BY LAURA GARZA
Twenty-eight years after Ernesto Che Guevara was murdered on orders of the Bolivian government, a retired Bolivian general who was part of the operation has revealed what was done with the body of the guerrilla commander and communist leader. Mario Vargas Salinas, who was an officer with Bolivia's Eighth Army Division when Guevara was captured and killed, told a U.S. journalist last month that Guevara's body is buried in a mass grave in the town of Vallegrande.
Vallegrande is a provincial capital in the mountains of southern Bolivia and is 30 miles from La Higuera, where Guevara and three other members of his guerrilla column were held after they were captured on Oct. 8, 1967. The Argentine-born revolutionary was murdered the next day. His body was flown to Vallegrande and publicly displayed in a hospital through October 10. Then, in the early hours of October 11, Vargas said he was ordered to accompany a dump truck carrying the bodies of six dead guerrillas to the town's airstrip. "He is buried under the airstrip at Vallegrande," said Vargas. The retired general said he believed "enough time has passed, and it's time the world knows."
The account of the interview with Vargas by Jon Lee Anderson appeared in the November 21 New York Times. Vargas is also cited as saying he spoke with Guevara's executioner, who riddled his lower body with bullets so the regime could claim he had been killed in combat, not murdered in cold blood. He was told Guevara's last words were "Shoot, coward! You are going to kill a man."
This confirms an account given by Fidel Castro in a June 1968 introduction to Guevara's Bolivian Diary. In it Castro explained the details of Guevara's murder known at that time, including the fact that the orders to kill him were given by U.S.-trained officers. Castro stated that when the officer assigned to shoot the wounded guerrilla hesitated, Guevara said, "Shoot! Don't be afraid!"
Another officer involved in the operation to wipe out the guerrilla fighters, Gary Prado Salmón, who commanded the army patrol that captured Guevara after he had been wounded in battle, confirmed that the revolutionary's partially burned and mutilated body was dumped in the hurriedly dug grave at the end of the airstrip. Prado is also a retired general now.
The final burial site of the guerrillas was kept secret. Anderson wrote, "The Bolivian Government had decided to `disappear' Guevara's body, apparently to deny him a burial site that could become a place of public homage." Anderson noted the steps taken to prove that Guevara was dead after his murder and before his body was finally disposed of. Vargas, Anderson said, "witnessed the grisly events that followed: the making of a wax death mask of Guevara, the amputation of his hands by Argentine agents [for fingerprint identification] and his nighttime burial."
Anderson stated that the hands and death mask eventually found their way into the hands of the Cuban government. He cited the source as Antonio Arguedas, then Bolivia's interior minister, who is known to be responsible for turning over to Havana microfilm of photocopied pages of Guevara's captured diary of the Bolivian campaign.
"If the Israelis and Palestinians can make peace, why can't we?" said Vargas, referring to the governments of Cuba and Bolivia. The two governments re-established diplomatic relations in 1985. The Bolivian government has always claimed it did not know where Guevara's body was and thus refused to respond to Havana's requests that his remains be returned to Cuba.
The army high command tried to downplay the revelations. Reynaldo Cáceres, a general and commander in chief of Bolivia's Armed Forces, said the report had no basis, adding, "We don't know anything about the matter." But others in the government quickly moved to acknowledge the report.
On November 22, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Guillermo Bedregal, said that as a matter of state policy the Bolivian government would undertake "to deliver the remains of that man, who fought and died for his ideals, to the family."
Also within days of the interview the president of a legislative commission on human rights, Deputy Juan del Granado, said he would undertake legal action to exhume Guevara's remains.
Bedregal noted that once the site of the burial is found, identifying Guevara's body should be "easy" since his hands were cut off. The recovery of the body, Bedregal said, "will bring to an end a harmful military period of our country, about which, after all this time, almost 30 years, it is necessary to overcome any kind of resentment that could exist." He said returning the body would aid relations between Bolivia and Cuba.
Bolivia's president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, quickly ordered the body exhumed and said it should be returned to Guevara's family.
A government-appointed commission was formed and, accompanied by Vargas, flew to Vallegrande and began digging at the site on December 1. Hugo San Martín, a member of the commission, said they planned to speak with other soldiers who were involved in fighting the guerrillas at the time. He also said other witnesses had confirmed the burial location.
Bolivian defense minister Jorge Ostacevic said a report on the matter was being prepared for the president.
Del Granado said the government's action in finding Guevara's body would be heading down the right road to the discovery, exhumation, and return of the remains of other guerrilla fighters who were also killed by the Bolivian regime. They include Cubans, Peruvians, and Bolivians who had participated in the campaign led by Guevara, he noted. Del Granado also mentioned those killed who had been part of another guerrilla movement that failed in 1970 and operated in a mountainous zone north of La Paz.
Anderson's article also notes the potential for the issue to turn into a bigger problem for Bolivia's current rulers. "Bolivian human rights groups estimate that as many as 150 suspected leftist activists remain classified as `disappeared,' most of them dating from the right-wing military rule of Gen. Hugo Banzer Suárez in the 1970s," he writes.
The fact that the whereabouts of those who died has remained unknown is a situation "that cannot continue," said Del Granado. "They should be found, and turned over as an ethical, humanitarian, and religious question."
Officials in Vallegrande decided to designate the landing strip a "historical heritage," along with other areas where Guevara's fighters operated. A town meeting of 3,000 on November 30 agreed to ask that the remains not be removed. Mayor Hoover Cabrera said the town would ask the Guevara family for the "honor" of keeping the remains and Cabrera has proposed establishing a museum dedicated to the revolutionary leader.
Reacting to initial reports on Vargas's revelation, Canet Sánchez Guevara, a grandson of the revolutionary hero, said he wasn't sure whether to believe the report or not, but added "what is important is not where he is buried, but where his ideas are best understood."
Guevara's daughter Aleida cited her father as saying, "Wherever a man falls, that's where he remains."
Rodolfo Saldaña, one of the Bolivian combatants who fought with Che and currently lives in Cuba, said a version of Vargas's story had been "whispered a while ago." It's important now, he said, "that it has been confirmed by the participants."
Che Guevara led an 11-month guerrilla campaign in Bolivia in 1966-67 to forge a movement of workers and peasants capable of winning the battle for land and national sovereignty and opening the socialist revolution in South America. At the time, Bolivia was ruled by a military dictatorship that came to power in 1964 and was led by Gen. René Barrientos.
Class struggle heats up in Bolivia
Currently, the government headed by President Sánchez de Lozada is facing growing resistance to the austerity policies the capitalist regime is implementing. At the same time the revelations about Guevara's body were being publicized, a major strike called by Bolivia's main union federation shut down schools, public transportation, banks, and air and rail transport November 21. It was the third major action called since the government lifted a six-month state of siege on October 18. Two cities, Cochabamba and Sucre, are now under control of the police and military troops.
Class struggle heats up in Bolivia
The unions are opposing plans for further privatization of state-owned companies, especially the petroleum enterprise. Up to now the government has transferred to foreign companies about 50 percent of the activities of state-run enterprises in electricity, telecommunications, and the airlines. The unions have also joined with coca growers opposed to the recently announced government plan to eradicate more than 13,000 acres of coca in an area where 250,000 people depend on income from the crop. The unions are demanding the government put in place alternative programs for the farmers in the region.
The strikers also supported demands by thousands of students who are opposing a new proposal to link educational funding to an evaluation program. Demonstrations against the measure have taken place in La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz de la Sierra and some 1,600 people have joined a hunger strike.
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