Most people these days are familiar with the image of Che Guevara, the Cuban guerrilla and later military leader who helped Fidel Castro and Cuban communists take over the island in the middle of the 20th century.
Of course most people might only be familiar with Guevara’s likeness because it’s a very popular t-shirt. The real Che Guevara, what he did in life, and how that life ended doesn’t actually matter – so there’s no use in trying to explain it.
Guevara died doing what he did best: fomenting revolution and killing people. But his remains were lost to history for nearly three decades. A Cuban revolutionary export unit doesn’t have the same, “No one left behind” ethos as some other expeditionary forces.
During the revolutionary movement in Cuba, Guevara was quickly promoted through the ranks for his daring and bravado, which won him the respect of communist leader Fidel Castro. Guevara commanded a second Army corps during the revolution. Guevara mastered “hit-and-run” attacks against government forces.
As the war drew to a close, it was actually Guevara’s tactical leadership that allowed the Cuban communists to take the island. Despite being outnumbered 10 to 1, he routinely outmaneuvered government forces, split the island into two, and forced Cuba’s generals to admit defeat. When communists marched into Havana on New Year’s Day, they were from Che Guevara’s army. Castro would not arrive for another week.
Governance wasn’t Che Guevara’s strong suit, however. It wasn’t long before he retook the battlefield. By the mid-1960s, he was offering support to communist insurgencies in Africa and South America. In 1966, he was leading a force of 50 in support of communist guerrillas in Bolivia.
Guevara saw success against government forces in Bolivia, similar to the victories against the Bautista regime he overthrew in Cuba. With just 50 men, he hoped to instigate a revolution on the same scale as his homeland, and for a while it looked as though he might succeed. His battlefield successes made the Bolivian government believe he had far more than just 50 men.
A communist revolution in Bolivia did not happen as a result of Che Guevara’s force. Guevara did not receive support from Bolivia’s own communist party. He knew the Bolivian communists would not support him and he resented them for it.
Another reason for his failure was that he was not only facing a Bolivian government force there. If he had been, there’s a good chance he would have succeeded. Instead, he was facing a fully-equipped and trained force from the American CIA’s Special Activities Division as well as a Bolivian Army trained by U.S. Army Special Forces. To make matters even worse, a force of Army Rangers, trained in jungle warfare was operating against him in the country.
Finally, he was given faulty communications equipment, which led to difficulties in resupply. Supply problems combined with little to no help from native forces while fighting a superior enemy led to his downfall.
Guevara was captured by Bolivian special forces in October 1967. Two days after his capture, he was executed in a manner that made it look like he died fighting. Photos were taken so the Bolivians could prove Guevara was dead and his body was buried next to an airfield. They stayed there for 30 years before the Cuban government was able to find them.
Cuba moved his remains to a specially-designed monument in Santa Clara, Cuba, which was the site of his greatest victory of the Cuban Revolution and maybe of his entire life.