On July 19, 1966, Argentine guerillero and key figure of the Cuban revolution Ernesto Che Guevara boarded a plane from Prague after spending several months in Czechoslovakia during a stay still shrouded in mystery.
A central figure in the revolution that toppled the Batista regime in Cuba in 1959, Guevara was put in charge of the island’s economic development and industrial recovery.
In a period marked by strong bonds between the two countries, when Prague served as an important training ground for Cuban intelligence operatives, Fidel Castro’s right-hand man first traveled to Czechoslovakia in 1960 as part of a trade delegation, meeting with high-ranking figures of the communist regime, including Premier Antonin Novotny.
He would meet numerous figures of Czechoslovakia’s political elite and intelligentsia as part of his government duties, including Czech writer Arnost Lustig who, after meeting him in Cuba in 1961, would write that he “did not look like a dangerous revolutionary for whose head distant governments would soon be willing to pay the biggest money.”
Incognito Che Guevara lands in Czechoslovakia
After stepping down from his official duties in Cuba, Che Guevara embarked on a global tour to spread the socialist revolution abroad. After a failed revolutionary coup in Congo and a brief stay in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, the Argentine guerillero arrived incognito in Prague in March 1966 to recuperate and plan his next mission, which would prove to be his last.
Disguised as a Uruguayan merchant and traveling under the pseudonym Ramon Benitez, the Che was unrecognizable upon his arrival in Czechoslovakia. Luis Garcia Gutierrez, a dentist and facial expert commissioned by Fidel Castro to make him as inconspicuous as possible, is to be credited with his physical transformation: reports suggest Che Guevara had short hair and cut his beard, wore fake glasses and fake teeth, on top of looking taller and fatter due to creative shoewear and clothing arrangements.
While some said he was suffering from bouts of depression at the time, others claimed his secretive stay was simply meant to allow him to regain his strength, and said that he spent most of his time resting, reading, writing (including his Critical Notes on Political Economy) and practice-shooting.
“Prague was an enchanting city; but the fact that we didn’t have much of an opportunity to enjoy it fully didn’t matter to us,” his wife Aleida said. “We had to maintain strict discipline, functioning in absolute secrecy. It was enough for us to simply be together again.”
“Everything is boring here”
Quoted by Czech daily Dnes, one of his friends Ulies Estrada gives a gloomier account of the Argentine doctor’s mood at the time. “Everything is boring here, grey and lifeless,” Estrada quoted him as saying. “This is not socialism, but the failure of socialism,” he allegedly said.
Numerous aspects of his Czechoslovak “holiday” remain shrouded in mystery, including the exact date of his arrival and the company he was in, although it is believed a group of Cubans and Czechs accompanied him and served as his guide. His Argentine-born, East-German girlfriend Tamara Bunke may also have stayed with him at some point, according to some reports.
Czechoslovak secret services themselves only learned of his sojourn in 1970, when Fidel Castro approached them to have a commemorative plaque installed at the house he stayed in in Ladvi, located some 20 kilometers south-east of Prague (pictured above).
“Che Guevara came to Prague to find some shelter, a concealed place, probably for a four-month long stay, because he was looking at some way how to travel from Cuba to the Third World. So, it was only a short stay in a place that could help him again to fight for the revolution”, said historian Prokop Tomek.
Prague, a global hub for communist spies and revolutionaries
Previously owned by Jaroslav Krejci, head of the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during the Second World War, the Ladvi villa had later been nationalized by the communist regime and was used as a safe-house for Operation Manuel, where Cuban and other Latin American revolutionaries stayed in transit or hideout.
Che Guevara was not the only notorious agent to stay in Prague, which also welcomed famous British double agent Kim Philby and Ramon Mercader, the assassin of Trotsky, for brief stays.
Leaving Prague for Havana via Moscow in July 1966, Ernesto Che Guevara traveled in November that same year to Bolivia for his last mission. Injured and captured by the Bolivian army, he was executed on October 9, 1967, at the age of 39.
The novel “The Dreamlife of Ernesto G.” (“La vie rêvée d’Ernesto G.” in its original French title) by Jean-Michel Guenassia is loosely based on the revolutionary’s stay in the Central Bohemian countryside.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.