“Why must you be such an angry young man, when your future looks quite bright to me?” -Losing Yourself, Styx (70’s pop hit)
On a warm sunny afternoon in the summer of 66′ a group of diplomats, family and invited guests from the Bolivan Embassy in Washington gathered for a bar-b-que at Fort Marcy Park in Mclean, Virginia to honor the visiting Bolivian President Rene Barrientos. My father, a Bolivian Civil Engineer with connections to the embassy, somehow ended up coordinating this event. As a 10 year old I was placed in position at the park entrance at the GW Parkway, holding a large American flag. My buddy Augustine Vega, a Cuban, was entrusted with a Bolivian flag, we were an odd pair to serve as welcoming committee and I remember us giggling constantly as we stood at curbside making jokes and pantomime gestures at passing cars. Soon a motorcade arrived with a park police escort on motorcycles, a sedan pulled up immediately in front of us and the window rolled down, it was El Presidente himself. Smiling he asked (in English) if we were Bolivian, “No”, I sharply replied, “I’m American and he’s Cuban”. With a perplexed look on his face he rolled the window back up and the motorcade drove off. Little did I know that I’d just been face to face with the man who a year later would order the execution of famed revolutionary leader Che Guevara. How ironic too, that Augustine also got a good look at El Presidente, after all, his parents had fled the increasing oppression of Fidel’s (and Che’s) socialist paradise just a few years earlier.
As these Bolivians whooped it up, drank, chowed down on buckets of finger-lickin good KFC and danced the afternoon away, little did anyone realize that El Che was busy at his training camp in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, preparing for his upcoming armed struggle against yanqui imperialism, to take place, where else, but in the heartland of the South American continent, in the wilds of eastern Bolivia.
Soon, he, Tania, Coco, Chiro, Loro, Aniceto and a few dozen other handpicked followers would boldly venture into the remote, dry montane forest and canyons of the Andean foothills between Tarija and Santa Cruz, a region I would come to know fairly well years later in my travels when I’d stay in the dirt-floor home of a rich family near the village of El Trigal (The Wheatfield). Yes, rich, only in a spiritual sense of course. Che considered them rich too. For these were the very people that he was pinning all his global hopes on and would turn to, first for recruits, then for material assistance and shelter, and finally, for mere survival. As is well documented, he never gained their trust.
I would discover later another curious thread of a connection with the Che saga, specifically as regards his final moments on Earth. One uncle of mine was a Captain in the Bolivian Army, and was with the troops when Che was captured. Not sure if he was part of the CIA-trained Ranger team, but I visited him once at his modest bungalow house in the tropical city of Santa Cruz, shared a few beers and remember him telling me stories of that episode. He was rock-solid proud that they “got their man”. Like many of the troops and officers involved, he touted the government’s role in “liquidating” Che, but truth be known, it was hardly a fair fight. He showed me a picture of himself with a group of his fellow soldiers, all of them proudly beaming ear to ear in a rural village that I assume was La Higuera where Che was captured, or perhaps it was taken on some side street in Vallegrande where Che’s body was temporarily, ignominiously put on display in a small concrete laundry room. I’m sure it’d be like a piranha bite to my uncle to see how that simple, rundown “lavanderia”, with flaking paint and cracks, decades later has become another Grotto of Lourdes, or another Fatima where, instead of hearing the Song Of Bernadette or seeking apparitions of Our Lady Of The Rosary, would-be disciples and casual visitors come from afar to observe and ponder, and perhaps to catch a phantom-glimpse of El Comandante. But alas, “el chancho”, the most famous of all “Los Barbudos” (the bearded ones) is not there…..he is long gone.
Some local residents still have memories of Che-sightings, including an elderly woman who recalled chancing upon a handsome, although dirty, bearded man who was, oddly enough, just calmly sitting on the edge of the road out in the countryside. As she passed, she said he flashed a warm smile and very courteously wished her “Buenos Dias”. Was it Che himself possibly waiting to make a rendezvous? Or merely an invented story to placate tourists who now flock to these hills to revisit the specific campsites, rivers, and settlements where Che and his columns became legends?
As fate would have it, another uncle of mine, Freddy Alborta Trigo, a UPI photographer based in La Paz, was also in Vallegrande that day. As villagers began congregating, wanting to see the body of this man who now looked Christ-like, my uncle snapped the famous picture of the dead Che that would get circulated around the world. Tio Freddy was my mentor and was the first person to teach me photography. By 1967 he already had an impressive portfolio under his belt with assignments covering world leaders like French Premier Charles de Gaulle and U.S. President John F. Kennedy. To go from the carpeted halls of the United Nations HQ in New York City, or the ornate OAS building on the west side of The Ellipse in Washington D.C., in view of the south lawn of the White House, to this small plaster and adobe hovel in a remote village in the Bolivia hinterlands must have been sobering for him. We were together in Arica, Chile once, where he was covering the first official diplomatic visit of a Bolivian delegation (headed by my father I’m proud to add) to Chile in over 100 years. A footnote: relations were severed after the War of the Pacific in the 1870’s when Chile stole 1/3 of Bolivia’s territory, an act of aggression that left Bolivia landlocked forever. During a break from the speeches and other officialdom we decided to get away from the hotel for awhile by going for a walk on the beach nearby. We came to a headland jutting into the Pacific where we stepped among tide pools and climbed over rock outcroppings. Freddy took a bunch of great shots of the desert coastline, of crashing surf and water droplets suspended in midair, of a most sublime yellowish-orange setting sun receding below the western horizon over the largest expanse of water on the planet. He also kindly took a few shots of me and even had me pose as I watched the sunset, pretty humbling now to know that I was a subject in his viewfinder.
