© CHRISTOPHER NASH
On October 9, 1967, a Bolivian army communiqué from La Paz announced that Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary comandante turned itinerant guerrilla, had been hunted down by soldiers and killed in battle. The New York Times responded editorially, and with evident satisfaction, that if the report proved true, “as now seems probable,” then “a myth as well as a man has been laid to rest.” It was not the Times‘s most accurate prediction.
Photographs of Che’s lifeless body soon appeared in newspapers around the globe, putting to rest doubts about his death. Perhaps the most famous image was one taken by Freddy Alborta, showing Che’s corpse being displayed to the press by Bolivian army officers. Yet controversy over the circumstances of Che’s death continued to brew. Was he killed in combat, or in cold-blooded execution? The latter. Did the soldiers who killed him amputate and preserve his hands and then cremate the body? His amputated hands were smuggled to Cuba in 1970, and his bones were discovered by a Cuban forensic team in Bolivia in 1997 and returned to Cuba for state burial.
In Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image, Michael Casey reports that local peasant women who paraded by Che’s corpse on October 9 with the permission of triumphant Bolivian officers “surreptitiously clipped locks of hair from Che’s head, saving themselves a future talisman.” A few weeks later, the journalist and novelist Jose Yglesias, reporting on Che’s death for The Nation, indulged his readers with a different sort of memorabilia. Yglesias wrote that like the relics of St. Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth-century Carmelite nun and mystic, Che’s hands “may well be with us for a long time to strengthen the nonreligious but barefoot Order–like Saint Teresa’s stoical Carmelites–of the guerrillas of South America.” The mythic appeal of the slain revolutionary, known to many today in Latin America as “San Ernesto,” has only grown in subsequent years. “Unwittingly, the Bolivian military delivered the world a lasting and sympathetic picture of the man they’d hunted down,” Casey writes. “They gave it a crucified Che.” Indeed, John Berger and other art critics have argued that Freddy Alborta’s photo of Che’s corpse bears a startling resemblance to Renaissance depictions of Jesus Christ at the moment he was brought down from the cross by the Romans.
Che hardly ever sat for a bad photo–even in death. But of all surviving photographs of him, one in particular stands out: the head-and-shoulders portrait of a bearded, longhaired, 31-year-old Che, wearing a bomber jacket and his trademark beret emblazoned with the comandante star. Casey makes this image the central concern of Che’s Afterlife, and in the book’s opening chapter he offers a vivid re-creation of the “frozen millisecond” when the photo was taken. The date was March 5, 1960; the location a spot near Havana’s Colón cemetery; the occasion a public funeral sponsored by the revolutionary government. The previous day a French munitions ship delivering arms to Cuba had mysteriously blown up in Havana harbor, killing scores of people and wounding hundreds. CIA involvement was suspected but never proven. Che, who had been at a meeting nearby in downtown Havana when the ship exploded, rushed to the docks and helped provide medical aid to the wounded and the dying.