The myth of the long-dead revolutionary Che Guevara lives on in unexpected places. The town where Che died profits from him his life. A president who invokes his spirit violently squelched alleged rebel opposition. Che has become immortal, his legacy controversial.
Adolfo Mena González has a secret.
It's the kind of secret that could
land him in Bolivian prison, a CIA
interrogation room, maybe even a
grave. He shakes off the nerves long
enough to get through security at the airport in La
Paz. Secret intact, he makes his way down Prado
Avenue. The aroma of fruit vendors, the chatter of
a crowded street, the Bolivian capital is alive with
The Argentine moves undetected among the crowds. He's home, sort of, back in Latin America. Mena checks into the Hotel Copacabana. Soon he'll morph again, adopt another alias. By the time he arrives in southeastern Bolivia three days later, Mena has become "Ramón." And in less than a year, "Fernando." But before all of these, he was Ernesto "Che" Guevara de la Serna. In fall 1966 when he passed through La Paz, Guevara topped the CIA's list of the world's most-wanted people.
The secret: Nov. 1966 – La Paz
Guevara is out to start one, two or even three Vietnam wars. He's a nightmare for the Johnson Administration: a Marxist revolutionary on the loose, roaming the globe intent on spreading armed revolt. Two years earlier he'd thundered anti-imperialist rhetoric at the 1964 United Nations Assembly, but now Guevara's in rural Bolivia, far removed from the spotlight. He has time to recruit, train and secretly prepare for what he believes will be the epicenter of a continental revolution.
Secluded in his new guerrilla training camp, Guevara opens his diary on Nov. 7, 1966. "A new stage begins today," he writes.
More than 40 years after Guevara jotted those words in his diary, a different revolution was rapidly approaching in Bolivia. Throngs of Indigenous people roared political slogans, ¡Viva Evo! and pleas to vote, ¡Evo, Sí! The 2005 election would be Evo Morales' second time running for president of Bolivia, but this time would be different. After gaining the coalesced support of the nation's Indigenous majority, this Aymara man stood on the cusp of history ready to begin the reign of sovereignty denied to his people for nearly 500 years. Bobbing in the sea of supporters was a familiar face, emblazoned on posters: Che Guevara.
The two men couldn't be less alike. Guevara's thirst for armed revolt ultimately cost his life in Bolivia at the orders of then-President René Barrientos Ortuño in 1967. Morales touted a different type of revolution, where ballots — not bullets — would sweep his administration into power. Yet in modern Bolivia, Guevara has become an icon, the driving force behind a small-town, tourist economy and a symbol of change in the presidential palace. In the four decades since he died, how did a failed, foreign, violent revolutionary become associated with an Indigenous Bolivian social movement?
Guevara entered Bolivia with a solidified idea of revolution; he would depart Bolivia butchered.
After his capture and execution by the
Bolivian army, Guevara's hands were amputated
and preserved as proof of his death. His handless
corpse was sloughed into a secret grave outside the
town of Vallegrande. The Bolivian army intended
to send a distinct message to Fidel Castro and his
government — Bolivia was not a playground for
"In their efforts to prove that they'd killed Che, the Bolivians accidentally created a martyr," said Michael Casey, a Wall Street Journal columnist and author of the book "Che's Afterlife."
On Oct. 9, 1967, Guevara's body was flown from the small town of La Higuera, where he was killed, down to the much larger Vallegrande. Medical staff at the hospital embalmed and cleaned the corpse. They trimmed Guevara's hair and beard so he could be easily identified by the swarm of international press descending on the area.
Guevara stares through time from the postmortem photos snapped in Vallegrande. The defeated revolutionary lies on a laundry room table, eyes open, locked in a stoic gaze as a frenzy of reporters and crowds of locals scrambled to catch a last glimpse of history. After their publication, the death photos were compared to two famous paintings; Rembrandt's "Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp," circa 1632 and Mantegna's "Lamentation over the Dead Christ," circa 1490.
"If Che hadn't been who he was," Casey said, "No one would have made that comparison."
Guevara had become a celebrity by 1967. Quickly rising through the ranks of Castro's movement, the Argentine had earned himself honorary Cuban citizenship and a slew of highprofile official titles to accompany it, including Cuba's delegate to the United Nations.
After the success of the Cuban Revolution, the international press latched onto Guevara as an interesting figure in Castro's new government. Guevara had trained as a doctor in his native Buenos Aires, Argentina, but cast off his life of privilege to discover his own identity and eventually pursue revolutionary ideals.
"Che's life, in many ways, mirrors that of a religious martyr," Casey said. "It's the idea of casting off worldly possessions in a pursuit of an ideal and then paying the ultimate price for it."
In the intensely spiritual culture of Bolivia where Indigenous and Christian religions blend, Guevara was woven into local legend to represent a story of salvation and hope that people work into their own beliefs, Casey said.
The postmortem photos of Guevara were only the beginning of what would become the Che myth.
Stir of echoes: April 16, 2009 – Santa Cruz
Hernán Rossell Descarpontriez peers into the face of the dead man lying on the floor of his hotel. A secret early morning police raid left Rossell, the general manager of Hotel Las Américas in Santa Cruz, with three corpses lying on the floors of their rooms, an entire fourth floor of the hotel in shambles and a lobby full of distraught guests. These men were his guests, too. When the four Europeans and one Bolivian man had checked in, one used an alias. They stayed one night before a special squad of about 30 police officers stormed the hotel without at warrant at 4 a.m. April 16. An explosion was followed by a brief period of gunfire and then the assault left, along with two captives. Rossell arrived at the hotel as the local police pulled up on scene.
- A messy success
Indigenous Bolivians, despite their majority status, historically held little political power.
- A world of difference
Bolivians enter a new era and shed colonial chains, guided by their Indigenous heritage.
Bolivia lost its coast after the War of the Pacific in 1884, straining international relations and limiting economic growth.