Ernesto "Che" Guevara was one of the most famous media figures of the 1960s. A high-ranking Cuban official and confidante of Fidel Castro, Guevara was appointed head of a Cuban delegation to the UN in 1964 and in the process became a public celebrity.
He also appeared on the CBS Sunday news program Face the Nation and met with a wide gamut of people and groups including U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy, several associates of Malcolm X, and Canadian radical Michelle Duclos. On 17 December, he flew to Paris and embarked on a three-month international tour during which he visited the People's Republic of China, the United Arab Republic (Egypt), Algeria, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Dahomey, Congo-Brazzaville and Tanzania, with stops in Ireland, Paris and Prague. In Algiers on February 24, 1965, he made what turned out to be his last public appearance on the international stage when he delivered a speech to the "Second Economic Seminar on Afro-Asian Solidarity" in which he declared, "There are no frontiers in this struggle to the death. We cannot remain indifferent in the face of what occurs in any part of the world. A victory for any country against imperialism is our victory, just as any country's defeat is our defeat."
About three years later he was dead. And though I searched long and hard for the particulars of Guevara's last stand, the best source documents available on the web are the debriefing of Felix Rodriguez, a CIA agent of Cuban extraction who was sent to Boliva to help track him down and the after-action debriefing of the 2nd Bolivian Ranger battalion by US Southern Command. A bare-bones synopsis of Che Guevara's military career in Bolivia can be found here. Basically, Guevara entered Bolivia in late 1966 and started up a platoon-sized guerilla group. The group went on to kill 30 Bolivian army personnel before being surrounded and wiped out together with it's leader in late 1967. Action against Guevara's guerilla unit was conducted entirely by Bolivians, with some training assistance but with no actual command or direct involvement by US personnel. As a feat of arms, Guevara's effort in Bolivia is remarkably undistinguished and there must be dozens of guerilla leaders alive in the world today with a better showing. Here's the timeline:
Fall, 1966: Che Guevara arrives in Bolivia some time between the second week of September and the first of November of 1966, according to different sources. He enters the country with forged Uruguayan passports to organise and lead a communist guerrilla movement. Che chooses Bolivia as the revolutionary base for various reasons. First, Bolivia is of lower priority than Caribbean Basin countries to US security interests and poses a less immediate threat. Second, Bolivia's social conditions and poverty are such that Bolivia is considered susceptible to revolutionary ideology. Finally, Bolivia shares a border with five other countries, which would allow the revolution to spread easily if the guerrillas are successful. Spring, 1967: From March to August of 1967, Che Guevara and his guerrilla band strike "pretty much at will" against the Bolivian armed forces, which totals about 20 000 men. The guerrillas lose only one man compared to 30 of the Bolivians.
June, 1967: Cuban-American CIA agent Félix Rodríguez receives a phone call from a CIA officer, Larry S, who proposes a special assignment for him in South America in which he will use his skills in unconventional warfare, counter-guerrilla operations and communications. The assignment is to assist the Bolivians in tracking down and capturing Che Guevara and his band. His partner will be "Eduardo González" and Rodríguez is to use the cover name "Félix Ramos Medina".
August 31, 1967: The Bolivian army scores its first victory against the guerrillas, wiping out one-third of Che's men. The guerrillas are forced to retreat and Che's health begins to deteriorate.
September 22, 1967: Guevara Arze, the Bolivian Foreign Minister, provides evidence to the Organisation of American States to prove that Che Guevara is indeed leading the guerrilla operations in Bolivia. Excerpts taken from captured documents, including comparisons of handwriting, fingerprints and photographs, suggests that the guerrillas are comprised of Cubans, Peruvians, Argentineans and Bolivians. The foreign minister's presentation draws a loud applause from the Bolivian audience, and he gives his assurance that "we're not going to let anybody steal our country away from us. Nobody, at any time."
September 24, 1967: Che and his men arrive, exhausted and sick, at Loma Larga, a ranch close to Alto Seco. All but one of the peasants flee upon their arrival.
September 26, 1967: The guerrillas move to the village of La Higuera and immediately notice that all the men are gone. The villagers have previously been warned that the guerrillas are in the area and they should send any information on them to Vallegrande. The remaining villagers tell the guerrillas that most of the people are at a celebration in a neighboring town called Jahue.
Guevara's arrival in La Higuera was the beginning of the end. Less than 2 weeks later, Che Guevara's group would be annihilated and he himself killed.
September 29, 1967: Colonel Zenteno is finally persuaded by Rodríguez, and he moves the 2nd Ranger battalion to Vallegrande. Rodríguez joins these 650 men who have been trained by US Special Forces Major "Pappy" Shelton.
October 7, 1967: The last entry in Che's diary is recorded exactly 11 months since the inauguration of the guerrilla movement. The guerrillas run into an old woman herding goats. They ask her if there are soldiers in the area but are unable to get any reliable information. Scared that she will report them, they pay her 50 pesos to keep quiet. In Che's diary it is noted that he has "little hope" that she will do so.
October 8, 1967: The troops receive information that there is a band of 17 guerrillas in the Churro Ravine. They enter the area and encounter a group of six to eight guerrillas, open fire, and kill two Cubans, "Antonio" and "Orturo". "Ramon" (Guevara) and "Willy" try to break out in the direction of the mortar section, where Guevara is wounded in the lower calf.
One surprise from reading Felix Rodriguez's debriefing is how much of his effort was devoted to keeping Bolivians from executing prisoners so that they could be questioned. One page 3 of his debriefing, Rodriguez describes how he learned of Guevara's intentions by saving the life of one-time guerilla Jose Castillo Chavez, who subsequently told him about Che's plans. It was also surprising to learn that Rodriguez attempted, though unsuccessfully, to having Bolivian orders to execute Che Guevara countermanded. Page 5 of Rodriguez's debriefing details the repeated steps he took to convince the Bolivians not to shoot Guevara. He failed, and the rest is history.
Che Guevara is a testament to the power of a media symbol. As a purely military force he was negligible. As an organizing force and agitator of Bolivians he was an abject failure. But as an international Marxist symbol and poster-boy Che was eminently successful. Millions of people have worn his likeness on a T-shirt believing that he was a brilliant revolutionary and guerilla when in fact he was neither. But that would be missing the point. Guevara was the prototypical example of the triumph of image over reality. What did it matter if he wrote nothing of lasting ideological value? What did it matter if he was a comparative military failure? He was a surpassing public relations success and that made up for everything else. The power of Che lay not in his M2 carbine, which was shot out of his hands by the Bolivian Rangers. It lay in his beard, beret and his photogenic camera angles. Long before the word "spin" came into common usage Guevara was all spin -- a spin which will outlast the memory of those who defeated and slew him.
Though he died nearly forty years ago Che, from a media perspective, is thoroughly modern. He is so modern it would be possible to argue that both Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab Zarqawi are simple extensions of his great archetype. Zarqawi, for example, is by almost any measure a complete military failure unless one counts massacring women and children as some kind of martial accomplishment. Zarqawi is even incapable of clearing a stoppage from a light machinegun he fires on video. But no matter, because it is the video not the machinegun which is the real weapon. It is the T-shirt graphic not the man depicted on the T-shirt which is important. News no longer describes war; it is war which inscribes news.