Over the years I have occasionally happened upon the legendary Argentinian revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara—or more accurately, since Che died in 1967, I have happened upon his posthumous image and maybe even spirit. Che is everywhere, from the fronts of t-shirts, to movies and books, to storefronts in remote Mexican coastal towns, as I recently discovered. The following is a story about one of my encounters with Che years ago in Bolivia.
Depending on one’s politics, Che Guevara is either a revolutionary hero and worldwide icon, or a Marxist fanatic and war criminal who was responsible for the execution of hundreds of people following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Whatever one’s perspective is, however, one thing is universally agreed upon: the Argentinian doctor-turned-revolutionary did not live a boring and conventional life. Born into Buenos Aires high society and wealth, he shunned his privileged background to embark, after finishing medical school, on epic travels around South America on motorcycle with his amigo Alberto Granado (Chronicled in Che’s “Motorcycle Dairies,” later made into a famous film). The poverty he witnessed along the way, and his personal experience during the CIA-engineered coup d’etat against democratically-elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, radicalized the young man. He became a committed Marxist revolutionary.
While living in Mexico City in 1955, he met a young Cuban lawyer named Fidel Castro who convinced him to join his band of revolutionaries in an expedition to invade Cuba and overthrow the right wing and corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
Castro, Che, and 82 other men landed on Cuban shores on December 2, 1956. They spent the next four years fighting a guerrilla war against Batista’s forces until they finally triumphed in 1959, rolling into the capital of Havana as revolutionary liberators. Castro became supreme leader of the island nation while Che was appointed first as Minister of Industries, then as Cuba’s Minister of Finance, and later a top diplomat.
Friction and political disagreements between Che and Castro eventually forced Castro to relieve Che of his official state duties. In 1965, he was dispatched to command Cuban forces fighting in Congo, Africa as a kind of exile. Che spent a year in Congo fighting a pointless war against CIA-backed anti-communist forces. He then secretly returned to Cuba and plotted his next and final adventure: the infiltration of Bolivia by him and follow Cuban revolutionaries in order to spark a Communist revolution there.
In 2004 I traveled to Bolivia, spending about four months in country. During my travels between the tropical city of Santa Cruz and the economic capital of the country, Sucre, I stopped off in a little town in the mountains named Vallegrande.
It was at a small village outside of Vallegrande, name La Higuera, where Che and his band of Cuban guerrillas made their last stand against CIA-trained Bolivian Army Rangers who had been sent to hunt down the foreign revolutionaries. Che was captured and, on orders of the CIA, was executed in a small mud hut in La Higuera. Legend has it that his defiant last words while facing his executioner, a Bolivian Army volunteer, were, “I see you have come to kill me. Shoot, coward! You are only going to kill a man.”
His body was then helicoptered to Vallegrande where it was displayed in a laundry room for the world to see.
What happened next remained a state secret of Bolivia for thirty years. The bodies of Che and his comrades disappeared and were secretly buried in a mass grave under the small air strip outside of the town. This was to prevent the bodies from being repatriated back to Cuba where Che’s grave and memorial would no doubt attract mourners and sympathizers from all over the world.
It was not until 1997 that, thanks to the efforts of a journalist for the New Yorker magazine, Jon Lee Anderson, the bodies of Che and his comrades were finally discovered and repatriated back to their home country.
Arriving in Vallegrande at dusk, I checked into an inn situated in the the center of the small town. In the morning I hired a local taxi driver to take me around the area to sightsee. In went without saying that, among other things, I wanted to see the famed locations linked to the Cuban revolutionary.
First I visited the lavanderia, a dilapidated laundry house on the edge of town, where Che’s body was brought and displayed for the international press by the Bolivian authorities. There is a famous photo taken of Che laying lifeless on the washroom table, surrounded by Bolivian generals and soldiers. The lavanderia still appears just as it was on October 11, 1967 with the exception of much grafitti on the inside and outside walls.
Next the taxi driver and I headed over to the Vallegrande airport, which consists of a small dirt strip for light plans to land on. There, situated to the right of the strip was a deep hole in the ground about fifteen feet down and twelve feet wide. This was the mass grave where Che and his fallen comrades were secretly buried by Bolivian authorities, remaining undiscovered for thirty years.
At the bottom of this grave were stone markers that indicated the names, painted in white, where each body was found. There lay a stone that simply said, “Che.”
* For a much more detailed account of life of the Cuban revolutionary, I highly recommend Jon Lee Anderson’s Che: A Revolutionary Life