Friday, May 12, 2006
Remembering Che Guevara
I am reproducing one of my fascinating journey in Bolivia to Che Memorial. Exactly over a year later, Bolivia is under a communist regime and their first ever
indegenous president. Latin America is reeling under a change. From Bolivia, to Brazil,Cuba and Vanujuela. The change in Europe is equally visible. Now, India is watching the same. Nepal is already on 'red alert'. Issue is not left or right, but continuous and depressing neglect by the rightwing elements in power. continuous sucking of people's blood and their resources will ultimately bring people out in street. Democracy cannot be allowed to be hijacked by the middlemen masquarading as political leaders. It is time to pay tribute to one of the finest international statesman named Che Guevara.
When Che Became A Market God
27 April, 2005 Countercurrents.org
When I got invitation to visit Bolivia the first thing in mind was to hear about Che Guevara. The longish flight timing gave me enough time to read some work of Che as well as go through Sunday Financial Times which has been carrying feature article on Che. It is interesting to notice how the some of the commentators in the west perceives people like Che. In fact, I had read many articles in Indian Press borrowed from the Western press on Che questioning his popularity in the developing countries. Therefore I was not surprised to read an analysis of a western journalist mixing Che’s work with that of Osama Bin Laden. These kind of comparison are not isolatory in nature, as we have seen them in India. They are not the work of an illiterate journalist but deliberate attempts to malign honest individuals who tried to challenge the status quo. Hence, if the upper caste journalists are fed up of every time mentioning Narendra Modi then club some else with him so that your soul is satisfied.
In a newspaper article one senior editor compared Narendra Modi with former prime minister VP Singh. The upper caste mindset in Indian media and ‘secular’ circle is always evident that you make try to club together a person who was responsible for killing of innocent lives in Gujarat with that of an entirely political movement against the Mandal Commission recommendations by the Hindu upper castes. I am not going to discuss here with this issue of mandalisation but the fact is somewhere we are clubbing together such issues and damaging the entire fabric.
The Financial Times columnist said that he saw big portraits of Che and Osama in a bus in the Lapaz, capital of Boliva. While I traveled a large part of Bolivia including Santacruz and the places where Che was executed by the American supervised forces, I was not fortunate enough to get such a picture as depicted by our friend. Even if some ignorant souls have put Che and Osama together, any good reader of history would never bracket them together. For Che was definitely a revolutionary while the other fellow a crude fundamentalist spreading hatred against non-believers and believers of other faith. It was identical of a Pakistani columnist putting Bhagat Singh and fundamentalists who attacked Indian parliament, together to justify the highest platform of democracy.
Interestingly, walking through the streets of Santacruz gives you disappointment as how Bolivia which has spontaneously superb mountain range and vast track of land has lost touch with its past. Not only the American control their land and money but culture and mind as well. And that is why even when certain people suggested that they had the best president of Bolivia, a completely non political person, I was surprised and shocked not to hear anything from the government quarters about the issue raised nearly forty years ago by Che and his contemporaries. While the educated Bolivian would like to leave their country for better jobs in the west particularly United States, the country’s native inhabitants live in utterly disillusioned circumstances. The wide gap between the cities and villages is reflected once you step out of Santacruz where people and culture has been deeply influenced in the Pepsi and coke and prostitution rampant in the streets.
My disillusionment with the political elite of Bolivia was because of their continuous antipathy towards the marginalized. May be it is because of their new found vocabulary of speaking international where they only talk of ‘funds’ and ‘donations’. Right from the president, to his ministers, every one talked of tapping the vast natural resources in Bolivia.
