There he was at my first political event in Latin America. The famous blacked out graphic image of a handsome face on endless flags, T-shirts, banners. Che Guevara, the most loved and remembered revolutionary of Latin America. And he has accompanied me ever since, most of all in Bolivia. At political meetings, next to the altar in the front of a church once, on the wall of many MAS government politicians (including of President Evo Morales), in lyrics of songs played in cafes and bars. Outside Latin America, he also continues to flourish not just on scuffed student walls but even on the body of Prince Harry and the albums of Madonna.
Meanwhile, for me, born five years after Che Guevara died in a backwater of Bolivia, Che has remained an illusive hero, a mythical figure that I have never fully identified with. Curiosity has driven me to read and enjoy the motorcycle diaries, to scan most of a long biography by Jon Anderson one summer, and to brave his rather depressing diaries in Spanish recounting his final days as a guerilla in Bolivia.
I identified with the traveller and the internationalist. I admired the rebel and his commitment to live out his principles. I liked some of his quotes, such as 'Any person who on seeing injustice trembles with indignation is a comrade.' But I have still failed to understand the Che Guevara myth. Why does one man have such an impact and remain such a model for social movements today?
So, on the 40th anniversary of his death, I headed to Che Guevara's deathplace in Bolivia to try to understand his abiding appeal.
En route, I decided it was time to read more about his ideas, so delved into the famous Notes for the Study of Man and Socialism in Cuba written, perhaps, on the back of an envelope whilst in Africa. The attempt to place greater emphasis on individuals' consciousness for creating a revolutionary and just society as opposed to watching the playing out of immoveable historical forces was a more attractive reading of Marx for me. However large parts of the essay, especially those that referred to the role of vanguard parties and movements guiding the masses, failed to connect and seemed arrogant. Most of all there was nothing that referred to the indigenous worldviews so important in Bolivia, or which even obliquely addressed the environmental crisis or over-consumption. In fact, Che was clearly an unadulterated admirer of development and industrialisation without limits.
It is obviously rather too much to expect past revolutionaries, even Che, to predict and address the future with his proposals. But a similar disconnect seemed to take place when Che Guevara was in Bolivia in 1967. For a known writer on guerilla warfare tactics, his guerilla fight was spectacularly badly managed and carried out in a region unlikely to become the springboard for a revolution. This became apparent arriving in Vallegrande even today.
Vallegrande is a small sleepy conservative town, off the main road with little traffic, cobbled streets and unlike many Bolivian cities apparently unmarred by crime. Many houses, which occasionally gave peeks of courtyards decked with flowers, had their doors open or covered by a simple latch. According to German Urquidi, a Vallegrandino (as they are known), people in the town still use antiquated Spanish for some expressions, sounding like figures in a Cervantes novel.
On the tourist map
Arriving at our hotel off the central square, the amiable mother-like Doña Ignacia sported a good range of Che posters in the reception. She said like everyone in the town that she had seen Che's body when it was shown in the hospital laundry. But when I asked if she admired Che, she said not really but that she was grateful to him because 'Che put Vallegrande on the tourist map. Thanks to his death, lots of people come to visit and I get an income.'
I am not sure Che Guevara would have been happy that his death had become an opportunity for private profit. However her views were probably shared by the mayor, who was conspicuously absent from the Che Guevara celebrations, no doubt because he is a representative of Podemos, the right-wing party fiercely opposed to Evo Morales and the MAS government. Che's very visible legacy had clearly failed to radicalise this town.
Heading out for the dusty bumpy ride into the mountains to La Higuera confirmed the impression. Beyond the plethora of Che Guevara busts and grafitti in the centre of the village, campesinos were working as usual on the anniversary of Che's death, walking with donkeys laden with potatoes back from the fields. A few watched impassively as international Chetistas emotionally held a ceremony to mark Che Guevara's death. Their lack of engagement seemed a reflection of the hostility and suspicion that Che Guevara wrote about in his diaries forty years ago.
The pertinent question my partner raised was: 'Do you think these campesinos need liberation?' For, strangely, Che Guevara had chosen a region in Bolivia where there was little inequality of land distribution and where campesinos had calmly worked the soil for thousands of years regardless of regimes in power. When the CIA-trained soldiers came in 1967 to hunt down Che and told the campesinos that Cubans were invading the country and wanted to take away their land, it is not surprising that no one responded to Che Guevara's call. Nor that a campesino from La Higuera spotting the guerillas one early dawn morning as he watered his potatoes would head to the garrison near La Higuera and become the Judas of the Guevara gospel.
Back in Vallegrande at the Second International Meeting for Che Guevara there were no such doubts. Bolivians along with people from all over the continent had gathered to listen to stories about Che, commemorate his life and discuss his ideas. The meeting with Leonard Tamayo (nicknamed Urbano), a short stout Cuban guerilla who fought with Che in Bolivia, was packed with people sitting on the floor beside some lurid painted portraits of Che.
The speech suggested too much military training full of dates and routes. But there was the occasional anecdote to enliven the crowd, such as the story of how Urbano mistakenly took the wrong flight to Bolivia and ended up in transit via New York. When he confessed his mistake Che laughed it off, saying 'in the empire it seems that even an elephant in disguise can get past'.
