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Che Guevara in Bolivia

Ernesto "Che" Guevara became a leading figure in Latin America advocating revolution. As Castro's Minister of Industry he lectured workers about the need to work for more than material well being. He called on Cuba's workers to sacrifice for socialism. He rounded up idlers – people hanging on street corners or in movie houses – for labor brigades. Socialist revolution, he said, was under attack, and sacrifices and a dictatorship of the workers was necessary to push through to eventual victory. Che Guevara called himself a Marxist-Leninist. He used the words contradiction and objective a lot, as some Marxists did, as in his phrase "the objective and historically inexorable reality of the Latin American revolution."

Guevara's interpretation of Latin America's troubles was standard Marxist thought. It was drawn in part at least from what had been the extensive economic penetration of Cuba by the United States, which Guevara applied to the whole of Latin America. Speaking to a UN conference on trade, on 25 March 1964, he said:

This penetration takes various forms: loans granted on onerous terms; investments that place a given country under the power of the investors; almost total technological subordination of the dependent country to the developed country; control of a country's foreign trade by the big international monopolies; and in extreme cases, the use of force as an economic power to reinforce the other forms of exploitation.

Che Guevara, popular image

To his children he wrote: "...each of us alone is worth nothing... Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world."

Latin American nations were, of course, able to sign trade agreements and do business with whomever they pleased, and Guevara was pleased that Cuba had signed trade agreements with the Soviet Union, breaking, as he saw it, the US domination of Cuba's economy. The Soviet Union, he said, offered Cuba a 2.5 percent interest rate on its loans, "the lowest in the history of international trade relations."

Guevara acquired the Soviet and Maoist line on the Cold War. On March 26, 1964, he proclaimed that the Cold War "was conceived in the West." Looking back to the Korean War he sided with the Communist forces against the "imperialists." He saw Ho Chi Minh as struggling against imperialism. He denounced "imperialist" support of Israel. He announced his solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico, whom he described as in conflict with US oppression. And he spoke of the capitalist countries struggling "unceasingly among themselves to divide up the world."

At the United Nations on December 11, 1964, he said that "Western Civilization disguises behind its shadowy facade a picture of hyenas and jackals." And added:

As Marxists, we have maintained that peaceful coexistence among nations does not encompass coexistence between the exploiters and the exploited, between the oppressors and the oppressed.

Moscow was pursuing peaceful coexistence with the West, and Chairman Alexei Kosygin of the Soviet Union is described as having disliked Guevara, and he might have been unhappy in early 1965 when Guevara got a better reception in China than he did. Guevara was closer to Mao than to the Soviet Union's position on the Cold War, and Cuba was looking for trade with China. But in February, Cuba entered into another agreement with the Soviet Union, for a 12 percent increase in trade and for credits to cover Cuba's deficit spending.

Guevara returned to Cuba in mid March. The turmoil over Bosch's return to the Dominican Republic and the US intervention there in April was disturbing to Castro and to Guevara. Castro complained that those who suggested that Cuba should intervene on the side of the Left in the Dominican Republic against the United States were unrealistic, that such an intervention had no possibility of success. Guevara may have favored intervention. He left Cuba that year, and, in a letter to his children, he wrote that he was "a man who acted on his beliefs and has certainly been loyal to his convictions." He told them,

Grow up as good revolutionaries. Study hard so that you can master technology, which allows us to master nature. Remember that it is the revolution that is important, and each one of us, alone, is worth nothing... Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world. This is the most beautiful quality of a revolutionary.

In a friendly letter to Castro, dated October 3, 1965, he wrote that he intended "to fight against imperialism wherever it may be." Soon he would be calling on people to make two or three more Vietnams for the United States.

He went first to Africa and fought in the Congo on the side of the Leftist government there. He returned to Cuba, and in October, 1966, he went to Bolivia optimistic about creating revolution there. It was the duty of a revolutionary, he had said, to make revolution.

Politics and the Economy in Bolivia

In mountainous and landlocked Bolivia, seventy-five percent of the population was Indian. Sixty percent of the Indians spoke only their native language (Aymara). And most Indians lived outside the money economy by subsistence farming. Many Indians worked at mining tin. Some Indians worked on estates, and some Indian women provided landlords living in cities with domestic help.

Before the end of World War II, Bolivia's government was dominated by owners of the country's tin companies. After the war came a slump in the international price of tin. University students, workers and businessmen revolted against the hard times and the government. The head of the government, Major Gualberto Villarroel, was hanged from a lamp post in 1946, and leaders of his party, the MNR (Movement of National Revolution) went into exile.

After 1946, the MNR reformed itself under the leadership of Victor Paz Estenssoro, and in 1951, while still in exile in Argentina, Estenssoro was elected President of Bolivia. The election was annulled and the government turned over to General Hugo Ballivian. Then, in April 1952, students, liberal intellectuals and labor leaders combined in a well-organized and bloody revolt against the Ballivian government. Against a German trained army with tanks and cannon, the rebels won, and they gave the presidency to Estenssoro.

Estenssoro introduced universal adult suffrage, carried out a sweeping land reform, promoted rural education and nationalized the country's largest tin mines. His government sought and won the support of the United States, including financial support. The US was looking for reformers in Latin America as an alternative to revolutionaries like Guevara. Estenssoro told them he would refuse to take orders from Moscow. The tin mines had not been owned by US citizens, but the US was interested in economic principles and won from the Bolivians a promise to compensate the previous owners of the mines. And  a new petroleum code was created that allowed US operators to pursue their interest in Bolivian oil.

