Today marks the 51st anniversary of revolutionary Che Guevara’s capture that led to his death. How much do you know of his story?
Let’s find out as we compare 1969’s Che! with history.
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About the movie Che!
Some stories are lost to time. Still others remain hidden — waiting for someone to dig them up. And then there are the stories that gain popularity through the books and movies that tell them.
Not every story gets made into a movie, of course.
But, sometimes there’s the opposite — stories that are told in movies not once, but many times over.
That’s the kind of story we’re going to look at today. Speaking of today, looking at the calendar today it’s October 8th, 2018. That means it was exactly 51 years ago today that revolutionary leader Che Guevara was captured.
While some people never get their story turned into a film, there’s several movies we could pick from to learn about Che. We could cover 1997’s El Che. Or maybe 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries, the movie named after a memoir the real Che Guevara wrote as a 23-year-old, before rising to revolutionary fame.
Probably one of the more historically accurate versions of Che’s life that we saw on screen was the 2008 film by Steven Soderberg simply called Che. That version, which stars Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevara, was broken into two parts thanks to its total run time of 257 minutes — about four-and-a-half-hours.
But, sometimes it makes for a better story to look at movies that aren’t as historically accurate. And, to be completely honest, producing a podcast covering one movie takes a lot less time than covering two. For a peek behind the scenes, watching the one-and-a-half-hour long movie we’re going to be covering still took me four-and-a-half-hours to watch as I wrote 23 pages of notes.
So, today we’re going to look at the movie directed by Richard Fleischer and released just a couple of years after Che died — a movie also called Che!
Except, unless you’re reading the transcript for this episode you probably can’t tell there’s an exclamation point. So, it’s not 2008’s Che, it’s a much more exciting version with an exclamation point, 1969’s Che!
Learn the true story behind Che!
The movie begins with a closeup of Che Guevara. He’s lying on a table of some sort, staring straight at the camera. Then we see, in bright, red text, the credits begin. Omar Sharif stars as Che. Jack Palance as Fidel Castro.
The credits stop and around here is when you start to notice Omar Sharif’s version of Che is still staring at the screen — he hasn’t blinked. Wait, is he dead?
Then we hear Che’s voiceover, “Whenever death may surprise us, let it be welcome if our battle cry has reached even one receptive ear and another hand reaches out to take up our arms.”
That is a real quote from Che Guevara, and in the movie it’s what we hear as uniform men enter the room where Che’s lying. He is dead. The men take his body and put it in a helicopter.
Well, maybe “in” is a bit of a stretch. It’s put on the side of the small chopper and strapped down, so it’ll stay during the trip.
After this opening scene, we see Jack Palance’s version of Fidel Castro landing on a beach. With him are a bunch of uniformed soldiers.
Then, as they’re walking the countryside, we see Omar Sharif’s version of Che. He’s sweating profusely and falling behind from the other soldiers as he’s gasping for breath. When Castro scolds him for falling behind, Che jokes that he’s not falling behind — he’s the rear guard.
As you can probably guess, with Che being alive here, the movie’s taking us back in time from the opening sequence where we saw his body. However, the movie doesn’t give any sort of indication of timing for the landing on the beach.
What the movie is showing here is when Fidel Castro and Che Guevara arrived in Cuba for the first. Although I highly doubt it looked like what we saw in the film.
However, because the movie doesn’t give any sort of indication of timing, we’ll have to look through history to know when this happened. That date would be 1956. Or, more specifically, they made their way to Cuba on November 25th, 1956.
But, if you’re like me, right around here you’re wondering — wait a minute, why were Fidel Castro and Che Guevara arriving in Cuba together with soldiers? Were they invading? Where were they coming from?
Well, the movie doesn’t mention much of Che’s life before arriving on the beach, so let’s take a few moments to hop back to Che’s early days.
Che was born as Ernesto Guevara on June 14th, 1928, in Rosario, Argentina. His nickname, Che, didn’t come until later in life because how much Ernesto used the word in conversation. It’s sort of like saying, “Eh?”
But, since Che’s father’s name was also Ernesto so for the sake of clarity we’ll just call the younger Ernesto “Che” throughout this episode.
It’s also worth pointing out that June 14th is the date on his birth certificate. Author Jon Lee Anderson has uncovered some great facts about Che’s life in his definitive biography called Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, and one of those was something that Che’s mother, Celia, had kept secret for decades after Che’s birth — he wasn’t born on June 14th. He was born on May 14th.
But, you see, that would’ve meant that she would’ve already been pregnant when she married Ernesto, Che’s father. Even though Che’s parents weren’t devout Catholics, there was a lot of social pressure with the very traditional Catholic believers around them. So, getting pregnant before being married was frowned upon.
With the help of a family friend who happened to be the doctor, Che’s birthday was changed from May 14th to June 14th to cover up this little bit of information.
Che had four siblings. Two sisters, Celia and Ana Maria, and two brothers, Juan Martin and Roberto.
As a child, Che developed asthma. For days on end, his asthma would come in spurts that would force him to stay home from school. During these times, it was common to either find his mother tutoring him or find Che’s nose deep in another book. All of this time helped Che develop a love of reading that would become a lifelong pursuit of knowledge.
It certainly helped that Che’s family was a middle-class family. They didn’t always have money, but they weren’t nearly as poor as many people around them.
That natural curiosity grew along with Che. He was 17 when World War II came to a close in 1945, and it was then that he started to realize just how poor some of the people around him was.
In particular, it took place during a pair of long motorcycle trips. The first was a 2,800-mile trek through northern Argentina in 1950. The following year, he embarked on a longer journey with one of his friends, Alberto. We learned a bit about this one in the introduction to the episode — you can read more about this in Che’s diary that he kept during the trip called The Motorcycle Diaries. In 2004 that was turned into a movie from Che’s diary.
It was during these trips that Che started to realize the life he lived in a middle-class family wasn’t anything like what many others were living. He and Alberto volunteered at a leper colony and visited a Chilean copper mine run by American companies who used what amounted to slave labor in everything but name to make the mine’s owners rich.
