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His iconic image – the intense gaze and signature beret perched on top of a tangle of black hair – emblazons flags and t-shirts, bandanas and buttons. But how did Che Guevara, the Argentinian medical student turned Marxist revolutionary, become an enduring symbol of counterculture rebellion?
Researchers can discover clues to this mystery in secret Central Intelligence Agency reports on Guevara’s capture and execution in Bolivia.
A memorandum from CIA Director Richard Helms dated October 13, 1967 outlines the final moments of the guerilla leader’s life, from comments he made about the state of the Cuban economy and the political background of the country’s Prime Minister Fidel Castro, to his last words before being shot: “Tell my wife to remarry and tell Fidel Castro that the Revolution will again arise in the Americas.”
To his executioner, he said, “Remember, you are killing a man.”
Despite the scene of the interrogation, a “small dark schoolroom,” with his hands and wrists tied while “in front of him on the floor lay the corpses of two Cuban guerillas,” “[a]t no time during the period he was under observation did Guevara lose his composure,” Helms noted.
This document is one of many related to the execution of Guevara, and the U.S. government’s reaction to it (“I regard this as stupid,” White House aid Walt Rostow wrote in a memo to the president) available in the National Security Archive’s latest digital collection, CIA Covert Operations, Part III: From Kennedy to Nixon, 1961-1974.
In addition, first-hand reports about the assassination attempts on Castro and Rafael (El Jefe) Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic are included in the new DNSA collection, where researchers can also access documents that reveal covert support for Kurdish rebels and the CIA’s search for funds to bribe African dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic.
The documents also illuminate how the CIA stirred up economic trouble and labor unrest in Guiana while undertaking political action and propaganda to support an opposing politician handpicked by the U.S during the December 1964 elections.
Cuban operations are exposed throughout this collection in particularly stunning detail. They show that exile raids attacking Soviet merchant ships in the spring and summer of 1963 - as well as embarrassing sallies into Cuba - soured Washington enough to want to further disguise the American hand in Cuba. The documents chart the late 1963 decision by officials to re-orient the CIA’s anti-Cuba program to only support Cuban exile groups operating from outside the United States. After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, reporting on the continued infighting among Cuban exile groups, and their lack of impact on Cuba, President Johnson was finally convinced to halt the CIA’s Cuba program.
This set will also provide researchers with unprecedented coverage of deliberations of the CIA’s high command, ranging from minutes of the “Special Group” that approved covert operations throughout the world, to minutes of CIA directors’ daily staff meetings, to the notes of meetings with presidents Kennedy and Johnson that CIA Director John McCone took.
The two previous DNSA collections on CIA covert operations are: CIA Covert Operations: From Carter to Obama, 1977-2010 and CIA Covert Operations II: The Year of Intelligence, 1975.