Che Guevara: Revolutionary Feminist?

Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is a lasting icon of revolution. Not only has his image lived on in endless iterations of the famous Korda photo, but his message, while muddled in the face of modern society, has lived on in the hearts of many people under the repression of authoritarian rulers worldwide. There are many elements of Guevara’s life which have given rise to his myth. From material achievements like the victory of the Cuban Revolution, to his quite evident failures, one of which led to his early death in the mountains of Bolivia. His thirst for defeating the exploitative capitalist empire via violent revolution is evident in both his writings and actions, presciently noting he would sacrifice his life for the cause. Most famously, Guevara is known for the contributions his book Guerrilla Warfare made to revolutionary movements around the world—outlining a foco theory which involved the creation of a ‘vanguard’ party of armed militants who would take to the mountains, and wage a war against oppressive governments. He would use these methods to attempt other revolutionary movements from the Congo to Bolivia, trying to fulfill the goals of his ‘Tricontinental strategy’ that hoped for “the creation of the world’s second or third Vietnam, or second and third Vietnam.” More often than not, Che is remembered solely in these terms: Revolutionary. Socialist. Martyr. But he was a far more complicated and layered historical character than this rigid framework suggests. Following the overthrow of Batista by the 26th of July Movement (26JM), Che became heavily involved in the rebuilding of Cuba in Castro’s new revolutionary government. At the height of his responsibility, Che was everything from the Minister of Industries, Finance Minister, President of the National Bank, and diplomat, travelling across the world to deliver the messages of the new socialist Cuba. This gave him tremendous impact in terms of public economic policy. From collectivization of production and worker participation, to literacy campaigns and other educational programs, Che had his fingerprints all over early strategic policy actions that would affect the outcome of the quality of life of Cubans for decades.  

Little is also made of Guevara’s personal life, of which he had plenty to note. Born to an aristocratic family in Argentina, Che struggled with asthma from the time he was 3 years old, a struggle that we would continue to have until his death. But Che wanted to leave Argentina, as noted his first wife Hilda Gadea in her memoir, My Life with Che: The Making of a Revolutionary. “He wanted to walk the world and return to his country after ten years.” Che also had a very close relationship with his mother, as Gadea says, “…there was always a tone of admiration and deep affection for the ‘old lady’ a term, he explained, that the Argentines use for parents.” In Che’s early quests across Latin America to become a true revolutionary, he ended up in Guatemala—a country which had recently democratically elected a new president, Jacobo Arbenz, who had put into place a series of socialist land reforms and redistributions. It was in Guatemala where Che would be introduced to Gadea, who was a political exile from Peru, where she was a militant for the Peruvian party of the democratic left APRA (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance). Working for the Institute for Public Works in the Department of Economic Studies in Guatemala, Gadea was well connected with the Guatemalan government, and highly involved in revolutionary socialist politics. Built upon their mutual interests in creating revolution and overturning capitalist imperialism, Gadea and Guevara would get married in Mexico in 1955, following the fall of the Arbenz government. There, she would be the one to introduce Che to Fidel Castro, and the other members of the 26JM. But after Che left for Cuba in 1959 on the Granma, their marriage would deteriorate—with Che asking for a divorce in 1959, after he met his second wife, Aleida March during the revolution. Aleida was also highly politically active, and met Che as a member of the urban underground movement within the 26JM. She would serve as Che’s personal assistant in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, and was continually active within the Cuban government for decades after the revolution. Aleida’s adventures with Che after the revolution are chronicled in her memoir, Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara. Clearly, women were a large and influential part of Che’s life both before, after, and during the revolution, and it is this aspect of his life, alongside his social policies which highly affected women in Cuba, that this paper will delve into specifically. 

