On Nov. 3, 1966, a middle-aged Uruguayan businessman named Adolfo Mena Gonzalez touched down in La Paz, Bolivia. He took a hotel suite overlooking the snowbound heights of Mount Illimani and photographed himself — overweight, balding, lit cigar in his mouth — in the mirror.
In reality, he was none other than Ernesto “Che” Guevara — the Argentina-born revolutionary who helped topple US-backed Cuban dictator and former Cuban president Fulgencio Batista, lectured the US from a UN lectern, penned treatises on Marxism and guerrilla warfare, and sought to export socialism worldwide.
Eleven months later, another image of Guevara would spread around the world, showing his scrawny, lifeless body on a stretcher, his full head of hair and beard unkempt, and his eyes wide open.
“They said he looked like Christ,” said Susana Osinaga, 87, a retired nurse who helped wash the dirt and blood off Guevara’s body. “People today still pray to Saint Ernesto. They say he grants miracles.”
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Guevara’s death on Oct. 9, 1967 — an event left-wing Bolivian President Evo Morales is to commemorate with a host of events, including a “Relaunching of the Anti-Imperialist Struggle.”
However, the date is also prompting less triumphant reflections on Guevara’s legacy at a time when the Latin American left — guerrillas and democrats alike — is in full retreat.
After a failed expedition to the Congo in 1965, Guevara alighted on Bolivia as the launchpad for regional, then global, revolution.
“In retrospect you can perceive a certain naivety; an almost crass idealism,” said Jon Lee Anderson, who wrote the definitive 1997 biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.
However, in the febrile atmosphere of the 1960s, anything seemed possible.
“If there was ever a time in the modern era to pull something like that off, it was then,” Anderson added.
Yet things went wrong soon after Guevara and his column of 47 men arrived in Bolivia’s arid, thorny Nancahuazu region. They lost radio contact with Cuba and supplies ran low. They were plagued by illness and vicious insects.
The Bolivian recruits resented taking orders from the battle-hardened Cubans and government propaganda sowed fear of the foreign interlopers among the campesinos. The US soon got wind of Guevara’s presence and sent CIA agents and military advisers to assist the regime of former Bolivian president Rene Barrientos Otuno.
On Aug. 31 an army ambush wiped out half of Guevara’s forces. The remainder trudged toward the mountains in a desperate attempt to break out of the trap.
Guevara, prostrated by asthma, rode on a mule toward the remote village of La Higuera. A local farmer informed on them — and amid a frantic gunfight, a bullet destroyed the barrel of Guevara’s carbine.
Wounded, he surrendered to a battalion of rangers — trained by US Green Berets — under the command of 28-year-old captain Gary Prado.
“Don’t shoot — I’m Che. I’m worth more to you alive,” Guevara reportedly said.
In an interview, Prado recalled that moment.
“I felt pity because he looked so poor, so tired, so dirty,” Prado said. “You couldn’t feel he was a hero, no way.”
Guevara and his captured comrade, Simeon “Willy” Cuba Sarabia, were escorted to La Higuera and held in separate rooms of the schoolhouse. Prado had several conversations with Guevara and said he brought him food, coffee and cigarettes.
“We always treated him with respect. We had nothing against him, even though we had [had] soldiers killed,” Prado said.
When Guevara asked what would happen to him, Prado said he told the guerrilla that he would be court-martialed in the city of Santa Cruz.
“He found it interesting, the idea that he might have a chance in court,” Prado said.
The trial never happened. Orders came the next day to “get rid of him,” Prado said.
A 27-year-old army sergeant, Mario Teran, volunteered for the job and ended Guevara’s life with two bursts of machine-gun fire. After being flown by helicopter to nearby Vallegrande and displayed for the world’s press, Guevara’s body — minus his hands — and his companions were buried in unmarked graves. They would not be found for 30 years.
Although Prado insisted that he had no role in Guevara’s killing, he maintained that such conduct was common at the time, citing the judicial executions overseen by Guevara after the Cuban revolution.
“He was executed, that was reprehensible, but you have to think about things at the moment that they happened… in that moment, it was justified,” he said.
Today, bullet marks score the rocks where most of Guevara’s Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional de Bolivia (ELN) comrades were gunned down. The boulder behind which Guevara sheltered is daubed with graffiti.
Farming tools rust among the overgrown foliage. The hut of an old woman mentioned by Guevara in his diary — today kept in a vault at the Central Bank of Bolivia — is in ruins. The village was once home to about 75 families; today 15 or so remain.
