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Che Guevara: A hero who wasn't

On October 9, 1967, Cuba's most famous guerrilla died in the jungle of Bolivia. Ernesto "Che" Guevara wanted to unleash the world revolution from there. Instead, the questionable hero finds death

Che Guevara: The end of a legend

The dead bears a great resemblance to Jesus Christ, the nuns of the hospital and the women of the village agree on this. In the swarm of reporters, photographers, soldiers and onlookers, someone bends down over and over again and cuts off a strand of hair as a talisman.

The extinguished eyes are open. You look strangely alive, your facial features gentle. The beard trimmed, the chin tied up. A doctor made an incision in the throat and injected formaldehyde into the artery so that the corpse does not decompose so quickly. Someone washed and combed him.

The man looks better in death than in the last few weeks of his life. Better also than his comrades-in-arms, who lay cramped on the ground before they were buried. Or disfigured and bloated, they were only pulled out of a river after days.

Bullets hit the man's arms and legs, the last, fatal shot pierced him in the chest: his executioner was careful not to hit the face. Because the men who presented the dead to the public on the afternoon of October 9, 1967, in the wash house behind the Nuestro Señor de Malta Hospital in Vallegrande in the Bolivian highlands: They will spread that the man died in battle.

And they don't want to leave any doubt about his identity. The deceased has had many names in his 39 years of life: born Ernesto, arrived in La Paz at the end of 1966 as Adolfo Mena González, called Fernando or Ramón by his comrades in the Bolivian jungle.

But the world, which will soon see the photos of the Christ-like corpse, knows him by the battle name he acquired a decade ago during the Cuban Revolution: Comandante Che Guevara. The next evening two death masks and his fingerprints will be removed from him, his hands will be cut off and they will be immersed in formaldehyde solution.

Then he will be buried several meters down next to the Vallegrande airstrip, the site will be leveled with bulldozers and the rumor spread that the body has been cremated. This is how the last adventure of the man who believed he could spark a guerrilla war in South America ends. He wanted to trigger a second Vietnam for the USA and finally a third world war, at the end of which communism would stand victoriously.

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna from Argentina has always looked for danger and the impossible. The asthmatic boy who fought with the neighborhood children until they had to carry him home. The student, dangling from bridges, balanced over gorges. The medical student who hitchhiked across the country and later set off on a motorcycle trip across the continent. Who climbed the famous Inca mountain fortress Machu Picchu, visited ruins and leper hospitals.

The son of an impoverished upper-class family, to whom every opportunity was open, who was hardly interested in politics at school and then devoted himself to Marxism on his travels. Who finally began to venerate Stalin, and for whom only one solution seemed possible for the blatant injustice that he encountered all over the continent: the world revolution.

In combat, Che Guevara finds his calling

"El Che Argentino" is what the Cuban exiles he met in Guatemala in 1954 call him. According to his typical Argentine habit of constantly sprinkling the Indian filler word che in his sentences, "hey, you".

Guevara took his second big trip across the continent to Guatemala. He breathe, he writes at home, “the air of freedom”: Left Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán has been ruling there for several years and wants to nationalize most of the United Fruit Company's lands. But the powerful US company, which acts almost everywhere in Latin America as a large landowner and in some places like a slave owner, has excellent relations with the head of the CIA and with his brother, the foreign minister.

Three quarters of a year before Guevara's arrival, the United Fruit Company organized an uprising with the support of the US secret service. Guatemala's neighbors also fear that the example of the Árbenz government could spill over into their countries.

Hundreds of exiles and young leftists come to Guatemala. Guevara cannot tear himself away from the atmosphere in the streets, from the feeling of experiencing something big. He gets to know Cubans who are living in exile in Guatemala: fellow activist of the lawyer Fidel Castro, who is imprisoned in Cuba, sentenced to 15 years for trying to overthrow the dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Ernesto "Che" Guevara is impressed by the men who risked their lives in an uprising. In June 1954, a CIA-backed army attacks Guatemala. Guevara is not afraid of the bombs falling on Guatemala City, on the contrary, he finds them "uplifting".

As a member of the communist youth brigades, the 26-year-old patrols the streets at night to monitor the blackout and tries repeatedly to get through to the president. He wants to convince Árbenz to arm the Guatemalans for a guerrilla war in the mountains.

But Árbenz is overthrown and Guevara goes to Mexico, where he soon meets his Cuban friends again. On Mother's Day 1955, Batista released Castro from prison. Barely in freedom, he founds a secret society in Havana that is supposed to overthrow Batista. Then he follows his brother Raúl to Mexico to train a guerrilla force for an invasion.

