CUBA: Castro's Brain

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At 14 he took his first brash step into politics as a member of a nationalistic youth group specializing in street brawls. Che finished high school with distinction, and then, moved by the suffering of his father's mother* as she lay dying of cancer, decided to become a doctor. At 19 he entered the University of Buenos Aires Medical School.

Pinned Galahad. By this time his parents were separated, and young Che spent most of his time with his mother and her friends, who ranged the political spectrum from parlor pink to Moscow red. He battled in the streets against Dictator Juan Peron and played amateur rugby at top speed, wheezing to the sidelines from time to time for whiffs from the inevitable atomizer. He still bitterly recalls one violent episode from this period. Sitting in a Buenos Aires bar one evening, Che was annoyed when a U.S. merchant seaman made a pass at a girl near Che. Che tried to get up to swing at him, but the bigger Yankee sailor slugged him twice, then casually put a giant paw on top of his head and pinned him down. Like a butterfly on a pin, a humiliated Che struggled until the crowd hustled the sailor away.

In 1952 he broke off his studies and set off with a friend on a motorcycle tour of South America. They crossed the Andes, abandoned their motorcycle when it gave out in Chile, then hitchhiked to Peru and Ecuador, winding up with jobs as male nurses in a leper colony near the source of the Amazon. They floated downriver into Colombia, crossed into Venezuela, and snagged a lift to Miami aboard a plane carrying race horses from Buenos Aires. Che was turned back by U.S. immigration authorities. He headed home to finish the seven-year course of studies in three years. When he graduated in 1953, Peron was grabbing doctors for the army. Che ducked out of the country and set off on the long revolutionary road to Cuba.

The road led first to Bolivia, then in the throes of a historic revolution that dispossessed the rich of land and tin mines. In a filthy brown jacket, stained necktie and scuffed shoes, Che became a member of a group of coffeehouse leftists. He went on to Peru, Ecuador, Panama and finally to Costa Rica, a democratic haven for exiles from all over Latin America. Among them were five or six young Cubans who had been led in an attack on a Santiago barracks by a beardless young rebel named Fidel Castro on July 26, 1953—an anniversary that Fidel Castro celebrated last week by gathering 100,000 Cubans in his original mountain stronghold, the Sierra Maestra, for speeches and fiestas.

By this time Che had picked up a strong dislike for the U.S. and called himself a Marxist. But he did not have a clear political line, and there is no conclusive evidence that he ever got Communist indoctrination.

From Dislike to Hate. Che's progress, mostly by foot, continued to Guatemala in December 1953. The country was then controlled by the Communists around President Jacobo Arbenz, and was a natural haven for Latin American leftists of all degrees. Che fitted right in. His closest friend was a plump, almond-eyed young Peruvian girl named Hilda Gadea, an ardent, exiled member of Apra, Peru's leftist revolutionary movement. Hilda lent Che money to pay his room rent, kept him fed. For a while he peddled encyclopedias, then got a minor job in Guatemala's agrarian-reform program.

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