In the traditional narrative surrounding Che, the narrative describing him an emotionless, brave, and strong revolutionary hero, he could be perceived within the framework of “machismo.” While the origins of “machismo” and its first uses are disputed, it is most commonly known as describing a male personality type and a societal structure within Latin America. Bravery, confidence, stoicism, sex-obssesed and other traditionally male adjectives are used when describing what “machismo” entails in terms of personality traits. Sexually, the term refers to Latin American men as having an “expansive and almost uncontrollable” sexual appetite, thus inferring that the occurrence of extramarital affairs is frequent. Structurally, “machismo” was the social attitude that thought of women as not suited to work outside the family domain in many Latin American households. This patriarchal structure is demonstrated quite clearly with a common phrase in pre-revolution Cuba, “Women belong in the home, men belong in the street.” And not only was this structure evident in society itself, but the Cuban Revolution went under a similar gendering process as many other revolutions did at the time, utilizing feminine imagery. “These movements gave rise to a modern form of patriarchy in which the state (note that in Spanish it is preceded by a masculine adjective: el estado) assumed authority over the nation (family): la nación and la familia, both preceded by a feminine adjective.”  But how easily can Che fit under this umbrella term of Latin American masculinity, if at all, as we look further into not only his personal relationships, but also his public policies? In modern dialog, Che is seen as a revolutionary before a husband, a guerrilla tactician before a father—as he was trying to juggle all four at once. His personal legacy in Cuba is very much “men wanted to be like him while women wanted to be with him”—one that certainly points to a patriarchal complex. However, while many remember or know Che as a violent revolutionary leader, arguably his biggest contribution to Cuban society would be both his representation of Cuba on the world stage as a diplomat, alongside the policies he implemented domestically as the President of the National Bank, Finance Minister, and the Minister of Industries. In a time period that saw the rise of the nuclear family in the U.S—diminishing the role of many women in a rapidly industrializing society—Che’s writings and policies pointed to his feelings of wanting to equalize all aspects of Cuba, including that of the roles of men and women. By exploring the personal relationships Che Guevara had with his mother, wives, daughters, and friends alongside his public policies and goals for Cuban society, we can conclude that Che Guevara does not fit under the traditional structure of Latin American “machismo.” His close and personal female relationships are where we should start when establishing how he perceived and treated women. If he does not treat the women in his life with respect and equality, then it is possibly fruitless to interpret his policy decisions at all.

Che was a man who stuck to his morals and ethics above all else, and while his family never took precedence over his revolutionary project, he exhibited exceptional respect and love for everyone, from his wives and children, to the common person in Cuba. This high level of commitment to his cause, and ability to stick to his morals, is demonstrated throughout his multiple journals, letters, and speeches, along with the stories from his family and friends—he had a love in his heart for everything he cared about. As Che says in his consequential “Socialism and man in Cuba” article that I will touch on more later, “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” One of the most evident examples of Che choosing the movement over his family was what occurred only 10 days after the wedding of Che and Aleida. Che was scheduled to travel to the countries comprising the Bandung Pact—an alliance that would later form the Movement of Nonaligned Countries—and Aleida suggested that she accompany Che on the trip as his secretary. “He strongly rejected this idea. This taught me a lot. He argued that, apart from being his secretary, I was also his wife, and it would be seen as a privilege if I were to go on the trip with him, when other wives or girlfriends were not able to.” He never wanted to give special privileges to his family above the common people, as gaining personal power and influence was never the goal of the revolution—for Che, the goal would be to treat everyone as if they were part of his own family. This is one of the lesser known aspects of Che’s personality, as one of the biggest critiques of him is that he was incredibly power-hungry—as notes political writer and commentator Vargas Llosa, “Che’s lust for power had other ways of expressing itself besides murder…At every stage of his life his megalomania manifested itself in the predatory urge to take over other people’s lives and property, and to abolish their free will.” If Che had been as much of a “megalomaniac” as Llosa suggests, he certainly did not demonstrate it in either his public or private communications—quite often preaching the opposite. In a 1965 letter he wrote to all five of his children, he expressed this sentiment when wishing them to become revolutionaries as well. “Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world. This is the most beautiful quality in a revolutionary.” So while it is true that this love guided him to consistently choose the fight and revolution over his family, it is this exact commitment to his values that allowed him to see women not as domestic servants, but as intellectual counterparts. Margaret Randall, an American-born activist and academic who specializes in the lives and history of Cuba, concurs with this conclusion stating, “Even his marriages were absolutely subservient to his life as a revolutionary, a fact that must have been painful for his wives and children despite the fact that they shared his principles.” 

Che has a fairly easily traceable history when it comes to his personal relationships with women, and as we look into each one individually, we can see that he always sought out intellectual women with whom he could share ideas—thus leading him to be quite a bit more progressive than a “machismo” attitude would suggest. The first kind of relationship I will look at is familial, rather than romantic. It is quite possible, if not probable, that this view and treatment of women was heavily influenced by his own mother, Celia, who played a large part in Che’s interest in revolutionary politics. As I previously noted, Che had quite an admirable view of his mother—and as historian Paul J. Dosal describes, she was the communist of the Guevara household. “Ernesto’s mother, Celia, easily the most militant anti-Peronist in the house, favored the Democratic Union, a coalition of the Radical, Socialist, Communist, and Progressive Democrat parties that campaigned under the slogan ‘For Liberty, Against Nazism.’” And while he does not single out his mother specifically in his final farewell letter to his parents in 1965—written prior to his adventures in the Congo and Bolivia—her influence, his love for them, and his love for the cause, is quite evident: 

My Marxism has taken root and become purified. I believe in armed struggle as the only solution for those people who fight to free themselves, and I am consistent with my beliefs. May will call me an adventurer, and that I am—only one of a different sort: one who risks his skin to prove truths…I have loved you very much, only I have not known how to express my affection. I am extremely rigid in my actions, and I think that sometimes you did not understand me. I was not easy to understand me. Nevertheless, please believe me today.

Not only is the timing of this letter, right before his campaigns in the Congo and Bolivia, help prove a sincere farewell, but its content shows that it was very important to Che that his parents, and perhaps his mother most of all, knew what kind of man he had become. Another telling example of Che’s belief in the revolutionary and intellectual capabilities of women is shown in a letter he wrote to his eldest daughter, Hildita, on her 10th birthday in 1966:

Remember, there are many years of struggle ahead, and even when you are a woman, you will have to do your part in the struggle…You should fight to be among the best in school. The best in every sense, and you already know what that means; study and revolutionary attitude…I was not that way at your age, but I lived in a different society, where man was an enemy of man. Now you have the privilege of living in another era and you must be worthy of it.

Not only is this letter quite heavy in terms of content and expectations for a ten year old, but Che infers that since his daughter lives in “another era,” that she has more opportunities than he had—opportunities that the revolution may have helped create in Che’s eyes. While he discounts her gender with “even when you are a woman,” this seems like more of a reflection of the time period rather than one of Che himself. He clearly believed deeply in the abilities of his daughter to be a revolutionary, even at such a young age—regardless of her gender.

As for his romantic relationships with women, it is clear that Che sought out those who were intellectually his equal, women who could travel with him on his revolutionary journey. The first romantic relationship we have considerable information on is between Che and the aforementioned Hilda Gadea—and her first impression of Che could be seen as parallel to many of Che’s critics today. “On our first meeting, Guevara made a negative impression on me. He seemed superficial, egotistical, and conceited.” But this view quickly turned for Gadea, as she realized how much they had in common. While she was an experienced political activist—she was living in exile—she supposes in her memoir that it is around the time of their burgeoning friendship and romance that Che began to shape his own definitive political views:

Our perspectives on life and our role in society were in complete agreement…We were aware that we had received from society the benefits of knowledge and culture, and that whatever we had learned would learn in the future had to serve society…The fact is that I had been thinking that way for a long time; I had taken a definite political position, and that was why I was in exile. But it was during this time that Ernesto began to define his attitude toward these questions.

As this passage demonstrates, not only was Gadea someone who Che found intellectual companionship with, but he was also directly influenced by her beliefs and actions. And while Che had to inevitably leave Hilda on the Granma to join the 26JM, they kept in friendly contact—even after their inevitable divorce—as Che fell in love with Aleida March.

By the time Che met Aleida, he was already pretty set within his political and world views, but it did not stop him from seeking out a woman who was more than a pretty face in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. There are plenty of examples that may demonstrate Che’s respect and admiration for Aleida—but my favorite was prior to their marriage, while Aleida was acting as Che’s personal assistant, during the final weeks of the revolution. Che was getting agitated at the leader of a troop for closing off and barricading a road that was necessary to keep clear, and Aleida reminded Che of a small detail that he may have missed:

I whispered to Che that he himself had ordered the barricade be set up, but perhaps had been half asleep when he had done so. To my surprise he responded in a calm tone saying, yes, I was right…I sometimes think that this really cemented the bond between us. Che came to respect my forthrightness…He may not have had a companion with Sancho Panza’s wisdom and sagacity but he had one who was loyal and constant.

A leader who is a “megalomaniac,” power-hungry, and/or completely obsessed with his ego would not allow himself to be made look forgetful or stupid in front of a subordinate. But Che, even before getting involved romantically with Aleida, was highly respectful of what she had to say, even if it was at his expense. Aleida’s concluding remarks in her memoir regarding Che’s legacy run parallel with my thesis that he was, in fact, more than what the world portrayed him as:

I not only remember the brave man and resolute guerilla fighter that I always knew. I also think about other aspects of that remarkable human being of so many different dimensions, a man who gave himself completely to his love for humanity, a man who was finally assassinated in a brutal way, without his executioners ever considering the magnitude of what they were doing.”

So while it has been established that both of his wives had an incredibly positive views of Che, demonstrating his respect for them throughout their time together, it does not exactly prove that he was always faithful to them. A large part of the “machismo” attitude in Latin America is sexual—one woman at a time cannot satisfy the appetite. But once again, Che disappoints those who want to see him as a stereotype of a traditional sexist Latin American man, or simply a stereotype of a traditional man. In an early interaction in Guatemala, Che and Hilda were at a political rally, and saw a highly ranked Guatemalan official whom they had met previously, and Che made a pointed observation:

“‘Why is he going around with another woman?’ I answered: ‘Apparently he’s having problems with his wife.’…’Well,’ he (Che) said, ‘if they told me he was leaving his wife for somebody like you, a thinking woman, that would be all right; but to change one pretty face for another, for a man like him, a politician with other values, makes no sense.’”

Clearly, Che did not see too much value in women who were simply trophies to their men, and thus never considered the women that he was with to be such momentos. Therefore, without much evidence that we can see in Che’s adult life, we have to conclude that he was not much in the way of a “player”—despite how his appearance may make him seem like when his legend his retold. As Margaret Randall notes:

Having studied Che from a variety of directions, I don’t personally believe he was a serious womanizer…He didn’t drink, wasn’t known for extramarital affairs, and was always extremely critical of fellow combatants when they visited prostitutes. He never expressed derogatory views of women forced to sell their bodies; on the contrary, when he mentioned them it was always with an understanding of the social conditions that pushed them into that exploitative occupation.

Was Che a complete saint? Was he never rude or off-putting to any woman? Probably not. But from the evidence we have access too, it’s hard to make an argument for the opposite.

But what about platonic friendships? Did Che only give this kind of respect and recognition to those women he was romantically involved with, or related to by blood? If this were the case, it could be hard to show that Che had incredibly well-rounded relationships with women—but once again, Che exceeds all expectations. This is demonstrated clearly via Che’s friendship with a woman he met at medical school in Argentina in 1947, a friendship that he continued via sustained letter correspondence until his death. Berta Gilda ‘Tita’ Infante is described by Che’s brother in his memoir, Che, My Brother, as being Che’s “best friend” during school, and Dosal seconds this notion. “A cultured, attractive, and intelligent woman, Tita became Ernesto’s closest intellectual comrade. Through her, Ernesto escaped from the always crowded Guevara household and learned more about the ideology and practices of the Communist Youth, to which she belonged.” Following Che’s death, an Argentinian publication asked Tita to write about Che, and it is perhaps the most moving piece about Che I have encountered:

A mixture of timidity and self-assurance, maybe audacity, hid a deep intelligence and an insatiable desire to understand, and, deep down, an infinite capacity to love…It is difficult to hold such grandeur together: he was a figure of sensitivity and tenderness, of deep humanity. Too warmly human to be carved in stone. Too great for us to imagine him as one of us. Ernesto Guevara, however much he was Argentinian, was perhaps the most authentic citizen in the world.

Tragically, less than a decade after Che’s death, Tita committed suicide in 1976. According to Che’s brother, “It is said that she couldn’t survive the death of the man she had loved and admired.” While it could be debated whether or not Che ever had a romantic relationship with Tita, one thing is clear—he kept correspondence with her for over a decade, through two marriages and three revolutions. If this does not demonstrate a true friendship of two equals with mutual respect for one another, I am not exactly sure what would. 

After exploring Che’s personal relationships with women, it is now appropriate to get into exactly what he meant for Cuban women on the whole. And in order to understand what sort of changes Che brought to Cuba in terms of policy, we have to understand what life was like before the revolution, for women specifically. Quite unsurprisingly, life was not good for the average Cuban woman in the pre-revolution years under Batista. On the whole, half of the entire population lived in single-room slum housing or thatched huts, half did not have running water, and a quarter of the population was completely illiterate—and women were the ones who suffered the most under the effects of underdevelopment. In the educational system, discrimination based on gender was commonplace, as explained by Aleida March. “Often school could be a place of prejudice and other barriers. There was discrimination based on gender, and the school had a militaristic atmoshpere and authoritarian approach to dicipline. For example, the would close the windows to stop the girls from making contact with the boys.” In terms of jobs, only about 9.8 percent of women had jobs—and of that 9.8 percent, 70 percent were domestic servants who had to work long arduous hours for their employers. Many other young women had to become prostitutes out of desperation, catering to the growing tourism from the U.S, including military personnel and businessmen. Vilma Espin, an active fighter in the underground movement of the 26JM in Santiago de Cuba, and later in the Sierra Maestra, paints a horrifying picture of employment for women prior to the revolution:

Only on rare occasion were the doors of industry opened to women, generally in the textile and tobacco industries, where the bosses saw them as cheap labor, forcing them to work inhumanly long hours in unsanitary conditions…The misery produced by lack of work threw thousands of women from the countryside and the city onto the torturous and denigrating road of prostitution.

Pre-revolutionary Cuba, especially Havana, was a bedrock for “machismo” values in Latin America. But the beginning of the struggle against Batista in the early 1950s from the 26JM, and more specifically, the all-women’s front within the 26JM—the Marti Women’s Civic Front (FCMM)—offered Cuban women hope at a better future.

