The nature and scope of Ché mania in Bolivia
The Making of a Revolutionary
Ernesto “Ché” Guevara was born in 1928 in Rosario, Santa Fé, Argentina. In the early 1950s, after finishing medical school, Guevara travelled extensively through Latin America. Ernesto, who himself had had a comfortable middle class upbringing, began to see for himself the misery of oppressed, exploited and impoverished people of his own continent. During his travels he had a vision of transforming South America into a socialist utopia and ending US imperialism in the developing world through armed revolution.
In 1954 Ché’s revolutionary future was determined after meeting Fidel Castro in Mexico where he helped to mastermind a guerrilla war in Cuba which would cause the downfall of the country’s tyrannous military dictator Fulgencio Batista on 1st January 1959. Guevara was immediately raised to hero status in the hearts and minds of the Cuban population as a result of the Revolution’s success. Guevara left Cuba in 1966 with the hope of igniting and exporting revolution around the World, first in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and later in Bolivia. In Bolivia, Ché failed in his mission to gain support from the proletariat and rural class citizens. The Marxist revolutionary discourse was not understood by the communities that he travelled through and he was subsequently defeated and captured. He was later executed at the hands of the Bolivian army in La Higuera where his corpse was paraded before the world's media. Ché was then buried in an unmarked grave and his hands supposedly cut off, as the government wanted to prevent his final resting-place becoming a place of pilgrimage for future revolutionaries.
Iconisation and commercialisation of Ché Guevara
The media hype surrounding his death was significant and there was wide scale speculation as to whether he had been killed in combat, murdered or even still alive. People did not know what to believe and the death of the “fallen hero” became mystified around the globe, which no doubt enhanced his future iconic status. A “cult of personality” grew up around Ché and images of his lifeless corpse travelled fast through mass-produced newspapers and magazines. Ché became a martyr and universal icon overnight because he was prepared to die for his dream of a better Latin America. After his death people revered him like a saint but he was far from perfect. He was ruthless disciplinarian and publicly ordered executions without trial. To justify his hero status his wrongs have been overshadowed. Nowadays in Bolivia Ché has become the embodiment of self-sacrifice, struggle for social justice and for an alternative, non-capitalist future rather than being criticized for his revolutionary failures. His execution remains a historic and controversial event; and is still the subject of intense public interest and discussion around the world.
How did a confessed Marxist become, literally, the poster boy for conspicuous capitalist consumption?
Images of Ché can be seen all over Latin America, even in countries he did not try to help liberate. Whatever one may think of the Argentinean’s politics of revolution, his attractiveness to artists has been universal. The cult of Ché is more complex in Bolivia, due to the fact it was the Bolivian army, with the backing of the CIA, which killed him in 1967. Today in Bolivia Ché is hero-worshipped by many that recognise his idealist dreams for the country. After Ché’s death millions of posters were sold and the demand for them verged on the fanatical. It was primarily students who were part of this craze. Ché became an important mascot for the student movement. It was not only his good looks and ideals which appealed to the young but having a picture of Ché on your wall was seen as rebellious, anti-establishment, standing up to authority and going against the status quo.
Street vendors throughout Bolivia and South America entice foreign visitors to buy anything from cigarette lighters and alcohol to money clips with Ché’s image on them. Backpackers around Calle Sagarnaga in La Paz can often be seen sporting Ché T-shirts. Whether they know exactly what he stood for is a whole different story. Ironically Ché’s image has become a capitalist tool for selling merchandise. Buying a poster or t-shirt is participating in the capitalism Ché despised and fought hard against. In Bolivia, Christ-like effigies of Ché can be seen on the back of buses and on billboards. Ché died young and for his cause and has been mass produced as a beacon of hope.
Giant pro-revolution murals and graffiti can be seen throughout Bolivia, the most famous being next to the Universidad Mayor de San Andres in La Paz. The large mural reads, “Todo nuestra acción es un grito de guerra contra imperialismo.” Below the mural Bolivian students pay homage to Ché before heading to lectures. At secondary school, pupils are taught about Ché Guevara as part of the national curriculum.
Following in Ché’s footsteps
The name, Ché Guevara is big business in Bolivia today, especially since his remains were finally found in the small town of Vallegrande in 1997 after three decades. It has been reported numerous times that miracles have occurred where Ché was shot, sick animals have been healed, good weather has been brought. The peasants also say that if you whisper Ernesto "Ché" Guevara's name to the sky you will find your lost goat or cow. Flowers and candles mark his final resting place, similar to the worship of Inca Gods awaiting resurrection.
Tourism to the area has exploded since the inauguration of the “Ché Trail” (with the help and funding of the humanitarian group CARE International in October 2004) that allows tourists to follow in the Argentinean revolutionary’s final footsteps. The trail leads from the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra by road, via the Inca site of Samaipata, onto the villages of Vallegrande and La Higuera. Tourists can hike down to the ravine where a sick and wounded Guevara was captured on 8th October 1967 whilst he was leading the Ñancahuazú guerrilla, and see the one-time schoolhouse where he was taken and executed the following day. The schoolhouse has since been converted into a museum.
The community project has invested U$ 600 000 on improving the tourism infrastructure in the surrounding area which will help to generate income for many local families through the creation of small-scale enterprises as a spin-off to the “Ché Tourism Route”. Today his legend is helping improve the lives of many impoverished people of Bolivia especially the indigenous Guaraní farmers, among the poorest in the country, something no doubt Ché would be proud of. The indigenous community who rejected Guevara when he tried to foment a Communist revolution 38 years ago are now embracing his death, cashing in on the stream of pilgrims to visit the area daily.
A cross marking where Ché’s remains were found bears the inscription "Para la Solaridad, la libertad y la Justicia" - for solidarity, freedom and justice - honouring the achievements of Ché, the idealistic warrior. Alongside is another small plaque that reads “Let us be like Ché”. The imagery and graffiti surrounding his resting place only goes to emphasise his importance in the hearts and minds of the Bolivian population. He remains the potent symbol of rebellion and the alluring zeal of revolution
Behind the Myth
Over the years Ché’s image has been used to alleviate many taboos associated with inequality and injustice. Globally there are numerous victims of free market economics and capitalism, civil wars and human rights offences. Ché’s image has come to stand for these ongoing struggles. He’s not just popular amongst left and progressive movements but diverse groups around the globe. There are many different motives for buying Ché memorabilia and these have changed over the years. His image has often been manipulated and taken out of context because once an icon has been created it is often open to reinterpretation. “The more Ché is reproduced, the further he gets from reality” was the headline for a Ché article written in the German Spiegel newspaper. Unfortunately once an icon is dead he or she is not around to defend themselves or their image. “Che mania” has evolved and much of the true Ché has been swallowed by the myth, idealism and capitalist greed. Despite this fact, Ché will never cease to be an inspiration and a role model to people around the globe, including Bolivia. Whether people wear Ché on their t-shirts as a fashion statement or a political statement there will always be a place in society that Ché’s malleable image can fill. To this day Ché Guevara remains one of the most inspirational and enigmatic characters of the 20th Century and, alongside Karl Marx, one of the greatest influences on Socialism, Communism and the power of the workers to affect true social change... Hasta La Victoria Siempre!
For more information about the Ché route, contact Care Bolivia (00 591 3 349 3005; www.carebolivia.org.)
The Museo Historico del Ché in La Higuera is open daily; entrance Bs 5 (about U$ 0.75).