WHAT’S THE STORY?

IT was 50 years ago today that Che Guevara, the most famous socialist revolutionary of the second half of the 20th century, was murdered in cold blood by Sergeant Mario Terán of the Bolivian Army, acting on the orders of Bolivia’s President René Barrientos.

Already a hero to rebels everywhere, his savage execution elevated Che to martyr status and he became an iconic figure of the 1960s, and to many people he still is a symbol of revolution against the establishment everywhere.

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CHE WHO?

IT is very unlikely that anyone reading this article has not heard of Che Guevara. Born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna Lynch in Rosario, Argentina, on June 14, 1928, he was a sickly boy who read widely and who improved his asthma by taking up sport — he was a more than useful rugby union scrum-half who was once on the fringes of selection for the Argentine junior squad. As a medical student he travelled on a motorcycle throughout South America where he saw horrendous poverty that convinced him that only global socialist revolution could save the human race.

He joined Fidel Castro in the 1950s Cuban revolution and rose to become second in command, becoming an expert in guerrilla warfare. He was also ruthless in dealing with deserters and informers alike — he had them shot, sometimes doing so himself. After the Batista regime was overthrown, Guevara was instrumental in transforming Cuban society, insisting on mass education and land reform and generally introducing Marxism-Leninism principles. The Bay of Pigs invasion by US-backed Cuban exiles loyal to Batista followed by the Soviet missile crisis – Guevara insisted he would have fired the atomic missiles at the US if they had invaded again – drove Cuba into an alliance with Moscow, but Guevara was already looking to inspire global revolution.

By 1964, Cuba was utterly changed and Guevara took much of the credit for it. He led the Cuban delegation to the United Nations that year, and his speech electrified people in many countries across the world, attacking apartheid in South Africa and lack of civil rights in the USA.

The CIA had long taken an interest in Guevara but they tried and failed to assassinate Castro instead, though two plots against Che by Cuban exiles also failed.

WHY DID IRELAND PLAY A PART IN HIS DOWNFALL?

IN early 1965, Guevara denounced Castro’s allies the USSR for not doing enough to assist revolutions in the third world. On his way home from a controversial world tour, Guevara’s aircraft developed engine trouble and was forced to stop at Shannon Airport near Limerick on 13 March. The late journalist Arthur Quinlan was at Shannon and knew that Guevara’s ancestors included the Lynch family of Galway so he asked Che if he wanted to speak in English or Gaelic. Guevara and his retinue then took Quinlan’s suggestion and went off to Hanratty’s Hotel where a good time was had by all – “he came back three sheets to the wind, and festooned in shamrock as it was nearly St Patrick’s Day,” Quinlan later recalled.

It may well have been in Ireland, land of his ancestors, that Guevara made a fateful decision to leave Cuba and certainly that was the last time Guevara was seen in public for many months. He and Castro had a painful meeting, and Fidel went along with his wish to visit other countries to stir up revolution and guerrilla warfare. Guevara resigned all his offices and went off to Africa to start his global revolution. His first attempt was in the Congo an ended in failure. On 3 November, 1966, he tried again, this time in Bolivia.

WHAT HAPPENED THERE?

IN Bolivia he tried to start a people’s revolution, but the local Communists were distrustful and divided. While his force of 50 volunteer guerrillas had initial successes against the Bolivian army, his own worsening illness – his asthma was profoundly worse – and several tactical errors on his part, plus information provided to the army by local people, saw Guevara’s remaining force of 22 surrounded by 1600 soldiers and specially-trained Rangers on October 8, 1967. It was the Rangers led by Captain Gary Prado who shot and wounded Guevara near the village of La Higuera, Che surrendering and saying “do not shoot, I am Che Guevara and worth more to you alive than dead.”

CIA agent Felix Rodriguez and American special forces had been helping the Bolivians to capture Guevara, and the USA wanted Guevara alive for interrogation, but the Bolivian authorities knew that the captured Che would mean a high-profile trial which might destabilise an already troubled country, and they had no high security jails, so by their reasoning, Guevara had to die.

WHAT HAPPENED THAT FATEFUL DAY?

WITHOUT any trial, and given little chance to say anything, except for a brief conversation with some of his captors and a local teacher, Julia Cortez, Guevara was told by Rodriguez that he was to be executed.

There is a dispute about his last words. He told the Bolivian guards that he was not thinking about his own immortality but “the immortality of the revolution.” Sergeant Terán, however, who had volunteered to kill Guevara because he had lost three friends to the guerrillas, testified that Che told him: “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot coward, you are only going to kill a man.”

Terán also told how CIA agent Rodriguez ordered him not to shoot Guevara in the head so that it would look like Che had died in battle. With two bursts from his semi-automatic M2 carbine, Terán killed Guevara, the fatal wounds being in his chest and throat. Che Guevara was just 39, and left behind five children by his two wives.

THEN WHAT HAPPENED?

IN hindsight and in the view of the CIA in their official reports to President Lyndon Johnson, the Bolivian army and political authorities were “stupid” in killing Guevara and especially in what they did next.

Guevara’s body was strapped to a stretcher and helicoptered to the town of Vallegrande where he was photographed lying in a laundry house. It is the second most famous image of Guevara after the iconic picture by Alberto Korda that adorns several million tee-shirts, and has often been seen as confirming his martyrdom. His hands were cut off so that he could be identified formally from fingerprints, and then he was quickly buried near the town’s airstrip. The official story that had died in combat quickly fell apart, and the “martyrdom” legend began.

Castro announced his death on October 15 and ordered three days of mourning while across the world there were demonstrations protesting against his murder. His body was finally exhumed and taken back to Cuba in 1997.

Guevara had once said that “I have a wish. It is a fear as well. That in my end will be my beginning” – the latter sentence being also the motto of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Fifty years on, Che Guevara remains a hugely controversial figure, a romantic revolutionary to some, a dogmatic killer to others.