Then there was the couple shivering in the desert night because they couldn’t afford a blanket.
As Che talked with the couple, they explained they were Communists and in Chile, where they were at this point, the Communist Party had been outlawed in the capitalist society.
This encounter had a profound effect on him because he realized he was traveling with his friend in what amounted to a vacation — and yet, here were these people who were literally dying of cold because of their beliefs.
In all, Che and Alberto’s trip around South America in 1951 lasted nine months and took them about 5,000 miles, or 8,000 kilometers, around the continent.
The more he learned about what was going on in the world around him, the more he came across capitalist greed from the United States at the root of it. These experiences started to have an impact on his own beliefs that Che was forming in his early 20s.
This was confirmed when Che visited the United States briefly in the summer of 1952. After Alberto got a job at a leprosarium in Venezuela, the plan was for Che to finish his degree in medicine and join Alberto there — together the pair would work to help others in the leprosarium while they saved up money for another trip.
With Alberto headed to his new job, Che flew to Miami to help transport his uncle’s racehorses from Buenos Aires to Miami. The airplane had some technical problems on the return trip, though, and Che was forced to stay in Miami for a few days with a friend’s relative. While he was in the United States, his views on the U.S. didn’t improve. He had run-ins with the police and saw blatant racism from whites against blacks.
Again, this was an experience that had an impact on Che’s view of the world. But, his own beliefs were still forming. He hadn’t quite formed into the Marxist he’d become.
Che went back to school, officially becoming Dr. Ernesto Guevara in 1953.
After graduating, Che was offered a respectable job to begin his career as a doctor doing research into allergies — something he’d already been doing during his time earning his degree. There’s actually a scientific paper published in 1951 with his name on it. But, Che turned down the job offer. He wanted to see Machu Picchu and travel around South America.
So, he did. Along with one of his friends, Che visited countries like Chile, Peru, and Bolivia. He saw a lot of things, but one thing that stuck with him was a tin mine he toured in Bolivia. The workers showed Che where the tin mine’s administration had set up machine guns, pointed toward the mines. They would shoot the miners and their families if they tried to leave.
Those guns weren’t there when Che got there, though. The miners had revolted, and by the time Che got there the mines were run by the state. Things were better — but, still not great. There were people living in absolute poverty, and there were extraordinary wealthy people. There wasn’t a lot of in-between. Not coincidentally, the extremely wealthy were often the people who ran the mines the poor worked.
As Che learned, during World War II, the United States had bought up a lot of tin. That made them one of the largest holders of tin stocks in the world, which meant they could control the price of tin should they decide to start selling it off. The U.S. used power this to control the Bolivian government, which made most of their money off tin and similar mined resources. There was immense pressure from the American government for the Bolivian government to be friendly to American companies and policies.
This was another moment that went into Che’s bank of evidence against the United States’ imperialism in Latin America. The American companies and government enjoyed controlling the low prices for the resources coming out of Bolivia, and they didn’t seem to care about the poor Bolivian families who suffered at the hand of those in power to give them that price.
Che continued his travels, going from Costa Rica to Guatemala as he looked for work. But, he never worked consistently. In 1954, while in Guatemala, he supported himself with some odd jobs.
Then, something big happened that would change Che’s life.
You see, around this time was the peak of the Guatemalan Revolution. That started in 1944, and in 1951 the former Minister of National Defense, Jacobo Arbenz, became president. But, not everyone in Guatemala liked him.
In particular, an American-run company called the United Fruit Company that had a massive impact in Central and South America as it provided fruit to the United States, didn’t like his politics. They lobbied to the United States government to get involved and overthrow the Guatemalan president.
So, they did.
In June of 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States launched a secret mission to resolve the situation in Guatemala — at least as far as the interests of the U.S. were concern. The coup d’état resulted in President Arbenz being overthrown and put an end to the Guatemalan Revolution.
That’s a brief overview of those events, but as you can guess there’s a lot more to the story. But, that’s a story for another day. If you want to learn more, check out Dan Koeppel’s book called Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.
For our story today, as all this political unrest took place, Che Guevara decided to take action. He started researching more and got involved in political activities, including making political-minded friends. This experience in Guatemala sparked a few key things for Che, not the least of which was his first experience with violence.
This happened while Che was in Guatemala City and CIA-backed mercenaries bombed the city. The shaking ground and life-threatening explosions nearby gave Che a rush he’d never felt before.
After his previous experiences, the beliefs that were forming began to solidify as he saw the effects of the U.S. involvement in the country. It was the final straw for Che. He became convinced during the Guatemalan coup that he needed to fight against imperialism — in particular, the imperialism of the United States and their influence over Latin American countries.
But, as it turns out, the doctor from Argentina wouldn’t have a major impact on the revolution in Guatemala. In the summer of 1954, the coup in Guatemala came to an end, with President Árbenz being forced to step down. In his place, the U.S. backed the military dictator Carlos Castillo Armas.
Che saw first-hand what defeat looked like as he and, in the wake of the power-change, the Communist Party was banned. Like many of the other foreign nationals in Guatemala who had participated in the revolution, Che was forced to seek out the safety of their embassy. For Che, of course, that meant the Argentinian embassy.
From there, Che was allowed safe passage to Mexico.
The revolution in Guatemala was over for Che … but, another one was about to begin.
It was while he was in Mexico that Che met up with another major character to the movie, Fidel Castro. As we learned earlier, he’s played by Jack Palance in the movie while Fidel’s brother, Raul, is played in a much smaller role by Paul Bertoya in the film. In truth, though, Raul was one of the leaders of the revolution alongside his brother, Fidel.
Fidel and Che met one fateful night in July of 1955, and the two hit it off right away. Che would later write in his journal:
I talked all night with Fidel. And in the morning, I had become the doctor of his new expedition. To tell the truth, after my experiences across Latin America I didn’t need much more to enlist for a revolution against a tyrant. But I was particularly impressed with Fidel. I shared his optimism. We needed to act, to struggle, to materialize our beliefs. Stop whining and fight.
