4 minute read

Ché (Ernesto) Guevara: 1928-1967: Revolutionary Leader

Fidel Castro And The Cuban Revolution

With little hope of effecting further change in Guatemala, in September of 1954 Guevara escaped the country and made his way to Mexico City, where he earned a living as a physician. His wife soon joined him there, and the two had a daughter in February of 1956. Despite his obligations to his family, Guevara was not ready to settle into a domestic lifestyle. In 1955 he was introduced to Cuban rebel Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl, who were living in exile in Mexico City while they developed plans to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Guevara began his career as a revolutionary in earnest when he signed up with Castro to serve as physician for the invasion force of 82 men; Guevara was the only member who was not of Cuban descent. After undergoing intensive physical training at a clandestine guerrilla warfare training camp outside Mexico City, Guevara shipped out with Castro and his ragtag army aboard the sea-worn yacht Granma.

The Granma landed on Cuban soil on December 2, 1956; however, the invasion attempt proved to be ill-advised. Just four days later all but fourteen of the invasion force were killed in a fierce battle with Batista's army at Alegría de Pío. Both Castro brothers and Guevara were among the survivors who escaped into the rugged mountainous region of Sierra Maestra in eastern Cuba. Although Guevara had joined the revolution as a physician, he became a gifted military leader and Castro's trusted friend. Over the next two years Castro conducted guerrilla warfare, and Guevara served as his main ideologist. While Castro sought only to liberate his homeland, Guevara envisioned the struggle as one of many battles that would take place in the worldwide war against oppression and domination. As Castro prepared for a final offensive against Batista's forces, he placed Guevara in charge of the Eighth Column, with orders to move through the middle of the island and divide the government forces. In a fierce and decisive battle at Santa Clara, Guevara's troops overcame their opponents, causing Batista to flee the country on New Year's Eve of 1956. Guevara was among the first of the rebel troops to enter triumphantly into Havana on January 4, 1959, and claim the capital for the revolutionary forces.

In the new government established by Castro, Guevara was officially declared a Cuban by birth, and served in a number of important capacities. By now a committed Marxist, he encouraged Castro to establish a socialist state, and Castro moved in that direction by appointing Guevara to positions related to finance and the economy. Guevara's first official duty was to head the industrial department of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform. In November of 1959 Castro selected Guevara as president of the National Bank of Cuba, a position he held until February of 1961, when he became the head of the Ministry of Industry. Despite his familiarity with Marxist theory, Guevara had no practical experience in finance, economics, or government. Nonetheless his objective was clear: move Cuba's economy away from its dependence on the export of sugar in general and its dependence on sales to the United States in particular.

To that end, Guevara traveled around the world to conduct trade negotiations with neutral and friendly countries. He played a vital role in realigning Cuba with the Soviet Union by brokering a deal that stipulated that the Soviet Union would purchase sugar from Cuba in exchange for Cuba's political and strategic support of the Communist bloc. In 1961 Guevara published La Guerra de guerrillas (Guerrilla Warfare), a training manual of guerrilla tactics. The book was widely read among revolutionary factions as well as by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which used the information to train forces to oppose the guerrilla strategy.

Guevara, whose idealistic vision of the perfect socialist state never faded, pushed Cuba toward industrialization. He blamed the United States for intervening in Cuba's economy by subsidizing sugar, which had retarded the growth of industry on the island. When relations between Cuba and the United States turned openly hostile after Guevara seized U.S.- and British-owned oil refineries, he moved the country into closer economic and political alignment with the Soviet Union. However, several factors worked against Guevara's success in reestablishing Cuba's economy around manufacturing and industry. First, and perhaps most important, was the lack of sufficient money to fund development, as well as the absence of any established markets and the lack of advanced technology. Also, Guevara's demand for a total and uncompromising approach to socialism led him into policy conflicts with the Soviet Union. Despite his best intentions, Guevara alienated many of Cuba's workers when he revoked all material incentives for work production, with the goal of creating the "new socialist man" who produced solely for the benefit of society.

By the end of 1964 it was becoming clear that Guevara's industrialization plan was a near total failure. The only tangible results were a weakened agricultural industry and resulting food shortages. When Guevara began to openly criticize the Soviet Union for not providing the fledgling Marxist nation with enough financial support, Castro apparently decided that he must choose between his old, loyal friend and his powerful ally, and he chose the Soviet Union. Guevara suddenly dropped out of sight in March of 1965, amid speculation that he had been removed by Castro, exiled, imprisoned, or even executed. Castro insisted that Guevara had moved on to further the cause of liberation in other parts of the world. Eventually Castro was proven correct when Guevara finally surfaced in the Kinshasa Republic of the Congo (known today as Zaïre) as part of a revolutionary organization attempting to overthrow the country's government. However, after just six months, frustrated by the lack of success, commitment, and coordination, Guevara quietly returned to Cuba in March of 1966.

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Bob Graham (1942-) Biography - Awards to Francis Hendy Biography - Born to SewChé (Ernesto) Guevara: 1928-1967: Revolutionary Leader Biography - Childhood Influences, Motorcycled Through South America, Introduced To Marxism, Fidel Castro And The Cuban Revolution