What Urbano and fellow guerilla Rogelio Acevedo held up as Che's special qualities were his passion, his ability to lead by example and his sacrifice. In tough times, they no doubt had seen his weak and egotistical sides but, in remembering, their words were only ones of praise. Urbano even went as far as to say that Che was 'ethically totally pure, a paradigm of what a revolutionary should be like. If he had any faults it was that he was too humane.'
The idea of the perfect sinless man also seems to have infiltrated the otherwise conservative town. Doña Ignacia suggested talking to two elderly sisters who she said were great fans of Che. Knocking on the door I was soon invited into a spotless living room in an old adobe house, our conversation overlooked by a photo of Che on one wall and a cutesy image of Jesus with lambs on the other.
Face of Christ
As they recounted seeing his dead body and their growing interest in Che, the sisters, Anna and Lehia bickered with the familiarity and love built from years together. They couldn't agree on the colour of his boots and trousers, but they both agreed that he didn't look dead when they saw him. Anna said he had the 'face of Christ' and that she imagined him as her son; Lehia that his legs were untouched by insects despite months in the jungle.
Both had been impacted by the experience and started to find out more about why he died. Lehia showed a well-fingered book of texts by Che with a list of words she had carefully written out and admitted she didn't fully understand: multilaterality, sectarianism, alienation ... They admired his stand against inequality, poverty and injustice and the way he lived what he preached. They were among the first to go to his grave on his fifth anniversary. On the 30th they helped organise a big gathering.
They talked of many houses where a picture of Che was on the altar and prayed to. Forty years on they were getting too old to attend all the events, but celebrated the growing interest in Che and the fact that he chose Vallegrande, 'the most beautiful region of Bolivia', to fight his last days.
Yet, while intriguing, none of these encounters made me feel closer to understanding the Che phenomenon. In fact turning him into a secular saint made him feel more unreal.
Guevaristas and revolutionaries
That afternoon, I headed to the airfield where his body was finally uncovered in 1997, 30 years after his death. With a strong wind streaming against the Guevara banners and flags, a mixture of campesinos, indigenous people and international activists gathered to listen to various speakers, including President Evo Morales. In the run-up to the anniversary, there had been strong criticism from the right and some in the army for glorifying an invader who killed Bolivians. Morales, a coca-growing leader who faced years of repression from the state and US-backed forces, was unabashed in his defence of Che. To big cheers, he declared: 'We are not ashamed or have anything to hide. We are guevaristas and we are revolutionaries.'
It is not clear what Che would have made of Morales' projects that he proclaimed as legacies of Che's spirit. Morales' nationalisation has not meant throwing out multinational companies but negotiating better deals. His land reform has only included distribution of unproductive land, leaving large tracts still in the hands of rich landowners.
Yet it was becoming clear by now that Che's power was not in the application of his ideas but the symbolism of his example in a continent that remains besieged by injustice and US domination. Morales' party includes several people who were imprisoned for guerilla activity including the vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera. Across the continent most social movements have embraced Che for his example of fighting relentlessly against injustice and imperialism.
Among them were Gentil Chauto from the Landless Movement in Brazil, who had travelled three days by land to get to Vallegrande. He said Che was a symbol for the movement of the 'kind of person we need to follow'. Gentil's disappointment with President Lula of Brazil reminded me that cutting short Che Guevara's life enabled him to become the faultless hero because there was no time in which he either made unacceptable compromises, such as Lula, went to extremes, such as Mao and Stalin, or got the mixed reaction that Cuba and Fidel receive even from those on the left.
The importance of Che
But perhaps the most striking example of the symbolic power of Che was evident in the very hospital of Vallegrande where Che's body was laid out to view. Just behind it today is a clinic now populated by 26 Cuban staff providing free health care to the community. The health programme was supported in a Bolivarian initiative and accord between Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia. What Che was unable to do as a guerilla was now being carried out peacefully, it seemed.
Carmen, a Cuban nurse, certainly felt that Che's dream was being realised. 'Just imagine if he saw this. It shows his death was not in vain.' Working seven days a week with hardly a break and far from her family, she said she gets her 'force from the Comandante'.
Her two Cuban companions, Julio and Norma from Santa Clara in Cuba, a city Che famously liberated, added: 'Che said you should give yourself to others, that is what we are doing, living out the legacy of Che.' I couldn't help feeling the force that his example had in driving their visible personal commitment to working for the health of Bolivians thousands of miles from their home.
I left Vallegrande aware of the importance of Che Guevara as a symbol and an inspiration in social movements fighting in different ways for a just society. But it was a week later that the image of Che really struck home.
I was accompanying a march to the US embassy in La Paz led by families of 67 people killed as a result of orders by ex-president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in October 2003. Suddenly a group of residents from El Alto came down with a coffin of Eulogio Samo, who had died the previous day as a result of injuries suffered in 2003. The anger was palpable as they stormed up to the gates and doors and shouted 'Justicia, Justicia'. The US embassy, a Stalinist-looking building, stood cold and silent - as does the US administration, which has refused to support the extradition of Goni and protects him from justice.
It brought home to me the continued and very real presence of US imperialism in Latin America and its grooming of leaders like Goni, who grew up in the US and went to the infamously neoliberal Chicago University. The US supported his policies of privatisation and has since offered him protection, giving him refuge in Maryland when the Bolivian people rose up and kicked him out of government. In the background of the march, I saw a flag of Che waving. Away from words, discourse and semi-religious worship, but instead witnessing a current struggle against imperialism, Che suddenly made sense.
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