On Che’s Trail

Part 4 of Solidarity and Resistance: 50 Years with Che

Bolivia drew me to her for the first time in April 2010. I had two goals: a) to participate in the People’s World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth; b) to see some of “Che’s route”, the area in Santa Cruz de la Sierra province where Che and 36 other liberationists died fighting. They had hoped to open up the second of “two, three, many Vietnams.”

As Che noted in his Bolivia Diary, April 13, 1967: “Maybe we are attending the first episode of a new Vietnam”, he wrote after learning that US army “advisors” were in Bolivia to assist in his capture.

President Evo Morales, an admirer of Che, had initiated the people’s climate conference as a response to the failed United Nations COP15 climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009. The Copenhagen Accord was strongly biased in favor of the rich governments and transnational capitalist corporations that continue business as usual: extracting unlimited profits from human labor and natural resources while contaminating Mother Earth with its gaseous emissions and devastating wars.

I knew personally that President Morales was seriously upset with the lack of attention given to diminishing the poisoning of the earth, because I had worked with him as a media advisor during the Copenhagen conference. He was furious with capitalism’s greed and unconcern for life.

A friend from California, Jaime Smith, and his girl friend, Lorena, joined me at Cochabamba in central Bolivia where Evo had been a leader of the coca-leaf grower-workers association. It was a unique and exhilarating experience to be with so many people—35,000 from 147 countries—and all the more so because we could agree that the root cause of the devastating climate changes is due to the contaminating nature of the capitalist economy.

At the inauguration, on April 20, President Morales recommended that we eat and drink more healthily. When we produce and eat healthy food (ecologically grown), we also contaminate the earth less. Coca-Cola was among products he suggested we not consume. Evo recounted a story about plumbers using Coca-Cola to unplug stopped up toilets because it has so much acid in it. He recommended instead that we drink chica, a fermented corn drink.

I thought Evo missed an opportunity here to plug Coca-Colla, which a new national firm had just begun producing. The soda, advertised as containing energizing coca from coca leaves, was on sale at the conference. The Empire’s Enjoy Coca-Cola warring falsetto is now challenged by Inca descendents’ coca-leaves.

I also thought that Evo could have mentioned other good reasons to boycott Coca-Cola, such as its hiring paramilitaries in Colombia and Guatemala to murder its workers who seek better working conditions and who join unions; and in India where its firm drains the soil of its water and nutrients and causes hundreds of thousands of farmers to quit their land.

Boycotting Coca-Cola for me began when I saw on TV a huge billboard in Vietnam’s countryside with the smiling blonde “Enjoying” Coca-Cola while US napalm was dropped on peasants behind the perverse advertisement.

We can’t boycott all the products sold by capitalist monopolies—hardly any corporation is morally better than another—but when workers of a corporation themselves ask us to do so then our solidarity morality leaves us no choice. Colombia’s SINALTRAINAL union has so asked the world’s citizens since it began a boycott of Coca-Cola in 2001, after the firm had murdered several workers and family members. The struggle still goes on, now with two dozen murdered in Colombia and Guatemala. Coca-Cola bottling companies in Brazil, Bolivia, Philippines, Zimbabwe and Turkey have also used torture and murder.

In Denmark, I helped convince some small political organizations to stop buying and selling the “drink of the death squads”; a few local union branches did the same. At this writing, about 200 universities in several countries have rejected it’s presence on their campuses. This includes such prestigious names as: Harvard and Oxford.

David Rovics sings Coke is the drink of the death squads

What are you gonna do/
We can let Coke run the world and see what future that will bring/
Or we can drink juice and smash the state
Now that’s the REAL THING!

For the week we were at the Cochabamba climate conference, Che’s image looked at us from placards, pamphlets and books while we discussed and debated what could be done about the destruction of Mother Earth. Thousands participated in several seminars and in 17 workshops. These are some of the key points we arrived at:

