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Che no hero at the end?

Emotions still run high 40 years after guerrilla's death

Children play on a sculpture of Cuba's Argentine-born revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara in the village of La Higuera in Bolivia. The revolutionary was killed there after his capture 40 years ago.
Children play on a sculpture of Cuba's Argentine-born revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara in the village of La Higuera in Bolivia. The revolutionary was killed there after his capture 40 years ago.
Dado Galdieri, Associated Press

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Fidel Castro insists Ernesto "Che" Guevara could never have been taken prisoner 40 years ago if his gun hadn't malfunctioned. But the retired Bolivian general who led the mission to capture him says the Argentine revolutionary was hardly a heroic figure in his final moments.

The man that Gen. Gary Prado remembers — sad, sick, hungry, dressed in rags and alone in the jungle — simply dropped his gun and surrendered, saying, "Don't shoot, I'm Che."

"He wasn't the figure of the heroic guerrilla," Prado recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.

Decades after he gave up a comfortable middle-class life in Argentina to foment armed rebellion, Guevara still inspires and infuriates people around the world.

He is an icon for fans who have made his death scene a tourist trap. His face is instantly recognizable, a one-dimensional image on posters and T-shirts that either celebrate or mock his revolutionary ideals.

Prado is bitter that Guevara still gets so much global attention four decades later. He's angry that Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales plans to honor Guevara but not the 55 soldiers who died putting down his attempted revolution in Bolivia.

Che "wasn't someone to inspire terror or anything but simply to be pitied," he said.

Castro has put a noble spin on the death of his fellow revolutionary and close friend, calling Guevara "not a man who could have been taken prisoner" with a working gun.

"Wounded and without a weapon they were able to hold him and take him to a small town nearby, La Higuera," Castro told Spanish writer Ignacio Ramonet for the book "100 Hours with Fidel."

"The following day, Oct. 9, 1967, at noon, they executed him in cold blood," Castro said.

Prado said the order to kill Guevara, then 39, came not from the CIA operatives who joined his soldiers, but from Bolivia's president, who wanted to avoid a trial that would give Guevara a global platform to spread his views. Prado said he wasn't present when Guevara was shot.

"Why did they think that by killing him he would cease to exist as a fighter?" Castro asked in 1997, when Guevara's remains were finally laid to rest in Cuba amid thundering cannons. "Today he is in every place, wherever there is a just cause to defend."

Those who knew him personally remember a complex character — sardonic and demanding of himself as well as others.

"He always did what he said he was going to do," said Alberto Granados, who traveled with Guevara across South America on a broken-down motorcycle in 1952, a trip portrayed in the hit 2004 movie "The Motorcycle Diaries."

"That's why he is still timely," added Granados, who is now in his 80s and lives in Havana.

Guevara's Cuban enemies, now living in exile, remember a man who did not flinch after Castro and his rebels came to power. It was Guevara who oversaw the military tribunals and subsequent firing-squad executions of hundreds of people — military, police and other officials of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

Cuba will honor him Monday with a ceremony at the tomb where his remains are kept, beneath a gigantic bronze statue built in his image in Santa Clara, where Guevara oversaw a decisive victory for the Cuban rebels. Cuba also planned a gathering of 1,500 people playing chess — Guevara's favorite game.

In Bolivia, Guevara fans were gathering in the jungle where he was captured and in La Higuera, where he was killed. A new Guevara statue is being built in his native Argentina, Venezuela is holding an art and music festival in his honor, and students were painting huge Guevara portraits in Mexico City's subway.

Guevara's image is ubiquitous in Cuba, where a giant stylized rendering of his face oversees Havana's Plaza of the Revolution. Cuban schoolchildren start their daily classes by pledging: "Pioneers for communism. We will be like Che!"

Those who knew him personally would consider that difficult. They recall him being a taskmaster insistent on austerity.

"He was demanding of everyone and practiced being a personal example," wrote Tirso Saenz, an adviser when Guevara served as Cuba's industry minister. Once, Guevara and other ministry officials were served fat, juicy steaks during a severe food shortage. Steaks are a treasured meal for Argentines, but Guevara became incensed and ordered it all removed.

"What is this?" Saenz quoted Guevara as saying in his biography. "No one is touching this meat. Take it away."

Leftists still cherish the image of the dogmatic Marxist wearing a beret, a determined gaze and an unkempt beard. But anti-communists hate what he stood for.

One such man is Cuban exile and former CIA operative Gustavo Villoldo, now living in Florida, who hopes to profit from a lock of hair snipped from the slain rebel's head in Bolivia. Now 71, Villoldo said he kept the hair and other items in a scrapbook since participating in that mission. Heritage Auction Galleries of Dallas is auctioning them off on Oct. 25-26.

The auction has generated much discussion among Cuban exiles. Some fear a Che fan will buy them and put them on reverent display.

Prado said that after Guevara surrendered in the jungle to his squad of 70 Bolivian soldiers, he asked what they planned to do with him, and that they initially told him he would be put on trial.

"I'm worth more to you alive than dead," Prado remembers him responding.

Guevara was shot the next day. He would have been 79 this year.

Contributing: Anita Snow in Havana