Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Doctor

SEPTEMBER 16, 2008
Grace K. Henry

Somehow, he warped into an Andy Warhol-like pop icon image. Whether making a statement for political activists or lending some irony to a trendy fashion boutique, the famed guerilla warfare revolutionary leader, Dr. Che Guevara (1928-1967), continues his 15 minutes of fame long after his controversial death.


Doctor? Yes, Che (Italian for "buddy") was an Argentinean physician, though he didn't quite fit into the white-coat setting. Born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna to an upper-middle class family in Argentina who actively opposed the dictatorship of Juan Peron, he was introduced to socialist theories at a young age. He developed a severe case of asthma at a young age and was a quiet and studious child, avidly reading philosophy, including Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Disqualified for military service due to his asthma, Dr. Guevara attended the Buenos Aires University, studying medicine, with a focus on leprosy. To observe the disease, he traveled throughout South America. In 1953, he qualified as a physician, specializing in dermatology. He moved to Mexico City to begin his residency, which he soon left to support his political convictions.


The severe poverty and oppression he witnessed in his medical research throughout imperialist South America disturbed Dr. Guevara, inspiring him to embark on a radical path. In a speech to newly graduated Cuban doctors in 1959, he referred to the human suffering he saw in these countries, and proclaimed, "I began to look into what I needed to be, a revolutionary doctor."

Through his future wife Hilda Gadea, Dr. Guevara met and joined forces with Fidel Castro, the present dictator of Cuba (and a lawyer by training). He developed guerilla warfare that culminated in the Castro-led Cuban Revolution in January 1959. Included at first in Castro's army for his medical expertise, he soon rose through the ranks to become the top commander of the revolutionary army, and later one of Castro's cabinet members.

Known for severity and cruelty to his enemies and his soldiers, he was responsible for many defectors' and loyalists' executions. Dr. Guevara eventually left his post with Castro and traveled throughout Africa and South America, fomenting Communist revolutions in an attempt to create "many Vietnams."


Captured by the US-trained Bolivia Army in 1967 while engaging in a military operation in Bolivia, Dr. Guevara, age 39, was imprisoned and summarily executed, allegedly under the direction of the Bolivian president and the CIA. He was buried in an undisclosed location with his hands severed for body identification by his captors, who seemed to recognize— rightly so—the threat his presence posed. In 1997 his bones were found and repatriated to Cuba.

Castro used Dr. Guevara's death as publicity for the Cuban government and the spread of Communism, inflating a martyr's mystique that continues to inspire and gain Communist sympathy to this day. The complex revolutionary doctor is viewed by some as a hero for the downtrodden, by others as a cruel and dangerous menace to world peace, and by others of a younger generation as a hip 1960's icon to grace a t-shirt.

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