Women were highly involved in the revolution as soon as it began, and Che was a large proponent of their equal use alongside men within the movement. Nowhere is Che’s views on women’s role in the revolution more evident than in his most famous publication—Guerilla Warfare. In the section titled “The Role of the Woman,” Che lays out exactly how women can contribute to the revolutionary project as a guerrilla fighter:

The part that the woman can play in the development of a revolutionary process is of extraordinary importance. It is well to emphasize this, since in all our countries, with their colonial mentality, there is a certain underestimation of the woman which becomes a real discrimination against her…In the rigorous combatant life the woman is a companion who brings the qualitites appropriate to her sex, but she can work the same as a man and she can fight; she is weaker, but no less resistant than he. She can perform every class of combat task that a man can at a given moment…

In his formal writing here, which he intended to show to an outside audience, it clearly shows him pushing back against the traditional view of women as simply keeping to work around the house, teaching, and looking after the kids. He makes sure to note that they are an essential part to the revolution both on and off the battlefield—and even makes a point to say they can perform every combat task, not just combat support tasks such as carrying weapons or collecting taxes, the same as a man. And these were not just empty words coming from Che, as his writing in Guerrilla Warfare is taken directly from his experiences and successes during the Cuban Revolution. In a 1981 speech in Cuba, Fidel Castro described what it was like training male platoons alongside a platoon made up of women, and shared a particularly telling story demonstrating equal participation and ability of men and women in the guerilla ranks. “Some of our fighters wanted to know they had Springfields while the women were going to get M-1s. On more than one occasion I got so annoyed that I would answer, ‘Because they are better fighters than you are.’ And the truth is that they showed it…Their behavior was truly exceptional.”

From organizing demonstrations, collecting supplies for guerrillas, selling bonds to raise money, creating makeshift hospitals, and hiding revolutionaries in their houses, to serving as messengers, spies, and guerrilla fighters, women were clearly essential in the revolutionary struggle. As Espin explains, “During that unforgettable stage, women together with men participated in the two currents of the struggle—in the armed insurrection and in the underground—giving immense demonstrations of valor, self-sacrifice, and patriotism.” With almost 70,000 women involved in the revolutionary project by the end of the war, it made sense to form an all-inclusive women’s rights organization within the new revolutionary government. In 1960, this came in the form of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), finally giving women a platform to have a voice in the political process moving forward. But what were the main goals of women following the revolution? From the beginning, Espin explains there was a double goal for the Federation, “…to raise consciousness through ideological education, so that new tasks could be performed…to raise the ideological level through the tasks themselves…There was an intimate relationship between the work and the ideological education.” They wanted to raise the overall ideological, political and cultural level of Cuban women in order for them to be large participants in the new Cuban socialist project. Therefore, there was a high priority for women in Cuba to become more educated generally following the revolution, which was encouraged by the revolutionary leadership—especially by Che. Overall, emphasized Espin, “women began to demand their right to suffrage, protection on the job, and legal and economic equality with men.”

Beginning once Che became a member of the Council of Ministers in 1959, in six years of service to the Cuban government in multiple roles, he was able to directly influence public policy. We can see his effect on public policy in four distinct parts of the socialist Cuban project: education, jobs, land, and healthcare. And since these are perhaps the four most essential aspects of the socialization of a country, these policies obviously directly impacted the development of the political, cultural, and ideological participation of Cuban women.

Education was always a point of incredible emphasis for Che both during and after the revolution—not just simply out of principle, but out of need. The 1953 census showed that illiteracy was a huge problem in Cuba under Batista—60 percent of the population had three years’ schooling or less, 3.5 percent had a high school education, 1 percent had a university education, and the rural illiteracy rate above 10 years old was 41.7 percent, in comparison to 11 percent in the cities. Of course, illiteracy was not the only problem. The revolution triggered an exodus of professionals in all sections of the economy to the United States, resulting in an incredible shortage of high-skilled workers who were necessary for the success of social reforms. Describing the early days of the revolutionary government, Fidel said, “…there was nothing, no experience, no cadre, no engineers, no economists, no technicians hardly; when were left almost without doctors, because 3,000 of them left out of the 6,000 that had been in the country.” Che’s goals for education then—demonstrated here in the aforementioned newspaper article “Socialism and Man in Cuba”—were quite dependent on the participation of the entire Cuba population, despite what the title of the article might indicate:

In our case, direct education acquires a much greater importance…It is carried on by the state’s educational apparatus as a function of general, technical and ideological education through such agencies as the Ministry of Education and the party’s informational apparatus. Education takes hold among the masses and the foreseen new attitude tends to become a habit. The masses continue to make it their own and to influence those who have not yet educated themselves.

Che was obsessed with the idea of guerrillas being social reformers, as he believed this would be essential in the construction of a new society. Che would help build schools to keep soldiers occupied between combat and meals, giving literacy classes and general education. He would even bring in teachers and university students to help him provide these services to his troops, for both female and male members. In 1959, after the end of the war, the rebel army was transformed into the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), and Che was the head of training and education for the organization. He would write and introduce the Manual of Civic Training, stating that while it served soldiers, he wrote it for all Cubans—and it included, unsurprisingly, many Marxist and anti-capitalist concepts. 

