What Made Che Guevara a Leader?

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Few of the Communist Era's political figures have earned such enduring mass appeal as Argentinian-born Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Other leaders, such as Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin, are now held in contempt as evil dictators who arguably did more harm than good. Guevara, despite evidence of brutal tactics, is upheld as a hero of the people. Some of the same qualities that made him a leader during his life have contributed to the staying power of his legend.

1 Early Influences

Che Guevara was born in Argentina in 1928. He attended medical school and became a doctor, then traveled around South America. He recorded his observations of the poverty and oppression he encountered in a journal on which the 2004 movie "The Motorcycle Diaries" was based. These experiences and other events formed the basis for Che's political beliefs. He was in Guatemala during the brutal U.S.-backed overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz's reformist government. There he was introduced to Marxism by Hilda Gaeda, whom he married. Soon after, he had one of the most fateful encounters of his life when he met Fidel Castro in Mexico City. Che joined forces with Castro in leading the revolutionary overthrow of the Batista regime in Cuba.

2 Born at the Right Time

Che was made a leader in part by the circumstances of the world he was born into. South and Central America were ruled mostly by military dictatorships, Africa was in the grips of European imperialism, the Middle East was controlled by the British, and Vietnam was still a French colony. The time was ripe for change, and Che's revolutionary ideas aptly captured the feeling of an era.

3 Tireless Work Ethic

Common themes in accounts of Che Guevara's life as a revolutionary leader are his integrity and tirelessness. He has been described as Spartan and ascetic, forgoing luxuries when offered them. As a minister in Castro's government, he worked such long hours that when foreign dignitaries tried to get an appointment with him, they were told the only time he was available was 3 a.m. In his military pursuits, he was equally as relentless. Although he had a debilitating case of asthma that could have excused him from physical tasks, he made a point of accompanying his men in every step.

4 Che the Universalist

It was Che, rather than Castro, who became the international representative of the revolution. He met with Mao Zedong in China, and traveled to Algeria, Egypt, North Korea and the Soviet Union. He spoke in favor of socialism at a conference for the Organization of American States in 1961. He traveled to the Congo, where he made a failed attempt to train rebel fighters. His last attempt at inciting revolution was in Bolivia, where he met his end in October 1967 as a result of combined efforts of the Bolivian military and the CIA.

5 Charming & Charismatic

There is no shortage of reports of Che's overwhelming charisma. Journalist Richard Gott describes watching Che walk into a room in Havana in 1963 and how the admiration of his revolutionary ideals was matched by admiration for his physical beauty. Journalist I.F. Stone also wrote emotionally of Che's beauty, and Julia Costenla, an Argentine journalist, wrote of his natural magnetism. Nor did he fail to make a fan of French writer and philospher Jean-Paul Sartre, who described him as “not only an intellectual, but also the most complete human being of our age.”

Lynn Blanch is a writer, translator and educator. She is the co-founder of an educational/cultural nonprofit in Brazil, speaks fluent Portuguese and has published a travel blog. She holds a bachelor's degree in liberal arts from Sarah Lawrence College.