Cleto Zarate, a 14-year-old boy in 1967, remembers blocking up the door with mattresses as Guevara’s column stalked down the track outside. The guerrillas’ ammunition was poisoned, he said.
“We were told they were going to rape the women, steal the children and kill all the old people,” recalls Cresencia Zarate, then a 15-year-old newlywed.
Alcides Osinaga, 73, saw the captured Guevara pass by in rags, covered in filth, head bowed, bleeding from his wounds.
Despite his hostile reception at the time, Guevara’s fleeting presence here 50 years ago has given a lifeline to La Higuera. Half a dozen hostels have sprung up in the village.
“If Che hadn’t come here, none of us would have jobs,” explains a custodian of the renovated schoolhouse where Guevara was executed.
Inside, every surface is covered with tributes and keepsakes from pilgrims from all over the world.
A cottage “Che” industry has also taken root in Vallegrande. Guides ferry tourists around the hospital laundry where his body was displayed and the formerly unmarked tombs where he and his comrades were buried.
Gonzalo Guzman, a local guide, was part of the team who discovered Guevara’s remains, during a search sparked by Anderson’s biography.
“At the time I didn’t know who Che was. The Cuban investigators told us, ‘you’re now part of history,’” Guzman said inside the new mausoleum built over the gravesites.
This dribble of international tourism will turn into a flood in the days leading up to Oct. 9 this year. About 10,000 people are expected to descend on La Higuera and Vallegrande, among them social activists, regional leaders, Cuban functionaries — and Guevara’s children.
Festival-style infrastructure is being set up on the abandoned airstrip. Workers are smartening up a newly built Che Guevara Cultural Center and frantically improving the power lines to La Higuera, where a Cuban doctor and nurse are repainting Guevara-related monuments.
The anniversary comes at a tough time for Guevara’s inheritors. It follows five years in which progressive governments have fallen to center-right administrations in quick succession, including in neighboring Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Paraguay.
Venezuela — whose late president Hugo Chavez revived Guevara’s dream of a united, socialist continent — is now stalked by hunger, shortages of basic goods and a sky-high murder rate.
The “pink tide” leaders scheduled to gather in Bolivia next week — among them embattled former Argentine president Cristina Fernandez and Ecuadoran President Lenin Moreno — will make for a diminished group.
Guevara’s violent route toward social justice is also going out of fashion. After 53 years of armed struggle (and other, less noble activities), the largest rebel army in the region — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — handed in their weapons earlier this year.
Mexico’s Zapatista movement renounced violence in August, while the Maoist leaders of Peru’s Shining Path languish in jail. In Brazil, Uruguay and Central America, former guerrilla leaders have — in recent decades — traded bullets for ballots.
Guevara’s former comrades-in-arms are fast succumbing to a more implacable enemy than Washington: old age. Former Cuban president Fidel Castro, the steely political operator to Guevara’s hot-headed visionary, died late last year. His 89-year-old successor and brother, Raul Castro, has promised to step down early next year.
Attitudes are changing with the times. The US’ regional standing has diminished since US President Donald Trump assumed office, but according to the Pew Research Center, Latin Americans aged 18 to 29 are still considerably more likely to approve of the North American superpower than their elders, with 72 percent of young Brazilians viewing the US favorably this year.
The anniversary also comes at a turning point for Bolivia. After a decade of growth and rapid poverty reduction, a plunge in oil prices and a series of political blunders have cost Morales support.
Local politicians in Vallegrande — opponents of Morales — have done little to promote Guevara-related tourism, Guzman said.
At a civic event two weeks before the anniversary, a local councilor rattled off a list of local eminences.
“We don’t have to look abroad,” she said, in a pointed allusion to Guevara.
Members of Bolivia’s military have also protested about being forced to pay homage to the guerrillas who were once their sworn enemies.
For some, however, Guevara has lost none of his luster and his struggle in eastern Bolivia was not a fruitless enterprise.
“It all depends on how you measure success,” said Hector Urdaeta, coauthor of a book on Bolivia’s ELN and a leader of the country’s Guevarista Movement. “We don’t rule out armed struggle in the future.”
Guzman also defended the legacy of the man whose bones he helped to find.
“You can’t put Che down,” he said, walking among the ripe citrus, avocado and custard apple trees that now fill the ravine where the Argentine revolutionary fought his last battle. “For us, he’s a hero.”
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