So, Che joined Fidel Castro’s movement, which was called the 26th of July Movement. That name came about before Che was ever involved, when, as a young man, Fidel Castro led an attack against the Moncada Army barracks in Santiago, Cuba.
That happened on July 26th, 1953, and it was what most historians consider the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. Fidel later decided to name his movement after the date to remember the first spark that kicked it off. It also was the reason why Fidel Castro was imprisoned, sentenced to 15 years, but only serving two of them before being released and then moving to Mexico to rethink his strategy.
After joining the 26th of July Movement, Che poured even more time into books, reading the works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and almost any book about economics that he could get his hands on. If the revolution in Cuba were to be a success, they’d need to lead a new country.
Raising a small army, on November 25th, 1956, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and 80 other men left Mexico aboard a yacht called Granma to arrive in Cuba, which they did when they landed in Cuba on December 2nd, 1956.
And so, with all of that back story, we’re to the point to where we can pick back up with the timeline of our movie today.
The landing in Cuba is one of the first times we see Fidel and Che together in the film. Of course, we see them arriving in rafts — not the yacht. But, then again, the arrival into Cuba didn’t really go as planned for Fidel.
They were supposed to meet up with another revolt in Santiago, on the southeast side of Cuba. Near there, 100 men were supposed to be waiting for Fidel as a landing party, and together the 182 men would attack the nearby city of Manzanillo. Today, Manzanillo is in the Granma province, named after Fidel Castro’s boat that landed near there.
But, that didn’t happen. The navigator on the Granma fell overboard as they neared Cuba, forcing them to circle for a while to find him and by the time they did, they decided to make for the closest land. Unfortunately, they didn’t see the sand bar that caused the boat to run aground, so the men were forced to leave most of their supplies on the boat as they waded the rest of the way to land.
In the movie, soon after landing, Fidel’s troops are attacked by planes overhead. We hear voiceover that explains of the 82 men that made the landing, only 16 survived.
That’s true, but the exact number of men who survived the attacks is something that varies depending on the source. Official sources say there were 12 who survived. Others say it was the 16, like the movie shows. Still others say it was 15, while others still say there were 18. So, we don’t really know for sure.
Overall, though, most historians agree that there were less than 20 men who survived.
Oh, and as a little side note. Do you remember that part in the movie where we see Omar Sharif’s version of Che choosing between a first aid kit and a box of ammunition?
Although, I’m sure the real thing was nothing like what we saw in the movie, but the gist of that happened. And the outcome the movie shows was true, too. Even though he was a trained doctor, Che chose the box of ammunition over the first aid kit.
…and then a few moments later he regretted that decision when a bullet ricocheted and hit his neck. He pretty much assumed he was going to die. But, he didn’t.
Those remaining men fled into the nearby Sierra Maestra mountains on the southeastern coast of Cuba.
That’s where they disappeared into the terrain to begin their revolution.
The movie doesn’t really mention who the revolution is against, but as you can probably guess it’s the person behind the attacks that began as soon as Fidel’s men arrived in Cuba.
And that would be Fulgencio Batista. He had been the President in Cuba during World War II from 1940 to 1944 and, ten years later, in 1952, as he was trailing in the polls for a re-election, he orchestrated a coup d’état to seize power.
That happened on March 10th, 1952 — about three months before the presidential elections were supposed to take place. Many believe the United States was behind the coup, because on March 27th, the U.S. recognized his leadership as the Cuban government.
There wasn’t going to be elections, after all.
So, it was against yet another U.S.-backed dictator in Cuba that Fidel and Che’s revolution was about to begin.
Back in the movie … Oh! Before we do that, though, the mention of a U.S.-backed dictator reminds me of something I wanted to mention. Do you remember the yacht Fidel and his men used to travel from Mexico to Cuba, the Granma?
There’s a bit of conspiracy around the way he got the money to buy the boat. You see, money had run out for Fidel while he was in Mexico, and some historians think that perhaps Fidel made a trip to the United States, where former Cuban president Carlos Prío was living. Prío was the president of Cuba before Batista’s coup forced him from power, so he would’ve had motive to help a revolution against Batista and gave Fidel $50,000.
At least … that’s one version of the story.
But, here’s where the conspiracy comes in.
At the time, the KGB had a man named Yuri Paporov involved in financing operations in Mexico. He said that the money Fidel got for his boat didn’t come from the former Cuban president. Instead, it came directly from the CIA itself.
According to this version of the story, it’d seem even though the CIA had backed Batista’s government, there was no surprise to anyone about Fidel Castro’s revolution plans. The U.S. was also growing tired of Batista’s violent leadership and was looking to replace him anyway.
They just wanted his replacement to be someone friendly to American interests.
It seemed the revolution was only a matter of time, so if Fidel was to be successful, the money was the CIA’s way of getting on his good side early. They didn’t want to lose control in Cuba, even if the regime changed hands.
At least, that’s one version of the story. In truth … well, sometimes we’ll just have to be okay with not knowing the truth.
Going back to the movie now, there’s a moment where we see Che talking with Anita Marquez. She’s played by Barbara Luna in the movie. As they’re talking, Anita asks Che what he thinks about giving up being a doctor. Che replies with something to the effect of giving up a doctor was easy compared to everything else he’s given up. Then, he goes on to list a few things. Most of these we’ve already talked about … a comfortable middle-class existence in Argentina, his friends and parents. But, then he mentions something we haven’t talked about yet — his wife and children in Mexico.
Even though the movie doesn’t mention when this fictional conversation between the fictional character of Anita and Che takes place, we learned earlier that Che, Fidel, and his men arrived in Cuba in 1956.
So, that means, at this point in the movie, Che Guevara would’ve been married to a woman named Hilda Gadea. Probably the most inaccurate part of that statement, though, comes from the movie’s use of the word “children.”
You see, Hilda and Che only had one child together — a daughter, also named Hilda.
We haven’t talked about Hilda yet, but Che met her in 1954 while they were both in Guatemala. Hilda, who was originally from Peru, was working with President Árbenz’s administration. When the revolution neared its end and Árbenz left Guatemala, he and many others in his circle went to Mexico City. That’s why Che decided to go there, and originally Hilda was going to go back to Peru.
