Tuesday, October 10, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Boliva — An emotional visit by Aleida Guevara to mark the 39th anniversary of the slaying of her legendary father, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, has revived bitter arguments over the revolutionary’s legacy and Bolivia’s current ties with Cuba.

“My father was brutally assassinated by the Bolivian army,” said Miss Guevara during a weekend pilgrimage to the small village of La Higuera on the arid eastern foothills, where a sick and emaciated Guevara spent his final days in 1967. Speaking from the small schoolhouse in which her father was shot, she called for those responsible to be put on trial.

Gary Prado, the retired general who led the pursuit of Guevara, presided at the same time over a memorial ceremony for his soldiers killed in the U.S.-assisted operation. Speaking from the 8th army division garrison in Santa Cruz, he accused the government of “honoring an invader.”

“El Che came here armed; he came to kill,” said the wheelchair bound Gen. Prado, who called Miss Guevara’s visit an “act of hostile propaganda.”

A leader of Bolivia’s ruling Movement to Socialism (MAS), Chato Peredo, who together with his two brothers fought alongside Guevara, escorted Miss Guevara together with white-jacketed doctors and nurses from Cuba’s “medical brigades” serving in Bolivia. He called Gen. Prado’s criticisms “absurd.”

“The military were receiving orders from the empire,” said Mr. Peredo, recalling that his brother was also shot by the army. “The indigenous people of Bolivia are writing the epilogue to Che,” added the official, who called the election and rule of President Evo Morales an “expression of [Che’s] legacy.”

But few locals turned out in La Higuera. “We don’t like the kind of people that the memory of El Che attracts here,” said the owner of an eatery in the nearby town of Vallegrande.

Traditional conservatism in this strongly Catholic part of Bolivia aided the hunt for Guevara, who was betrayed by the locals, according to Humberto Vasquez, a one-time Communist Party activist and recognized authority on Guevera’s operations in Bolivia.

Diaries recovered after Guevera’s death show his Bolivian campaign was bungled from the beginning, and collapsed with its leader becoming increasingly ill. Most accounts say he was captured alive by a combined U.S.-Bolivian force and summarily executed.

But Mr. Vasquez said CIA documents from the time indicate that the United States didn’t want him killed. “They wanted to return him to Castro defeated,” the analyst said on Bolivian television. “It’s never been established who gave the actual order to shoot him,” Mr. Vasquez said.

Miss Guevara offered some childhood recollections and tried to highlight the human side of her father, whose defiant image remains an icon of radical causes throughout the world.

“I last remember seeing him standing next to my mother and caressing my baby brother Camilo, who had just been born,” she said. She admitted to having hardly known her father, who left for Bolivia when she was just 4.

“He gave up his love for family to dedicate himself to more important tasks,” she said.

Miss Guevara read from a 1956 letter that Che wrote to his mother from a Mexican prison, where he was jailed before joining Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba.

“I’m not Jesus Christ or a philanthropist,” the letter said. “I just fight with all I’ve got for my beliefs. What really distresses me is that you don’t seem to understand this. I am not a moderate and will never be one. I would rather vomit …”

Miss Guevara’s appearances were carefully arranged by Cuban officials, who kept her away from journalists. When a reporter tried to approach her, a Cuban Embassy employee blocked the way, saying, “No questions.”

Roman Alonzo, a Bolivian diplomat and political analyst who has served in Cuba, noted a similarity between the events and Cuban Communist Party rallies.

“Her visit may be intended as a morale booster for the more than 2,000 Cuban doctors and aid workers here,” he said. About 30 Cuban doctors in Bolivia have recently defected.

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