Mon, Oct 09, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Fifty years after Guevara’s death, his legacy is waning

Graves and commemoration sites of the late Argentine communist guerrilla leader were being dusted off on the eve of the 50th anniversary of his death today — but leftist struggle has fallen out of fashion in South America

By Laurence Blair and Dan Collyns  /  The Guardian, LA HIGUERA AND SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia

Illustration: Yusha

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.

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