Argentine-born East German communist revolutionary and spy. Played a prominent role in the Cuban government after the Cuban Revolution and in various Latin American revolutionary movements. She was the only woman to fight alongside Marxist guerrillas under Che Guevara during the Bolivian Insurgency (1966–1967) where she was killed in an ambush by CIA-assisted Bolivian Army Rangers.
Bunke was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the daughter of German communists Erich Bunke and Nadia Bider (who was of Polish descent). Her father Erich had joined the Communist Party of Germany in 1928 and fled with his wife to Argentina when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Her parents immediately joined the Argentine Communist Party, ensuring that Tamara and her brother Olaf would grow up in a highly charged political atmosphere. Their family home in Buenos Aires was often used for meetings, helping refugees, hiding publications and occasionally stashing weapons.
As a youth Bunke was a keen athlete and an excellent student, who developed a particular fondness for the folk music of South America.However in 1952, the family returned to East Germany and settled in Stalinstadt (later named Eisenhüttenstadt).
Bunke thrived in her new environment and began studying political science at Humboldt University in East Berlin. She soon joined the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany's youth organization, the Free German Youth (FGY). In addition, she also joined the World Federation of Democratic Youth, allowing her to attend the World Festival of Youth and Students in Vienna, Prague, Moscow and finally Havana, Cuba. Her keen interest in and familiarity with Latin America, along with her linguistic abilities (she spoke fluent Russian, English, Spanish and German),soon saw her translating on behalf of the FGY's International Department. In this capacity she entertained and translated for the growing stream of visitors from Cuba, following the victory of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
In 1960, at the age of 23, Bunke met the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. Guevara was visiting the East German city of Leipzig with a Cuban trade delegation and Bunke, who considered him a hero of hers, was assigned to him as an interpreter. Inspired by the Cuban Revolution, of which Guevara had become an international icon, Bunke came to live in Cuba in 1961. Inspired by the idealism of the Cuban revolution, she first sought out voluntary work, teaching and building homes and schools in the countryside. Her Cuban hosts soon began to notice the efficiency, discipline and good-natured sense of service that she possessed. As a result, she participated in work brigades, the militia, and the Cuban Literacy Campaign. She also worked in the Ministry of Education, the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples, and the Federation of Cuban Women.
Eventually she was selected for training to take part in Che's ill-fated guerrilla expedition to Bolivia entitled "Operation Fantasma". Guevara's goal was to spark a continent-wide revolutionary uprising into neighboring Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Peru and Chile; by creating "two, three, many Vietnams" in order to challenge American imperialism. In preparation, Guevara assigned Bunke to be trained by Dariel Alarcón Ramírez (known by his nom de guerre Benigno) in Pinar del Río in western Cuba. Guevara wanted her taught self-defense, such as how to use a knife, a submachine gun and a pistol; and how to send and receive telegraph transmissions and coded messages by radio. It was during this period that she took the name "Tania" as her nom de guerre. During her training in Cuba and later at a small farm on the outskirts of Prague, Bunke impressed the Cubans with her intelligence, stamina, and skill for espionage. Benigno for instance, has described her as "gracious, beautiful and kind, but also very tough." She further endeared herself to the Cubans by entertaining them in the training camp by playing Argentine folk songs on accordion or guitar. Moreover, as a very sociable person who could strike up friendships easily, the Cuban government realized that she possessed beneficial traits for her future work in Bolivia.
In October 1964, Bunke traveled to Bolivia under the name Laura Gutiérrez Bauer, as a secret agent for Guevara's last campaign. Her first mission was to gather intelligence on Bolivia's political elite and the strength of its armed forces. Posing as a right-wing folklore expert of Argentine background, she quickly found herself infiltrating high society and rubbing shoulders with the glitterati of Bolivia's academic and official circles.
Tactically, she was initially invaluable to Guevara's guerrillas because she used radio equipment hidden in a compartment behind the wall in her apartment to not only send coded messages to Fidel Castro in Havana; but to Guevara's guerrillas in the field by posing as a radio host giving encoded relationship advice to fictitious lovelorn couples.
In late 1966 however, the unreliability of many of her comrades in the urban network set up to support Che's guerrillas forced Bunke to travel to their rural camp at Ñancahuazú on a number of occasions. On one of these trips, a captured Bolivian communist gave away a safe house where Tania's jeep was parked in which she had left her address book. As a result, her cover was blown, and she now had no other choice than to join Guevara's armed guerrilla campaign. In this capacity she was in charge of rationing food and monitoring radio broadcasts.
Without Bunke as the guerrilla's contact to the outside world, the guerrillas then found themselves isolated. Bunke also soon found herself battling a high fever, a leg injury, and the painful effects of the Chigoe flea parasite. Consequently Guevara decided to try and send a group of 16 other ailing combatants, including Bunke, out of the mountains.
At 5:20 pm on August 31, 1967, Bunke's Joaquín lead guerrilla column was ambushed while crossing the Río Grande at Vado del Yeso. Tania was waist-deep in the water, with her M-1 carbine held above her head, when she was shot through the arm and the lung and killed along with eight of her fellow insurgents in quick succession. Her body was then carried downstream and only recovered by the Bolivian army several days later on September 6. When her piranha-eaten corpse was presented to Barrientos, the plan was to dump her in an unmarked grave with the rest of the guerrillas. However, the local campesino women demanded that as a woman, she be given a proper Christian burial.
When her death was announced over the radio, Guevara, still struggling through the jungles close by, refused to believe the news; suspecting it was army propaganda to demoralise him. Later, when Fidel Castro learned of her demise, he declared "Tania the guerrilla" a hero of the Cuban Revolution.
After the research of biographer Jon Lee Anderson led to the 1997 discovery of Che Guevara's Bolivian remains, Bunke's remains were also tracked down to an unmarked grave in a small pit on the periphery of the Vallegrande army base on October 13, 1998. They were transferred to Cuba and were interred in the Che Guevara Mausoleum in the city of Santa Clara, alongside those of Guevara himself and several other guerrillas killed during the Bolivian Insurgency (1966–1967).
Tamara Bunke is portrayed by German actress Franka Potente in Steven Soderbergh's 2008 biopic of Che Guevara, entitled Che.