Things to Do in Vallegrande When You’re Dead
“Para llegar al logro del triunfo, siempre ha sido indispensable pasar por la senda de los sacrificios.”
[“In order to triumph, it has always been necessary to go down the path of sacrifice.”]
Everyone knows the name of Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara. Whether staring down from the black painted walls of students’ bedrooms or adorning T-shirts in a university bar, his face is known the world over. He is an idealistic, Utopian visionary and an inspiration to millions. Alas, in the western world this idealism, along with youth and beauty, soon begins to lose its lustre, and pragmatism and materialism become hard reality as the drudgery of repayment loans and retirement plans emerge from the shadows and take a more definite form.
I had travelled to Vallegrande on a Ché pilgrimage with a friend. We were attempting to reach La Higuera, the site of his final struggle – the battle of Quebrada del Yuro - and execution. I had picked up a leaflet from the tourist information office in the main square detailing transport possibilities, when my eyes were drawn to a display case.
The famous images of Guevara were in stark contrast to the photographs that were displayed here. He was no longer the photogenic revolutionary icon: darkly handsome with wild, flowing hair, his beret at a rakish angle, powerful eyes focused on the middle distance, seeming to observe the tyrannies and injustices of the entire world. After his execution by CIA trained forces, he was ignominiously displayed to the world’s press in the laundry room of the Hospital Knights of Malta in Vallegrande. He was a pathetically emaciated figure. His half-naked body was filthy and spattered with blood, his beard matted and unkempt, his eyes wide and disbelieving. On 11 October 1967, presidential aide Walt Rostow sent a memorandum to Lydon B. Johnson: “This morning we are 99% sure that Ché Guevara is dead … It marks the passing of another of the aggressive, romantic revolutionaries… In the Latin American context, it will have a strong impact in discouraging would-be guerrillas. It shows the soundness of our ‘preventative medicine’ assistance to countries facing incipient insurgency”. I remembered the last words of Mr Kurtz: “The horror! The horror!” and was shocked by their relevance to the problems threatening the world today.
To reach La Higuera you must first catch a taxi or camion to the small town of Pucará, forty-five kilometres away. We arranged for a taxi driver to pick us up the following morning, not too early mind, and take us on a return trip to La Higuera for 150Bs.
We left Vallegrande in a ubiquitous white Nissan Sunny with green go-faster stripes, passing a statue of St George in an empty plaza, posed to deliver the coup-de-grace to a rather feeble, forlorn-looking dragon. We didn’t question why. The road out of town was red, dusty and uneven but we soon started to climb meandering serpentine, mountain roads. The breath-taking topography was typically Bolivian. Lush, verdant plains rush to meet mountains coloured in hazy shades of grey, purple and pink, becoming gradually lighter as they stretch into the distance. The road soon became slippery and waterlogged and our driver showed off his rally-driving skills, much to the amusement of cows and horses grazing by the side of a road adorned with yellow bushes and bright red flowers.
Descending we reached Pucara and drove down a vertical cobbled street to the main square at the bottom. It was approaching midday and the wise inhabitants were already inside their houses contemplating almuerzo and a siesta. According to the travelling fraternity’s bible:
‘On the plaza in Pucará, a grizzled campesino runs the local bar/tienda, and his daughter serves meals in a basic comedor. They’re both very kind and if you buy the old man a couple of beers, he’ll probably start talking about Ché or suggest people who rent horses to go to La Higuera.’ (Although, if you bought me a couple of beers I’d talk about anything you wanted me to: ‘Neo-liberal economic policies? The perilous state of Bolivar’s back four? No problem.’)
It took about two and half-hours to reach La Higuera and, as you approach the village, on the right you can see the long barranca where Ché was captured. We drove up a narrow road leading to a small tree-shaded plaza where in the middle of a concrete communist star, is a small plinth with El Busto del Comandante de las Americas. It was a glorious day, the green hills encapsulating the village, rolling like waves, and in the eerie silence one could easily imagine the scene of his last battle in the ravine far below. There was a large monument by the entrance to the school commemorating his death, covered with the pink graffiti of pilgrims, and murals covered the walls outside the small shop. Everywhere was closed, but waiting for us to approach was the shopkeeper. She brandished a large bunch of keys and offered to show us the schoolroom where Ché was held before being executed. (Allegedly his last words were: “Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man”.) It was just that, a schoolroom, nothing more. We crossed the playground to another locked room where inside were more paintings and photographs of the man. It was deathly quiet and during our whole time there we didn’t see another living soul. After ceremoniously locking up she sombrely showed us across the road and unlocked the door to the ‘museum’.
On two polystyrene boards were photographs of Ché’s denim-clad son who visited during last year’s annual celebration – devoted outsiders turn up every October for the anniversary of the shootout. There were also three chairs that apparently had some significance and, erm, ‘is that a blood stain on the floor?’ We were handed a book that contained the names of multinational visitors and a list of donations in order that a more permanent and educational memorial be constructed.
We returned to the shop and partook in a bottle of warm beer, then strolled around the village looking for the other landmarks that were touted on our leaflet: Casa del Corregidor, Casa del Telegrafista, and the Museito Privado de La Higuera del Ché. Alas, they were all closed.
Deep in thought, respectful silence pervaded the return journey. Although La Higuera wouldn’t satisfy the more traditional snap-happy, ‘where’s the gift shop’ tourist, there is definitely something intangible about the place. It is almost as though a greater force knows that an injustice has been committed here, something that can never be wholly atoned for or erased. And even with my nihilistic tendencies I felt this and hope that Ché Guevara’s philosophy and his memory continue to live on in people’s hearts, for he was truly a great and inspirational man.
“[He was] a man of great and absolute moral integrity, of steadfast and unshakeable principles, a whole revolutionary who looked towards tomorrow, towards the man of tomorrow; who looked towards the future mankind; who above all, highlighted human values, man’s moral values, who preached unselfishness, renunciation and self-denial.”
Fidel Castro, 28 November 1971