peru to France to the United States, waved banners bearing his picture and looked up to him as a champion of human rights and the people’s causes. And somehow, thirty-five years later, this mysticism and fascination persists.
A few years ago I took a step back and tried to figure out what it was about this man that intrigued me so much. What was it that I so admired in this man who devoted his life to revolution and warfare, to killing for the sake of ideology? As a Christian, I obviously disagreed with his methods. Even though my personal opinions about politics and social economics often tend towards the left (and there was a time when I did consider myself a Marxist), I could never justify using deadly force to that end. And though I do feel that some forms of socialism have great benefits for society as a whole (I am Canadian, after all), it was not his communist ideology that I was attracted to either. So, what was it?
When I read about Che Guevara, I find a man who was passionate to the extreme about what he believed in. He sought justice and liberty for those in need, and he pursued that goal to the ultimate end, using admittedly radical means. But he lived a life that was ultimately true to his own heart. He had a faith in his beliefs, no matter how flawed those beliefs may be, and he held to them, even died for them.
When I look at my own beliefs and my own faith, I so often lack the sort of courage that I find in the life of Che Guevara. Or the courage that I find in the lives of missionaries who go out into countries like Yemen or Pakistan, where faith truly is a matter of life and death. That is a lesson that I think I learn from Che Guevara: if he could live and die willingly for a cause that is limited and fallible, shouldn’t I be able to muster the courage to stand up strong for my cause, which is the truth? There have been many sad stories in the newspapers recently of missionaries who have been killed doing great work for justice and peace in the world, and their courage, conviction, and faith is remarkable. Theirs is the example that we should strive to follow, the true revolutionaries, the grassroots movement of the gospel.