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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 October 2007, 08:35 GMT 09:35 UK
Latin America's new look at Che
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Vallegrande, Bolivia

We can only speculate, but Ernesto Che Guevara probably would not have approved of the way his image is being commercialised.

A woman sells Che Guevara memorabilia in Vallegrande, Bolivia
Che Guevara's bearded face and beret have acquired iconic status

In the town of Vallegrande, near to where he was killed in 1967, his face stares out from T-shirts and flags. There are also Che mugs and key-rings.

But he probably would approve, and be somewhat surprised, that the ideas he fought for and message he was trying to bring to the people of Latin America are alive and thriving.

Forty years after he was captured and executed by CIA-backed Bolivian soldiers in the village of La Higuera, thousands of people gathered in nearby Vallegrande to mark Che Guevara's death and celebrate his life.

There were art exhibitions and musicians in the small town plaza, and discussions between writers and intellectuals.

The highlight came when the Bolivian President, Evo Morales, flew in by helicopter to address the crowd.

He called Che an inspiration and said US troops should never again be allowed to operate on Latin American soil.

The Bolivian President, Evo Morales, speaks at an event remembering Che Guevara in Vallegrande, Bolivia
A ceremony was held in Bolivia to commemorate Che's death

All so different to 40 years ago, when Che's body was displayed in the laundry room of the Vallegrande hospital to prove to the world that both the man and his ideas were dead.

One of those involved in his capture was former Bolivian army officer Gary Prado.

"It has become a fable, a business, an invention of things that takes all seriousness out of the story. It's a show, that's all," he said.

"There's a small political group who use El Che, and that is the group that survives from Che and recycles the story every year but he has no more effect than that. No more effect."

Injustices

But that is not the sentiment circulating around Vallegrande.

A former Cuban rebel fighter known as Urbano knew Guevara well, fighting with him in both Cuba and Bolivia. He was in Vallegrande for the anniversary.

He taught me to think - he taught me the most beautiful thing which is to be human
Urbano
Former Cuban rebel fighter

"I'm talking about a Che Guevara who was like a father to me," he said.

"He taught me, he educated me. He taught me to think. He taught me the most beautiful thing which is to be human."

The Ecuadorean writer, Maria del Carmen Garces, has written several books about Che and his legacy.

She was also in Vallegrande, where she said that Che appears to fulfil a political need in Latin America.

The injustices and poverty he fought to overcome persist, she said.

Local mistrust

After his success in fighting alongside Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution, Che went to Africa.

Children walk past the old schoolhouse in La Higuera, where the Che Guevara was kept prisoner
Che was captured and held prisoner in the schoolhouse in La Higuera

He admitted that his attempts to foment revolution in the Democratic Republic of Congo were a disaster.

At first sight, the rugged mountain terrain, deep gorges and impenetrable vegetation around Vallegrande look something like the Sierra Maestra mountains in eastern Cuba, where the revolution there was born.

But Bolivia is not Cuba and the peasant farmers were mistrustful of the man from Argentina.

After several months in the inhospitable countryside, Guevara and his men were tired and hungry and did not have the support of the local community they were seeking.

He was captured, tired, hungry and bedraggled.

Tourist trail

But it is difficult to find anyone in Vallegrande today who admits to being against him.

One local resident, Herman Lasio Lino, saw the hundreds of Bolivian troops moving into the town in the weeks before the rebels were captured and went to see Che's body the day it was placed in the hospital.

A woman visits the Che Guevara's mausoleum in La Higuera, Bolivia
Tourists and Bolivians alike can visit a mausoleum dedicated to Che

"It was still warm," he said. "Che had been executed only hours before. But we thought he'd been captured alive."

"When the helicopter landed, we thought we'd see Che get out, but there was a bulk wrapped in a yellow cloth tied to the helicopter."

Tourists today can walk the route that Che took and be filmed in the laundry room where his body lay.

Some in Latin America see Che as a failed revolutionary, while others say he was a misguided killer.

But there is no doubt that he is more popular now throughout the region than he was when he was killed 40 years ago.

And gatherings in Vallegrande are only likely to develop and spread his influence still further.

SEE ALSO
Cubans honour Che as a hero
08 Oct 07 |  Americas
In pictures: Che's snapshots
24 Feb 03 |  Photo Gallery
Country profile: Bolivia
18 Sep 07 |  Country profiles

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