Within 16 months of the revolutionary government, this new emphasis on education, directly influenced by Che, was starting to take effect. There was an increase in education spending by 10 percent which resulted in school capacity increasing by 25 percent, and staff increasing by 30 percent alongside the construction of 37 new schools. In comparison, in the previous 57 years of a relatively sovereign Cuba, there had only been one school built in Havana. Of course, this was simply the lead up to the introduction of the massive 1961 literacy campaign and adult education programs in Cuba, with the goal of eradicating basic illiteracy within one year—the program ended up teaching more than 700,000 Cubans how to read and write, signalling the promise of a socialized Cuba. Women were highly involved in this literacy campaign, both as students and teachers, focusing on the education of women from the countryside. 100,000 educated youths between the ages of 10 and 18 left their schools to go teach reading and writing in the countryside as brigadistas. Over half of these brigadistas were women, and of those being taught, 55 percent were women. Says Espin, “Delegations were set up throughout the Cuban countryside, the literacy campaign was begun, courses were given in cutting, sewing, crafts. Every activity initiated in the cities was duplicated in the rural zones.” There were courses for all types of education, from specialization to general reading, showing that Cuba was not only trying to restructure its education system for children, but was emphasizing adult education as well. “You had a course for everything. Everybody was studying. Workers, older people were contracted as teachers. When did this take place? Some were practical classes, for example minimum technique…Were the classes obligatory? No, but everybody went, because it was important…they even felt pride in studying.” Che idealized this attitude towards education and work. In a speech he gave to the Central Organization of Cuban Trade Unions (CTC) in 1962, he laid out the kind of future he saw for the workers in the Cuban economy. “Daily work, applied with creative enthusiasm, develops socialist consciousness in all of us. Productivity, more production, consciousness—these are the foundations upon which the new society can be built.”

Che was also instrumental in the planning and implementation of the Agrarian Reform Law in June of 1959, which involved confiscating unproductive plantations of over 1,000 acres. As explained by Cuban historian Antoni Kapcia, “The law’s radicalism lay in the fact of state intervention and the steady shift towards cooperativization and then collectivisation, all directly affecting American-owned property.” This law, alongside the Urban Reform Law and the nationalization of banks, were all policies that were favored by the FMC, as these laws “granted the people the benefits of their own wealth, a wealth which for so long had been plundered by the capitalists…Women, along with all our people, demanded the right to prepare themselves to be useful in defending their homeland.” Thus, as Che presided as the President of the National Bank, Finance Minister, and the Minister of Industries at the height of his power, “Guevara was central in driving the structural changes which transformed Cuba from its underdeveloped semi-colonial status to political and economic independence into the socialist bloc between 1959 and 1961.” These policies on combining education and work, alongside letting the workers get a real voice and stake in the means of production—in other words, collectivising production—did real good for increasing female literacy rates and female worker participation in traditionally male dominated sectors of the Cuban economy.

As he was still a trained doctor, perhaps the only part of the new Cuban socialist project that Che was qualified to influence policy for was that of healthcare. Prior to 1960, there were a lot of doctors and health infrastructure in Cuba. The island had more doctors per one thousand people than that of Britain, France, and the Netherlands, and its infant and regular mortality rates were incredibly low for a Latin American country. However, this healthcare system was incredibly inconsistent, especially in rural areas, and especially for women—about 80 percent of babies, for example, were not born in hospitals. Havana was the center of Cuban healthcare, as it was home to over half of Cuba’s physicians, and all but one of Cuba’s hospitals. This caused the rural infant mortality rate to be about 100 out of 1000 live births, which, if you made 1950s rural Cuba a modern country, would be the second highest current infant mortality rate—only ten deaths per thousand behind modern day Afghanistan. As I have previously noted, the concentration of these new socialist reforms were on improving the life of rural Cubans, with healthcare especially being no exception. And after the revolution, due mostly to “exodus” of half the doctors from the island, healthcare became an even bigger priority for the government, as disease and infant mortality rates continued to rise. While Che was not directly in charge of healthcare policy, he laid out the plans for a universal Cuban healthcare program during a speech to several hundred medical students and the Minister of Public Health, Commander Dr. Jose Machado, in August of 1960. “The work that is today entrusted to the Ministry of Health, to all the institutions of this type, is to organize public health in such a manner that aids the greatest possible number of people, institute a program of preventive medicine, and orient the public to the performance of hygienic practices.” Beginning in 1960, the Ministry of Health established a nationalized healthcare program that was highly regionalized and focused on access in rural areas. This included the creation of the Rural Medical Service, which helped distribute newly graduated physicians efficiently to remote areas across the island. 

