LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — A little band of guerrillas had been on the run through rugged, mountainous terrain, struggling unsuccessfully to build support among the indigenous people of rural Bolivia as a step toward a global socialist revolution.
Finally, on Oct. 8, 1967, the army ran them down. A day afterward — apparently at the behest of the CIA — an army sergeant shot to death their leader: Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Fifty years later, the mountain village where he was killed and the nearby town where he was buried have become shrines to a sort of socialist saint, a man whose death helped cement his image as an enduring symbol of revolt. Some there even pray to him — an outcome that likely would have outraged the iconoclastic atheist.
Thousands of activists and sympathizers from many countries poured into La Higuera and Vallegrande this week for ceremonies to commemorate Guevara led by the country’s leftist president, Evo Morales, who laid flowers at a bust of the fallen guerrilla in the village on Sunday.
In Cuba, President Raul Castro — one of Guevara’s old comrades-in-arms — oversaw a memorial ceremony at the large mausoleum constructed to hold the revolutionary’s remains, though the main speaker was the man many believe may replace him, Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel.
“The colossal example of Che endures and multiplies day by day,” said Diaz-Canel, who added warnings that the United States, Guevara’s chief foe, had demonstrated “a marked interest in a political and economic reconquest” of Cuba.
Guevara was the very personification of the communist dream of spreading revolution around the world.
The Argentine-born physician was radicalized by a youthful trip through South America, witnessed the CIA-backed overthrow of a leftist president in Guatemala and ran across exiled Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro while working as a photographer in Mexico.
Despite an often-debilitating asthma, he turned himself into one of the most important fighters of Castro’s Cuban revolution, winning the climactic battlefield victory in the city of Santa Clara that prompted dictator Fulgencio Batista to flee the country.
In the aftermath of that triumph, Guevara commanded the Havana military fortress of La Cabana, where hundreds of men accused of crimes under the Batista regime were put to death.
Castro then made Guevara into an unlikely financial bureaucrat, naming him to head Cuba’s Central Bank and later the Ministry of Industry. He was famous for working long hours, and then turning up for volunteer work in the sugar fields.
But he felt the call to spread socialism to other nations. He left Cuba in 1964 to help rebels in the Congo, renouncing his Cuban citizenship but relying on Cuban aid. The mission was a flop and he had to pull out a year later.
Back in Cuba, Guevara secretly organized another revolution, this time in Bolivia. But his band there, which included several Cubans, failed to find the sort of popular support that Castro had won in Cuba during his revolution. Bolivia’s army tracked Che down and killed him.
An oddly Christ-like photo of the slain Guevara emerged and helped build the image of him as a martyr. An even more famous photo of the living Che, seeming to gaze into the future, has become an icon of rebellion on t-shirts, tattoos and key rings — sometimes to the consternation of Guevara’s socialist allies, who disapprove of the way it has become commercialized.
One of Guevara’s younger brothers, Juan Martin Guevara, said the causes he fought for remain important.
“The inequality today is greater than when he fought, the economic concentration is much greater. What he fought for is still present,” the brother said in Buenos Aires. “He would be in the same place that he always was, confronting it.”
Andrea Rodriguez reported from Havana. Associated Press journalist Paul Byrne contributed from Buenos Aires, Argentina.