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Doubts persist a quarter-century after discovery of Che’s remains in Bolivia

By Gabriel Romano

La Paz, Jul 6 (EFE).- Who gave the order to kill Argentine-born Cuban guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara? And who alerted the authorities to his presence in Bolivia?

Those are two of the remaining doubts on the 25th anniversary of the discovery of that iconic Marxist revolutionary’s remains in the landlocked Andean nation, a task facilitated at that time by an ostensibly “right-wing” government.

The search was launched in November 1995 after Mario Vargas Salinas, a former senior officer in the Bolivian armed forces, said he knew the location of the remains of the guerrilla, who had been captured and executed 28 years earlier.

That same month, the government issued a decree creating a committee to search for the body.

The information received indicated the remains had been buried in a mass grave located under an airstrip in Vallegrande, a small town about 240 kilometers (150 miles) southwest of the eastern lowland Bolivian city of Santa Cruz.

The government of that time was headed by President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, whose Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) had spearheaded the Bolivian Revolution of 1952 but by the 1990s had veered to the right and embraced the tenets of a free-market system.

Even so, Ernesto Machicao, who was a Cabinet minister and diplomat during Sanchez de Lozada’s 1993 to 1997 administration, told Efe that within the MNR “there were a lot of people who believed in the Cuban Revolution.”

“The president also was a person who had deep friendships” with people on the left, and therefore “there was no resistance” to launching a search for Guevara’s remains.

That mission lasted nearly two years and at different times was aided by Cuban, Argentine and Bolivian experts.

The discovery was finally made at a mass grave containing six other bodies in the first few days of July 1997, a month before rightist democratically elected former dictator Hugo Banzer took office.

Guevara’s remains were positively identified based on morphological characteristics such as the shape of his forehead and the absence of a molar.

But the tell-tale sign was that the skeleton was missing its hands, which had been severed after Guevara, who had traveled to Bolivia to spark a peasant uprising, was executed by army soldiers in La Higuera, Vallegrande province, on Oct. 9, 1967.

Ten years later, studies carried out in Cuba determined that the remains were in fact those of the guerrilla leader.

Juan Carlos Salazar, a Bolivian journalist and author of books about the mythical guerrilla, said Guevara’s burial site had been a “military secret” and that other questions pertaining to the rebel remain unanswered because the Bolivian army’s archives are closed.

The journalist said it remains to be determined who decided to kill Guevara, a decision believed to have emerged from a key meeting between then-President Rene Barrientos and some of his military advisers.

Among those senior officials was the head of the armed forces, Alfredo Ovando, and army commander Juan Jose Torres, who later became left-leaning presidents of Bolivia.

“Who reported the presence of ‘Che’ in Bolivia” in 1966, since no one supposedly knew besides the few leaders of the Communist Party? Salazar asked rhetorically, mentioning the persistent doubts about the case.

Or “what did the United States know” about the guerrilla’s actions that led it to send officials to offer “military aid” to Bolivia in case of an emergency?

“There have been many versions” since Guevara’s death in 1997 and some of them provided clues that led to the discovery of his remains, the journalist said, though adding that “unknown aspects” remain that might be cleared up if the army were to open its archives. EFE

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