The remote village where the Argentina-born revolutionary was executed is now a tourist attraction but the fortunes of his regional political heirs are on the wane
“On 3 November 1966, a middle-aged Uruguayan businessman named Adolfo Mena González 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, however, he was none other than Ernesto “Che” Guevara – the Argentina-born revolutionary who helped topple Cuba’s US-backed dictator, lectured the United States 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.”
Next Monday marks the 50th anniversary of Guevara’s death on 9 October 1967 – an event which Bolivia’s current left wing president, Evo Morales, will commemorate with a host of events including a “Relaunching of the Anti-Imperialist Struggle”.
But 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,” Jon Lee Anderson, author of the definitive 1997 biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, told the Guardian.
But 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 Che and his column of 47 men arrived in the arid, thorny Ñancahuazú region. They lost radio contact with Cuba, 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 United States soon got wind of Guevara’s presence and sent CIA agents and military advisers to assist the regime of René Barrientos.
On 31 August an army ambush wiped out half of Che’s forces. The remainder trudged towards the mountains in a desperate attempt to break out of the trap.
Che, prostrated by asthma, rode on a mule towards 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 a 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 with the Guardian, Prado recalled that moment. “I felt pity because he looked so poor, so tired, so dirty,” said Prado. “You couldn’t feel he was a hero, no way.”
Guevara and his captured comrade, Simeón “Willy” Cuba Sarabia, were escorted to La Higuera and held in separate rooms of the schoolhouse. Prado had several conversations with Guevara, and says 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,” he claimed.
When Guevara asked what would happen to him, Prado said he told the guerrilla that he would be court-martialled 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. According to Prado, orders came the next day to “get rid of him”.
A 27-year-old army sergeant, Mario Terán, 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, Che’s body – minus his hands – and his companions were buried in unmarked graves. They wouldn’t be found for 30 years.
Although Prado insisted 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.
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