Ruling political elite as well as hugely funded NGOs ignores the issue of people’s aspirations for which Che fought in Bolivia. A truly international person who was born in Argentina, the very neighbor of Bolivia, and one of the outstanding revolutionary of Cuba along with Fidel Castro, Che went to Kongo and then made Bolivia his battle ground to fight against the military regime added by the US government. So such kind of internationalism is rare in today’s world when person leave their comfort for serving the human kind. Therefore, whatever the western media write about Che and Cuba, the fact is that both are the most wanted things in Europe and Latin America. Cuban Bars are very famous apart from Che and Fidel Castro in every part of the world. People enjoy the ‘spirit’ of Cuba. So it was great occasion for me to be in a Cuban bar and enjoy the dance there in Santa Cruz. And there I met many such youngsters who feel Bolivians should change the status quo, opined Cecila, 26 is a student of Social Sciences in Cochabamba, the third biggest city of Bolivia after Lapaz, and Santa Cruz. As I mention about Che Guevara and she become excited to discuss about him. She shows me her ring in which, a small photograph of Che Guevara is fixed. I discuss with her the current situation in her country. She is concerned about the American domination in every day life in her country. So on the one hand big companies have captured the small market of Bolivia, on the other side, we have the Church which is playing a crucial role here in daily lives of people and Cecila is very much against it. ‘Do the church work among the poor people’. Oh, no she says. They don’t work at all except the rituals they follow. ‘ We need a revolution and poor will be liberated, it is only Che’s vision that Bolivia can be an independent country.’
As I embark upon one of the most fascinating journey from Santa Cruz to Vallegrande, the main town which has accessibility to bus and roads, the local Buses, interestingly, tap the anti-American sentiments, in the films and laughs and clap whenever there is a scene in which the native heroine of the film befools a brown Saheb. I could understand the gaps between the cities and the villages, between the elite class and the poor. The mountainous terrains of Bolivia are simply superb. I did never see so many ranges of mountains anywhere in the world, including Latin America where I traveled earlier also. Such enormous diversity of nature has not yet helped Bolivia. In a programme, the minister for forest in Bolivia said that before the government gives land to the poor, he would ensure that there is no deforestation. He said that he needs to protect Bolivia’s vast natural resources. And the people got angry at his remark. An indigenous woman got up and challenges this nation. ‘ The minister’s remark means that the poor people destroy the natural resources or forest. Mr. Minister, first look into the work of the industries and corporations which have been there with the blessings of the politicians, who have destroyed the forest and not the native people. It is a blatant lie. Ironically, Bolivia has more track of land then its entire population but while the native people suffer from poverty, I could see the vast fields of thousands of hectare where the feudal lords over farming. It is through these lords that Bolivia is being governed. A country unmindful of what happened a few years back in Argentina when the upsurge against the policies of the government forced it to leave the palace.
After 7 hours tiring journey from Santacruz, I reach Vallegrande, a small town surrounded by mountains. At the town hall of it, we find a memorial of Che Guevara. For the first time, after reaching Bolivia, I feel that people still remember Che, though Cecila’s words were like music for me when she talked of revolution. In the evening as I reach my hotel, there is hardly anyone who could understand English language. Still whatever I could understand people remember Che as a revolutionary who sacrificed his life for the cause of the masses. My trip is arranged for the place La-iguvara where Che was executed on October 9th, 1967. This trip from Vallegrande is about 4 hours by taxi. The terrain is difficult and dangerous but beautiful and your eyes cannot close seeing such beautiful ranges. For miles and miles there is no habitat and one can understand how Che and his colleagues would have fought their battle here when even the transportation was not that easy. The roads are bumpy and dusty and my interpreter here was unable to control herself and fell ill when passing through the zig-zag roads.
Che might be a terrorist for the embedded journalists but he is a ‘God’ for others. As a radical humanist, I was shocked to see this ugly side of marketing of Che in this historical village where just 15 families live at the moment. This entire village is like a devotee of Che but what is shocking is that people have erected an statue of Che sided with a Cross. They consider him not just a revolutionary, but God’s angel. Every house in this village adore Che’s photograph and not just photographs but have grand paintings on the walls of the entire struggle of Che, which I have not seen anywhere in the third world. We are habitual of worshipping individuals but not their struggle. There are two museums in the village owned by private people. In one of the museum which was earlier a school and where Che was killed by the CIA sponsored military forces of Bolivian Army junta, there is a big painting donated by an Argentine fan of Che. People throng to this place, see the historical documentation of the great struggle to liberate masses. Photographs of the young comrades are there along with Che and Fidel Castro.
