October 8: Tomorrow, October 9, marks the 50th death anniversary of Argentina-born revolutionary Che Guevara.
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,” says Jon Lee Anderson, author of the definitive 1997 biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.
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,” adds Anderson.
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 United States soon got wind of Guevara’s whereabouts and sent CIA agents and military advisers to assist the regime in the hunt for the revolutionery.
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 was captured by 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.
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, but only respect,” Prado said.
Initial plans were to court martial Che in the city of Santa Cruz. However, 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, the bodies of Che’s and his companions were buried in unmarked graves. They wouldn’t be found for 30 years.
Today, bullet marks score the rocks where most of Guevara’s Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) comrades were gunned down. The boulder behind which Che sheltered is daubed with graffiti.
Farming tools rust among the overgrown foliage. The hut of an old woman mentioned by Che in his diary (today kept in a vault in the Central Bank of Bolivia) is in ruins.
Gonzalo Gúzman, a local guide, was part of the team who discovered Che’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,’” Gúzman says, inside the new mausoleum built over the gravesites.
This dribble of international tourism will turn into a flood in the days leading up to 9 October. Some 10,000 people are expected to descend on La Higuera and Vallegrande, among them social activists, regional leaders, Cuban functionaries – and Che’s children.
“You can’t put Che down,” Gúzman said, walking among the ripe citrus, avocado and custard apple trees that now fill the ravine where the Argentinian revolutionary fought his last battle. “For us, he’s a hero.”