The late Che, still en vogue on 80th birthday

Argentine-born Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the physician who imprinted his forceful personality on revolution in Latin America during the second half of the 20th Century, would be turning 80 on Saturday had he survived the perils of his activism. ( dpa )

But despite his execution at age 39, he continues to have a strong imprint on Latin American politics. On Saturday, his followers will gather for the unveiling of a statue in his birthplace Rosario, some 250 kilometres up the Parana River from Buenos Aires.

Guevara, a key figure in Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution, was born on June 14, 1928 in the Argentine city of Rosario - an official date sometimes disputed by biographers who insist he was born exactly a month earlier.

Convinced that revolution was the appropriate method to fight social injustice and the US brand of capitalism, Guevara was a symbol of hope that Latin America would carry out fundamental change along its own lines - and a red flag to conservative counter-revolutionary dictatorships that plagued Latin American history during that period.

His path from an ailing childhood to imprinting his own ideas on Marxist ideology - called Guevarism - made him a rallying figure for socialist movements around the world.

At age 2, he suffered his first asthma attack. His relatively wealthy, progressive family with aristocratic roots moved to the mountains in the Argentine province of Cordoba, where Guevara lived until he turned 19.

The nationalist Peronist movement passed him by with little apparent effect during his high school years. But his early journeys around Argentina and South America 1950-1952, after he started studying medicine at Buenos Aires University, generated the crucial awakening.

"This aimless wandering through our 'Majuscule America' has changed me more than I thought," he wrote in his travel notes, which would later become the Motorcycle Diaries that Walter Salles turned into a film.

During his trip with Alberto Granado through Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela, Guevara made contact with the most deprived sectors of society and saw first-hand the economic and social inequalities rife in the region. They also inspired his first ruminations about a social movement that could unify all of Latin America.

With a medical degree in hand, Che embarked in 1953 on a second trip, with childhood friend Carlos "Calica" Ferrer. He went as far north as Guatemala, where he met his first wife, Hilda Gadea, and a group of Cuban exiles who gave him the nickname "Che" - a reference to the Argentine word used to call upon others, a sort of "hey."

By 1954, he arrived in Mexico with a clear commitment to socialist ideology, joining the Movimiento 26 de Julio led by the brothers Fidel and Raul Castro. He took part in the group's training to bring down Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

The 82-strong group disembarked in Cuba on December 2, 1956, aboard the yacht Granma. Che showed strong leadership as a doctor and a fighter, and Fidel Castro promoted him to commander of the guerrilla fighters that brought down Batista two years later.

Che Guevara became Castro's right-hand man, holding several high political, military and diplomatic positions and tackling industrialization and agrarian reform in Cuba. He was also instrumental in consolidating the crucial political and economic relationship with the Soviet Union.

In 1959, just a few days after formally divorcing his first wife, he married his second wife, comrade-in-arms Aleida March. With her he had four children, to add to a daughter he had had from his first marriage.

In his role as a revolutionary leader, Guevara travelled to international forums, seeking to export revolution and his idea of a "new socialist man" to the developing world. In 1965, he left Cuba to fight in the Congo alongside anti-Belgian revolutionaries until they were defeated by US-supported forces.

He bid farewell to Castro in a letter, in which his signature was accompanied by words that would later become a world catchphrase, "Hasta la victoria siempre" - "Always until victory."

During a secret return to Cuba, Guevara planned with Fidel a mission in Bolivia to lead a peasant and miners' revolt against the military regime and establish a beach-head for guerrilla warfare in the heart of South America.

The mission became his undoing. Guevara was captured and executed in La Higuera on October 9, 1967, by Bolivian soldiers with the help of the CIA.

His remains were found in 1997 and taken to a mausoleum in Santa Clara, Cuba.

For all the criticism that the figure of the late fighter has provoked, his following was strong enough to help sculptor Andres Zerneri make the Guevara statue out of 75,000 keys and other bronze objects donated by more than 15,000 people over the past two years.

The statue was paraded through Buenos Aires in May before its unveiling Saturday in Rosario.

More visibly, Che's legend lives on far beyond the small communist Cuba and his native Argentina in an image immortalized by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda in 1960 and found on countless posters and T-shirts around the world.

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