But, after Che left Guatemala, Hilda was arrested. She was eventually released but managed to make her way after the others to Mexico instead of going back to Peru. There, she met back up with Che.
If I were to summarize Hilda and Che’s relationship, I’d say they weren’t soulmates. It was an on-again, off-again relationship that wasn’t going to inevitably end up with the two of them married. They got along, but for the most part they were friends with benefits. Although, they did talk about marriage a few times over the months leading up to her pregnancy, so there might’ve been something there.
By the time they were married in September of 1955, Che had already met a Fidel Castro who was determined to return to his homeland of Cuba and start a revolution there. Che had decided to go with him, which meant he’d be leaving Hilda yet again — similar to how he left her in Guatemala with the assumption she’d go home to Peru.
Except, this time was different. Hilda and Che had their first child the day after Valentine’s, on February 15th, 1956.
And while we’re at it, let’s talk about Che’s other wife, because Hilda wasn’t his only one. To learn about his second wife, though, we’ll have to fast-forward to after the Cuban Revolution to the year 1959 for a little bit.
That’d be three years after Che went to Cuba with Fidel, leaving Hilda and his daughter behind in Mexico. Che had met Aleida earlier, as she was a part of Castro’s movement, and by the time Hilda followed Che to Cuba after the revolution was done, Che had already fallen in love with Aleida. Hilda and Che were divorced so he could marry Aleida, which he did on March 23rd, 1959. Over the course of their marriage, which lasted until Che’s death, he and Aleida would go on to have four children together.
Even though their marriage had ended, Hilda never changed her beliefs in what Che was doing. She still supported his political views until she passed in 1974.
Going back to the movie, we see a scene where Omar Sharif’s version of Che talks to his men about discipline. Making a metaphor about bees, he says he won’t stand for drones — discipline has been lax, and any breach of discipline will call for the harshest penalty.
While that specific scene was made up for the movie, it is true that Che and the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, tried to enforce a high level of discipline for their men. Probably the best story to showcase this actually happened back in Mexico, while the men were still training for the upcoming revolution. One of the Cubans didn’t like following a foreign leader. Remember, Che was Argentinian, and it was, after all, the Cuban Revolution.
So, he simply sat down and refused to move.
Che asked for a court-martial to be held to determine what to do with the man. It was, and it was the Castro brothers who wanted to execute him. Che argued the man’s life should be spared.
In the end, Fidel Castro decided to let the man live. Although, that’s not to say they weren’t violent men.
Among the countless historians, journalists and researchers who have dug into these events over the decades, we know of at least one, accused of being a spy, who was executed by Castro’s men while they were training in Mexico. Maybe there were more … there’s rumors of more … but, this is something else where we’ll have to be alright not knowing the whole truth.
As a little side note, though, it’s worth pointing out that Che’s attitude changed during his years fighting the Cuban Revolution. In particular, he became known for an extreme hatred towards cowardice.
Fidel announced there would be three crimes punishable by death: desertion, insubordination, and defeatism. These were put to the test.
In one example of how Che’s attitude evolved from what we learned about his wanting to spare the life of the man in Mexico, one of the men who had been arrived with the revolutionaries on the Granma was caught for deserting the camp. This time it was Che himself who put a pistol to the man’s temple and pulled the trigger.
In Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, author Jon Lee Anderson has a chilling quote from Che’s personal diary after killing the man that clearly indicates Che’s attitude had changed … he’d become a cold-blooded killer.
Hopping back to the movie’s timeline, the film makes the Cuban Revolution seem pretty short by not showing a lot of detail about the skirmishes and battles fought. Before we know it, Che and Fidel Castro are talking about a battle to capture Santa Clara.
Then, as they do, we see Batista’s soldiers being run out of town.
And while the movie doesn’t give us any indication of how much time has passed, there is a very brief mention where one of the men exclaims the good news, that Batista has fled the country! Then, he says to Che, “My god, I just realized … tomorrow is New Year’s Day! What a way to start the new year!”
As overly simplified as the movie is here, it is true that the final battle of the Cuban Revolution happened in the city of Santa Clara.
For a bit of geographical context, Santa Clara is right about in the middle of Cuba. So, Fidel’s men captured the island starting on the southeastern side near Manzanillo where they landed and traveling north and west to Santa Clara.
The movie is also correct with the mention of New Year’s, although it’s not true showing that it was all over on New Year’s Eve. In fact, that’s when it started.
It was on December 31st, 1958 when two columns of troops, one of them being led by Che, attacked Santa Clara.
Well, maybe “attacked” is a strong word.
Before arriving in Santa Clara, Che’s column of 300 men knew they’d have to face an army garrison about 40 miles, or 64 kilometers, outside the city.
But, as it turned out, that’s not where the battle took place. Before Che’s men arrived, Batista’s garrison deserted their positions without even firing a shot.
As the sun started to set on December 31st, Che’s men were on the outskirts of Santa Clara. That’s when they encountered Batista’s soldiers offering some resistance, and Che split his men into two columns. One went around the southern side of the city, where it met with Batista’s defending forces. The other went into the city, where they engaged soldiers whenever they encountered them.
Oh, and in case you were wondering which side the people of the city seemed to be on, citizens within the city would occasionally help in the fight as they threw Molotov cocktails at Batista’s soldiers.
As the battle raged on, Batista ordered an armored train to be sent with reinforcements and supplies to his men who had their stronghold on the northeast side of the city. That was the destination for the train.
But, it never reached his men. Che’s men cut it off and forced the train to take another route into the city itself. Capturing the train became a priority for Che, who knew the ammunition inside would prove invaluable to the success of the battle.
To do this, Che’s men used some nearby tractors to dig up the railway ahead of the train. That forced the train to derail, stopping it and making it an easy target for Che’s men and the Molotov cocktails being hurled through the windows.
Before long, the 350 soldiers inside the train surrendered. After that, it didn’t take long for Che’s men to secure victory over Santa Clara, with the rest of the soldiers surrendering by mid-afternoon the next day, January 1st, 1959.
