Fidel Castro, My Life
A Spoken Autobiography
- Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet
Fidel Castro, My Life - Chapter 7: Che Guevara
After two years of prison on the isle of Pines, Fidel knew he was a marked man on the island and chose, instead, to go into hiding in Mexico. That proved to be one of the most decisive moments in his quest to rid Cuba of its American overlords. Once there, Fidel met and befriended Ernesto "Che" Guevara. By that time, El Che had already completed his famous motorcycle tour of South America, visited a leper colony along the way, met with the indigenous people working in the copper mines at Chuquicamata, Chile, and moved to Guatemala at the beginning of President Arbenz' tenure as the democratically elected president of the country in 1951. While in Guatemala, El Che saw first hand the imperialist boot of America and its crushing consequences. One of the first radical changes President Arbenz wanted to implement was the agrarian reform where the lands could be more evenly distributed among the country's poor. Unfortunately, in 1953, any type of agrarian reform anywhere in Latin America that wasn't part of a specific US-approved policy was considered Communistic in origin and in 1954 the Guatemalan military, with the help of the CIA, overthrew President Arbenz.
As fate would have it, right after the disastrous defeat at Moncada, some of Fidel's group fled Cuba and went to Guatemala where they met up with El Che. The following year, when the military coup d'état ousted President Arbenz, El Che and the group moved to Mexico City. Later, when brother Raúl left prison, he too met up with El Che in Mexico. Fidel followed soon thereafter. But at that time, El Che was still called Ernesto Guevara. The nickname, "El Che," happened because of the fact that Argentineans like to use the word "che" a lot and being from Argentina, he too used the word in excess. After a some time together, they started calling him, El Che, and the name stuck.
El Che came from an upper middle class family in Argentina and had studied to be a doctor. After receiving his diploma, he decided to dedicate himself to the plight of the poor and suffering throughout Latin America. Even though El Che knew little about Marx, Engels and Socialism in general, he innately came to similar conclusions and both Fidel and Che had many points in common. This was one of the main reasons that their friendship became so strong. When both men finally met at a mutual friend's home on Calle Emparan in Mexico City, it didn't' take long at all for Che to join the team. He had recently witnessed the brutal overthrow of the democratically elected president in Guatemala by the military who had American backing. He had already heard about Fidel's battle at Moncada and of his dedication to freeing Cuba from the yoke of oppression applied by the US. The only caveat he asked for was the ability to start an equivalent uprising in his native Argentina once Cuba was freed.
During their exile in Mexico, they both attended guerrilla warfare tactics given by a former Spanish general, Alberto Bayo, who had extensive experience in combat in Morocco and later during the Spanish Civil War. In addition, they both attended target practice at hidden gun ranges on the outskirts of Mexico City. In both areas El Che excelled, even though he had no experience in either prior to their meeting. Nevertheless, his knowledge in medicine was far more important than the later acquired skills and El Che was officially the group's chief medic. His tireless enthusiasm and incomparable desire to help in any way possible meant that he always volunteered for any project or task at hand. Before the leaders could even finish their discourse about what was needed, El Che's hand would raise fast and high. His indefatigable desire to help in any way he could never diminished. Even though he suffered from asthma, he never let that nor any other weakness get in the way of his success at each task. In fact, he could often be found climbing up the side of the mountain Popocatepetl, which rises to some 18,000 feet above sea level, with full gear strapped on just to see how far he could go before his body gave way to exhaustion.
But their stay in Mexico City was not without its own pitfalls. They knew that Batista wielded immense influence over the Secret Police in Mexico and took many precautions, such as one person trailing the other on the opposite side of the street, to thwart any surprise attacks. But this ruse alerted a separate group in Mexico, the Federales, who suspected them of being smugglers. With lightning speed they captured first the ones trailing, then the person in front, Fidel. The Federales then took him to his training camp which had been disguised as a goat milk and cheese factory, where they arrested many others, including El Che. They spent the next few months in jail together where El Che almost got everyone killed. When he was asked by a judge whether he was a Communist, he did not hesitate one second. "Yes, I'm a Communist." With that, the newspapers across Mexico had a field day. Headlines proclaimed that the group was in Mexico to liquidate democracy and impose a totalitarian, Communist state. During the next few encounters in court, El Che would argue for Lenin, Marx and Engels, but never for Stalin, believing that Stalin had failed as a leader, especially after signing the pact with Germany at the beginning of WWII. But fortunately for the entire group, a former Mexican president, Lázaro Cardenas, came to their defense and after a few months they were all freed.