  • “Capitalism as a patriarchal system of endless growth is incompatible with life on this finite planet…the alternatives [to both capitalism and the Soviet experience with a predatory production system] must lead to a profound transformation of civilization.”
  • Instead of living a capitalistic lifestyle—the “live better” greed creed—let us develop the indigenous concept of “living well”. This enhances the environment holistically and encourages meeting everyone’s basic needs.
  • Demand that the United Nations force the rich nations to reduce their CO2 emissions by 50% of 1990 levels no latter than 2017.
  • These nations must use at least 6% of their Gross Domestic Product, much less than they use for wars, for mitigation of and adaptation to climate changes in the developing world.
  • Recognize the universal rights of Mother Earth: the right to all life, clean water and air. Every human being is responsible for respecting and living in harmony. Guarantee peace and eliminate nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Decolonize the atmospheric space.
  • Conduct a worldwide referendum of five points concerning how to protect nature: agree or not to eliminating the capitalist economy; transfer all financing for wars to finance the defense of mother earth; free our territories of troops and military bases; create an International Climate and Environmental Justice Tribunal to judge and sanction contaminating nations and firms.
  • “Capitalism responds through militarization, repression and war to the resistance of the people. It requires a potent military industry, the militarization of societies and war as conditions necessary for its process of accumulation as well as for its control over territories, mineral and energy resources, and to suppress the struggles of the people. Wars, through their direct impact on the environment (massive consumption of combustible fossil fuels, oil spills, GHG emissions, impoverished uranium contamination, white phosphorus, etc.) have become one of the primary destroyers of Mother Earth.”

En Route

After the conference, Jaime, Lorena and I boarded a modern bus and set out for Vallegrande where Che and other guerrillas had been secretly buried, October 10, 1967.

Three decades later, their remains were discovered. On June 28, 1997, seven bodies were found. When exhumed, one proved to be Che’s. In order to make a positive fingerprint comparison, the murderers sawed off Che’s hands. When the exhumed cadaver without hands was DNA tested, as was its teeth, it could be positively identified as Che’s. On July 12th, the remains of all seven were sent to Cuba. In time, the remains of a total of 30 guerrillas were exhumed and sent to Cuba where a memorial was built beside the Che museum in Santa Clara.

At the time of these liberation efforts, General René Barrientos was in power. In 1964, he had overthrown an elected president, Victor Paz Estenssoro, who was not a militarist. Naturally, the CIA backed Barrientos. Oddly enough, Barrientos made a left-leaning friend, Antonio Arguedas, Minister of the Interior. After Che’s murder, Arguedas acquired his cut off hands and a copy of his Bolivia diary. Some months later, Arguedas saw to it that both the hands and the diary got to the Cuban government. Among his assistants were friends in the Bolivian Communist Party. Their leader, Mario Monje, had refused to aid Che, going back on his earlier word to both Che and Fidel. This was a costly betrayal.1

When Morales became president, he proclaimed Che Route as an attraction for visitors from near and far. Some even made a several day pilgrimage out of it.

On the road, we stopped at Samaipata, a small town that a guerrilla column had occupied briefly. They captured the army’s little garrison with the loss of one army soldier. Although the people were curious about the guerrillas, and respected payment in cash, they were leery about them. Of the 48 guerrillas in the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional de Bolivia-National Liberation Army) none of them came from the Santa Cruz province where the rich still maintain political power.2

When we got to Vallegrande, a town of 27,000 people, we arranged for a guided tour at the Che museum and then ate a tasty meal at María Tereza’s Café Galería de Arte. Her husband is a painter whose images of Che hang on the walls. María Tereza thinks well of Che and is proud of her father, who was jailed by the military dictator General Hugo Banzar after he grabbed power, in August 1971, from General Juan José Torres. María’s father, Dr. Gustavo C. Cárdenas Cabrera, had been mayor of the town when the more liberal Torres was president for ten months. General Torres had tolerated the “subversive” act committed by Mayor Cárdenas: that of naming the principle street, “Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara”!

The next day, our well-informed guide, Adalid, showed us the Hospital Nuestro Señor de Malta laundry room where Che’s body was brought and laid on display. This small room is now covered with graffiti honoring Che as the liberator who never dies. Che’s murderers had buried him secretly in the vain hope that he would not only physically disappear but that his memory would as well.

From there we drove a short distance to a countryside controlled by the military. It was here that the remains of 121 cadavers were eventually dug up. Thirty of these could be identified as Che and his men and Tania. The other 91 had been murdered for other reasons.

Che’s small group had been discovered close to La Higuera by 180 Bolivian soldiers. Che was captured after being wounded in the leg, his rifle smashed out of commission by a soldier’s bullet, his pistol out of bullets. The Bolivians had been assisted by two CIA agents. One of them was Felix Rodriguez, a Cuban exile counterrevolutionary who was part of the invasion force at the Bay of Pigs. Today, he lives a “hero’s life in Miami, displaying to the curious a wristwatch of Che’s.

Excavation of the land to find these bodies had started after writer Jon Lee Anderson questioned General Mario Vargas Salinas, in November1995, about what happened to Che’s body. Vargas was a captain at the time he pursued the ELN. Captain Vargas had been present when Che and the others were buried under an old airfield runway. After nearly 30 years, the general told the long kept secret, hoping to find reconciliation.

The then President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada dismissed the statement as one spoken “between whiskey and whiskey”. Anderson held a news conference and said that he had a tape recording of the conversation, which occurred between “coffee and coffee”. Vargas then admitted the truth and the president ordered the area be dug up.3

A simply made mausoleum encompasses the graves of Che and six others: three Cubans, two Bolivians and one Peruvian. Four of the seven killed from this battle were executed after capture. The guerrillas never executed any prisoner taken. That was also the moral policy of Che, Fidel and the other Cubans during the Cuban revolutionary. In fact, when soldiers were wounded and captured, Che or another doctor treated their wounds.

Nearby is a site of bodies of other guerrillas, who had been mowed down in an ambush directed by Captain Vargas. He had a peasant snitch. These guerrillas, including Tania, had been in “Joaquin’s” column (Juan Vitalio Acuña), which had gotten separated from Che’s group. Seven were killed as they crossed a river at Vado de Yeso; two more were captured and then assassinated. Now, each grave has well kept roses and plants. A cow or two may come in, however. There are no guards.

While Lorena took photographs and Jaime sat alone on a wall deep in thought, I asked Adalid about how residents here feel about Che and the other guerrillas today.

“I’d say the majority in Vallegrande is indifferent, a few are even against him, and about one-third are sympathetic. La Higuera is very small, and most there think well of him, even to the point of worshipping him. Some do here, too.”

Susana Osinaga, the nurse who cleaned Che’s corpse, saw something “miraculous” about his “strong eyes, his beard and long hair.” She told reporters that she prays to Che for guidance. She asked him to heal her ailing daughter and he did. Other locals claim that they have found lost animals upon whispering Che Guevara’s name to the sky, or by lighting a candle to his memory.

Some of the hospital’s nuns and other local women also thought of Che as Christ-like. Some of them cut clumps of his hair for good luck charms. In various homes throughout Bolivia, Che’s portrait hangs alongside Christ and Catholic saints.

There are many others, however, who see him as evil, especially those belonging to the rich class or even indigenous people into denial about their ancestry. We met some of the latter people in the town of Villa Serrano, after leaving La Higuera. We saw many people dressed in typical indigenous peasant clothing. The few I spoke with, however, told me they were Spanish and not interested in talking about Che. Their eyes indicated displeasure at seeing my red t-shirt with Che’s image. One pointed to a man dressed in Western clothing. When I approached him, his eyes spoke belligerently.

“What are you doing here in that shirt? It is an insult to us to portray that man. You and other foreigners coming here are misinformed about him. Nor should you speak of us as `Indians´. We come from Spanish stock,” his strident voice lightened as he enunciated “Spanish stock”.

Back in La Higuera, a small town of about 30 families, we had visited the school house where Che was held and shot. In the next room, the Bolivian “Willy” (Simeón Cuba Sarabia) was assassinated. “El Chino”, the Peruvian Juan Pablo Chang Navarro, was also murdered that day. All three men were shot in parts of their body that could indicate they fell in battle.

The small school is now a museum containing Che’s M2 rifle, his leather brief case, various books and documents. “I prefer to die on my feet than live on my knees” is one of Che’s sayings written on the walls.

Outside are two statutes of Che, one with a Christian cross beside it. I doubt that Che would have been happy about such adoration. He was certainly not a religious believer.

We were shown to a medical clinic where Cuban doctors care for the residents. After Morales’ election, Cuban doctors care for millions of Bolivians. At that time, 2,600 were doing so.

Broad smiling Danay Glez met us alongside her circumspect doctor husband Roberto Sanchez. The clinic was well equipped with essential necessities brought from Cuba.

“We are responsible for 806 persons in this general area; about 90 in town,” Roberto stated.

“Besides caring for the people’s health, we teach them about computation, and about Che,” chimed in Danay. “Surprisingly, many people think that he came here to kill and rape civilians.”

Surprisingly also is that the story of Che and the ELN is not taught in the schools, not even since Morales’ election.

“We are so pleased to work here in the country where Che fought and died to free the Bolivian people,” Danay said. “This is the most satisfactory moment of my life. And to think that our medical technique and our doctors cured his killer! Yes, that is the way it was. Well, that is what we stand for: curing the sick. It gives satisfaction curing one more person.”