Today, there’s a national memorial called Tren Blindado, or “Armored Train,” near the train station at Santa Clara marking the moment.
If you remember, the movie mentioned that all of this happened on New Year’s Eve, and it was announced after Batista fled the country. Well, that’s not the order it happened.
After Santa Clara fell to Che’s forces, the path to Havana was wide open. That’s still 160 miles, or about 260 kilometers, to the northwest of Santa Clara, but the soldiers in Santa Clara hadn’t put up much of a fight. Many historians believing that morale among Batista’s soldiers was very low to begin with, and it seemed only a matter of time before Fidel Castro’s victory would be secured.
Seeing the writing on the wall, within 12 hours of Santa Clara’s fall, President Batista took most of his money and fled Cuba, officially marking the end of the Cuban Revolution.
Going back to the movie, after securing their victory, it’s time for Fidel Castro to start leading the new Cuban government.
And this is when we start seeing some conflict between Che and Fidel. There’s a scene where we see Fidel Castro come into Che’s quarters and complain to him that every day some ambassador lodges a formal protest in the Latin American Alliance against him.
Then Jack Palance’s version of Fidel lists them off: instigating a guerrilla movement in Nicaragua, financing an invasion in Haiti, shipping guns to Venezuela … turning to Che, Fidel says, “I’m charged with everything you do!”
The basic gist of that is true, although movie makes it seem like it was all Che’s doing behind Fidel’s back. What’s more likely is that Che may have been the mastermind, but Fidel backed his friend’s ideas to spread the revolution beyond Cuba.
The countries the movie mentioned are correct, too, although not complete. According to a now de-classified document sent to the United States State Department about which countries they believed the Fidel Castro’s new government in Cuba was backing for their own revolutions:
The countries most frequently mentioned are the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Haiti. Paraguay appears to be too far away for direct Cuban interference, but there is a great deal of preliminary talk and planning taking place about the other three countries.
Che himself offered to help teach Nicaraguans how to organize a guerrilla army, and it wasn’t surprising to find aspiring revolutionaries from other countries visiting Che’s quarters in Cuba.
In 1961, Che published a book called simply Guerrilla Warfare that he hoped would help teach others throughout Latin America wanting to follow in the footsteps of the Cuban Revolution.
The same year Che’s book was published, the United States government reacted to the obvious attempts at revolutions in Latin America by setting up what was called the Alliance for Progress.
President John F. Kennedy explained the purpose behind the ten-year plan for the Alliance in a speech:
…we propose to complete the revolution of the Americas, to build a hemisphere where all men can hope for a suitable standard of living and all can live out their lives in dignity and in freedom. To achieve this goal political freedom must accompany material progress…Let us once again transform the American Continent into a vast crucible of revolutionary ideas and efforts, a tribute to the power of the creative energies of free men and women, an example to all the world that liberty and progress walk hand in hand. Let us once again awaken our American revolution until it guides the struggles of people everywhere-not with an imperialism of force or fear but the rule of courage and freedom and hope for the future of man.
We don’t really know what Che’s reactions were to that speech — or if he knew about it, even — but if I had to guess, I’d say he wouldn’t have believed it. And, it probably didn’t help that the CIA secretly tried to invade Cuba about a month later … but we’ll get to that.
Toward the end of 1964, Che was part of a Cuban delegation that traveled to New York City to speak at the United Nations.
While this wasn’t intended as a direct reply to President Kennedy’s words, Che Guevara had some harsh words for the United States’ involvement in Latin America as he railed on the things happening within the U.S. itself. Here’s a quote from his hour-long speech to the U.N. on December 11th, 1964:
Those who kill their own children and discriminate daily against them because of the color of their skin; those who let the murderers of blacks remain free, protecting them, and furthermore punishing the black population because they demand their legitimate rights as free men—how can those who do this consider themselves guardians of freedom?
Going back to the movie, Che’s time in Cuba comes to an end when, in an attempt to keep the United States military might at bay, they decide to side up with the Russians. They do this by convincing the Russians that Cuba would be the perfect place for nuclear missiles — putting them within range of nearly every major city in the United States.
We see some actual historical footage in the movie of President Kennedy stating, “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
With tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union at an all-time high, they decide to pull the missiles out of Cuba. Che doesn’t like this, and it’s eventually the cause for a rift between Fidel and Che that ends with Che deciding it’s time to leave Cuba and fight another revolution — this time in Bolivia.
Again, the basic gist is true, but the movie skips over a lot of details.
The movie mentions the nuclear missiles but doesn’t mention the time the United States tried to invade Cuba by way of a secret mission by a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group.
So, let’s start there.
Today, we know it as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and it took place on April 17th, 1961 — about a month after President Kennedy’s speech on the Alliance for Progress.
But, it’s not like this only took a month to plan. As we already learned, Fidel Castro’s men emerged victorious in the Cuban Revolution on January 1st, 1959. Early in 1960, the CIA in the United States was putting together a plan for how they would overthrow the new Cuban government.
As a quick little interjection here — you remember that iconic photograph of Che that’s made its way onto countless t-shirts and history books over the decades? I can’t show you what it looks like through an audio podcast, but if there’s one photograph you’ve seen of Che Guevara, that’s the one.
That was taken by photographer Alberto Korda on March 5th, 1960 while Che was at a memorial service for a ship called the La Coubre that had exploded in the Havana harbor, killing as many as a hundred people.
Fidel Castro officially blamed the United States for the explosion, saying it was an act of sabotage, but the U.S. denied the claims.
Speaking of which, while that was going on, over in the United States on March 17th, 1960 is when President Eisenhower approved the CIA’s plan to replace Fidel Castro with someone who would be friendlier to the Cuban people. Or, was that someone who was friendlier to the United States, like Batista was?
I suppose that depends on who you believe.
But, Fidel Castro’s army wasn’t the 82 men who had left Mexico to overthrow Batista. Now, especially with support from the Soviet Union, they were a more formidable force.
