Bolivians haunted by Che Guevara’s legacy 40 years on

In the land of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s last stand, Bolivians are preparing to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the revolutionary’s death with a mixture of honour and hatred.

For many here, the Argentine-born doctor-turned-guerrilla leader who was executed at age 39 remains an iconic hero, a socialist ideologue who was snatched from life too soon and is even revered as a saint by some.

But for others in the country where Che was killed four decades ago, particularly the soldiers involved in Che’s capture, the occasion arouses feelings of bitterness and anger.

“We feel sick about this grand show that goes on every year on the anniversary of his death,” said Gary Prado (68), the commander of the elite army rangers unit that captured Che on October 8 1967.

“The homage that President Evo Morales pays him is an offence to the country’s dignity,” he said.

“Rather than honour a man who came to invade the country, we should honour the armed forces, the soldiers who defended the country.”

Che, who believed that armed revolutionary tactics were necessary to uproot the social and economic divide in Latin America that left an impoverished and exploited underclass, led a small clutch of rebels in Bolivia for 11 months.

His fighters took control of a remote swath of jungle with the aim of training a larger rebel army. Though they survived clashes, hunger and illness, they also encountered an unexpected lack of cooperation from local dissidents.

“He came here for our own good but the Bolivians betrayed him,” said tailor Jose Mujica (84), recalling how locals were harassed and threatened by soldiers who warned of consequences if they did not cooperate in the hunt for the rebel chief.

At the time, authorities even restricted the sale of cortisone in pharmacies because they had heard Guevara was suffering from worsening asthma and would probably need the medication as treatment.

The Bolivian army and two Cuban-American CIA agents captured Guevara in the village of La Higuera. He was taken to an abandoned school and the following afternoon, on October 9, he was summarily executed by Bolivian sergeant Mario Teran.

Susana Ocinaga, the nurse who washed the blood and mud from Guevara’s corpse at the hospital morgue, said his “wide-open eyes” have left an indelible imprint on her memory.

“I felt like he was watching me, that he was going to speak to me,” she recalled.

Now a 74-year-old grandmother, Ocinaga said that Guevara is “forever linked to Bolivia by his blood”, even though his remains, recovered in 1997, have been shipped to Cuba, where he played a key role in that country’s revolution of the 1950s.

Guevara detailed some of his difficulties, particularly lamenting the population’s overall lack of mobilisation, in his Bolivian Diary, which he kept from November 1966 until the day before his capture.

In La Higuera, where the cult of Che lives on today with effigies and slogans adorning many buildings and household walls, 63-year-old farmer Manuel Cortez recalled his “penetrating gaze”, which sometimes made the locals “afraid.”

“But in fact he was fighting for the poor people. I will never forget the commander,” he said.

A night-time march with the lighting of a tribute flame is planned in La Higuera on October 7. In neighbouring Vallegrande, where his remains were found, a political-themed ceremony is set for October 8.

But while many in Vallegrande still call him “Saint Ernesto”, others in Bolivia have capitalised on the iconic image of a mysterious tousled-hair rebel who glares out from T-shirts, coffee cups, posters and buttons around the world.

Those coming to the region to pay homage can follow a tourist route known as the “Ruta del Che,” or sip a coca and rum cocktail at a local restaurant emblazoned with posters of the late revolutionary. — AFP

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