Bolivia starts digging for Che's remains

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The Independent Online

Latin America Correspondent

For 28 years and 50 days, Bolivian domestic aircraft may have been landing on Che Guevara's remains at the dusty Vallegrande airstrip more than 400 miles south of the capital, La Paz.

Yesterday, officials began digging up part of the dirt runway for what is left of the Argentine-born revolutionary who became a worldwide Sixties symbol of social change after joining Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution.

The Bolivians did not expect to find much. Che's hands were cut off after he was killed in 1967 and Bolivian army officers tried to burn his body before tossing him into a grave with other Marxist guerrillas. His thick black beard and wavy hair may help with identification.

Almost three decades later, President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada decided Ernesto "Che" (the Argentine version of "Buddy") Guevara's remains should be returned to his family for a Catholic burial.

Retired General Mario Vargas, 62, who as a 34-year-old army captain witnessed the secret burial at 11pm on 11 October 1967, led investigators from a presidential commission to the site. At first, he could not recall the spot but apparently had his memory jogged by two local people who had watched the night-time burial.

Although Bolivian army officers had put Che's body on public display in a Vallegrande hospital laundry room, and published famous photographs to prove to the world he was dead, they later panicked as the dead guerrilla's Christ-like image as a corpse only increased his mystique. They buried him in a secret communal grave and remained silent until General Vargas led the presidential investigators to the site.

Trained as a doctor in Argentina, Guevara joined Fidel Castro's revolutionary forces in Mexico before landing in Cuba and helping to overthrow the dictator, Fulgencio Batista, in 1959. As Mr Castro's right-hand man, he served in the government before returning to Argentina to fight for Marxist revolution in 1964. In early 1967, he tried to "export the revolution" to Bolivia but was captured on 8 October that year, a useless, rusting carbine in his hands. He was shot the following day, his last words: "Go ahead and shoot. You are a coward but you are shooting a man."

Guevara has relatives in both Argentina and Cuba. His eldest daughter, Hilda, died of cancer at the age of 39 in Havana in August, leaving behind Che's grandson, Canek Guevara, a 21-year-old rock guitarist.

Cuba and left-wing politicians in Argentina have requested his remains. His hands, at first sent to Argentina for fingerprint checks, ended up in Cuba, where Mr Castro preserved and retained them in a secret vault.

Mr Castro has encouraged Guevara's martyr image even more than his own - Che's face looks down from buildings around Cuba and from ubiquitous T-shirts.

Way down in Vallegrande, the tourism potential is not lost on Mayor Hoover Cabrera. He wants Che's remains untouched and a Che museum at the "historic site".