In the presidential elections of 1956, power passed to Estenssoro's vice president, Hernan Siles Zuazo. In the years that followed, differences developed between those who wanted moderate reform and those wanting more radical change. The tin mines remained low in productivity. Miners were opposed to the introduction of machinery that would replace men, and they resorted to violence to protect themselves from government directives. Worker-management increased the salaries of the work force by fifty-percent and did little against featherbedding, all of which made it harder for Bolivia to compete in selling its tin abroad.

Bolivia suffered also from a decline in agricultural production, which contributed to the country's economic deterioration. Under the governments of Estensorro and Zuazo, Indians finally become citizens. They were free to move where they wished, and many left the land they had been working and moved to the cities, where they were unemployed. Many small farmers, moreover, were unable to produce for the market economy. Poor transport facilities hampered the growth of agriculture, and the government's attempt to create agricultural communities failed. Farmers sent to farm the new lands in Cochabamba destroyed tractors and eventually deserted by the thousands and returned to the highlands. Food for the cities decreased and Bolivia was forced to buy more food from abroad.

Imports were exceeding exports. The government was spending money on social programs, and an imbalanced budget resulted in inflation. Bolivia's Peso fell from 60 to the dollar in 1952 to 12,000 to the dollar in 1956. This inflation hurt Bolivia's middle class, which was now supporting opposition to the government.

Rather than exploiting Bolivia, by 1957 the U.S. was subsidizing 30 percent of the Bolivian government's central budget. The amount of aid that the U.S. was sending to Bolivia relative to the size of its population was greater than the amount of aid it was sending to any other nation. Advised by the United States government and the International Monetary Fund, the Zuazo regime tried putting its budget in order by freezing wages and ending subsidization of miners' stores.

The Zuazo regime was overwhelmed by opposition, from the country's middle class, from tin miners and labor in general, and also from hostility farmers. In an effort to quell the unrest, Zuazo decided to rebuild the armed forces, and for this he received help from the U.S. in the form of training, technical assistance and more money.

In 1964, Bolivia's military drove Zuazo from power, and taking power in his place was the vice-president: General René Barrientos. It was to a Bolivia under the rule of Barrientos, in late October, 1966, that Che Guevara went, disguised as a Uruguayan businessman. He went to a remote canyon south of the city of Santa Cruz, where he put on his guerrilla clothes and joined sixteen men from Cuba and about thirty revolutionaries from elsewhere in Latin America.

Guevara hoped to win over rural farmers, as Castro had in the Sierra Maestras. From them he hoped for food and shelter. He expected volunteers from among the local people to join his army and eventually to be able to march on the capital,

Guevara had seen young men from peasant families that he described in his diary as hating their boss, but he won not a single recruit. Members of Bolivia's Communist Party visited him, and they went back to La Paz disgusted by what they believed was his unrealistic tactics.

The Indians living around where Guevara was located spoke little Spanish, and guevara was unable to communicate with them.  Local people saw Guevara and his men as the intruders -- not the Yankee imperialists they had never seen nor heard about. Guevara wrote in his diary that "the inhabitants of this region have heads as impenetrable as rocks." He wrote:

The peasant base is not developing, although it seems that by means of systematic terror we will obtain the neutrality of most of them.

Che Guevara dead

click to enlarge Enlarged photo of Che Guevara dead

He was not about to give up. "Support," he wrote, "will come later."

Coming first was an overwhelming government force – while Guevara and his men were suffering from a variety of problems living in the wild. An Indian peasant woman had revealed Guevara's whereabouts to the Bolivian police. Guevara and three other guerrillas were captured and taken to a small school house in a village called La Higuera. The next day, October 9, a helicopter arrived carrying colonel Joaquín Zenteno Anaya and a United States CIA agent, Felix Rodriguez. Rodriguez photographed each page of the diary and other documents that had been found on Guevara, and he interviewed Guevara.

Guevara's three comrades were executed by soldiers, who were under orders other than from Rodriguez. Colonel Anaya received a radio message ordering Guevara executed. According to Rodriguez, the United States government wanted to "keep Guevara alive under any circumstances." and a US airplane was on standby to take him to Panama for interrogation. President Barrientos is suspected of having ordered Guevara's execution. Sensing that it was coming, Guevara told Rodriguez, "It is better like this... I never should have been captured alive."

Rodriguez asked Guevara if he had any messages for his family. Guevara told Rodriguez:

Tell Fidel that he will soon see a triumphant revolution in America.  And tell my wife to remarry and to try to be happy.

According to Rodriguez, he then embraced Guevara. "It was a tremendously emotional moment for me, " he was to say. "He [Guevara] was facing his death with courage and grace." Rodriguez left. A Bolivian sergeant who had lost friends in the fight with the guerrillas volunteered to do the execution, with instructions to shoot from the neck down. Guevara writhed in pain and died.


Che Guevara Reader, Edited by David Deutschmann, Ocean Press, 1997

Che Guevara, by Leo Sauvage, Prentice-Hall Inc, 1971

El Commandate, an online biography of Che Guevara

The Cuban Revolution, by Hugh Thomas, 1977

Havana Nocturne: How the Mob owned Cuba and then Lost it to the Revolution, by TJ English, 2007

Latin America: the Development of its Civilization, Third Edition, Chapter 29, by Helen Miller Bailey and Abraham P Nasatir, 1973

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.