LA HIGUERA, Bolivia - Revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, an atheist, has been reborn a saint in the desolate Bolivian village where he was captured and executed nearly 37 years ago. Like many a saint, he's also a tourist draw.
It's an odd fate for Guevara - Fidel Castro's revolutionary sidekick in the seizure of Cuba - who sought the violent overthrow of Latin America's political and economic structure. He was the Osama bin Laden of his day during the Cold War, Washington's archenemy.
Che Guevara's mug appears on shop walls and in market stalls in remote La Higuera, Bolivia, where he died. Diego Giudice / KRT
Today his handsome mug appears on the walls of homes and in market stalls in remote La Higuera, where he died, and in Vallegrande, where he was secretly buried. In many homes, his face competes for wall space with Jesus, the Virgin Mary and a host of Roman Catholic saints.
"They say he brings miracles," said Susana Osinaga, 70, who was a young nurse on Oct. 9, 1967, when she washed the blood off Guevara's corpse in Vallegrande's small hospital.
A grocery owner now, Osinaga frowns on curious tourists and journalists who seek her out. But like other locals she keeps a photo of Guevara, known throughout Latin America by his nickname, Che, on her grocery's wall.
Osinaga may soon get more unwanted visits. The international relief agency CARE is administering $300,000 in British government and private aid to promote what CARE calls Che Tourism. The project includes hostels for backpackers, road construction and infrastructure improvements to promote tourism in rural southeastern Bolivia. The hope is that Che will mean money.
"For the country, it is kind of a product, or a comparative advantage for them to use and improve their own livelihoods," Marwa El-Ansary, CARE's project director, said in an interview in Vallegrande.
There isn't much progress evident in La Higuera. Its population - 100 families when Guevara was summarily executed 11 months after arriving in Bolivia - has dwindled to about 40 families. There still is no electricity. What power there is, is, well, Che.
"It's like he is alive and with us, like a friend. He is kind of like a Virgin (Mary) for us. We say, `Che, help us with our work or with this planting,' and it always goes well," explained Manuel Cortez, a poor La Higuera farmer who lived next door to the schoolhouse where Guevara was executed. "He suffered almost like Our Father, in flesh and bone."
Cortez met Guevara twice in weeks leading to the guerrilla leader's capture and death, and was, he said, one of the last to see him alive. Decades later, Cortez still raises cows and other farm animals. When he can he guides foreigners down a steep, rocky path to the "Quebrada del Churo," the ravine where Guevara was hunted down and captured by U.S.-trained Bolivian soldiers after a fierce gun battle on Oct. 8, 1967.
Johanna Kivimaki, 24, a sociology student from Finland, hiked an hour downhill with Cortez. "It's more than I expected," she said, surprised to be "feeling" history.
At the unmarked site, a stream trickles. Purple flowers bloom and songbirds chirp. Over there, Cortez says, pointing to a boulder, is where Guevara took shelter as soldiers fired downhill at him, striking him in the leg. And over there, he points, is where Guevara surrendered after reportedly saying, "I am Che Guevara and I am worth more to you alive than dead."
He was wrong.
At Vallegrande's only art cafe, paintings of Guevara on horseback stare out at patrons. Hamburgers are served beneath a painting depicting his eerie death stare and shirtless corpse.
The Che Guevara Memorial in La Higuera, where the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary was slain in 1967. (Diego Giudice / KRT
At the Black Forest food stall in the town's bustling market, a likeness of Guevara presides over the poor who come to eat there.
Erich Blossl, 75, was a German aid worker in 1967 when Bolivian military officers asked him to photograph Guevara's corpse. His photo of Guevara stretched across a freestanding hospital wash basin the size of an altar circled the globe and remains a haunting image to this day.
"His eyes were not the eyes of a dead man. Wherever you went, his eyes followed you," Blossl recalled recently.
He said he was uncomfortable with Che Tourism. "Tourism is one thing, Che is another," he said.
Vallegrande and La Higuera get roughly 40 registered tourists per month. Many more go unregistered. The cement hospital wash basin where Blossl photographed Guevara is now a graffiti-scratched shrine.
"Your presence is alive," reads one message in Spanish. "Che, you opened my eyes," another says. And there was this odd scribble in English: "You babe, you hero."
Che Tourism draws mostly history buffs, romantics and what locals call Che-Maniacs, and some don't like it.
"The past must be stepped on," grumbled Walter Romero, a retired schoolteacher who's unhappy with Che's persistence. He holds a grudge: Guevara called him a "peasant fox" in the diary he kept in Bolivia.
Emily George, 26, of Charlotte, N.C., visited Vallegrande in July after finishing a Peace Corps stint in Bolivia.
"Che embodied a lot of what my generation is lacking," George said, citing his idealism and concern for social justice in Latin America.
Sociologist Humberto Vasquez, 67, agreed. He headed Guevara's clandestine cell in the capital of La Paz. His brother Jorge fought alongside Guevara and was captured and killed with him.
"I don't regret what we did," Vasquez said. "One hoped we could have done better."
© Copyright 2004 Knight-Ridder