Che Guevara and Fidel Castro: Revolutionary Friends
A legendary friendship borne of youth and revolutionary zeal eventually succumbs to the strains of Cold War realpolitik.
Editor’s note: This film will be removed on February 27, 2020.
Could Che Guevara, the radical thinker from Argentina, and Fidel Castro, the political maestro from Cuba, ever share the title of liberators and saviours of Latin America?
As youthful friends and comrades, the men formed a power duo that led a guerilla army that toppled the Batista dictatorship in Cuba. But the treachery of Cold War politics eventually drove a wedge between these one-time guerillas and friends.
This episode of Face to Face narrates a legendary but ill-fated alliance.
Guevara and Castro: six defining moments
Over the course of 12 years, the friendship between Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Fidel Castro took many twists and turns. From the moment they met until the death of Guevara, the relationship between the two reflected a complex geopolitical game in which lies, manipulation and internecine power struggles sealed Cuba’s fate as the small Caribbean island that would play an outsized role in Cold War politics.
These are six key moments that shaped their friendship – and its downfall.
July 1955: Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara meet
While in exile in Mexico, Fidel Castro meets the Argentine doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The two men click and they spend 10 hours talking and sharing their revolutionary ideals.
In his journal, Guevara writes of the encounter:
“I talked all night with Fidel. And in the morning I had become the doctor of his new expedition. To tell the truth, after my experiences across Latin America I didn’t need much more to enlist for a revolution against a tyrant. But I was particularly impressed with Fidel. I shared his optimism. We needed to act, to struggle, to materialise our beliefs. Stop whining and fight.”
July 31, 1956: Castro waits and gets Guevara out of prison
In setting up his revolutionary organisation, the M26, Castro comes under the radar of the Mexican security forces and is imprisoned along with Guevara.
Castro is released before Guevara. Guevara tells Castro to leave him there, but Castro refuses and eventually gets him out of jail.
“Ernesto Guevara, of course, will never forget this gesture, when his comrade became like a brother to him,” says journalist and writer Serge Raffy.
In his journal, Guevara writes:
“Fidel’s answer was irrevocable and I can still hear him say: ‘I will not leave you.’ This was his decision and he never departed from it. This attitude of Fidel’s for the ones he cared about is key to the fanaticism that surrounds him. If you adhere to his principles, you adhere to his whole personality and that’s what makes this rebel army an indivisible block.”
January 8, 1959: After the revolution, Guevara lets Castro take the limelight
After proclaiming victory of the Cuban revolution in Santiago de Cuba on January 1, 1959, Castro had begun a week-long march to Cuba’s capital.
“During this march towards La Havana, Guevara is ahead. And that’s when Fidel Castro, who’s no angel, who’s a real politician, decides to restore some order,” Raffy says. “He demands that Guevara as well as all the other ones stay behind.”
“It needs to be a Cuban that arrives in the city to proclaim the revolution,” says historian Simon Reid-Henry.
On January 8, 1959, Castro marches into Havana in triumph while the fiercely loyal Guevara, by now Castro’s faithful “comandante”, remains in the shadow.
1964: Castro appoints Guevara as ambassador to the revolution
Castro appoints Guevara as ambassador in order to keep him away from Cuba. Over time, the friendship between Castro and Guevara has changed. A pragmatist, Castro puts the future of his leadership ahead of his revolutionary goals on more than one occasion, while Guevara is making increasingly radical statements.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Guevara distances himself from the Soviet Union – on whom Cuba depends economically – while Castro is trying to cosy up to the superpower.
“Ernesto Guevara, at that point, has become a bit of a nuisance because he has a disruptive effect on Fidel’s honeymoon with the Soviet Union,” says Raffy.
“He makes a few incredible statements … He says he’s ready to erase New York from the surface of the planet. So the Russians are thinking: ‘This one, we’re going to have to keep a good eye on him, because this is not the way we want it to work.'”
February 24, 1965: Guevara publicly criticises the USSR
Speaking at the Afro-Asian Conference in Algeria, Guevara openly criticises the USSR in front of the country’s delegates, which angers the Soviets. It puts pressure on Castro to distance himself from his old friend.
In March 1965, when Guevara is back in Havana, “Che Guevara is immediately kidnapped by Castro and sent to a ‘security house’, as they’re called in Cuba … We have a testimony from one of the security guards who was nearby and heard Fidel bellowing,” says Latin America specialist Pierre Kalfon.
Benigno, a fellow guerrilla fighter and a former comrade of Guevara, says: “After talking for 42 or 43 hours maybe, ‘El Che’ got out. He looked miserable, I had never seen him like this. He came out with his green beret, like he’d just been told he had contracted a fatal disease. His walk was heavy and he kept his head low.”
October 3, 1965: Guevara is dismissed from the Communist Party’s Central Committee
In the light of rumours of Castro assassinating Guevara – who has been out of the public eye for several months now – Castro announces “El Che’s” dismissal from the Central Committee by reading out a “farewell letter”, allegedly written by Guevara, in public without Guevara’s knowledge.
“Once again, Fidel is all at once pragmatic and rather quite cruel towards El Che. If you want to pinpoint the exact moment El Che was abandoned by Fidel, maybe that’s when,” Kalfon says.
At the time, Guevara himself is unsuccessfully waging a guerrilla war in Congo – the result of what Serge Raffy calls Castro’s “exit strategy to ‘save’ his friend”: “Here’s his offer to Guevara, ‘Since all you care about is your internationalist war, so be it, you’re going to do that in Africa’.”
After Guevara’s defeat in Congo, Castro orchestrates another international guerilla operation for his former right-hand man – this time in Bolivia. There, he is wounded and arrested on October 8, 1967. The next day, Guevara is executed.
In Cuba, Guevara becomes a martyr, his myth only adding to the strength of Castro as a leader.