How did a young Argentinian doctor become the image of world revolution — and the face that launched a million T-shirts? I must say I approached a book about Che Guevara by his brother Juan Martin, assisted by French journalist Armelle Vincent, with some scepticism, fearing hagiography. It is a eulogy but also an interesting family history and an account of the brother’s own political activities in Argentina in the stormy period of the 1970s.
Che Guevara’s career is, of course, the stuff of legend. Born in 1928 into an Argentinian family of chiefly Spanish descent and, as his brother makes clear, part of the haute bourgeoisie, Ernesto — not yet Che — studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires.
He seems to have had no need to earn an income and in 1951 took a nine-month motorcycle journey through South America that resulted in the later famous book and movie, The Motorcycle Diaries. Soon afterwards Che settled in Guatemala, but his support of the existing regime meant he had to flee the country for Mexico when that government was overthrown by a coup in May 1954.
In 1955 he met Fidel Castro in Mexico City and joined Castro’s long-range plan to destroy the Batista government of Cuba. When they landed in Cuba in November 1956 almost all the members of their small force were killed but the others, including Castro and Che, retreated into the mountains.
Che no doubt agreed with Mao Zedong that a revolution is not a dinner party. After personally executing an informer in the group, he made the note, clinical as befits a medical practitioner, that he had given him “a shot with a .32 pistol in the right side of the brain, with exit orifice in the right temporal lobe”.
Batista fled Havana on New Year’s Day 1959 and Che became a key figure in the new regime. Initially he was in charge of the main prison and responsible for the execution of former officials convicted by a revolutionary tribunal. At various times he held the positions of finance minister, president of the national bank, minister of industries and ambassador at large.
The regime comprehensively defeated the American-supported invasion at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 but felt betrayed by the Soviet Union when it withdrew its nuclear-armed ballistic missiles from Cuba in October 1962 after a tense confrontation with the US. Like Castro, Che was not averse to world nuclear war and argued that resistance to imperialist aggression Che, My Brother By Juan Martin Guevara and Armelle Vincent Translated by Andrew Brown Polity, 264pp, $44.95 (HB) Close But No Cigar: A True Story of Prison Life in Castro’s Cuba By Stephen Purvis Hachette, 257pp, $32.99
Che Guevara during a 1964 TV interview; Stephen Purvis’s memoir of his detention in Cuba