While all of these economic and social policies were off to a great start in the first six years following the revolution, both Fidel and Che knew it would take years to see the full results of their preliminary reforms. But by the end of two decades, despite the economic and political effects of the U.S blockade and the Cold War in general, essentially every metric that quantifies the successes of the education, job, and healthcare outcomes showed drastic increases—especially for women. 

In education, the increase in literacy rate following the literacy campaign in 1961 was the most dramatic. By 1962, 96 percent of the Cuban population was literate in comparison to 76 percent in 1953—an increase that Che did live to see. In terms of educational level, according to the 1970 Cuban census, 71.2 percent of the population had three years of schooling or less, 5.3 percent had a high school education, and 2.9 percent had a university education—increases of 11.2, 1.8, and 1.9 percent respectively from 1953. Without the gender breakdown of educational levels in 1953 available, we can assume that because the percent of females that constituted university graduates increased from 37 to 41 percent from 1953 to 1970, that this growth can be attributed to increased female participation rather than male. By 1974, the percent of working women who had at least completed a high school education was 11 percent, in comparison to just 4.9 percent of men. Today, the adult literacy rate in Cuba is 99.75 percent, with the female literacy rate being higher than male—making Cuba one of the only countries in the world where this occurs. 

These dramatic literacy and educational level increases, of course, had a direct impact on Cuban women’s participation in the workforce. In 1975, 25 percent of the workforce were women, an increase of 15.2 percent from 1959. But these policies not only increased female participation in general, but changed the entire makeup of the female occupations on the whole. In 1959, 70 percent of women were domestic servants—while the majority of the rest were secretaries, nurses, and teachers, and an even smaller portion were textile and tobacco workers or prostitutes. But by 1975, women only represented 48.7 percent of service workers and 11.6 percent of manual workers, while 49.1, 67.5, and 15.5 percent of technicians, administrative workers, and managers were women, respectively. Essentially, by 1975, the largest portion of the 25 percent of women in the workforce worked either for the Ministry of Public Health or the Ministry of Education—rather than the domestic service industry—as doctors, nurses, and teachers. By 1987, women represented 36 percent of the workforce, and today represent about 40 percent. 

The results of the healthcare initiatives that began in 1960 are maybe Cuba’s biggest accomplishments to date. As a free socialized healthcare system guaranteed to all of its citizens, Cuba reduced the infant mortality rate from 37.3 per 1000 live births to 19.4 in 1975, and is now around 4.5—which is lower than the current level in the U.S. of 6.42. Life expectancy is also almost the exact same as the U.S. at around the age of 78, and the ratio of patients per doctor decreased from 1393 in 1970 to 147 today—243 lower than the U.S. The introduction of this system began a series of healthcare reforms that solidified the newly socialized medical system over the next decade and a half. For women, it meant the adoption of legalized abortion in 1965, advanced maternity rights laws in 1974 that universally provided eighteen weeks of guarenteed paid leave, and a great improvement in the quality of child care in general—childcare facilites almost doubled between 1975 and 1981. These laws were some of the first of their kind in Latin America, and they even exceeded the medical rights given to women in many “first world” countries:

When compared to other underdeveloped countries, the advances toward equality for women in Cuba have been truly dramatic. And on crucial questions like the right to paid maternity leaves, the availability of quality child care…the right to abortion and free medical care for all…Cuban women are ahead of their sisters in the industrialized capitalist countries.” 

Officially, the Cuban government added the concrete right to free healthcare in their constitution in 1976, and continues to keep the system to this day—while countries like the U.S are still trying to implement a way to give their citizens equal access to healthcare. 

Unfortunately, Che would not live to see all the fruits of his labor and ideas. Leaving for the Congo in secret in 1965, Che abandoned his work from the previous 6 years, leaving Castro to continue the Cuban project. But make no mistake, Che was essential in building the policy framework that produced the pillars of the Cuban socialist state, as Helen Yaffe, author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution confirms, “Guevara was central in driving the structural changes which transformed Cuba from its underdeveloped semi-colonial status to political and economic independence into the socialist bloc between 1959 and 1961.” This was the framework that promoted and produced female equality that drastically improved the quality of life for Cuban women. However, I do not want to make it seem as though Che and Fidel alone were responsible for this growing equality. In 1968, for example, the FMC began a huge new initiative to bring 100,000 women into the workforce full-time, going door to door talking to over 600,000 women. In 1960, the FMC had only 17,000 members—but by the time of its Third Congress in 1980, their membership rose to 2.5 million, or about 80 percent of all Cuban women over the age of 14. It was the growing political participation and influence of the FMC and Cuban women in general that directly impacted successes of the women’s equality movement in Cuba, triggered by the policies shaped by Che and the revolutionary government. 

