Che Guevara, who was named Ernesto Guevara de la Serna at birth, was a theoretician and tactician of guerrilla warfare, a prominent communist figure in the Cuban Revolution, and a guerrilla leader in South America. After his execution by the Bolivian army, he was regarded as a martyred hero by generations of leftists worldwide, and his image became an icon of leftist radicalism and anti-imperialism.
He was the eldest of five children in a middle-class family and although he suffered from asthma when he was young, he excelled as an athlete and a scholar, completing his medical studies in 1953. He came to look upon Latin America not as a collection of separate nations but as a cultural and economic entity, the liberation of which would require an intercontinental strategy.
His worldview was changed by a nine-month journey he began in December 1951, while on hiatus from medical school, with his friend Alberto Granado. That trip took them from Argentina through Chile, Peru, Colombia, and on to Venezuela, from which Guevara traveled alone on to Miami, returning to Argentina by plane. During the trip Guevara kept a journal that was posthumously published under his family’s guidance as ‘The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey’ (2003) and adapted to film as ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ (2004).
In 1953 Guevara went to Guatemala, where Jacobo Arbenz headed a progressive regime that was attempting to bring about a social revolution. It was in Guatemala that Guevara became a dedicated Marxist.
He left Guatemala for Mexico, where he met the Cuban brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro, political exiles who were preparing an attempt to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. Guevara had initially come along as a doctor, but he had also trained in weapons use, and he became one of Castro’s most-trusted aides.
In December 1964 Guevara traveled to New York City, where he condemned US intervention in Cuban affairs and incursions into Cuban airspace in an address to the United Nations General Assembly. On October 8, 1967, his guerilla group was almost annihilated by a special detachment of the Bolivian army aided by CIA advisers. Guevara, who was wounded in the attack, was captured and shot.
Guevara would live on as a powerful symbol, bigger in some ways in death than in life. He was almost always referenced simply as Che—like Elvis Presley, so popular an icon that his first name alone was identifier enough.
Almost from the time of Guevara’s death, his whiskered face adorned T-shirts and posters. Framed by a star-studded beret and long hair, his face frozen in a resolute expression, the iconic image was derived from a photo taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda in 1960.