I regret that I never asked him about his most famous photograph; politics and insurrections weren’t on the agenda that day. Mostly we walked in silence but at one point he remarked how we were both strangers in this place, and this led him to describe with boyish curiosity several ancient cultures who visited this coastline before, including the pre-Incan Chimu who built the mighty fortress-city of Chan-Chan, in northern Peru.
Tio Freddy years later holding an enlargement of his famous photo in his lab in La Paz.
In a land of ancient civilizations and towering mountains that rise heavenward, El Che was simply a small footnote in a very long tapestry of history. That footnote will always grab our attention, especially for young generations that gather in the streets to overthrow governments or that seek radical changes in the accepted hierarchy of things. For as long as people are oppressed and languish in poverty, El Che will linger around as the most widely and instantly-recognized image of rebellion and defiance in the world. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X don’t even come close. Only Jesus Christ and “Papa Villero”, the adored “Slum Pope” from the miserable villas surrounding Buenos Aires exceed him in popularity. Its a bitter pill to swallow for many, especially Cuban exiles and conservative right-wing talk show hosts. He isn’t going away anytime soon, in fact every young generation seems to discover him anew and apply his legacy to their own social and political turmoil. And not just young teenage hipsters and college students, there’s also the older generation of multi-millionaire celebrity apologists sporting Che t-shirts like Carlos Santana and Johny Depp, and even tattoo’s, like Diego Maradona and Iron Mike Tyson.
No matter Che’s ruthless conduct in the early years of Fidel’s dictatorship in Cuba, or his role as executioner and cruel overseer of penal camps for Cuban “dissidents”; including homosexuals, petty criminals but mostly countless ordinary citizens who simply wanted a free and democratic Cuba. No matter his lifelong silence on the subject of Stalin’s gulags or Mao’s tyranny, in fact I don’t recall a single speech, interview, or letter in which Che ever condemned or even acknowledged the brutal police-state policies of any communist government around the world, yet alone the Cuban regime which he helped create. I can only assume that these famous personalities are either terribly naive (quite possible) or are smarter than that and have simply chosen to look the other way when it comes to the full story of Che.
Chairman: You [should] unite workers and peasants, namely, the majority.
Guevara: Some people from the bourgeoisie went against us and joined the enemy’s camp.
Chairman: Those who go against you are your enemies. You have done a great job in suppressing counter-revolutionaries.
Guevara: Counter-revolutionaries conducted aggressive activities. [For example,] sometimes [they] occupied a few islands, [in which case] they would be annihilated soon afterwards. Nothing to worry about. [We] executed their leader by shooting whenever [we] captured them. Their equipment was parachuted, all from the US.
Chairman: You have also captured several Americans [didn’t you?]
Guevara: [They were] tried immediately and executed by shooting.
Premier [Zhou Enlai]: The American government protested and you responded.
Chairman: You are firm. Be firm to the end, this is the hope [of the revolution], and imperialism will find itself in greater difficulty. But waver and compromise, and imperialism will find it easier [to deal with you].
- NOVEMBER 19, 1960, MEMORANDUM OF CONVERSATION BETWEEN MAO ZEDONG AND ERNESTO “CHE” GUEVARA
No, this charismatic, fiercely determined counter-culture icon always conveniently reserved his wrath for the U.S. of A, that colossus of El Norte and bastion of western imperialism and capitalism, all of which he viewed as part of the same evil system dedicated to world domination and exploitation of the poor.
People familiar with his story might remember his brave, famous last words, “Atrevete cono!”, “Shoot coward!”,seconds before being riddled with bullets by Bolivian Sargent Mario Teran. Less quoted is his purported desperate plea for mercy upon being surrounded by Bolivian soldiers as he lay mangled, wounded and famished in Churro Ravine, “Do not shoot! I am Che Guevara and worth more to you alive than dead!” Not exactly lofty words befitting of a man, rightly or wrongly, who is now enshrined forever in our consciousness as a romantic, heroic martyr for the common man, unmatched by any other personality of the modern era.
Not all of me shall die! When I fall
wounded by the blows of human pain,
you, lightly, will rescue the dying brother
from the dark battlefield.
Maybe then, from my defenseless mouth
that will be breathing the infinite peace silently,
you may hear the voice of all who sleep
with open eyes within my soul!
– Non Omnis Moriar (Not all of me shall die), Manuel Gutierrez Najera,
Mexican poet, 1859-1895
La Higuera today, above the small plaza is the now famous shrine to the uninvited, asthmatic stranger who came to town.