Tiny Village Hopes Che Will Live On for Tourists

Bolivia gave the remains of the famed guerrilla to Cuba on Saturday, but plans to keep tourist dollars coming

In this remote mountain hamlet, villagers still speak with reverence of "Santo Che" whose bust stands in the plaza and whose photos adorn makeshift altars alongside images of Jesus and Pope John Paul II.

The "Santo," of course, is Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who was summarily executed here in a mud-floor schoolhouse after a firefight in a brushy ravine on Oct. 8, 1967, just a mile outside of town.

"They ask him to bring rain, improve crop yield, or perform a miracle," says Giovanni Osinaga, a local doctor whose clinic is in the schoolhouse where Guevara died.

Dubbed a "miserable little village," by Jon Lee Anderson in his new biography "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life," La Higuera hasn't changed much in three decades. Cows, pigs, and mules amble down its main street, known as October 8, the day Guevara was captured. Villagers still live in adobe houses without electricity or running water. Many are illiterate and suffer from a number of diseases.

During Guevara's life, La Higuera's peasants feared his guerrillas and turned them in to the Bolivian Army. But the village's 175 residents hope that in death Guevara will bring them a prosperity his failed revolution did not.

Che as a tourist magnet

La Higuera is gearing up to become a principal stop on what the Bolivian tourist bureau has dubbed "La Ruta del Che," the route Guevara took during the 11-month guerrilla war he waged in 1967 to make Bolivia the vanguard of his revolution.

"We know tourists will want souvenirs," says Rene Villegas, who drives La Higuera's only truck and plans to charge a small fee to visit his "Che museum." The museum includes posters, photos, maps, books, rifles, and the "sacred chair," the wooden seat Guevara was allegedly sitting on when executed.

Just in time for the 30th anniversary of his death, a Cuban forensic team solved the mystery of his tomb last month by finding the legendary rebel's remains at a remote airstrip in the neighboring town of Vallegrande.

After Guevara was killed, his body was shown to the world and then was secretly buried to deny him a place of public homage. In 1995, a retired general named Mario Vargas Salinas ended 28 years of silence by revealing that Guevara's remains were buried by the abandoned airstrip. A forensic team from Cuba found Guevara by using special radar that detects images beneath the surface of the Earth, a device originally designed by NASA to explore the surface of the Moon.

The facial bone structure, the teeth, the absence of hands, and traces of plaster of Paris found in a jacket proved that the bone fragments belonged to Guevara. After Guevara was killed, his hands were amputated to check his fingerprints against files in his native Argentina, and death masks from plaster of Paris were made of his face. A year later, a Bolivian Cabinet member smuggled the hands in a bottle of formaldehyde and a microfilmed copy of Guevara's Bolivian diary to Cuba.

Indeed, the war diary has played a major role in determining the "Che Route."

To retrace the guerrillas' steps, travel agents in Bolivia's capital, La Paz, have poured over its minute details. Some, like Raul Calvimontes, have gone on several expeditions to the region, the Chaco Desert and an adjacent forested area in the eastern foothills of the Andes. "I even got lost in the forest for 11 hours," says Mr. Calvimontes, who is general manager of Eba Transtur, one of seven participating travel agencies.

Calvimontes is well aware that Guevara has become an international marketing icon, with his bearded likeness emblazoned on Swatch watches, an English beer (until his widow Aleida asked the brewer to withdraw the brand), clothes, skis, a Web site, a rock CD, the cover of five new biographies, and posters for six films.

For idealists, a 'symbol of the '60s'

For Mexican author Jorge Castaneda, who has also written a new Guevara biography, the appeal is not so much the man's political ideas but his enduring "symbol of the '60s, and the '60s do have great importance culturally in the world today."

Karen de la Quintana, sub-secretary for tourism, says market research shows most interest for the "Che Route" from men and women who describe themselves as "1960s idealists" between the ages of 44 and 55 who are professionals with good salaries.

Guevara was a charismatic medical doctor who fought with Fidel Castro in Cuba before leaving for South America to foment "many Vietnams." His idealistic speeches about "power to the people," his willingness to die for a cause, and his good looks - trademark long hair, beard, and beret with five-point star - have made him a romantic figure, a mythical figure worldwide.

"After lapsing into obscurity in the '70s and '80s," wrote Mr. Anderson, referring to Guevara's recent cult-figure status, "he has made a popular resurgence in the '90s, an enduring symbol of passionate defiance to the entrenched status quo."

Mrs. de la Quintana is banking on the "Che Route" to bring jobs and improve infrastructure for one of the nation's poorest regions, the Chaco.

"Although the Chaco is beautiful, it is a tough sell as an international tourist destination," she says. "Che is the hook that makes the region a unique destination."

The 600-mile "Che route," which opened at the end of June, is not cheap. An organized tour costs between $590 and $1,000 for up to six days. Tourists visit caves where the guerrillas hid, trek on trails they walked, examine tree platforms they used as lookout posts, and meet with peasants who knew them.

Making preparations

Vallegrande, a mountain town of 6,500 inhabitants, is only 30 miles from La Higuera, reachable after a grueling two hour-ride over a narrow mountain road that winds up to 9,000 feet.

In early October, town officials expect at least 5,000 tourists to participate in a five-day "Encuentro del Che" ("Che Encounter") to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his death. The "encounter" will include poetry readings, films, lectures, debates, and music.

As a result, the Hotel Ganadera is adding 12 rooms, workers are laying new tiles in the town plaza, and City Hall has announced that it will build a museum dedicated to Guevara and a mausoleum for the 103 guerrillas and Bolivian soldiers who died during the guerrilla war.

To be sure, Vallegrande, a poor provincial capital, has long attracted Guevara fans, who have scrawled on its walls graffiti such as "Che, You Never Died," and "Resistance or Death."

"We have always received some tourism because of Che," says Mayor Jaime Rodriguez. "But let's face it, we have nothing as important for our economic development as Che."

A contested 'treasure'

Not surprisingly, Mayor Rodriguez, who is a member of a right-wing party and no Guevara enthusiast, is unhappy about the discovery of Guevara's remains and the fact the Guevara family took them back to Cuba, where an elaborate ceremony took place last Saturday attended by President Fidel Castro.

Rodriguez referred to Guevara's remains as a "regional treasure" that should be buried in Vallegrande.

Last May, the Vallegrande city council voted to stop the digging, but they were overruled by the government of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.

"We thought if they took his remains back to Cuba," said Mayor Rodriguez, "we would lose tourists."

In La Paz, President Sanchez de Lozada says he overruled the town decision as a humanitarian gesture to the Guevara family and to "close with dignity a chapter in a history of blood and murder that took place in Bolivia 30 years ago."

"Everything has changed so much that it's hard to believe that Che is still so important," President Sanchez de la Lozada told the Monitor in a recent interview. "My reaction is surprise."

Back in La Higuera, Rene Villegas, is putting the finishing touches on his museum and ordering more T-shirts that he designed depicting Guevara smoking a pipe with the caption: "I visited Che's La Higuera and you?"

"I just want to satisfy the visitor's appetite," he says.

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