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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 August, 2004, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Che Guevara legacy lives on in Bolivia
By David Atkinson
La Higuera, Bolivia

Mural of Che Guevara, Vallegrande hospital
Guevara is remembered in a mural at Vallegrande hospital where his body was taken
Life passes slowly for the people of La Higuera, a sleepy pueblo in a forgotten corner of Bolivia's eastern lowlands.

But this remote community harbours an uneasy heritage that is set to return to haunt the lives of its inhabitants: this is the place where the revolutionary icon Che Guevara was put to death.

Locals are bracing themselves for an invasion of Che pilgrims with the opening of the new Che Guevara Trail through the area on 8 October this year.

The trail leads by road from the burgeoning Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, via the Inca site of Samaipata, onto the villages of Vallegrande and La Higuera.

A $610,000 (£340,000), 36-month project, part financed by the UK government's Department for International Development (DFID), it represents one of the largest ever initiatives to bolster Bolivia's beleaguered tourism industry.

"I remember Che as very handsome; he had great presence and piercing eyes," says Julia Cortes, a 19-year-old trainee teacher at the tiny schoolhouse in La Higuera the day he was held captive.

Still living in La Higuera, she remembers her encounter with Che Guevara clearly and remains one of the last people to see him alive.

Julia Cortes
Che seemed to be a quiet, intelligent man. But people always try to benefit commercially from his name
Julia Cortes
Che had come to Bolivia in 1966 to start a social revolution. Instead of liberating the rural underclass, however, he was betrayed and, after being wounded in a gun battle, he was captured and held prisoner in the schoolhouse in La Higuera.

The next day, 9 October, 1967, he was executed by Bolivian troops and his body taken to a hospital in nearby Vallegrande, where his corpse was paraded before the world's media.

"We didn't know he was an important man when the soldiers brought him to the hospital that day. His clothes were rags and his body filthy," remembers Susanna Ocinaga, who was the duty nurse on the day his body was brought to Vallegrande.

The new Che Guevara trail has been overseen by Care Bolivia, the local branch of the international NGO Care International, and has a remit to foster increased tourism based around the draw of the Che legend.

It is intended to generate income for the indigenous families living along the trail in what is one of the poorest rural areas of Bolivia.

Still from the Motorcycle Diaries
The new film The Motorcycle Diaries charts Guevara's Latin American journey
"The objective is to help local families through the creation of small-scale tourist-based enterprises as a spin-off to the project," says Jacqueline Peña y Lillo, project manager for Care Bolivia, who sought the support of Che Guevara's daughter in Cuba to rubber-stamp the initiative.

When officials from the Bolivian Ministry of Tourism attend the opening ceremony in October, they will also be hoping, no doubt, that the initiative can herald a change in fortune for a country that has been hit by strikes, blockades and protests since social unrest brought chaos to travel itineraries last October.

After a popular uprising last year, the US-backed Bolivian President, Sanchez de Lozada, was unceremoniously dumped and images of violent riots were broadcast around the globe.

In subsequent months, the once-busy traveller cafes of La Paz and Sucre have been near deserted.

The timing of the project is also fortuitous.

Susanna Ocinaga
Because his blood is on Vallegrande soil, we are now forever linked with the name of Che
Susanna Ocinaga
The Walter Salles-directed film The Motorcycle Diaries, which traces a journey across Latin America by a young Che and his friend, Alberto Granado, in 1951, opens in UK cinemas on 27 August.

A Che biopic staring Benicio Del Toro and directed by Steven Soderbergh is also in the planning stage.

But the irony of turning the place where Che met his end into a tourist attraction is not lost on local people who still remember the dramatic events of October 1967.

Indeed, the prospect of busloads of gringos arriving en masse to worship the cult of Che sits uneasily with the quiet nature of everyday life around the tiny central plaza.

"Che seemed to be a quiet, intelligent man. But people always try to benefit commercially from his name," says Julia Cortes.

Susanna Ocinaga is also concerned: "Because his blood is on Vallegrande soil," she says, "we are now forever linked with the name of Che."

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06 May 04  |  Country profiles

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