With the President’s approval, the CIA began recruiting and training men for the mission in April of 1960. Making up the group involved in the invasion were some Cubans who had fled in the wake of the Revolution, as well as some U.S. military personnel. They were all funded and trained by the CIA.
About a year after President Eisenhower approved moving forward with the plan, a new president, President Kennedy, was briefed on the progress for the plan and gave it his own approval. That was on January 28th, 1961.
The invasion took place a few months later, in April.
It began with a diversionary invasion, which took place on April 15th when two airfields near Havana and one near Santiago were attacked simultaneously by B-26 bombers that had been painted to match the B-26s that Fidel Castro’s men had.
Media picked up on this and began reporting that the attacks were from Cuban rebels who were rising up against Castro’s government.
Then came the real invasion a couple days later on April 17th.
1,500 men landed on the southern side of Cuba, south of Havana. Che Guevara, anticipating the invasion, called on Cuban residents to take up arms — all of Cuba needs to resist the invaders together!
A force of about 25,000 army personnel, 9,000 police and 200,000 or so militia met the 1,500 invaders head-on. Three days later, the invaders surrendered causing a great deal of embarrassment for the U.S. government.
It also bolstered Fidel Castro’s desire to get help from the Soviet Union, since he knew the U.S. had invaded once. Will they do it again?
In short, yes. While not the full-scale invasion that took place in April, after failing with the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Operation Mongoose went into effect. The idea behind this plan was to help stage a Cuban revolt internally against Fidel Castro.
To do this, more covert actions by the CIA included collecting intelligence, sabotage, and psychological warfare aimed at causing a revolt. The target date was sometime in October of 1962.
But, Fidel Castro’s government was on high alert and the CIA ended up deciding that an internal revolt wasn’t likely. Instead, they’d try for another guerrilla assault. So, they began training more men in April of 1962.
Not sitting idly by, Fidel’s ties with the Soviet Union grew closer as the Soviets sent shipments of supplies, munitions, and military personnel to Cuba. This increase in Soviet military ended up being the demise of Operation Mongoose, with the U.S. fearing the Soviets would spark outright war if they found out about the covert operations going on.
So, even though Operation Mongoose — which was also called the Cuban Project — didn’t work, that led right up to the next event. This is one the movie brushes over but doesn’t really explain too well: the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs, Fidel and Che tried to get the Soviet Union to bring nuclear missiles to Cuba. They were convinced this would help hold the United States military at bay — they wouldn’t attack Cuba as long as there were nuclear missiles there.
With an already tense relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union outside of Cuba, the Soviets rejected the Cubans request for a while. In October of 1959, the United States signed an agreement with the Turkish government to put nuclear missiles in Turkey. That would place them near the Soviet Union, which only increased the tension between the countries.
Over the next few years, more missiles were placed in Turkey and Italy, with the United States claiming they were only there in case the Soviet Union attacked. In retaliation, though, the Soviet Union accepted the Cuban invitation to put nuclear missiles in Cuba.
All of this came to a head between October 16th and October 28th, 1962. Those 13 days are considered the time when the U.S. and the Soviet Union came the closest to nuclear war.
On October 27th, President Kennedy met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and agreed to remove the U.S. missiles in Turkey and maybe in Italy, too, if the Soviets removed their missiles in Cuba.
I say “maybe” in Italy, because to this day there’s still some debate about whether or not that was a part of the agreement.
After meeting with Khrushchev, President Kennedy issued this official statement announcing the result of their meeting:
I consider my letter to you of October twenty-seventh and your reply of today as firm undertakings on the part of both our governments which should be promptly carried out…. The U.S. will make a statement in the framework of the Security Council in reference to Cuba as follows: it will declare that the United States of America will respect the inviolability of Cuban borders, its sovereignty, that it take the pledge not to interfere in internal affairs, not to intrude themselves and not to permit our territory to be used as a bridgehead for the invasion of Cuba, and will restrain those who would plan to carry an aggression against Cuba, either from U.S. territory or from the territory of other countries neighboring to Cuba.
For our story today, that means the Soviets were going to pull out their missiles from Cuba. It also means the U.S. was going to leave Cuba alone. At least, officially.
Meanwhile, the crisis that caused tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union to boil also caused tensions between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
On one side, the Soviet Union was a major backer for Fidel’s regime in Cuba. They provided money, economic support and, of course, military supplies that were vital for Fidel’s hopes in maintaining control in Cuba. On the other side, Che wasn’t happy about what he saw as the Soviet Union’s betrayal of Cuba when they pulled the nuclear missiles out of Cuba.
While these certainly played a part in Che’s decision to leave Cuba, perhaps the biggest reason had more to do with Che’s growing unrest. You see, after the Cuban Revolution was won, Che took up a position in the new Cuban government as both the Finance Minister and the President of the Bank in Cuba. The years of reading countless books about economics paid off there.
But Che also traveled around the world on behalf of the Cuban government. Earlier we learned about Che’s trip to the United Nations in New York City in 1964. That was a part of a trip that Che took around the world, and one that was the beginning of the end for his time in Cuba. This isn’t necessarily in order, but in addition to visiting the United States, visited France, Ireland, Egypt, Mali, Algeria, Ghana, Tanzania, the Czech Republic — well, it was called Czechoslovakia back then — and, of course, the Soviet Union.
So, he traveled a lot. He saw a lot of the world, and no doubt these experiences helped solidify something he already thought — Cuba’s revolution wasn’t the end. In fact, that was just the beginning in Che’s mind.
He also hurt his relationship with the Soviet Union as he was a little too friendly to the Communist Party in China for their liking. In his mind, though, Che was of the growing opinion that the Soviet Union had lost their way — they’d forgotten what Marxism was really about.
By the time Che returned to Cuba in early 1965, he disappeared from the public eye for a while.
Going back to the movie, it doesn’t show Che’s trip around the world. What we see, though, is that Che leaves Cuba and goes straight to Bolivia to help with their revolution.
That’s sort of true, but it’s not the whole story. By that, what I mean is that it’s not true he went from Cuba to Bolivia, but that’s skipping over a full year’s worth of time and overlooking a few other countries in the process.
