Cover story: The making of a legend
Saturday 04 October 1997
The taking of photographs, it might be said, was the death of Che Guevara. Throughout his final guerrilla campaign in Bolivia, in 1967, intended to take the Cuban revolution to mainland Latin America, the people who should have known better were endlessly snapping away - as though the establishment of the historical record was more important than the elementary security procedures that every guerrilla fighter should have known by heart. Some of these snapshots - discovered in "safe" caves and rucksacks - inevitably found their way into the hands of the Bolivian military and the CIA, confirming Guevara's presence in Bolivia.
Yet you can understand the compulsion to capture Guevara's image on film. In life and in death, he was a beautiful man. Before the era of the obsessive adulation accorded to musicians, he had the unmistakable aura of a rock star. Like Helen of Troy, he had an allure that people would die for, a face that launched a thousand demonstrations. I met him years ago in Havana, and people just stopped whatever they were doing, to stare at the Revolution made flesh.
In Bolivia, people went on filming him after his capture - there was one last shot outside the schoolhouse at La Higuera - and even after his death. The photographs of his Christ-like presence, when laid out in the laundry hut of the Senor de Malta hospital in the Andean town of Vallegrande, were to become crucial elements in the transmogrification of a guerrilla hero into a revolutionary icon.
I was there that day, hours after he had been shot. Just occasionally one has the chance to touch history's sleeve. I stood on tip-toe behind the tiny throng of peasants, soldiers, and nuns, trying to get a glimpse of the man whose guerrilla campaign I had been reporting. With me was Brian Moser, a television director working for Granada. The pictures he took that day, so harsh and uncompromising, are published here for the first time for 30 years. Moser had no film crew with him, and he had to make do with his own still camera. He even had to borrow a roll of film from a friendly Brazilian. He pushed through the crowd to take photographs of the two hospital doctors taking their scalpels to the cadaver, and of an ever-alert CIA agent, Gustavo Villoldo, who took a keen interest in the proceedings. His photographs record an image of Guevara with which most people are almost entirely unfamiliar.
We had been preparing to make a documentary film together for World in Action. Ten days earlier, the Bolivian military commander in Vallegrande had explained to us in some detail how his troops now had Guevara's small band encircled. An American colonel, in charge of turning raw Bolivian soldiers into a crack anti-guerrilla unit, had also told us of his optimism that events were moving to a climax. Moser cabled Manchester, pleading with Granada to urgently send out the film crew. Just our luck, it arrived too late.
On Monday, 9 October, we returned to Vallegrande by Jeep, after a tip- off from an American officer on Sunday night that Guevara had been shot and captured. We did not know then that the last two verbs should have been reversed. I telexed a story to Manchester reporting the military communique that Guevara had died of his wounds. Only some days afterwards did the news leak out that Guevara had been wounded and captured at midday on Sunday, and shot 24 hours later by order of the Bolivian High Command - in a banal moment of brutality typical of the guerrilla wars that he favoured, which, by their nature, obey no rules.
Some weeks later, when I saw the famous photographs of Guevara stretched out on the laundry basins, I asked myself why I had never noticed, when I saw his body in front of me, that he had clearly been shot through the heart. Surely I ought to have known at once that he had been killed after capture?
The answer lies in Brian Moser's photographs. They were taken at five in the evening, with the light fading, just four hours after Guevara had been shot. The body did not look beautiful at all. There was nothing remotely sacred or iconic on show. Here was just a tired and exhausted guerrilla fighter, worried and anguished, his body caked in blood, with some funny kind of moccasins tied to his feet. His filthy jacket was still on. The bullet-hole through the heart was simply not visible.
That Monday evening the Bolivian military authorities in Vallegrande made the first fateful decision that would lead to the creation of an icon. The officers had been familiar during the previous weeks with a number of bodies - both soldiers and guerrillas - being brought out of the guerrilla zone, often on the back of mules or donkeys (though Guevara's was flown out by helicopter). These corpses were usually unrecognisable, one dead guerrilla looking much like another.
What if the world were to refuse to believe that the invincible Guevara was really dead? Maybe the officers weren't even sure themselves. Indeed, possibly, the only two people who were certain that the cadaver was that of Guevara were the CIA agent - a Cuban exile - and me. Since Guevara had "disappeared" from Cuba in 1964, we alone - of those present in Vallegrande - could claim to have seen him alive, and could confidently state that this was definitely him.
