CHE'S LAST STAND
The track carved back and forth as it climbed steeply. The late afternoon sun softened the forested hills, drawing long shadows over the valleys. The iron bridge spanning the Rio Grande appeared toy-like far below us. We parked on the ridge to absorb the view; after the local bus and its shroud of dust had passed, the silence returned. The bus was the first vehicle we’d seen for hours.
What had Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara believed he could achieve out here, I pondered, sensing the gaping contrast between the peacefulness of the landscape and my own image of Che, the action man who once fermented such alarm on the international political stage, became the world’s foremost revolutionary, made rebellion cool to generations of adolescents and whose face still adorns millions of T-shirts and posters, badges and caps. I felt it somehow poignant that it should be here, amongst these remote hills, that he spent his last days. I grew up with Che on my bedroom wall. He shared space with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; none of them fared well in Bolivia.
In November 1966, when I was three-and-a-half-years-old, Che Guevara came to La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia. He’d told Fidel Castro that his work was finished in Cuba and that other countries needed his revolutionary touch. After some turbulent months in Africa he turned his attention to South America, pursuing his dream of bringing social revolution and equality for all to this vast continent. Having worked on his disguise, Che remained a few days in La Paz without being recognized. Accomplishing what he needed to do in the capital, Guevara slipped away; in the company of a small band of guerrillas he vanished into the wooded hills of eastern Bolivia.
Hunted by the Bolivian army on the one side, spurned by the suspicious smallholders scattered over the cordillera on the other, Che and his group managed to survive for almost twelve months living rough, being shot at and tending their wounds; a remarkable feat in itself. And that’s not to mention Che’s crippling asthma attacks. In the final months of 1967, the village of La Higuera became the focal point in the closing chapter of Che’s Bolivian adventure.
I closed my copy of Guevara’s Bolivian Diary and unfurled the map. La Higuera appeared to be a day and a half’s drive distant from our position; it was time to explore. Relinquishing the comforts of Sucre, we loaded the camper and headed across the hills.
It had been a long day at the wheel by the time we reached Villa Serrano. Dusk was settling in, a good moment to find a place to camp for the night. Two kilometers north of the town we crested a hill and pulled off the road onto a parcel of flat ground, parking between the hedge and a rutted track. It was quiet and with little traffic. Before establishing camp, we trudged the distance to a rundown smallholding, the compound full of wild-looking children, barking dogs and rummaging piglets. In the centre of the compound a woman weaved cloth on a loom, her cheeks inflated with coca leaves.
‘Can we camp beside the track?’ Christine asked.
The answer the lady gave, punctuated by the clacking of her loom and the occasional porcine squeal, was long, very green and entirely incomprehensible. She spoke not a word of Spanish. I was beginning to grasp some of the difficulties Che was up against.
The next morning, from Villa Serrano all the road signs, and there were very few of them, pointed to the settlements of El Pro (The Gold) and Nuevo Mundo (New World). These places had sounded so exotic when we read them out loud, conjuring almost mythical notions; they served to fuel our spirits as the early morning mist clung to the hedgerows, and the road narrowed and quickly shed its tarmac skin.
By mid-morning the mist had burnt off, revealing a world of forests, ravines and rivers. Reaching El Oro, we discovered its few buildings overcome by the grey slag which had slipped from the abandoned mine workings on the hill. Many of the buildings had lost their roofs and all that remained of the others were their foundations. Having got the measure of El Oro we imagined Nuevo Mundo to have been the few dwellings beside a stream we’d passed an hour earlier. There had been no signpost. Our imaginations unfulfilled we nevertheless revelled in the beauty of the landscape. Later, an iron bridge led us over the broad Rio Grande and on to the one-thousand-two-hundred-metre switchback ascent. It was quite obvious how this terrain made good hiding for Guevara and his fighters, though crossing it on foot would have been more than a challenge.
By late-afternoon, La Higuera loomed from the hedge lining the track. It was a calm, ramshackle place, busts and statues and murals of the great man adorning the plaza and walls of the buildings leading to it. We enquired at several dwellings in our search for the museum’s curator. Eventually locating him, he unlocked the door into the musty smelling building.
The museum is supposedly where the injured Che was brought after his capture. Having studied the photos and newspaper cuttings, I couldn’t help but check the cracked floor for bloodstains.
Back outside in the gathering evening chill, I gazed at the sign beside the door: Che, Willy and Chino were held prisoner before being killed on October 9.
We camped for the night in the garden of La Casa del Telegrafista.
On 7 October 1967, with their numbers whittled down to seventeen, Che marched his men until 2 am the following morning. He wrote in his diary that they’d stopped for the night because, ‘… it was useless to go on advancing.’ Exhausted, bloodied and half-starved - he knew the game was up.
In the Yuro ravine, the Bolivian military sealed off all means of escape and set about finishing off the guerrillieros once and for all. Guevara, wounded by gunfire, the barrel of his M2 destroyed by a bullet and his pistol empty, was finally captured. The they brought him up the hill to La Higuera they locked him in what was the schoolhouse, now the museum. Within twenty-four hours, orders were received from the government in La Paz that the famous revolutionary should be assassinated without delay, an order carried out by a non-commissioned officer named Mario Terán.
In the plaza of La Higuera I felt the years peel back; all of a sudden I was that kid staring at the poster of Che on his bedroom wall. And yet, at the same moment, there I was: the very spot where the man had died and the legend began.
Hero-revolutionary or arch-villain, however you view Guevara it’s difficult to deny his bravery and determination. Ernesto Guevara’s future was shaped during his epic motorcycle journey through South America; witnessing such inequality amongst his people charged him with mission. He vowed to free them from what he considered to be the corruption of the ruling elite. Years later, and while his comrades fattened themselves in Havana, at least El Comandante never cheated on his vision.