Ernesto Che Guevara died 50 years ago in the wilds of Bolivia, near Vallegrande. He was captured in Quebrada del Yuro, a barren ravine close to the town of La Higuera, where he spent his last night in a small schoolhouse, which is still there. The following morning, he was executed, on the orders of the Bolivian president and the Central Intelligence Agency officer present during his interrogation. His body was flown to Vallegrande, where it was exhibited to the press. That was when the iconic photograph of a Christ-like Guevara was taken and made famous, along with the photo Alberto Korda shot in Havana in 1960, of Guevara with his starred beret. It appears today on millions of T-shirts and posters all over the world — a world he would not recognize.
Half a century since his death, Guevara’s legacy and relevance is practically nil, in terms of his aspirations and achievements. Paradoxically, though, he became a symbol of historical changes that he did not identify with, that he did not fight for and that only came of age after his death. He is remembered far more for the momentous events that took place less than a year after he perished, when in 1968 hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets in dozens of capitals and universities across the globe and changed the way they, their children and today their grandchildren live.
Guevara, an Argentine doctor, stood for various ideas and causes during his lifetime. All failed or were discarded. Although initially he was a passionate advocate of the young Cuban Revolution’s alliance with the Soviet Union, by the mid-1960s he became a critic of the crucial role Moscow was playing in Cuba. That mattered little. By July of 1967, when Premier Alexei Kosygin visited Havana, Fidel Castro had aligned his regime unconditionally with the U.S.S.R. In August 1968, Castro supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the end of the Prague Spring. Similarly, Guevara opposed Cuba’s former dependence on sugar cane. But by 1970, Castro had committed his country to producing 10 million tons of sugar for the Soviet Union, disrupting the island economy, yet nonetheless failing to achieve his goal.
Guevara also fought for the creation of a “new man” under socialism in Cuba, and against the vices of the former regime, centered on tourism, prostitution and gambling. Little did he know that not only would there be no new man in Cuba but also, nearly 60 years after the revolution, one of Cuba’s main sources of income continues to be tourism. Widespread prostitution has endured for half a century, at levels not dissimilar to those during the Batista era, and thousands of Cubans attempt to leave the island nearly every day, any way they can.
Guevara was known for seeking to spread the Cuban Revolution. He sought to do so as an insightful but ultimately mistaken observer and participant in what actually occurred in the Sierra Maestra: revolution through the barrel of a gun. He preached the armed struggle to hundreds, if not thousands, of young enthusiasts across Latin America and in Africa; he gave his life for it, and they lost theirs. Until 1979 in Nicaragua, not one of the fires he or Castro tried to light throughout the region survived, let alone burst into flames. The results were not glorious snapshots of the barbudos entering Havana in January of 1959 but rather military coups, torture, disappearances and thousands of student lives lost in vain.
When the left finally reached power in many Latin American nations, its path and features did not at all resemble Guevara’s vision. Gifted labor union and indigenous leaders, charismatic intellectuals, scheming military officers and persistent mayors and legislators made their way gradually up the ranks of their political parties, their electoral systems and their countries’ governments. Once in office, they did not govern like Guevara would have wished. They were everything but idealistic revolutionaries: social-democratic reformers, moderate globalists, nationalist demagogues, corrupt couples or dynasties and would-be dictators. Some extracted millions of their countrymen from poverty and inequality. Others strengthened democratic institutions. Others plunged their countrymen into destitution and violence as in Venezuela.
But the millions of young people everywhere who wear Guevara’s effigy on their chest are a product of what he came to symbolize. The students who took to the streets in Berkeley and Riverside Heights, in Mexico City and the Left Bank, in Prague and Milan, just months after his death, were already carrying posters and banners of the martyred revolutionary. They, unlike their hero, did largely change the world, though obviously not in the manner he would have hoped. Theirs was an existential, cultural, generational and antiwar rebellion that laid the groundwork for the freedoms we enjoy today, at least in the Western nations, Latin America and parts of Asia.
Women’s freedom to use their bodies as they see fit and to fight back against countless abuses; the freedom for people of color to elect who they wish and fight racism where it shows its face; the freedom for university students to participate in the design and execution of educational plans; the expanding possibility of people with different sexual orientations to come out from the shadows: All these joys of life in the 21st century stem, in one fashion or another, from those years in the 1960s.
Guevara became a cultural icon, not a political or ideological one. Today’s world is an enormously better one than where the generation that followed him grew up in. It is far less poor, less unequal and far more tolerant, diverse and enlightened.
So which Guevara should we recall? The autocrat who executed hundreds of Batista collaborators outside Havana in 1959? The disheveled guerrillero captured under humiliating circumstances in Bolivia? The warrior whose irreverence is a symbol all over the world? Or the unwilling icon of the cultural revolution of 1968, to which we owe the lives we live today? He would have preferred being remembered as the martyred revolutionary, but those who survive him today can only thank him, despite himself, for becoming the cultural icon he did. That is his legacy, relevance and glory.
Jorge G. Castañeda, Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, is a professor at New York University and the author of Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara.