Che Guevara played revolutionary until the people treated him as one. Fifty years ago today, Bolivians executed the Argentine as though some rich interloper.
They understood him better than he understood himself.
Che Guevara grew up the eldest son of a privileged Argentine family. He excelled at chess, read from his family’s 3,000-volume library, and competed in rugby, golf, and other sports. After years of study, he became a medical doctor in 1953. The man who once healed people of their bodily maladies then turned to healing them of their ideological defects. He did this with the gun as his surgical instrument as a Hessian revolutionary in Cuba.
“In the resistance, Guevara soon became commander of a detachment,” The Black Book of Communism reports, “quickly gaining a reputation for ruthlessness: a child in his guerilla unit who had stolen a little food was immediately shot without trial.” Once in power, Guevara started the island nation’s first “corrective work camp,” presided over mass, summary executions, and established “voluntary” labor on Sundays.
Though the bearded, bereted motorcyclist wins a romantic portrayal in history, he lived as a joyless ideologue. He named a son after Lenin and regarded Marxism as a scientific truth on par with Newtonian physics. He called marathon meetings that started after midnight. He did not tolerate disagreement. He remarked, “I can’t be the friend of anyone who doesn’t share my ideas.” Even Regis Debray described him as “an authoritarian through and through.”
The Bolivians did not line up to follow such a man as he had expected when he traveled there in 1966 to overthrow the government. Guevara ultimately reflected in his diary that “the peasants do not give us any help, and they are turning into informers.”
If Guevara hoped to realize the start of “two, three, many Vietnams” in Bolivia, events overruled his words.
“While Guevara was known around the world, his fame did little to endear him to Bolivia’s peasants,” Nicholas Casey writes in the New York Times. “And the country had already undergone a revolution the decade before, instituting universal suffrage, land reform and expanded education. During Guevara’s time fighting in Bolivia, not a single peasant was documented to have joined him.”
On October 8, 1967, the locals captured the wounded, foreign troublemaker in a mountain village of about 100 people. “Don’t shoot! I am Che Guevara,” he announced in do-you-know-who-I-am fashion, “and I’m worth more to you alive than dead.” But the locals disagreed.
The Bolivians took him to a classroom, where Guevara spat on soldiers and lectured a teacher about how using such a dilapidated schoolhouse to instruct children represented a backward, “anti-pedagogical” mentality. Guevara himself, dirty, wounded, and tired, looked dilapidated after almost a year in Bolivia.
After the nation’s president gave the go-ahead, an enlisted man, chugging beers celebrating the previous day’s victory, volunteered to execute the wealthier, better-educated executioner in an event not unlike Robespierre on the guillotine. He shot Guevara nine times in a classroom, imparting the hard lesson that when you presume to speak for someone else expect that someone to offer a loud rebuttal on his own behalf.