When Ann Wright was recently asked to translate a book by Argentine painter Ciro Bustos dealing with some of the events surrounding Che Guevara’s guerrilla movement in Bolivia she persuaded herself that she needed to research the vegetation, terrain, topography in order to describe it better in the book. It was a place she’d long wanted to visit. Here is an extract from her account of the trip. Click here to read the full account on the Route website.
By starting in Vallegrande, I would in fact be following Che’s footsteps backwards. After Che was shot, his body was thrown in an unmarked common grave together with eight other guerrillas killed in the last combat of the guerrilla war. For thirty years, its whereabouts was a Bolivian state secret until permission was finally given for, first Argentine, and then Cuban forensic scientists, to search an area near the town’s airport where it was thought to be. The bodies were eventually unearthed in 1997. Che’s remains were taken to Cuba where they lie in state in a mausoleum in Santa Clara, scene of Che’s great victory, but Vallegrande boasts a tasteful commemorative building to mark the site, part tomb, part photographic exhibition paid for by the Cubans. Close by is another garden with the graves of eight more guerrillas – Cubans, Bolivians, Peruvians, and Tania, the German-Argentine who was the only female guerrilla.
Moving back in time, the other main memorial to Che is the wash house in Vallegrande’s hospital where his body was taken to be prepared for exhibition to officials and the press. The iconic Christ-like photo of Che, slightly smiling and eyes open, laid out on the stone slab is world famous. In 1967, it was the townspeople filing past, now it is disciples of Che from all over the world who make the pilgrimage to the tranquil spot and leave messages. I hate graffiti normally but I found the words left on the walls of this small hardly changed adobe building very moving. Perhaps I was lucky just a handful of youngsters were visiting the small white adobe building, and the sun was shining on the bright green grass, surrounded by beautiful rolling hills, but it was an amazingly harmonious experience. If I’d had a pen I’d have been moved to write a message to Che myself.
There are several other museums and memorials around Vallegrande, and cafés and hostels bearing Che’s name, but the myth does not disturb everyday life much except when visiting delegations descend on special Che commemorative days.
Another three hours away in a pick-up truck, through the spectacular scenery of sometimes wooded, sometimes cleared, mountainsides, sparsely dotted with hamlets (including the eastern-most Inca village of Pucará), is the village of La Higuera where Che was shot. The story has been told and retold many times over the four decades since the event as the pieces of the picture have been put together. To say the village has hardly changed would not be true. It has been embellished or disfigured (according to your point of view) by a small plaza with a 12 ft statue of Che, another bust with a cross on a huge stone (reflecting the increasingly syncretic politico-religious nature of the Che myth), a new community centre cum clinic with Cuban doctors in situ, and, most incongruous of all, two backpacker hostels in exquisite taste run by French people (it is literally in the middle of nowhere but you can get an espresso coffee and a delicious organic salad with proper vinaigrette). One of the hostels is the former house of the telegrapher who informed the army that the guerrillas were there: odd that an historic monument should have been allowed to be privatised. But at the same time, La Higuera is still a tiny Bolivian village with unpaved streets, adobe houses and country people going about their country business, much as it was when Che was held in the schoolhouse (now a museum) in 1967. It is slightly surreal. The locals mingle with people from all over the world. Some are ageing hippies like myself, but most are young people who have come huge distances to sit all day, and sometimes all night, and just commune with Che. Many are his compatriots from neighbouring Argentina, born when to merely mention the name of Che would get you killed or disappeared, discussing his example of sacrifice, his selflessness, his humanity, his social conscience, his sense of justice, his international solidarity, his ideas of fair trade, etc. To them, these eternal yet modern beliefs, in a world of corruption, self-interest, and greed, are to be revered.