At about 100 meter from this small house is another museum where the personal belongings of Che have been kept by a local villager. Here we can see a number of things related to Che. His gun, chair, cap and jacket apart from his photographs with Fidel as well as their books on imperialism. There is a nominal fee of 10 Boliviano for the entry. Yes, this village remind me of the Dalit bustees in India which adorn Ambedkar. Everybody remember Baba Saheb Ambedkar and consider him his emancipator but here this thing was not that much visible. But the paintings of Che’s struggle against imperialism have been part of every house. For nearly 30 years, this village became victim of vendetta by those in power. Villagers were arrested just for their liaison with Che. I met Erma Roso who is a native Bolivian and was one of the prominent villagers when Che had arrived from Cuba to his mission here. Erma is about 60 years old and has six children. A few months back her husband died for want of medicine because there is no hospital here. Even taking a person in serious condition to nearby Vallegrande takes almost four hours if you hire taxi otherwise you have to walk. Said Erma, “ When Che arrived here in 1967, he did not know any one or talk any one. During his period about 80 families lived here but slowly they started moving out of village for the fear of government action. People were also afraid of Guerillas as they did not exactly about their activities”. Erma, poor native Bolvian, would serve Coffee to Che and prepare lunch for him. Though she may not be a ‘comrade’ or red flag holder, she considers Che a true revolutionary and hero of the masses. “ If he were a winner, things would have been different and people’s life here would have changed but since he lost the battle, the village had to pay a price for the same.”
Erma was witness to illegal killing of Che in the custody. The army had surrounded the village. Some of the villagers had conspired along with the army and they were passing the information of Che to the forces. After they were caught and brought here in the school. In the night she heard noise but no body dare to come out of their houses due to the military threat. During the first five years we could not even utter his name. Everything related to Che became blasphemous in Bolivia. His body was kept secretly and disclosed after many days. Bu t the role of the ruling elite of Bolivia was not only condemnable but the fact is that they did not face any charge of following international norms of killing an international political prisoner in the custody. His body was said to be buried at a place with three other prisoners at the air force base in Vallegrande which were found 30 years later. Now, there is an effort by the culture ministry of Bolivia to give it a shape though in the name of developing the Che Memorial, they have just a sign board about the historicity of the place and nothing to offer those who come from different part of the world and cry in this place.
Despite all odds, Che is a market. A country like Bolivia which is among the poorest countries in the world did not realize the potential of Che tourism. While government of the past continue to ignore this legendary, people worshipped Che for they consider that their country need a revolution and today’s political class does not have the guts to do so. So people of La-Higuera celebrate Che martydom day in October with great fan fare. Unlike us who cry on these dates, people in the village have festival, they sing and dance and thank Che for the great work that he did. Che could not have given much to this village but now the potential of Che tourism has again given life to the villagers. Perhaps, the posters, painting of Che in each house and all the places distinctly related to him, narrate the story of profit of Che tourism. Even the hospital at Vallegrande where Che’s body was brought for postmortem is a ‘tourist’ spot. People come here and write on the walls their love for Che. Che has been immensely popular with the youths of the world and that is why they throng this place to visit him. They cry on reading his writings and about his execution from the American supervised military.
But the biggest irony comes in two forms. One religious and other market both against whom Che spoke vehemently. None of us would have thought that Che would become a Christian God in his village. He could never have dreamt that the western market led forces would make use of his name for ‘helping’ the native people. Yes, truth is that both Care foundation (an international catholic organization) as well as DFID ( British government’s Deparment for International Development) have planned to develop Che memorial after they realized that Che has the potential to attract tourist to this small country and bring revenue to its empty coffers. So, both the organizations are now planning to start a package tour to La-Higuara so that the money earn from these tour could be used to raise funds for the native Bolivians. Interestingly, as I see Che’s statue along with Cross and as many of the villagers feel Che was some short of God, I feel one day the Christian revivalist would use him as the ‘greatest’ warrior of the community. But one thing is sure, the west cannot have double standard on a person like Che whose life is an example of what true internationalism is and who cannot be clubbed together with any other fanatic like Osama, but given the nature of market, who knows tomorrow, the American start a package tour for the friends and followers of Osama to Tora-bora or elsewhere to raise funds for the poor Afghanis they killed in bombing.