Back in Cuba, Che wanted to try again for another communist revolution, this time in Argentina. Fidel and the others convinced him that he was more likely to succeed in Bolivia. Che went to Bolivia in 1966. From the start, this effort, too, was a fiasco. Che and the 50 or so Cubans who accompanied him were supposed to get support from clandestine communists in Bolivia, but they proved unreliable and possibly were the ones who betrayed him. He was also up against the CIA, in Bolivia training Bolivian officers in counterinsurgency techniques. It wasn't long before the CIA knew Che was in Bolivia and was monitoring his communications.
Che and his ragged band scored some early victories against the Bolivian army in mid-1967. In August, his men were caught by surprise and one-third of his force was wiped out in a firefight; by October he was down to only about 20 men and had little in the way of food or supplies. By now, the Bolivian government had posted a $4,000 reward for information leading to Che: it was a lot of money in those days in rural Bolivia. By the first week of October, Bolivian security forces were closing in on Che and his rebels.
The Death of Che Guevara
On October 7, Che and his men stopped to rest in the Yuro ravine. Local peasants alerted the army, who moved in. A firefight broke out, killing some rebels, and Che himself was injured in the leg. On October 8, they finally caught him. He was captured alive, allegedly shouting out to his captors "I am Che Guevara and worth more to you alive than dead." The army and CIA officers interrogated him that night, but he did not have much information to give out: with his capture, the rebel movement he headed was essentially over. On October 9, the order was given, and Che was executed, shot by a Sergeant Mario Terán of the Bolivian Army.
Che Guevara had a huge impact on his world, not only as a major player in the Cuban Revolution, but also afterwards, when he tried to export the revolution to other nations. He achieved the martyrdom that he so desired, and in doing so became a larger-than-life figure.
Che is one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century. Many revere him, especially in Cuba, where his face is on the 3-peso note and every day schoolchildren vow to "be like Che" as part of a daily chant. Around the world, people wear t-shirts with his image on them, usually a famous photo taken of Che in Cuba by photographer Alberto Korda (more than one person has noted the irony of hundreds of capitalists making money selling a famous image of a communist). His fans believe that he stood for freedom from imperialism, idealism and a love for the common man, and that he died for his beliefs.
Many despise Che, however. They see him as a murderer for his time presiding over the execution of Batista supporters, criticize him as the representative of a failed communist ideology and deplore his handling of the Cuban economy.
There is some truth to both sides of this argument. Che did care deeply about the oppressed people of Latin America and he did give his life fighting for them. He was a pure idealist, and he acted on his beliefs, fighting in the field even when his asthma tortured him.
But Che's idealism was of the unbending variety. He believed that the way out of oppression for the starving masses of the world was to embrace a communist revolution just as Cuba had done. Che thought nothing of killing those who did not agree with him, and he thought nothing of spending the lives of his friends if it advanced the cause of the revolution.
His fervent idealism became a liability. In Bolivia, he was eventually betrayed by the peasants: the very people he had come to "rescue" from the evils of capitalism. They betrayed him because he never really connected with them. Had he tried harder, he would have realized that a Cuban-style revolution would never work in 1967 Bolivia, where conditions were fundamentally different than they had been in 1958 Cuba. He believed that he knew what was right for everyone, but never really bothered to ask if the people agreed with him. He believed in the inevitability of a communist world and was willing to ruthlessly eliminate anyone who did not.
Around the world, people love or hate Che Guevara: either way, they will not soon forget him.
Castañeda, Jorge C. Compañero: the Life and Death of Che Guevara . New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
Coltman, Leycester. The Real Fidel Castro. New Haven and London: the Yale University Press, 2003.
Sabsay, Fernando. Protagonistas de América Latina, Vol. 2. Buenos Aires: Editorial El Ateneo, 2006.