In April of 1965, Che disguised himself and snuck out of Cuba. A couple weeks later, he arrived in Africa. He was there to help offer guerrilla training for the rebels in the Congo who had just failed to overthrow the government during the Simba Revolution, which ended in November of 1964.
Back in Cuba, while Che was in the Congo, Fidel Castro read an undated letter that he claimed Che wrote to him before leaving for the Congo in which he said he was leaving Cuba for good.
Here’s the letter that has been dubbed Che’s “Farewell Letter” that Fidel Castro read publicly for the first time on October 3rd, 1965:
At this moment I remember many things: when I met you in Maria Antonia’s house, when you proposed I come along, all the tensions involved in the preparations. One day they came by and asked who should be notified in case of death, and the real possibility of it struck us all. Later we knew it was true, that in a revolution one wins or dies (if it is a real one). Many comrades fell along the way to victory.
Today everything has a less dramatic tone, because we are more mature, but the event repeats itself. I feel that I have fulfilled the part of my duty that tied me to the Cuban revolution in its territory, and I say farewell to you, to the comrades, to your people, who now are mine.
I formally resign my positions in the leadership of the party, my post as minister, my rank of commander, and my Cuban citizenship. Nothing legal binds me to Cuba. The only ties are of another nature — those that cannot be broken as can appointments to posts.
Reviewing my past life, I believe I have worked with sufficient integrity and dedication to consolidate the revolutionary triumph. My only serious failing was not having had more confidence in you from the first moments in the Sierra Maestra, and not having understood quickly enough your qualities as a leader and a revolutionary.
I have lived magnificent days, and at your side I felt the pride of belonging to our people in the brilliant yet sad days of the Caribbean [Missile] crisis. Seldom has a statesman been more brilliant as you were in those days. I am also proud of having followed you without hesitation, of having identified with your way of thinking and of seeing and appraising dangers and principles.
Other nations of the world summon my modest efforts of assistance. I can do that which is denied you due to your responsibility as the head of Cuba, and the time has come for us to part.
You should know that I do so with a mixture of joy and sorrow. I leave here the purest of my hopes as a builder and the dearest of those I hold dear. And I leave a people who received me as a son. That wounds a part of my spirit. I carry to new battlefronts the faith that you taught me, the revolutionary spirit of my people, the feeling of fulfilling the most sacred of duties: to fight against imperialism wherever it may be. This is a source of strength, and more than heals the deepest of wounds.
I state once more that I free Cuba from all responsibility, except that which stems from its example. If my final hour finds me under other skies, my last thought will be of this people and especially of you. I am grateful for your teaching and your example, to which I shall try to be faithful up to the final consequences of my acts.
I have always been identified with the foreign policy of our revolution, and I continue to be. Wherever I am, I will feel the responsibility of being a Cuban revolutionary, and I shall behave as such. I am not sorry that I leave nothing material to my wife and children; I am happy it is that way. I ask nothing for them, as the state will provide them with enough to live on and receive an education.
I would have many things to say to you and to our people, but I feel they are unnecessary. Words cannot express what I would like them to, and there is no point in scribbling pages.
With that letter, the world found out that Che had left Cuba. Of course, he’d already been gone for months. And many historians believe that Che never intended for that letter to be made public yet.
Instead, there’s some who believe Che wrote that letter to Fidel in case he died in the Congo. So, the letter wasn’t supposed to be released publicly unless he was killed.
Che wasn’t killed in the Congo, but he was forced to flee the country, which he did on November 21st. But, he didn’t want to return to Cuba because Fidel had made the Farewell Letter public and effectively cut his ties with Cuba.
For about six months, Che hid out in the Cuban embassy in the Congo. From there, he moved to Prague in the modern-day Czech Republic for a few months. It was only after this, in July of 1966, that Che snuck back into Cuba. He didn’t do it publicly, but rather secretly returned with the intention of staying there as he prepared to go to Bolivia to support a revolution there.
Back in the movie, we see Che’s early end in Bolivia. It doesn’t come as a surprise at all — after all, as we learned in the beginning of this episode, the movie starts off by showing Che’s body after he was killed.
According to the movie, though, things in Bolivia don’t go very well at all. Che’s men are sick, hungry, and Che himself seems to be losing his grip on reality. Then, we see the end.
It happens when Rangers from the Bolivian Army ambush Che’s men. Many of them are killed, and Che is shot but not killed. In the next scene, we see Omar Sharif’s version of Che sitting on a long bench. One of the soldiers, a man we learn from the dialogue is named Colonel Salazar is there, watching him.
Then, the door opens, and two soldiers walk in with another one of Che’s men. He’s someone we thought might’ve been killed in the ambush, but nope — he’s alive. Che watches as they take the man to a back room. The door is closed. After a few seconds, we hear a gun shot.
Well, he’s dead now.
After this, Colonel Salazar has a conversation with Che. They go back and forth, but then the Colonel Salazar ushers in a goat farmer. He tells Che that this is the man who gave up Che’s position — he’s the reason Che was ambushed.
Then, turning to the unnamed goat farmer, Colonel Salazar motions to Che and says that he came to liberate you, to free you.
The goat farmer turns to Che.
“To free me? From what? Nobody asked me what I want. Ever since you come to these mountains with your guns and your fighting, my goats—they not make milk. You frighten them. The vultures followed you wherever you go. You stink of death. Yes. I want to be free. Free from you and …” turning to Colonel Salazar, the goat farmer continues, “you …” then, turning back to Che, “and all your kind. Why can’t you just go away and let us live in peace?”
Che doesn’t say anything.
After a moment, he gets up and silently walks over to the back room where his other soldier was taken earlier. We see a soldier in there. As the door closes, the soldier raises his rifle.
Then, we hear a gun shot.
There’s some truth to that.
For one, it is true that Che’s position was given to the Bolivian Army Rangers by a local peasant.
We didn’t really talk about her in this episode, but the first ambush we see in the movie happens when Linda Marsh’s character, Tania Burke, is killed. That happened on August 31st, 1967.