The most consequential result of both Che’s guerrilla and public policies for women could be summed up simply as increased independence from men. Due to the aforementioned lack of opportunities for women in pre-revolutionary Cuba, along with the difficulty of getting a divorce, marriage was almost an economic necessity. “Millions of women in those days remained married to husbands they did not particularly like, or maybe even hated and feared, because they had no economic alternative.” But as Naty Revuelta—who was a member of the FCMM, and worked as a director of international relations for the Ministry of Culture—talked about in her chapter within Voices of Resistance, the revolution changed all of this: 

Nowadays in Cuba many men and women have decided not to get married or even live together. Since women no longer depend economically on their husbands, many will tell you, ‘Why marry? To have to cook for some man and wash his dirty underwear? No, not me. I prefer to have an affair, to have a relationship, but with him in his house and me in mine…

Naty’s experience is backed by an increase in divorce rates from 8.5 percent in 1959 to 30.2 percent in 1974, showing that women did in fact gain a lot of individual empowerment from the revolution. In a speech to the FMC in 1966, Fidel aptly summarizes and congratulates the immense progress Cuban women made throughout the revolutionary process. 

This revolution has really been two revolutions for women…discriminated against not only as workers but also as women, in that society of exploitation…discrimination will never be wiped out within the framework of capitalist society…(discrimination) can only be wiped out through socialist revolution which eradicates the exploitation of man by man.

While Che was not the one giving this speech, nor was he in attendance, this speech by Fidel has many echoes of Che’s chapter on women in Guerrilla Warfare. Capitalism was the true enemy of equality in every sense of the word for Che—economically, politically and socially. 

Through the exploration of Che’s personal relationships with women, from familial to romantic to platonic, Che could hardly ever be defined by any trait underlined in the traditional Latin American “machismo” structure. As a young revolutionary, women were both teachers and inspirations to Che—from his mother, to his first wife Hilda. As a guerrilla tactician, Che utilized women in almost the exact same format as men—and fell in love with a woman whom he was using as an assistant and advisor on the battlefield. And finally, as a bureaucrat, Che consistently sought gender equality through socialist policy. These social policies brought many rights to Cuban women that are not only hard to find in Latin America, but are still limited or non-existent in the U.S.—such as guaranteed paid maternity leave. If we consider a traditional definition of feminism as support of social, economic, and political equality between the genders, Che’s legacy should be considered as profoundly feminist. “Gradually, Cuban men are becoming less sexist,” reflects Naty Revuelta, “but it is a long, slow process.You can’t change centuries of patriarchal attitudes overnight. There are still many vestiges of our colonial and macho past.” Yes, while there is still a lot of progress to be made everywhere in the world in terms of gender equality, the revolutionary Cuban government took strides forward that few other countries have ever been willing to take. 


“Country Comparison: Infant Mortality Rate.” Central Intelligence Agency.

Dosal, Paul J. Comandante Che: Guerrilla Soldier, Commander, and Strategist, 1956-1967. Pennsylvania State University, 2003.

Farber, Samuel. “Women in Cuba: Education & Employment Before the Revolution.” Havana Times. December 16, 2011.

Gadea, Hilda. My Life with Che: The Making of a Revolutionary. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Gott, Richard. Cuba: A New History. Yale University Press, 2005.

Guevara, Che, and David Deutschmann. Che Guevara Reader: Writings on Guerilla Warfare, Politics and Revolution. Ocean, 2004.

Guevara, Che, I. F. Stone, and J. P. Morray. Guerrilla Warfare. Vintage Books, 1969.

Guevara, Juan Martin, Armelle Vincent, and Andrew Brown. Che, My Brother. Polity, 2017.

Keck, C. William, and Gail A. Reed. “The Curious Case of Cuba.” American Journal of Public Health 102, no. 8 (2012). doi:10.2105/ajph.2012.300822.

Llosa, Alvaro Vargas. The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty. Independent Institute, 2006.

Maloof, Judy. Voices of Resistance Testimonies of Cuban and Chilean Women. University Press of Kentucky, 2015.

McCall, Cecelia. “Women and Literacy: The Cuban Experience.” Journal of Reading 30, no. 4 (1987): 318-24.

Parker, Richard G. “Behaviour in Latin American Men: Implications for HIV/AIDS Interventions.” International Journal of STD & AIDS 7, no. 2_suppl (1996): 62-65. doi:10.1258/0956462961917663.

Randall, Margaret. Che on My Mind. Duke University Press, 2013.

Stone, Elizabeth. Women and the Cuban Revolution: Speeches & Documents by Fidel Castro, Vilma Espin & Others. Pathfinder Pr., 1981.

Torre, Aleida March De La. Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara. Ocean Press, 2012.

Torres, María De Los Ángeles. By Heart/De Memoria: Cuban Women’s Journeys in and out of Exile. Temple University Press, 2003.

Yaffe, Helen, and Meghnad Desai. Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *