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Che in Bolivia: a Rough Draft of History

by

I was living in 1967 in Santiago de Chile, where I worked at the university and wrote from time to time for the Guardian in London. That January, I was told by Chilean leftist friends that Che Guevara was in Bolivia. Public indications of an incipient guerrilla movement emerged in March. Several journalists descended on the abandoned guerrilla camp at Nancahuazú, close to the oil town of Camiri in eastern Bolivia, and a group that left the camp, including the French writer Régis Debray, were captured and detained in the town in April. Then, in Havana, the Cubans published Che’s final work, an essay, “Create one, two, many Vietnams”, which was an appeal for action by the international left.

I decided to visit Bolivia to see whether it was really a suitable terrain for the development of another Vietnam, for there had been little news in the international press about the war there.

In August I took the train over the Andes from the Chilean port of Antofagasta to the capital La Paz. Bolivia was a military dictatorship ruled by General Rene Barrientos, an air force officer who had seized power two years earlier. With the emergence of the guerrillas, the country had been placed under martial law, and there were military checkpoints at the entrance to every town.

I took all the necessary precautions: I arrived by train to avoid the airports that were more closely surveyed, and I shaved off my beard since all barbudos were suspect. My idea was to travel as a tourist, without – officially – registering as a foreign correspondent, but this proved impossible. It was forbidden to travel outside the city without the written permission of General Alfredo Ovando, the commander-in-chief, later the president.

So I went to register in La Paz with other foreign journalists, including a friend from the Times in London. He told me that there was something strange about a journalist from Denmark who spent two hours daily sending telex messages to Copenhagen with every detail from the Bolivian newspapers.

“Was there really such interest in Denmark in the affairs of Bolivia?” asked my friend, amazed. I was rather surprised, too. Years later I discovered that the Dane was a distinguished leftwing journalist who was sending news to the Cuban newsagency, Prensa Latina, in Havana, via Denmark.

I travelled for several weeks to report on what was going on, and to examine whether Bolivia was really in a pre-revolutionary situation. I visited the tin mines at Oruro, Siglo Veinte and Potosi, all under military control, with armed soldiers at every pit entrance. The union leaders had all been imprisoned, and the miners were fearful of saying very much.

Unhappy peasants

I also tried to see what was going on in the countryside. Bolivia had had a revolution 15 years earlier, in 1952, with a land reform that had reached many regions, but I found that many peasants were unhappy with the way things had turned out. I drove across Bolivia’s high plateau with a team of agrarian experts from a United Nations agency before descending to the town of Tarija, and everywhere we heard peasants complaining that landlords had returned to seize their land.

I retraced my steps to La Paz to interview the United States ambassador, Douglas Henderson. He had read Che’s famous essay, calling for new Vietnams, in the Cuban magazine Tricontinental, and he assured me that although the US was helping the Bolivian army with a military training mission there was no intention of sending US troops to fight.

At the end of August I arrived at Camiri, and interviewed Debray, then a prisoner in the officers’ club. I also talked to the officers of the army’s Fourth Division, who told me that the guerrillas had left the zone of Camiri and moved north, to the difficult region west of the road to Santa Cruz. To discover what was happening I would need to get to Vallegrande, in the foothills of the Andes, where the army’s Eighth Division had its headquarters.

I drove there early in September and talked to the officer in charge of the base, Colonel Joaquin Zenteno Anaya, who was assassinated some years later in Europe. He told me that the guerrillas were encircled and that it would be difficult for them to escape; that they had been surrounded and were left with only one possible exit, where the military had soldiers disguised as peasants who would give the alarm if the guerrillas came their way. Comments recorded by people living in a hamlet visited by the guerrillas a few days earlier, as well as those of captured guerrillas I was allowed to interview, left no one in any doubt that the guerrilla chief was Che Guevara. “Within a few weeks we shall have some news,” Colonel Zenteno said.

Base of the ‘special forces’

I took the road from Vallegrande to Santa Cruz, to visit the camp at La Esperanza, the military base of the US special forces, where some 20 servicemen were lodged in an abandoned sugar mill. Their sophisticated radio equipment enabled them to talk with Vallegrande and the guerrilla zone, and with Panama, HQ of US Southern Command in the Canal Zone. I was greeted by Major Robert “Pappy” Shelton, who told me that 600 “Rangers” – Bolivian special forces trained by US instructors – had just graduated from their course and left for the anti-guerrilla base at Vallegrande.

On the evening of 8 October 1967 I was walking through the main square of Santa Cruz with my friend Brian Moser, a filmmaker from Granada Television, when a man beckoned to us from his cafe table. He was one of the US officers we had met at La Esperanza. “I have news for you,” he said.

“About Che?” we asked, for his possible capture had been on our minds for weeks.

“Che has been captured,” he told us. “He is severely wounded and he may not last the night. The other guerrillas are fighting desperately to get him back, and the company commander is appealing by radio for a helicopter so that they can fly him out.”

The commander had been so agitated that his words came out in a jumble. “We’ve got him, we’ve got him!”

Our contact suggested that we should hire a helicopter to take us at once to the guerrilla zone. He did not know whether Che was still alive, but he thought there was little chance of his surviving long. We did not have the money to hire a helicopter, even had one been available. It was already 8.30pm, and it was not possible in Bolivia to fly after dark. So we hired a jeep and set off at four in the morning, Monday 9 October, to drive to Vallegrande.

We arrived there five and a half hours later. The military would not allow us to travel further, to La Higuera, and we drove straight to the primitive airfield. At least half the town seemed to be there, schoolchildren in white dresses and amateur photographers. The inhabitants of Vallegrande were used to the comings and goings of the military. The most excited were the children, jumping up and down and pointing to the horizon.

A few minutes later a speck appeared in the sky and soon materialised into a helicopter, bearing on its landing rails the bodies of two dead soldiers. They were unstrapped, unceremoniously loaded into a lorry and carted into the town.

But as the crowd melted away, we stayed behind and photographed the crates of napalm provided by the Brazilian army that lay around the periphery of the airfield. With a telephoto lens we took photographs of a man in olive-green uniform with no military insignia, identified to us as an agent of the CIA. Such temerity by foreign journalists, for we were the first to arrive in Vallegrande by -24 hours, was ill-received, and the CIA agent, in the company of some Bolivian officers, tried to have us thrown out of the town. Our credentials showed us to be bona fide journalists, and after much argument we were allowed to stay.

The one and only helicopter then set off again to the fighting zone, 30km to the southwest, bearing with it the figure of Zenteno. He returned in triumph shortly after one o’clock, barely able to suppress a huge grin.

Che was dead, he announced. He had seen the body and there was no room for doubt. We had no reason to disbelieve him, and we rushed to the tiny telegraph office and thrust our dispatches to the outside world into the hands of a startled and disbelieving clerk. None of us had much confidence that they would ever reach their destination.

Four hours later, the helicopter came back again, bearing this time a single small body strapped to the outside rail. Instead of landing close to where we were, as it had done before, it stopped in the middle of the field. We were forbidden to break through the cordon for journalists. Speedily, the distant corpse was loaded into a Chevrolet van, which began a hectic run up the airfield and away.

We leapt into our jeep, which was standing nearby, and our enterprising driver followed close. After about a kilometre, the Chevrolet turned sharply into the grounds of a tiny hospital. Soldiers tried to shut the gates before we could get through, but we were close enough behind to prevent them. The Chevrolet drove up a steep slope, and then reversed towards a small colour-washed hut with a bamboo roof and one side open to the sky.

We leapt out of the jeep and reached the back doors of the van before they opened. When they were thrown open, the CIA agent climbed out, yelling in English: “All right, let’s get the hell out of here.” Poor man, he was hardly to know that a British journalist was standing outside.

Unmistakable

Inside the van, on a stretcher, lay the body of Che Guevara. From the first moment I had no doubt that it was he. I had seen him once before four years previously in Havana, and he was not a person one would forget easily. There could be no doubt that this was Ernesto Che Guevara.

When they carried the body out, and propped it up on a makeshift table in the hut that served as a laundry in less troubled times, I knew for certain that Guevara was dead.

The shape of the beard, the design of the face, and the rich flowing hair were unmistakeable. He was wearing olive-green battledress and a jacket with a zippered front. On his feet were faded green socks and a pair of homemade moccasins. Since he was fully dressed, it was difficult to see where he had been wounded. He had two obvious holes in the bottom of his neck, and later, when they were cleaning his body, I saw another wound in his stomach. I do not doubt that he had wounds in his legs and near his heart, but I did not see them.

The two doctors from the hospital were probing the wounds in his neck and my first reaction was to assume that they were searching for the bullet, but in fact they were preparing to put in the tube that would conduct the formalin into his body to preserve it. One of the doctors began cleaning Che’s hands, which were covered with blood. But otherwise there was nothing repellent about the body. He looked astonishingly alive. His eyes were open and bright, and when they took his arm out of his jacket, they did so without difficulty. I do not believe that he had been dead for many hours, and at the time I did not believe that he had been killed after his capture. We all assumed that he had died of his wounds and lack of medical attention sometime early on Monday morning.

The humans round the body were more repellent than the dead: a nun who could not help smiling and sometimes laughed aloud; officers who came with their expensive cameras to record the scene; and the agent from the CIA, who seemed to be in charge of the operation and looked furious whenever anyone pointed a camera in his direction. “Where do you come from?” we asked in English, jokingly adding, “From Cuba? From Puerto Rico?” But he was not amused, and curtly replied in English, “From nowhere.”

Later we asked him again, but this time he replied in Spanish, “Que dice?” and pretended not to understand. He was a short, stocky man in his mid-30s, with sunken piggy eyes and little hair. It was difficult to tell whether he was a North American or a Cuban exile, for he spoke English and Spanish with equal facility and without trace of an accent. Subsequently I discovered that his name was Gustavo Villoldo, and he lives to this day in Miami. I wrote of his presence in Vallegrande in an article for the Guardian, but it was another year before any mention appeared in the mainstream US press.

After half an hour we withdrew from the hut to drive back to Santa Cruz, and send out our reports. It was already nightfall and we did not get back till early on Tuesday 10 October. There was no telegraph office, and I took a plane to La Paz, from where I was able to send my report. It was published on the front page of the Guardian that day.

On the plane I bumped into Major “Pappy” Shelton, who said simply: “Mission accomplished!”

Richard Gott is a journalist, who has worked for the Guardian, London. Among his books are ‘Cuba: a New History’ (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2004) and ‘Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution’ (Verso, London, 2005).

This article originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.

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