Just a few hours after a first dinner together, he asked Guevara to join them. “El Che” is supposed to accompany the group as a doctor. The adventurer, the seeker of danger, the staunch Marxist agrees.

He proves himself to be a good shooter, proving in the words of his trainer "excellent discipline, excellent leadership qualities, excellent physical endurance".
Ernesto Guevara de la Serna has found his destiny: guerrilla warfare.

From Bolivia, Che Guevara wants to plunge the world into war

The events of the following years will make him famous. And they will lead him to a violent death in Bolivia eleven years later. Che and 81 other men landed on the Cuban coast in December 1956 with the yacht “Granma”. A lot goes wrong, not two dozen fighters survive the first few days.

But farmers shelter and feed them, many join them. New recruits are also coming to the mountains from the cities. Che Guevara, who has already asserted himself in the first days as the unofficial leader of his small dispersed group, is adamant about new fighters. Again and again he calls for the death penalty for indiscipline and desertion.

When no one is found to execute a traitor, Guevara shoots the man in the temple. He brings the wounded to safety and sets up a second column. Castro appoints him comandante, major. Che has the highest rank in the rebel army. A rank that otherwise only Castro himself holds at first.

In January 1959 Batista fled to the USA: Against all odds and a superior army, the guerrillas were victorious. Guevara becomes the commander of a military fortress. The regime’s leaders either left in good time or fled to foreign embassies. But the revolutionaries take thousands of prisoners of war, mostly non-commissioned officers or police torturers.

Che is the chief prosecutor and the highest appellate body rolled into one. All of the defendants are given a trial that only takes a few hours. Anyone found guilty of murder, manslaughter or extreme torture will be executed. In the first three months around 550 people died in front of firing squads before Castro had the executions stopped - against Che's resistance.

Guevara becomes President of the National Bank and finally Minister of Industry in the new socialist government. He seldom takes off his beret with the major star, and he will wear the green uniform himself before the UN General Assembly.

For several years, Che devoted himself to building a socialist society. He marries and has four children. He remains Castro's closest confidante and travels the world on a diplomatic mission.

It was he who negotiated a contract with the Kremlin in 1962 to station nuclear missiles in Cuba. In the crisis that followed with the United States, Nikita Khrushchev reached an agreement with John F. Kennedy at the last moment, thus preventing a third world war. Che is raging against the Moscow comrades: If the Cubans had been in control, the missiles would have been detonated.

Since Guatemala at the latest, Guevara has felt a cold hatred of the yanquis. But he also contradicts Soviet teaching. It is not the party that is the head of the proletariat, but the guerrilla. It was not the cadres in the cities that led the revolution, but the fighters in the mountains. And even in a backward society, a successful revolution can be achieved with a few dozen determined guerrillas in the hinterland.

This is the lesson that Guevara learned from the Cuban Revolution and that he spreads in his book "The Partisan War". He gives them to the Latin American students, whom he trains to become guerrillas in Cuba: "In underdeveloped Latin America, the armed struggle must primarily be carried out in the countryside."

During the 1960s, Guevara sent several guerrilla groups to the mainland, including Argentina, his native country. All of them quickly end in disaster. Because, the Comandante believes, there is a lack of a charismatic, incorruptible military leader. Somebody like him.

In 1965 he leaves his family for a combat mission in the Congo (just as he has already left his first wife and first daughter for the "Granma"). But the attempt to export the Cuban Revolution to Africa fails.

Together with Castro's secret service, Guevara is looking for a new place where he can prove what he has learned from guerrilla warfare: Bolivia.

With a bald head, the icon goes into battle

There seems to be some evidence that this country could be the nucleus of a revolution that is to encompass the entire continent. Bolivia borders five other states: Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Chile. The country has been booming since the 1950s, but the farmers continue to live in poverty.

President Barrientos put himself to power and had himself confirmed in elections in 1966, breaking the resistance of the miners in part with violence. His army is weak and is supported by the United States. Didn't the Vietnam War also begin with some American military advisors?

This is Che Guevara's plan: he doesn't just want to install socialist governments all over South America in a spreading guerrilla war - he wants them yanquis get involved in this war, create "two, three, many Vietnam". Moscow would then soon have to support the comrades, a world war would break out that would ultimately defeat imperialism in its hotbed.

On November 3, 1966, the Uruguayan economist Adolfo Mena González arrived in La Paz. White hair frames his bald head, his eyes are behind horn-rimmed glasses, he is clean-shaven and wears a flawless suit. Comandante Che Guevara has entered Bolivia. He has eleven months left to live.

