Che: An assassin or a revolutionary?

Fifty years after Che Guevara’s assassination, attempts to commercialise and distort his image continue.

Che on building
An image of the late revolutionary hero Ernesto 'Che' Guevara is seen in a gate of a public building in Havana, Cuba [Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]

Fifty years ago, on October 9, 1967, Ernesto “Che” Guevara – Argentine-born doctor and Cuban revolutionary hero – was executed in Bolivia as part of a US-orchestrated plot to rid the world of his pernicious anti-imperialist influence.

Given that Guevara is as popular and symbolic as ever half a century later, it seems that the US government can safely file that project under the category “Oops”. 

Of course, the Americans have long denied responsibility for the killing – a claim neatly dismantled by American lawyers Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith in their book “Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away with Murder”. 

Cuban-American CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, present at Guevara’s demise in the Bolivian hamlet of La Higuera, has helped promote the US line that the fatal decision was all the Bolivians’ doing.

Rodriguez has, furthermore, vociferously objected to the romanticisation of a man he says was nothing more than “an assassin” who “enjoyed killing people” – a pretty rich allegation coming from someone who also volunteered to assassinate Fidel Castro and who, Ratner and Smith note, has referred to the Dominican Republic’s former blood-drenched dictator Rafael Trujillo as a “so-called tyrant”.

The ‘most complete human being’

Writing in the Washington Post in 1997, documentary filmmaker Saul Landau described Guevara as a “tough disciplinarian who impassively dispatched traitors [but] also refused to let enemy wounded go untreated” – a man who built hospitals and schoolrooms, whose “love for the unknown masses” drove him to entirely sacrifice his own physical comfort in pursuit of a more just society. 

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre praised the guerrilla leader as “not only an intellectual, but also the most complete human being of our age”.

READ MORE: Che Guevara and Fidel Castro – Revolutionary Friends

Yet the “assassin” card continues to be played by plenty of folks, many of them with dodgy right-wing track records.

When some years ago it was discovered that US-based Urban Outfitters had decided to appropriate Che’s image for a T-shirt and other merchandise – since we all know US clothing corporations fervently support anti-capitalist revolution – the company CEO was harangued by a dubious human rights group for “lionising a murderer” with a “bloody ideology”.

Never mind that Urban Outfitters and far too many other such entities have also been known to mass-market products emblazoned with the American flag – a symbol of a system that sort of takes the cake in terms of ideological bloodiness. 

Che wasn't superhuman, but he was more than himself - which is perhaps why they've never really been able to kill him.


At the time of Guevara’s murder, for example, the US was engaged in a spectacularly bloody affair known as the Vietnam War, in which up to several million people were ultimately eliminated.

As if that weren’t enough, The New Yorker reported last year that “[s]ince the end of the war, in 1975, more than forty thousand Vietnamese have been killed by U.X.O. [unexploded ordnance]”.

It’s worth emphasising, too, that Guevara’s abhorrence of Yankee imperialism didn’t materialise out of nowhere. He personally witnessed the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala against the democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, who had stepped on the toes of the US banana company, United Fruit, and other enemies of Guatemalan democracy.

In the ensuing decades-long civil war – in which the US, as usual played, no minor role – some 200,000 people were massacred. 

Guevara went on to confront US power at various international nodes. In Cuba, he helped overthrow former US dictatorial buddy Fulgencio Batista and with him the prevailing arrangement of gleefully corrupt oppression. 

READ MORE: Cuba’s changes – what would Che say?

In Congo, as John Gerassi wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Guevara endeavoured to “help the remnants of the nationalist movement of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who had been murdered with the connivance of Belgian and CIA agents”.

In Bolivia, alas, the empire caught up with him. Gone was the man who had once declared, “with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love”.

The real danger

In the decades since Che’s death, the US has proceeded with business as usual, wreaking havoc across the globe on behalf of elite capital. 

That the country is sorely lacking in the human emotions department should be clear from the health of the arms industry and the physical and economic punishment regularly inflicted upon human bodies from Afghanistan to Mexico.

Some helpful sound bites from the US political establishment shed additional ideological light – such as the response of Madeleine Albright, former US ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of state, to a question about reports that half a million children had died thanks to US sanctions on Iraq: “We think the price is worth it”. 

To be sure, some “strong feelings of love” would come in particularly handy right about now – if only to assure ourselves that reality doesn’t have to be what US President Donald Trump says it is. 

In a final letter Guevara wrote to his children, to be given to them in the event he was killed, he advised: “Remember that the Revolution is what is important and that each one of us, on our own, is worthless.”

And while his executioners certainly weren’t under the impression that Guevara on his own was “worthless”, the real danger he posed to the capitalist order, in fact, lay in his example of interhuman solidarity.

In the end, Che wasn’t superhuman, but he was more than himself – which is perhaps why they’ve never really been able to kill him.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.