The military decided that Guevara's body should be cleaned up, and that everything should be done to ensure that he looked as much like Guevara as possible. The doctors and the nuns worked through the night. Then on the following day, Tuesday, 10 October, the military brought a planeload of the world's press down from La Paz, the Bolivian capital, to come and view the body for themselves.
Guevara was laid out with the beatific countenance of a mediaeval saint. The cadaver looked angelic, its eyes wide open, the expression peaceful, the blood-stained clothes removed. The officers cavorted proudly in front of the cameras, even posing with a large magazine photograph of Guevara next to his head to point up the similarities. The cameras clicked away, and a legend was born. That startling face, so astonishingly alive, of a man for whom the entire world had been waiting for news for more than three years since his disappearance from Cuba, was splashed across every front page.
There were no cultural commentators in those days, no one to pick up the art-historical references that would help to explain why these pictures touched such a sensitive nerve. The art critic John Berger was eventually the first to point out the extraordinary similarity between the photograph of the dead Guevara and Mantegna's fore-shortened painting of the dead Christ. Others later noted how the Bolivian military had grouped themselves round Guevara's body in exact and artless imitation of Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson. These photographs, accidentally strumming the chords of a western cultural tradition, had created an image that would take on a life of its own.
To die young, as we have been reminded by the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales, can become a quick ladder to the pantheon of the immortals. Che Guevara was 39 when he was killed. He was famous enough before his death, but the manner of his passing projected him into the stratosphere of legend.
Iconography apart, Guevara had a real and simple claim to fame. As a key participant in Fidel Castro's guerrilla war, that ushered in the revolution in Cuba in January 1959, he would have been guaranteed a small footnote in the history of the 20th century. Yet simply to have survived as the chief spokesman of the Cuban Revolution, or as its main guerrilla historian and theorist, would not have turned his face into a globally recognised image that survives to this day. In the past two years, three decades after his death, nearly a dozen new biographies have been published, in several languages. Some have been mildly critical, but none has dared to pull him from his pedestal.
For Latin Americans, of course, the adulation is understandable. In a continent with failed aspirations of unity and long traditions of revolt and revolution, Guevara falls naturally into a long line of heroes, from Tpac Amaru and Simn Bolvar to Emiliano Zapata. His ambition to take the revolution from Cuba on to the mainland of Latin America inspired an entire generation, and for every one guerrilla fighter in the hills there were hundreds of cafe revolutionaries, cheering from the sidelines. So to have a university course in Guevara Studies (in Buenos Aires) or a Guevara Tourist Path (in Bolivia) is nothing out of the ordinary. It simply adds a fresh figure to the existing heritage trail of dead heroes for which the continent is already renowned.
Europeans have also had their utopian heroes. The British have Lawrence of Arabia, the Italians have Garibaldi. The exciting life of Lawrence (liberating Arabia from the Turkish empire) and his dramatic death (on a motor cycle), turned him for a while into an interesting national monument. Lawrence was one of the first to be plagued by an early generation of paparazzi. When he moved to his cottage in Dorset, they would throw stones on to the roof to make him come to the door to see what was going on.
Guevara never suffered such indignities. Yet the case of Lawrence is a reminder of the importance of the irrational in the construction of heroes. Just as we have been forcibly made aware that people feel a special relationship with royalty, so, too, we probably ought to recognise that heroes - Nietzschean supermen - have a special place in the collective sub-conscious. London is littered with statues, often financed "by public subscription", to the military commanders of empire. Men perceived to be brave, men whose chief characteristic is to practise violence, have always enjoyed a particular aura.
Like the heroes of empire, Guevara, too, was a man of violence. His actions, his philosophy, his writings, were a paean of praise to the armed struggle. He wrote in his final message that death would be welcome if other men were on hand to wield his weapons and "to intone the funeral dirge with the staccato singing of the machine-gun and with new battle cries of war and victory." With its unconscious evocation of the Italian Futurists, it was extreme language even for the 1960s and for a world shocked by the atrocities of the Vietnam war. Today, such bellicose statements would hardly receive the admiring attention they once did.
Outside Cuba, there are no statues to Che Guevara. We are left only with the photographs of this rare individual. Maybe those who snapped away so promiscuously and so dangerously realised that the historical record would prove, in the end, to be more important than the rules of security that they had broken
Che Guevara: the Exhibition, London College of Printing, 10 Back Hill, London EC1. 8-31 October, Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-3pm. Organised by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign
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