Spirit of Che rises again as region is swept along on a pink tide

Campaign News | Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Close to 40 years after his death, the revolutionary is more than ever a hero

Rory Carroll in Caracas and Lola Almudevar in Vallegrande for The Guardian

When the haggard and broken figure was laid out on the slab and displayed to the world it was not just Che Guevara that had died. The dream of socialist revolution in South America was over.

His image and name would continue to inspire millions but on the continent he wanted to transform he was a political failure, a defeated guerrilla on the wrong side of history.

Bolivia's peasants spurned Che's rebellion, leaving the Bolivian army and the CIA to capture him on October 8 1967, kill him the following day, and rid South America of Cuba's revolutionary spirit. The soldiers reportedly drew straws to determine who would have the honour of shooting Che.

"And so he is dead," wrote the Guardian's Richard Gott, one of the few journalists at the scene that day. "As they pumped preservative into his half-naked, dirty body and as the crowd shouted to be allowed to see, it was difficult to recall that this man had once been one of the great figures of Latin America."

It was difficult to feel his ideas would die with him, Gott added. He was right. Forty years later the anniversary of the death is looming and the scene is transformed: the Cubans are back, socialism is back, and Che is officially a hero.

An elaborate ceremony in Vallegrande, the town where his corpse was displayed, will be just one of many government-backed rallies across the Andes and the Caribbean.

"Che is greater and more present than ever," said Oswaldo "Chato" Peredo, a Bolivian former guerrilla whose brother, Roberto, was executed alongside the communist icon.

Portraits of the pair hang in Vallegrande's main square. Locals speak with reverence of Che's "Christ-like" corpse. They hold masses for the doctor-turned-guerrilla and pray at Che altars in their homes.

The Nuestro Señor de Malta hospital, in whose laundry room the body was displayed, is staffed with 25 Cuban medics. They do not double up as guerrillas but they do carry a revolutionary torch. "Che lives on in our fight for Latin American unity," said one, Ledicel Gamez.

The laundry room walls are covered in the scrawl and engravings of so called Che pilgrims. "We want to leave it like this because it is an expression of the people," said Chato.

Che's rehabilitation has been borne on the region's "pink tide" of leftwing governments, especially in Bolivia and Venezuela, where efforts are under way to promote socialism, deepen ties with Havana and roll back Washington's influence.

President Hugo Chávez echoes Che's desire to wean people off capitalism by moulding a "new socialist man". The Argentine-born rebel's writings have been widely distributed in Venezuela and a government-run work and training scheme was recently named after him.

Mr Chávez has devised an ambitious scheme which ships Venezuelan oil to Cuba in exchange for 20,000 medical personnel who offer free treatment to Venezuela's poor. They follow in the guerrilla's footsteps, he said last week.

Some 800 doctors have moved to Bolivia since President Evo Morales, an ally of Mr Chávez and Fidel Castro, was elected in 2005. Others are on their way to Ecuador now that it also has a socialist president, Rafael Correa. The scheme has widened so that poor patients from as far afield as Brazil, Chile and Nicaragua can fly to Venezuela and Cuba for free treatment.

"They have treated more than 120,000 [Bolivian] patients for free, without any conditions at all," Mr Morales told the Guardian. "What has Cuba asked of us? Have they asked to take ownership of a mine or to be partners in petrol? No, nothing."

Bolivia's president contrasted that with US aid, which he said came with strings, such as concessions for corporations that would perpetuate the neo-liberal economics which he blames for impoverishing the region.

"One wants to subordinate and impose conditions, the other gives unconditional cooperation."

Che envisaged violent insurrections against South America's ruling elites as part of a global fight against US imperialism, with the war in Vietnam just one front. Even Castro was said to be taken aback at his vehemence.

What Che would make of socialists who take power through elections rather than the gun no one can know. Not even Mr Chávez, the reddest tinge in the pink tide, advocates communism. Nor is it certain the tide will endure.

However there is no doubt it has swept Che back into political battle after decades when he was little more than a handsome face on countless T-shirts and posters.

His name still inspires loathing among those who attend anti-government protests in Bolivia and Venezuela. Che was an enthusiastic executioner of the revolution's opponents in Havana, they say, and his elevation to secular saint bodes ill for democracy in the Andes.

"He was a bloodthirsty Marxist who died and failed for a good reason," said Ignacio Baretto, a Caracas office worker. "We don't need him back."

Momentum is with those who revere the guerrilla. Mr Chávez, flush with oil money and popularity, is building what he calls "21st century socialism". Mr Morales has nationalised the energy industry and is ploughing through heavy resistance to rewrite Bolivia's constitution. Both presidents openly scorn the US.

Analysts agree that Washington has haemorrhaged influence over a region it once considered its backyard. The dispatch of a US navy hospital ship to treat the poor has been viewed as a belated and feeble reply to Cuba's doctor army.

"Che was fighting for dignified societies, where no one is in the street, where no one is exploited and where people have the same opportunities to study and live," said Loyola Guzmán, a member of Bolivia's constituent assembly and one of the few remaining guerrillas who fought next to Guevara. "That is what we are fighting for now."


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