Ernesto “Che” Guevara was the number two man in the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro that overthrew the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. But while Castro lived to be 90-years-old, finally dying this Friday, his close friend and fellow guerrilla fighter Guevara died in the Bolivian jungle 49 years earlier, at the hands of the Bolivian military with help from the CIA.
But did Castro betray his best friend, sending him from Cuba to Bolivia to lead a revolution there, then abandoning him when it became clear that the Bolivian government was closing in? That’s the belief of some historians and Cuban journalists. So what happened between Castro and Guevara, who was just 39 when he was killed on October 8, 1967.
Guevara, who was born in Argentina in 1928, met Castro in 1954 in Mexico where Castro had fled after spending a year in prison for a failed attempt to overthrow the Batista regime in Cuba. A doctor by training, Guevara had become a radical revolutionary after a motorcycle trip across South America, where he witnessed the incredible poverty and suffering of the ordinary people at the hands of their governments.
The pair bonded over their revolutionary ideals and when Castro told Guevara of his plan to return to Cuba and wage a revolutionary war to overthrow Batista once and for all, Guevara signed up. During the two-year guerrilla war, Guevara gained the admiration not only of Castro himself, but the guerrilla rank-and-file, as a tireless soldier and inspirational leader.
He became Castro’s second-in command, and after their revolution expelled Batista and took over the country on New Year’s Eve, 1959, Castro appointed Guevara to several top government posts — including the top post at the infamous La Cabaña Fortress prison. There, Guevara oversaw the incarceration and execution of Castro’s political opponents by the hundreds.
In 1965, however, Guevara stepped down from his various positions in Castro’s government and departed Cuba for the South American country of Bolivia. Historians believe that Castro himself sent Guevara on what turned out to be a suicide mission.
Guevara’s Bolivian “revolution” turned out to be a debacle. Guevara led a small force of about 50 men, and unlike in Cuba, the ragtag movement never roused the support of the Bolivian people.
Along the way, Castro appears to have completely cut off contact with his former friend and top lieutenant. Several entries in Guevara’s diary penned during his time in Bolivia contained the phrase, “No contact with Manila,” and according to those who knew him, “Manila” was Guevara’s code word for Castro.
According to Niño de Guzman, a Bolivian military official who took part in the capture of Guevara, the revolutionary complained repeatedly while in captivity, “Fidel betrayed me.”
Other historical accounts say that a Cuban commando unit was prepared to depart Havana at a moment’s notice to rescue Guevara — but Castro never gave the green light for the rescue mission.
But why would Castro send his best friend off on a hopeless mission, then abandon him to die? The answer, according to journalist Alberto Müller, who authored a biography of Guevara, lay in the legendary guerilla’s stance toward the Soviet Union, which by 1965 had become Castro’s main source of backing and was about to ink a military cooperation agreement with Cuba. Guevara publicly criticized the Soviets at a conference on Algiers.
In Guevara’s view — one he expressed in a speech at the conference — the Soviet Union was no better than the United States when it came to exploiting the working people of the world.
With his statements, Guevara put Cuba’s relationship with the Soviets at risk, and that was something Castro could not allow, according to Müller.
“Che’s posture ran against Fidel’s interests,” Müller says. “Che became a pest, an inconvenience for the Cuban Revolution, a pebble in the shoe.”
However, Castro never fully accepted that Guevara was dead, continuing to refer to his old friend in the present tense as late as 2014, according to Guevara’s son.
“I pointed this out to him once,” the younger Guevara said in an interview. “Fidel’s response was, ‘But your father’s here, right now.'”
[Featured Images By File Photo/Harold Valentine/Associated Press]