Incredibly, Cuban doctors had operated on Mario Terán, an old blind man, at a Santa Cruz hospital two years before. The Cuban medical creation, Operation Miracle, is an ophthalmologic rehabilitation program that can cure many causes of blindness, such as cataracts. It is performed free by Cuba and Venezuela.

Terán may not have been recognized at the hospital when he was operated on in August 2006. He was living under a pseudonym (Pedro Salazar). Nevertheless, he had his son pass a letter to the Santa Cruz largest daily, “El Deber”, in which he, the killer of Che, expressed gratitude to Fidel Castro because Cuban doctors had restored his eyesight.

Mario Terán had told “Paris Match”, in 1977, what Che had told him as Terán came to kill him.

“When I came in, Che was sitting on the bench. When he saw me he said, ‘You’ve come to kill me’. I couldn’t bring myself to fire. ‘Calm down’, he said: ‘Aim well! You are going to kill a man!’”

What a strange world we live in. Cuba’s revolutionaries, especially Che, are accused by the US and many other governments of being barbarous terrorist murderers. Yet this “terrorist” Caribbean island-country sends hundreds of thousands of professionals to help millions whilst the accusers send hundreds of thousand to kill millions in their profit wars.

In the spring of 2009, five years after the operation was developed, Cuba Coopera, a website belonging to Cuba’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, reported that Operation Miracle had benefited 1,500,000 people from 35 countries. 1,331,000 were from countries other than Cuba; and 266,743 had undergone surgery at Cuban facilities. Cuba with Venezuelan financing had also donated 60 ophthalmologic centers to Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, Mali and Angola. Today, about two million people can see thanks to Operation Miracle.

Besides the truth and myths about Che is “the curse of Che” as Anderson reported.

Some people in Vallegrande believe that Che has seen to it that six of the politicians and military officers who shared responsibility for his murder died violent deaths.

The first was the very president who ordered his murder. General René Barrientos was killed in a helicopter crash in April 1969. Inexplicably, the chopper just fell out of the sky.

The peasant, Honorato Rojas, who betrayed the second column of Che’s, was taken out later in 1969 by a second ELN (failed) attempt to start a revolution.

In 1971, Colonel Roberto Quintanilla, the intelligence chief who made Che’s fingerprints, was executed in Germany.

Lt. Col. Andrés Selich was directly involved in the capture and execution of Che. Selich later led a military revolt that put General Banzer in power. When he became disillusioned with Banzer, the dictator had thugs beat him to death, in 1973.

In late May, 1976, Colonel Joaquín Zenteno Anaya was shot down in Paris by an unknown group, “Che Guevara International Brigade”. Zenteno had been commander of the Eighth Army Division pursuing Che’s group. He spoke with Che at length after his capture and he kept his rifle. Zenteno received the order to murder Che, which he gave to his superior, Colonel Selich.

On June 2, 1976, an Argentine right-wing squad took care of “liberal” General Juan José Torres. Torres had cast his vote for Che’s execution. But the left did not kill him. He was killed because he was a populist ousted by a more pro-US general. He became a victim of the CIA’s Operation Condor. Interesting operations juxtaposition: miracle and condor.

The man who actually arrested Che, Gary Prado, became a general. Later he became paralyzed when he accidentally shot himself. And, as stated, the man who actually plugged Che became blind. Mystically, the “curse” took pity on that soldier and four decades later doctors following in Che’s footsteps cured him. Why did he survive and get cured—maybe because he was not an officer.

  • Read Part 1, 2, and 3.
    1. Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, p. 745. []
    2. Of the 48 guerrillas who fought between February and November 1967, 27 were Bolivians, 16 Cubans, three Peruvians, one German-Argentine (Haídee Tamara Bunke-Tania) and the Argentine (Cuban naturalized) Ernesto Che Guevara. Eleven survived, most of whom had been captured, tortured, imprisoned and later granted amnesty. The three Cuban survivors escaped Bolivia and found their way to Cuba. Nineteen Bolivians were killed: two drowned accidentally, five were assassinated after capture, one deserted and assassinated after capture, and 11 died in combat. Two of three Peruvians died in combat; one was assassinated. All 13 Cubans killed died in combat. Tania died in combat. In addition, two international solidarity activists were captured after meeting with Che in Bolivia. Frenchman Régis Debray and Argentine Ciro Bustos were tortured, sentenced to 30 years and served nearly three in prison before release. []
    3. Interview with Jon Lee Anderson by Jaime de la Hoz Simanaca. []

    Ron Ridenour is a veteran journalist and author of nine books, the latest is Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka. Read other articles by Ron, or visit Ron's website.