Freedom Fighter or Terrorist? The Life and Death of Che Guevara

Freedom Fighter or Terrorist? The Life and Death of Che Guevara

Patrick Lynch - February 5, 2017

As is the case with many ‘revolutionary’ figures, discussions about Ernesto “Che” Guevara are seldom impartial. To his proponents, he is an icon who helped overthrow tyrannical governments. To his detractors, he is nothing more than a terrorist who enslaved those he ‘freed’ in an even more totalitarian regime than the last. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Early Life

Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was born in Rosario, Argentina on June 14, 1928. His upbringing was a far cry from his later life, as his family was middle class and young Guevara studied medicine at Buenos Aires University. He traveled extensively throughout Central and South America and witnessed profound poverty and oppression. Guevara returned from his travels a changed man. He earnestly believed armed rebellion was the only solution to the problems faced by the poor and oppressed in these countries.

Guevara began traveling again in 1953 and wrote a letter to his aunt outlining his disgust at the Capitalist system of the United Fruit Company. He swore on an image of Stalin that he would not rest until the ‘octopuses have been vanquished.’ By late 1953, Guevara settled in Guatemala City and established contact with Fidel Castro. It was during this period of his life that he gained the nickname ‘Che’ as he used this expression repeatedly. It is the equivalent of ‘bro.’

Freedom Fighter or Terrorist? The Life and Death of Che Guevara

The Cuban Revolution

Guevara arrived in Mexico City in September 1954, where he worked at the General Hospital and gave lectures on medicine at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He finally met Castro in June 1955, and the Cuban rebel outlined his plan to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. After a lengthy discussion that carried on into the night, Guevara was convinced that the Cuban cause was the thing he had been searching for and he immediately signed up as a member of Castro’s 26th of July Movement.

He initially planned on being the medic for the combat group, but still participated in the military training. It was intense and involved teaching the rebels the finer points of guerrilla warfare. Apparently, Guevara was the best trainee in the entire group as he achieved the highest score on every test.

The Cuban Revolution officially began near the end of November 1956 when 82 men arrived in Cuba from Mexico. Their initial foray was a complete disaster, as all but 22 of the men were killed by Batista’s soldiers. Guevara reportedly placed his medical supplies on the ground and picked up ammunition dropped by a dead comrade in what proved to be a symbolic moment in his life.

The conditions suffered by Cubans shocked Guevara. When he lived amongst farmers in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, he discovered that over 40% of the adults were illiterate; there were no schools, no electricity, and limited healthcare access. By now, he was promoted to the post of commander of Castro’s second army column as the rebels turned the tide of the war in their favor. One of Guevara’s biggest victories came at the Battle of Las Mercedes in July-August 1958 where he prevented government troops from surrounding his men and pushed them back.

The hit and run tactics used by the rebels wore down the enemy, and by late December, the end was near. Although Guevara was outnumbered 10:1 at times, he overcame the odds and secured the decisive victory of the war at the Battle of Santa Clara. On January 1, 1959, Batista fled Havana with $300 million and Guevara entered Havana, Cuba’s capital, the following day. Castro arrived and assumed control of Havana and the nation of Cuba on January 8, 1959.

Freedom Fighter or Terrorist? The Life and Death of Che Guevara
Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Pinterest

Later Life & Death

Guevara first took the role of President of the National Bank of Cuba and later became the Minister of Industry. He traveled the globe as an ambassador for Cuba and was known for his strong opposition to the United States. Guevara arguably made a significant error by guiding Castro and Cuba towards alignment with the USSR. The result was heavy American sanctions, and the Cuban economy suffered terribly. By now, he was unpopular with many Cuban leaders and he spoke of his desire to spread revolution around the world.

He left Cuba in 1965 and traveled to Africa. After a failed attempt to teach guerrilla warfare tactics to men in the Congo, Guevara returned to Cuba in 1966. However, his lust for revolution took him to Bolivia in December 1966, where he arrived under an assumed name and with a new look. He shaved off his beard and most of his hair in an attempt to pass as a middle-aged businessman from Uruguay. Guevara led Bolivian rebels against the government, but he did not anticipate the intervention of the United States. As a result, government troops were better armed and trained than expected, and Guevara was captured near the village of La Higuera on October 8, 1967. The famed revolutionary was executed the following day in the village.

Freedom Fighter or Terrorist? The Life and Death of Che Guevara


Che Guevara’s legacy depends entirely on how you view the revolutionary in the first place. Certainly, it isn’t a case of black or white; there are many shades of gray when analyzing his life and career. The likes of Nelson Mandela and Jean-Paul Sartre praised him as a lover of freedom, an intellectual, and an inspiration. Novelist Graham Greene viewed him as someone who represented gallantry and chivalry, while various journalists and public figures see him as a role model.

The government he helped overthrow in Cuba was oppressive; as was the Bolivian government that he tried and failed to defeat. His desire to help the poor and oppressed peoples of Central and South America was undeniably genuine, and he believed their freedom should come by any means necessary.

Yet it would be incorrect to overlook his many flaws. There are relatively few books available that openly criticize Guevara. He was equally at home firing a gun as he was administering medicine. Critics suggest that Cubans were even worse off under Castro than during the reign of Batista. Guevara even admitted that it was necessary to become a ‘cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.’ After the Cuban Revolution, Guevara oversaw the purge of Batista’s men as hundreds of people were executed. He is also accused of executing dozens of people without trial.

Ultimately, Che Guevara remains as an icon to some and a murderer to others. After all, one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist.