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- A monument to Che in La Higuera, photographed on the 38th anniversary of Che's death. By Éamonn Lawlor / CC
Susana Osinaga Robles is the nurse who washed Che’s corpse. She’s a small woman of seventy-four with wavy hair and swollen legs. Her story begins on October 9, 1967, in Vallegrande, a town lost in the far reaches of eastern Bolivia. Those were the days when the Cold War pitted Communist countries against their capitalist rivals. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the ambassador of armed struggle, arrived in South America determined to make the continent yet another set on the stage of world revolution. But after his defeat at the hands of the Bolivian authorities, his well-washed body was displayed like a battle trophy. Four decades later, in her living room, Nurse Osinaga wishes to be paid for talking about what she saw, heard, and washed: fifty bolivianos, she says, lowering her voice to a near whistle. It’s a fixed fee that equates to about six dollars or the price of just about any cheap souvenir at any tourist destination worldwide. And the residents of Vallegrande are determined to exploit their distinction as the town where Che’s remains were buried. Thus, for the nurse who washed his illustrious corpse, the public recitation of her story has become a trade like any other.
Osinaga worked at the Hospital Señor de Malta until her retirement in the late eighties. Now, surrounded by grandchildren, she minds a grocery store in the center of Vallegrande. In her shop the merchandise is stacked on shelves in no particular order. Today, a morning in early October, she’s mounted a sales display of calendars bearing the guerrilla leader’s image. She hopes pilgrims and tourists on the so-called Ruta del Che will come to hear her as they always do on the anniversary of Guevara’s death.
Che’s Route is a tourist destination promoted by the leftist government of President Evo Morales. But despite the publicity, infrastructure to accommodate visitors along its eight hundred kilometers (from Camiri in the south of the country to Vallegrande in the north) is nearly nonexistent. The road trip from La Paz remains a twelve-hour journey of twists and turns. According to the town’s tourist office, travelers still arrive only in fits and starts.
That Vallegrande’s mayor belongs to a right-wing party is just one sign that Che’s revolutionary message never took root with the town’s nearly twenty thousand residents (and few remember anymore that it was a peasant who handed Che over to the army). Nor does his image inspire great devotion among most residents. They seem to care mainly about the lands they till; they stroll aimlessly along streets lined with squat buildings and leave the doors of their houses open, hoping to catch a breath of fresh air. However, some people are aware that Che is a high-value tourist attraction. “I washed him,” they tell visitors. “I had a few words with him.” “I clipped a swatch of his hair.” All these memories are for sale.
There are those who sell cans of earth from the site where Che was buried until 1997, when his gravesite was found. “With his blood,” hawkers of the dirt affirm. A gallery conspicuously located on the central plaza offers ceramic likenesses and huge portraits of Che in silhouette. Each piece costs four hundred dollars. An establishment nearby features documents, posters, pins, photos, and photocopied books about Che. A truck parked next to a market is loaded to capacity with El Che rum. In the ad on its side panel a bikini-clad model holds a bottle of the liquor on her lap with Che’s face on the label.
No images of Che hang on the walls of Susana Osinaga’s store, but the calendars with his picture sell like hotcakes. Before I can talk to her, her son, a man of forty with a thick beard, waves a notebook at me with various foreign surnames inside. Then he demands to know my name and tells me to follow him to his mother’s store where Osinaga drinks coffee at a wooden table. She catches sight of me out of the corner of her eye and disappears through a door at the rear without speaking. The son then directs me to a small sala with nondescript blue walls where Osinaga has settled herself in one of the room’s three chairs like a doctor about to see a patient. A Che poster hangs above her. “What do you want to know?” she asks in a rasping voice. And this must be the way she’s been addressing her listeners since the late eighties, when she first got into the business of sharing her memories.
Osinaga was thirty-four when an army officer came to ask her to clean the corpse of Che Guevara. “We didn’t know who he was,” she says as if repeating a school lesson from memory. “We took off all his clothes. He was wearing boots that went halfway up his calves, two pairs of pants, and three pairs of socks. I was struck by his eyes. They seemed to stare at us.” Osinaga’s son watches his mother slip into something like a trance state. “We put pajamas on him, but the soldiers pulled them down to show where the bullets were—in a rib, in his leg, his heart. He had bled dry.” Almost everyone in town came to see, thousands of people. Then Che, who in life would have been a stranger to most residents of Vallegrande, in death became the center of attention.
These days people in the town organize masses in his memory and even pray to him, Osinaga says and hastens to add that Che hasn’t performed any miracles for her. “But I’m just about to ask him for one, and soon I’ll be able to tell you about it,” she exclaims with a touch of irony, then gets to her feet, putting an end to the interview. “That’s fifty bolivianos,” she says before leaving. “As you well know, if you’re sick, you can’t make ends meet on retirement benefits.” The son writes my name in his notebook, the one with data on other journalists and visitors who listened to the same story. He does so with the cold indifference of any routine business transaction.
Che has taken over the country. It’s October 2007, and there are observances of the fortieth anniversary of his death—roundtables, book shows, concerts, speeches—all over Bolivia. In the towns of Vallegrande and La Higuera rooming houses have hung out NO VACANCY signs. Pilgrims—barely a thousand of an expected ten thousand—take shelter in small tents. There are Uruguayans, Argentines, Brazilians, and, in smaller numbers, Europeans and North Americans. Most belong to Communist parties or less radical organizations. Many arrived in vans or on private buses and are identifiable by outfits that include revolutionary slogans, red shirts, berets. They get the usual tour. First the laundry where the guerrilla leader’s body was put on public display, then the mausoleum on the site where his remains were found in 1997. With the hint of an evening breeze in the air, the townspeople watch the procession.
The house of Julia Cortez is on the way to the tomb, six or seven blocks from the main plaza. Cortez is a retired teacher who was asked to prepare coffee for Che while he was still a prisoner in the nearby town of La Higuera. According to Jaime Niño Guzmán, the officer who transported Che to Vallegrande by helicopter, he had a thick beard at the time, and he smelled bad. “I think he was desperate to die,” Niño Guzmán told me, when he spoke with me in La Paz. “He assured me that he’d be more valuable dead than alive.” Teacher Julia Cortez was witness to these moments.
A neighbor says she customarily charges foreign journalists between a hundred and three hundred dollars to recall a story she must have repeated hundreds of times. “She charges tourists and Bolivian journalists less,” said Zacarías García, a Spanish photographer who visited her recently. For them the fee fluctuates between fifteen and a hundred dollars. (I wonder, Did she also charge the condemned Che for his cup of coffee?) A figure looks furtively out from behind the metal door of the Cortez house. It’s a two-story, cream-colored structure. “What do you want?” she asks in a near whisper. She’s barely five feet tall. She wears a food-stained apron; her hair is curled and oily. She looks me up and down and brings her face so close to me that I can even discern the fine hairs that make up her faint mustache. “Come back later,” she announces at last.
I never again find her at home. Those who have succeeded in talking to her—like the Spanish photographer—say that Cortez was a nineteen-year-old rural schoolteacher in La Higuera, the town where Che was apprehended. She’d have been one of the few people who dealt with him at any length in the short time he was there and still alive. That’s what they say, and now that brush with the guerrilla hero seems to have endowed Cortez with a certain haughtiness. She decides when and with whom to share her memories.