Cuba and Bolivia will both hold ceremonies in the coming days to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Ernesto Che Guevara.The Argentine Marxist medic turned guerrilla fighter, who became a hero of the Cuban revolution, had tried to launch a similar uprising in Bolivia. It failed; he was captured and then executed on October 9th 1967.
Now, as CGTN’s Michael Voss reports, the village where he died, La Higuera, has become a tourist attraction, part of a Che Trail, connecting several sites linked to his Bolivian campaign.
La Higuera is a tiny isolated village in the arid foothills of the Andes. The nearest town is two-and-a-half hours away on a dirt road. But this is a well-travelled route, part of what has become ‘Ruta del Che’ the Che Guevara trail.
After the legendary revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara was wounded and captured in a nearby ravine, he was brought to La Higuera and held, handcuffed, in the school house there.
Today the building has been renovated and turned into the village museum. Each month a different local woman is responsible for unlocking it and showing visitors around, bringing much needed income to the village.
“There is an association with 10 of us.” our guide Lola Arteaga explained. “ We then share out all of the money we collect.”
There is little of the original building left apart from some school desks and a wooden door. But the walls are filled with detailed explanations and photographs of Che’s campaign in Bolivia. There is also a plaque listing the names of all the Guerrillas who joined Che in his ill-fated campaign alongside a list of all the Bolivian soldiers who died.
Two German students, on a Gap year doing volunteer work in the Bolivia, arrived while we were there.
“It gives me goose bumps to here.” Markus Weiner told me after his visit to the village. “I am reading some books about Che, I think he is a very impressive man.”
La Higuera’s population has shrunk to just 80 people; most of the young have left to find work elsewhere.
Ismael Flores ekes out a living growing corn. His wife is one of the museum guides while he is one of the hiking guides, available to take tourists on the three-hour treck to the ravine where Che was captured.
Without the tourists, Ismael Flores said, this would be a ghost town.
“We would probably be abandoned, forgotten because remote areas are not usually in the eye of the authorities.”
The Che trail was created 10 years ago, partly with funds from Britain’s development agency, to help bring tourists to this impoverished region.
Today the center of the village has the appearance of a miniature Che Guevara theme park. There are three statues to him as well as portraits painted on the walls, many of them put here by Cuban doctors who have opened a clinic in the village.
In anticipation of the upcoming 50th anniversary of his death, several of the Che’s portraits were cleaned up, while his statues were painted black, green and gold.
New modern road signs with directions of the ‘Ruta del Che’ have been installed, replacing the original wooden ones which are now rapidly fading.
The town of Vallegrande is one of the other major location on the Che Trail.
This colonial provincial capital of around 11,000 people is where Che’s body was taken by helicopter. He was cleaned up and laid out in the laundry room of the Señor de Malta hospital for the world’s press to see and confirm he was dead.
Today the former laundry room is covered with visitor’s graffiti.
Che, along with six other guerrilla fighters, was buried in secret beneath a nearby airfield, only to be rediscovered in 1997. Their remains were flown to Cuba where Che and many of his comrades now lie beneath a giant Mausoleum in the central Cuban town of Santa Clara.
There is a more modest mausoleum covering the original site in Vallegrande and it isn’t just tourists who come to pay their respects.
Some locals, like Liz Rojas, consider Che Guevara a Saint. She like to come to mausoleum and pray at the memorial stone which marks where his body was discovered.
“His soul is a miracle maker for me. I come here now and then and light a candle and ask him for things, and he makes them happen.”
‘Che the Miracle Worker’ is in contrast to the early years after his death where many locals spoke of the ‘Curse of Che’ blaming his spirit for a series of droughts that hit the region and other problems.
Back in La Higuera, 70 year old shop-keeper Irma Rosado remembers Che being captured. For a small fee she will tell anyone who asks of her memories of those days. She says she was one of the last to see him alive, as young maid she was told to deliver a soup to Che as he lay handcuffed in the school.
In the years that followed, Rosado told me, people worried about the curse.
“That’s the way people talked here when they got upset, they said after Che died and guerrillas came we would die from hunger and thirst, there was nothing to eat.”
Those were tough times in this extremely poor isolated region of Bolivia. For La Higuera at least his legacy has finally brought a new source of income.
The Bolivian authorities buried Che Guevara in a hidden grave because they didn’t want the site to become a place of pilgrimage. Now it’s the reverse with the Che Trail aimed at attracting as many visitors as possible.