His plan to start a world war with a few dozen men would be very ambitious, even under the best of circumstances. But the conditions are not favorable. In the months before, the Communist Party of Bolivia did everything possible to prevent Che's action. Your general secretary Monje flew to Havana, to Moscow.

Nevertheless, as ordered, he bought a piece of land in southeastern Bolivia: 15 square kilometers of wilderness as a base camp for the guerrillas. But he chose it without any particular care - which will soon take revenge. Because the country there is sparsely populated.

The troops rely on locals to provide them with food, information and recruits. The few farmers are apolitical or supporters of the government. Hundreds of kilometers separate Guevara's people and the peaks of the Andes from the miners to be incited.

Soon after his arrival, Che falls out with Monje over the question of who should lead the company militarily. The Comandante underestimates the nationalism of the comrades: a Bolivian guerrilla under Cuban leadership? Unacceptable. Monje withdraws Guevara's aid from his party.

Che will have to repeat Cuba's revolution under much worse conditions: without an underground organization to support him; without an environment that can provide him with men and material.

And he has to be patient. It will take months, maybe years, to build the core group of a good dozen Cubans with combat experience as well as around 30 Bolivians, a few Peruvians and Argentines into a powerful army. He has to recruit new recruits. And wait for help from Cuba.

The situation in Bolivia is more complicated than expected

As early as January 1967, the Bolivian army discovered the property of Guevara's group. The officers still assume that it belongs to smugglers, perhaps a drug gang. The guerrillas bury their medicines and weapons in caves, do exercises and exploratory expeditions in the forest, which is constantly dripping from the trees: it is the rainy season.

The first two victims of this war do not fall in combat, they drown in mountain rivers. Two Bolivians deserted in March. They tell the army where the men in the mountains come from. The government does not know that the famous Che is leading the group. But she asks the US for help. A little later the guerrillas shoot a soldier.

The army is cordoning off the area. Arms deliveries become impossible. Cuba withdraws its liaison agent from La Paz. From then on, Guevara and his people are on the run. The guerrillas are almost always starving, occasionally slaughtering one of the horses or buying a pig from farmers. Che is gasping from asthma attacks, the drugs have been left in the caves at base camp.

He wants to open a second front, gives two visitors an encrypted message to Castro: He should send the fighters, as well as a new radio. But the messengers run into the arms of the army. And tell more during interrogation than they have to. So the government learns that Che Guevara is leading the guerrillas.

Propaganda is heard on the radio every day, and Prime Minister Barrientos attacks the guerrillas as agents of "Castro-Communism". He successfully portrays the action as a foreign invasion, the residents of the area are suspicious of the armed strangers. The situation in Bolivia is more complicated than the Cubans thought: the indigenous peasants are by no means waiting to be liberated, many of them share the nationalism of the military. Hundreds of soldiers comb the area.

In his diary, a small, green calendar, Guevara notes the losses in tiny letters and complains about the lack of support: “There can be no question of mobilizing the farmers.” He separates one rear guard from his troops and fights with the other two Dozen men alone through the forest, they have to chop their way with machetes. The summer passes between cutting cold wind and unbearable heat. They quickly lose contact with the second group.

Without any false modesty, Che christened his group Ejército de Liberación Nacional, “National Liberation Army”, and wrote communiqués in their name: “Compañero miners - the guerrillas of the ELN are waiting for you with open arms.” His troops have only one goal : the sheer survival.

The men are constantly looking for water and food, arguing, stealing condensed milk from one another. Che rarely has the energy to resolve their conflicts. But he reads and writes late into the night with a headlamp. Once he gave a lecture on the aims of the revolution in a village in front of 15 astonished peasants. Most of the time, however, the locals flee; the guerrillas only get food from them by force. They shoot parrots and monkeys, eat armadillos. Occasionally they succeed in ambushes and take weapons and clothes from the captured soldiers.

Guevara leads his people in a zigzag through an area about 200 kilometers long and 100 kilometers wide. They rarely run for more than a few hours, usually from morning to afternoon. They wade through streams, climb heights, send out scouts or meet army patrols. The battles of the ELN are skirmishes with few victims - for Guevara's group, however, every dead or wounded person is a grave loss.

Nevertheless, she succeeds in some spectacular actions.The fighters penetrate a garrison, put the soldiers out of action: to go shopping in the pharmacy. However, they take the wrong medication with them - they do not bring the asthma medicine that Che urgently needs back to the camp.

US anti-terror fighters landed in Bolivia in April, welcomed by the government as well as by Che, who heard about it on the radio and noted in his diary: "Perhaps we will experience the first chapter of a new Vietnam." But the Americans are only supposed to train soldiers , Washington forbids them to enter the guerrilla zone. In vain do the Bolivians demand weapons from the US ambassador. There is no escalation.

