PANAMA CITY, Panama--Thousands of Cubans and foreigners have been flocking to a mausoleum in central Cuba to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Che Guevara's death. For 10 years, the Cuban government has been telling the world that the body inside the mausoleum is that of the famous guerrilla.
It's a lie designed to bamboozle the population into worshiping the Argentine-born revolutionary as if he were a saint--and the Cuban Revolution as if it were a religion. A brilliant investigation by French journalist Bertrand de la Grange, recently published in Spain's El Pais newspaper, demolishes the official version.
In 1995, Bolivian Gen. Mario Vargas, who had fought Che's guerrillas in the 1960s, revealed that the revolutionary's body was buried a few meters from the airport runway in Vallegrande, a town close to La Higuera, the village in eastern Bolivia where Guevara was killed on Oct. 9, 1967. (Guevara had been executed after the Bolivian president ordered the soldiers who ambushed and captured him to get rid of him.) Cuba sent a forensic, diplomatic and legal team to Vallegrande. On June 28, 1997, they claimed to have found the body, which was brought to Cuba a few weeks before the 30th anniversary of the guerrilla's death.
Numerous facts belie the Cuban claim. Havana's envoys say they found the body in the same grave in which six other guerrillas killed in La Higuera were buried. However, Vargas says that Guevara's body was buried separately--a fact confirmed by the widow of Lt. Col. Andres Selich, the man who actually buried all the bodies in 1967.
A jacket and a belt were found on the body exhumed in 1997. But Guevara's real body was buried without clothes: His jacket was removed by Moises Abraham, the doctor who performed the autopsy in 1967. Abraham now lives in Mexico, where he has been visited by Cuban emissaries wishing to buy the jacket from him.
Erich Blossl, a German agricultural engineer who befriended Abraham in the 1960s and saw Guevara's jacket in 1967, says that the garment found on the body dug up in 1997 is not the same one. "It was a waterproof cape, like the ones used by the military," he says in reference to the clothes found on the body that was sent to Cuba. He had a chance to see it because the Cuban team asked him to take a look at it.
No less significant are the gross inconsistencies between the autopsy of Guevara's body conducted in 1967 and the forensic report of the body exhumed in 1997. Three European doctors, two from Spain and one from France, have compared the related documents. One, Jose Antonio Sanchez, determined that the fractures present in the ribs, the collarbone, the legs, and the vertebrae of the two bodies don't match, and that some teeth missing in one body were not missing in the other. The report from 1997 does not mention any marks related to the amputation of Guevara's hands, which were cut off in 1967 in order to verify that the fingerprints matched those kept by the Argentine police.
"Che had to be in Havana before July 26, 1997, so Cuba could celebrate the return of the prodigal son and lift the spirits of the Cuban people," concludes de la Grange in reference to the holiest day in the revolutionary calendar. "Those were Fidel Castro's orders. The fact that it wasn't the real one was, after all, a minor evil."
It is not surprising, of course, that Che Guevara's remains are a myth. Everything about this modern saint is a myth--his love of justice, his romantic disposition, his goodness. The truth is that he executed hundreds of people, ruined the Cuban economy, tried to turn Cuba into a nuclear power and helped bring about many military dictatorships in Latin America in reaction to the guerrillas he inspired in the 1960s and the 1970s.
Guevara's false body reminds us that totalitarian power is built on the abolition of historical truth and the psychological manipulation of its citizens.
There is something at once terrifying and fascinating about the fact that this act of propaganda was concocted by scores of scientists, diplomats and jurists perfectly willing to make a mockery of their professions in order to deliver a story that one man, Fidel Castro, ordered them to deliver--and that they knew to be a colossal lie.
ALAVARO VARGAS LLOSA, author of Liberty for Latin America, is the director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute.
By Alvaro Vargas Llosa