About a week later, on October 8th, Che Guevara’s men were in a gully about 1,000 feet, or about 300 meters, long and about 200 feet, or about 61 meters wide. Then they noticed there were soldiers above them. They were trapped!
At 1:10 PM, gunfire erupted on both sides.
The soldiers above used rifles, machine-guns, and mortars to reign death from above. As if by fate, Che’s rifle was shot. The barrel of the gun was damaged by a ricocheting round, and the gun wouldn’t work. Pulling out his pistol, Che found it empty — the magazine was missing, evidently dropped somewhere along the path who knows when or where.
Che Guevara was now unarmed and surrounded.
He didn’t have long to reflect on his situation. A bullet tore through the calf of his left leg, with another whizzing through the beret on his head. He started trying to make his escape but was soon found by the soldiers. Che didn’t try to hide his identity, but the soldiers used a sketch to positively identify him anyway.
Once they knew they’d captured the legendary revolutionary, they pulled off Che’s belt to restrain his hands.
That afternoon, he was taken to a nearby one-room schoolhouse. That’s the building we saw in the movie where the fictional Colonel Salazar was talking to Che. In truth, it was a man named Lieutenant Colonel Selich who had flown into the area as soon as he heard they’d captured Che.
At about 7:30 PM, with Che bound on the dirt floor of the schoolhouse, Selich radioed his commanders for orders. While he waited to hear what to do with him, that’s when he had a conversation with Che — sort of like what we saw happen in the movie.
In their discussion, Che seemed to be depressed. He was defeated. Selich asked him why a foreigner like Che was fighting for Bolivia.
When Che talked about how the peasants in Bolivia were living in a horrible state — they’re in such a state of poverty that they’re living like animals without little to no clothing, food or a place to sleep. They’ve been abandoned by their government.
And things are better in Cuba? Asked Selich, indignantly.
There’s poverty in Cuba, Che admitted. But, they have hope for progress. In Bolivia, the people are born, live, and die without any improvement in their lives. There is no hope.
Their conversation continued, which Selich documented as a 45-minute chat after which they spent most of the night reading the diaries Che had when they captured him.
The next morning, two men arrived where Che was being held at La Higuera. One of them was the Bolivian Colonel Joaquin Anaya while the other was a man named Captain Ramos — that wasn’t his real name, though. He was actually a CIA agent named Felix Rodriguez.
For a few hours on the morning of October 9th, the two newcomers questioned Che. They didn’t get much information out of him. According to Felix’s records on Che’s state, he said Che had matted hair, ripped clothing, and no boots, only leather moccasin-looking devices that were caked in mud.
At one point, Che asked Felix a question. From his accent and knowledge about what happened in Cuba, he’d determined Felix wasn’t from Bolivia. Felix admitted he was one of the CIA agents trained as a part of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Che’s response was simple, “Ha.”
Then, at 12:30 PM, Lieutenant Colonel Selich got the new orders he was waiting for … he was told to, “proceed with the elimination of Señor Guevara.”
Felix tried to delay the order. The CIA wanted to keep Che alive and in custody, so they could gather information from him. But, the Bolivian president himself had issued the order. After stalling for as long as he could without success, the time came.
One of the soldiers who had been in a firefight with Che the day before was chosen to be the executioner. He was delighted to carry out the task, seeing it as avenging the death of the men Che’s soldiers had killed.
Felix told the soldier not to shoot Che in the face, though. It couldn’t look like an execution. The body would be seen by the media, and it had to look like Che had been killed in battle.
At 1:10 PM on October 9th, the shots rang out.
There was only one person in the room, the executioner, so we don’t really know exactly how it happened.
There’s a legend that says that Che faced the soldier defiantly by saying, “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”
The first shots hit Che’s arms and legs. They didn’t kill him, and it took everything he had to keep Che from crying out in pain. Then, the soldier shot again, hitting Che in the chest and filling his lungs with blood, killing him.
Whether or not the legend of Che’s death happening that way is true, what we do know is that Che’s beliefs had long been that he was just a man. The revolution was more than him.
And while people on both sides of Che’s beliefs either mourned his loss or cheered his defeat, it is true that the revolutions continued. In Bolivia, the revolution took a major blow when Che was killed. It’d end up being defeated, but Che’s legacy lived on.
From Mexico to Egypt and India to Algeria, Che’s legacy lived on through rallies and riots. In the United States, Che’s memory was included alongside riots following Martin Luther King, Jr. in early 1968 as a part of the anti-Vietnam War protests that spread across the country.
In Latin America, Che’s legacy was much stronger with revolutions in the ‘60s and ‘70s spanning across Nicaragua, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile — pretty much every country except for Costa Rica.
Then, one by one, those revolutions ended. Some, like the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua, were successful in overthrowing the government. Others, like Montoneros in Argentina, failed.
One of the last revolutions in the string of guerrilla warfare struggles inspired by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara was in Columbia. The guerrilla army there, known as Farc, fought against what they saw as an oppressive Columbian government despite Cuba and Soviet Union’s cut in supplies after Che’s death dampened their spirits to support other rebels.
In Columbia, Farc continued the fight. Over the years, their numbers dwindled even when their spirit did not.
All of that came to an end when, in a historic moment, a peace deal was signed between the Columbian government and Farc — the last guerrilla army from Che’s era. That peace deal marked an end of 52-years of struggle for Farc when it was signed on Monday, September 25th, 2016.
Exactly two months later, on November 25th, Che Guevara’s comrade in arms, Fidel Castro, passed away at the age of 90.
KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES
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- Che Guevara – Military Leader – Biography
- Che Guevara | Biography, Facts, Fidel Castro, & Death | Britannica.com
- Che Guevara – Revolutionary in Cuba | Mini Bio | BIO – YouTube
- Che Guevara – Revolutionary Rebel – Biography
- Che Guevara – Facts & Summary – HISTORY.com
- BBC – History – Che Guevara
- Ernesto Che Guevara Biography
- Amazon.com: Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life eBook: Jon Lee Anderson: Kindle Store
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- Che Guevara Timeline
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