"Patria o muerte, fatherland or death"

In early August 1967, deserters lead the army to the caves where the weapons, documents and medicine of Che's troops are hidden. In addition to his asthma, the comandante often suffers from diarrhea; He spends a whole day unconscious in his own excrement, being carried through the undergrowth by his men in a hammock, develops liver colic.

He has lost his tape recorder and can no longer record the encrypted messages that Castro sends him on Radio Havana - and therefore can no longer decode them.

Four groups are still involved in the operation: a cell of supporters in La Paz who has lost contact with Havana and thus with the guerrillas since the Cuban agent left; Che's group escaping through the forest in total isolation; the rearguard, which has no connection with Che or the outside world. And the Cuban government, which only learns from newspapers and the radio what is going on in Bolivia.

At the end of August, the rearguard is ambushed. The government has the bodies exhibited and then buried. At first, Che believes the news on the radio is propaganda. On the run and still hoping to meet the other group again, he violates almost all the rules of guerrilla warfare: he often leads his men through open terrain without knowing what is happening in front of and behind him, without the help of the Locals - even though the army knows its way.

He always preached how well guerrillas should know their area. But the terrain, criss-crossed by deep ravines, has remained alien to his people. Even the Bolivians on the team come from other parts of the country.

In the years before, Guevara had often spoken of the fact that a guerrilla must be ready to die, to the greatest possible sacrifice. Patria o muerte, fatherland or death. "In a revolution you win or you die."

The ring of soldiers around Che Guevara's group draws ever closer. The US specialists have trained a ranger battalion of the Bolivian army and have taught the recruits, among other things, to move at night, to recognize booby traps, to survive in hand-to-hand combat. Now the rangers land in the guerrilla area. They vie with the other units to see who will bring down the comandante.

Bolivia orders his death, the US is watching

On the morning of October 8, 1967, Guevara led his remaining 16 fighters through a deep gorge near the village of La Higuera. There they see soldiers on a chain of hills: a farmer has given away their position. You're trapped. The opponents watch each other for a few hours. Then some of Guevara's men venture out of cover - the soldiers fire at them with mortars and machine guns. The encircled lose sight of each other.

Che hides behind a rock in a potato field and fires. A unit climbs down into the gorge, in an exchange of fire the comandante tries to climb the rock face, a machine gun volley hits him in the leg, a bullet destroys his rifle. A Bolivian colleague dragged him out of the line of fire, when a sergeant came up in front of the two guerrillas and aimed his weapon at them.

Guevara has no choice but to surrender. His clothes are in tatters, he has leather bandages around his feet, and his hair is matted. A summoned officer asks his name. And the man who was only "Comandante Ramón" for the past few months gives his real name.

The battle continued for a few hours, and then the Bolivian Revolution was over. The prisoner is taken to the La Higuera school. An officer interrogates him, and the next morning a CIA agent who photographs the diary and other documents.

What happens afterwards can no longer be clarified, the reports of those present contradict each other. One thing is certain: at noon the order comes from La Paz to kill Che. The Bolivian government fears the political consequences of a trial. The US is doing nothing to prevent Guevara's death, despite news of his impending execution in time.

Sergeant Mario Terán volunteers. He lost three comrades in the battle the day before. Terán enters the classroom, orders the tied guerrillero to sit down. “No, I'll stand for it,” replies Guevara. And then: “You're killing someone.” Terán hesitates, then he lifts his rifle and pulls the trigger.

Guevara, hit in the arms and legs, writhes in pain on the floor, bites his wrist, probably so as not to scream. Then his executioner shoots him in the chest. Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, "El Che", died on October 9, 1967 at 1:10 pm, at the age of 39.

In the afternoon, his corpse is strapped to the runners of a helicopter on a stretcher, then flown to the next larger town of Vallegrande, dressed up and presented to the public in order to dispel any doubts about the death of the famous revolutionary hero. It then disappears for 30 years: Guevara's remains will only be found next to the runway in 1997.

Bolivia's government, which buries him in order to get rid of him in order not to create a place of pilgrimage, has achieved exactly the opposite: it makes Che immortal. The images of his holy figure go around the world. He, who wanted to create a lot of Vietnam, becomes an icon of a youth movement protesting against the war in Washington, Paris and Berlin.

From Ernesto Guevara, Che, the myth, remains. The gentle eyes, the dark hair, the saying “Hasta la victoria siempre”, a diffuse revolutionary romance. That he was brutal and ruthless, that he would have plunged humanity into a third world war if he had been able, that he hand-executed men - all of that pale before his death. Before that he was ready to die for his cause.

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