19th October 1997


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'Yes, I knew El Che the man'

The revolutionary legend of Ernesto Che Guevara has come alive again with millions of grateful Cubans lining up in Havana to pay tribute to him on the 30th anniversary of his murder, allegedly on orders of the United States.

In Sri Lanka we often, hear references to " Che Guevara Karayo" associating this heroic and selfless crusader for social justice with killers or aimless rebels.

But Ernesto Che Guevara, behind the revolutionary methods, was a qualified barefoot Doctor who treated thousands of peasants free of charge in make-shift jungle dispensaries.

In this article a friend evaluates the vision and goals of Che in the context of an overall world economic picture where growth without equity is reaching destructive proportions

By Richard M. Ruiz

Much has been written about Ernesto "Che" Guevara, but none describe the man as I knew him. I am 65 years old, and yes I knew El Che. El Che that I knew was a man of conscience, a crusader against injustice, oppression and misery. Ernesto was a man concerned for the poor, not a demagogue. He was a symbol of rebellion against hypocrisy, injustice, human suffering and a society without soul.

In the midst of the confusion about El Che and Latin America, some quiet reflection on the matter seems to be in order. There are two sides to every coin, and the truth about the man I knew is probably to be found somewhere between two extremes. But here in the United States people are seldom able to evaluate both sides of the man without divorcing themselves from the prejudice that rules their minds.

Che Guevara grew up in a regimented society. He saw the unfairness of the American's evaluation of the oppression inflicted by the military tyrants in Latin America and declared a personal war against it. Born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna on June 14, 1928, in Rosario Argentina to Ernesto Guevara Lynch, a Civil Engineer of Irish descent, and Celia de la Serna of Spanish descent, Ernesto was the eldest of five children of the middle-class family with strong liberal tendencies. During his childhood, Ernesto developed bronchial asthma; a choking sensation that would always accompany him. As one stood next to him, one could hear a wheezing sound coming from his lungs whenever he got too uptight about anything that didn't go his way.

Although he was called cold and inhuman by his enemies, Ernesto was warm and compassionate toward those people deprived of fundamental social and economic privileges. The latter was a dominant part of his life; the part that made him the world's most known insurrectionist. He was a man trembled with indignation at the sight of any injustice committed against the poor.

In 1952, El Che disengaged himself from his school work to tour South America with Alberto Granados, a pharmacist and a biochemist. The journey started on a motorcycle and ended-up in hitchhiking. They visited Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. It was in Peru where for the first time Ernesto "Che" Guevara came in close contact with South America's Indian masses. He saw how the Indians of the Peruvian high plateau, whose ancestors were the great Incas, were being exploited and brutalized by foreign investors. Later on he cried when he saw the brutal inhumanity of the lepers in San Pablo Leprosarium, located along the Amazon River. After spending a few weeks around the Leprosarium, Ernesto returned to Argentina where he resumed his studies at the Medical School in Buenos Aires. Granados stayed behind as an employee of the Leprosarium.

However, After his graduation from Medical School, El Che once again set out to visit Granados and tour other countries of Latin America. In Guayaquil, Ecuador, he met Ricardo Rojo, Argentinean attorney who had been expelled from his Country by dictator Juan Domingo Peron. Rojo convinced Ernesto to go to Guatemala where a real social revolution was taking place. That's where I met Ernesto "Che" Guevarra. I was in Guatemala City with a group of students trying to convince the people of Guatemala to fight for their democratically elected government, under the presidency of Jacobo Arbenz.

Arbenz was elected by promising land to the landless Indians who were dying of starvation. As a result he expropriated 225,000 of uncultivated acres of arable land from the American Fruit Company who was monopolizing Guatemala's agriculture. The move became too much to bear for the American Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, also a stockholder and an attorney for the American Fruit Company. Therefore, in March 1954, Dulles accused the Arbenz government of being a communist regime and succeeded in forcing the AOS members to prepare a mercenary invasion force in neighboring Honduras. Che recognized the necessity of the land reform, and supported Jacobo Arbenz actions against the American Fruit Company and tried to organize a fighting force to resist the CIA sponsored invasion of Guatemala. However his efforts availed him nothing. The people and the Guatemalan Army, whose high echelons sold out to the CIA, refused to fight. The Arbenz government collapsed ahead of the invasion. For El Che, it was a personal failure that nearly cost him his life. Luckily, he was given asylum in the Argentine Embassy in Guatemala City. Later arrangements were made to secure him a guarantee of safe conduct so he could travel to Mexico City. While in Mexico City, El Che married Hilda Gadea Acosta, a girl he first met in Guatemala while she was working for the Arbenz government. A female child was born out of the marriage and all went smoothly until Ernesto met Raul Castro, Fidel's brother.

However, immediately after Che met Fidel Castro, who at the time was preparing the plans for the Cuban invasion out of the Hotel Imperial in Mexico City, Guevara managed to talk himself into the plan as the troop physician. The sixty-two man invasion force left Mexico in a 43-foot yacht named Gramma on November 25, 1956, from the port of Tuxpan. After landing in Cuba Ernesto "Che" Guevara rose to the rank of major.

Less publicized than his legendary epoch as a guerrilla, Che Guevara's work as one of the builders of the new society represented a very fruitful period in his life. Che's talents in that context were already apparent during the battles of the Sierra Maestra, where he organized workshop of weaponry, tailoring and shoe making and the production of bread, beef jerky, cigarettes and cigars as logistical support for the guerrilla campaign. Then in late 1958, he led one of the forces that invaded central Cuba, capturing Santa Clara. That was the decisive victory of the war against the forces of Fulgencio Batista.

After the revolution, El Che held various positions in government from where he reoriented Cuba industry towards socialism, establishing concepts that ranged from the infrastructure to the smallest production unit. He was the driving force behind socialist planning, creatively applying to this system the principles, criteria and objectives identified with Fidel Castro, although he was not interested in power. Then, in April, 1965, Che wrote the following letter to Fidel Castro:

"I formally renounce my position in the national leadership of the party, my post as minister, my rank as major, and my Cuban Citizenship... other nations of the world call for my modest efforts."

In mid-1965, Che wrote to his parents: "Once again I feel between my heels the ribs of Rosinante; once more I must hit the road with my shield upon my arm...I believe in armed struggle as the only solution for those peoples who fight to free themselves, and I am consistent with my belief. Many will call me an adventurer, and I am, only one of a different sort; one of those who risks his skin to prove his platitudes. It is possible this may be the finish. I don't seek it, but it's within the realm of probabilities."

On October 8, 1967, in his struggle against injustice he was captured near Vallegrande, Bolivia, by a unit of the Bolivian Army, under the direction of the American CIA. Next day, while he laid wounded and deprived of medical treatment, he was killed in cold blood by the cowards who captured him. The order came from Lyndon B. Johnson, president of the United States of America.

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