Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Doctor

September 16, 2008
Grace K. Henry

Physician's Money Digest, July15 2003, Volume 10, Issue 13

Somehow, he warped into an Andy Warhol-likepop icon image. Whether making a statementfor political activists or lending some irony to atrendy fashion boutique, the famed guerilla warfarerevolutionary leader, Dr. Che Guevara (1928-1967), continues his 15 minutes of fame long afterhis controversial death.

MEDICAL PATH TO POLITICS

Doctor? Yes, Che (Italian for "buddy") was anArgentinean physician, though he didn't quite fitinto the white-coat setting. Born Ernesto Guevarade la Serna to an upper-middle class family inArgentina who actively opposed the dictatorship ofJuan Peron, he was introduced to socialist theoriesat a young age. He developed a severe case of asthmaat a young age and was a quiet and studiouschild, avidly reading philosophy, including KarlMarx 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 throughoutSouth America. In 1953, he qualified as a physician,specializing in dermatology. He moved to MexicoCity to begin his residency, which he soon left tosupport his political convictions.

A CALL TO ARMS

The severe poverty and oppression he witnessedin his medical research throughout imperialistSouth America disturbed Dr. Guevara, inspiring himto embark on a radical path. In a speech to newlygraduated Cuban doctors in 1959, he referred tothe human suffering he saw in these countries, andproclaimed, "I began to look into what I needed tobe, 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 culminatedin the Castro-led Cuban Revolution in January 1959.Included at first in Castro's army for his medicalexpertise, he soon rose through the ranks tobecome the top commander of the revolutionaryarmy, and later one of Castro's cabinet members.

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

RUMBLING MYSTIQUE

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

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

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