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PERSPECTIVE ON HISTORY : John Lennon, Meet Che Guevara : The 1960s leftist revolutionary became an icon in death, revealed details of which may now revive his mystique.

December 21, 1995|JORGE G. CASTANEDA | Jorge G. Castaneda, a Mexican political scientist, is writing a biography of Che Guevara that will be published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf

It is, of course, only a coincidence that the same week the United States was submerged in a Beatles-inspired wave of nostalgia for the 1960s, one of the most emblematic symbols of those times, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, reappeared in the news when a Bolivian general acknowledged that the leftist revolutionary had been buried, not incinerated, in Bolivia, after he was executed for his antigovernment activities in 1967.

Admittedly, there is far more interest in the Beatles than in Che Guevara; still, there is a converging hint of relevance here, and a sense that those years, however irretrievable they may be, were perhaps better than these. If the Beatles were the icons of the deep and marvelous cultural changes the '60s brought across the globe, Guevara was the archetype of the political upheaval and ideological turmoil the decade also ushered in, if only briefly.

The link between Guevara and the mostly youthful revolution was abstract and indirect. He died several months before the eruption of the student movements that shook societies from Prague and Paris to Mexico and Berkeley. Alejandro Korda's picture of Guevara--the one with the beret, the hair in the wind and the eyes on the horizon--not only became the main decorative feature of the thousands of demonstrations, sit-ins and riots of the late '60s; the poster also personified many of the sentiments and hopes of the protesters, whatever the accuracy and meaning of the bond they felt.

If Guevara today remains a figure whose life and death retain their mystery and charisma, it is largely because that life and death were emblems of an age without precedent (and not seen since) when it seemed that the world, society and politics as we know it could be transformed. He is totally disconnected from and devoid of meaning for political action and discourse, social change and iconography today; but the times he evokes are part of the memories a dystopian world keeps for better days, even if they finally never arrive. If the absence of illusions breeds Utopia, and if the '60s were the last Utopian era of this century, then Guevara is the last survivor of Utopia undone.

The news settling the mystery of Guevara's final resting place could, paradoxically, revivify the mystique of the man who, trained as a physician in Argentina, captured the world's attention as a guerrilla leader in Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia.

Che, so much a myth in life, had no physical presence in death: no grave, no tombstone or monument where mourning or respect could be shown. He was a bit the opposite of the "disappeared" in Chile or Argentina, or the GIs missing in Vietnam: Their passing is not a matter of doubt or hope, but until their remains are found and laid to rest, bereavement cannot be fulfilled. With Guevara, the phantasm of his mortal remains fueled the myth; the news of his burial, while possibly minimizing the mystery, casts the myth in larger-than-life human form.

Even before the Bolivian general, Mario Vargas Salinas, confessed to having buried the body beneath the airstrip in Vallegrande, Guevara had become newly fashionable. He is the subject of six biographies, two feature films and several documentaries currently being worked on in the United States, Europe and Latin America. All of these efforts have been both fascinated and frustrated, to one degree or another, by the persisting enigmas surrounding Guevara's fate. The revelations by Vargas, who sealed Guevara's destiny by annihilating the "rear guard" that had become separated from the main body of the insurgency, may solve one long-debated question. But many remain, even regarding the purported burial.

For many, it has been an article of faith that Che's head and hands were severed from his body. Just last month, the chief CIA officer in the insurgency's theater of operations told me that Guevara had been buried but vigorously denied that he had been decapitated. Although the Bolivian chief of staff wanted to do that, the CIA officer said that he threatened to use pressure from Washington to ensure that the executed enemy receive "the same burial we all want and deserve for ourselves." Only if and when the remains are actually found will we know exactly what happened.

Similarly, only when American, Cuban, Bolivian and even Russian archives are opened and biographers and historians can freely consult them will the enduring mysteries be dispelled. Many documents are now available, openly in Washington and Moscow, surreptitiously in La Paz and Havana. But many more remain off-limits, and many voices are still silent. One could hope that if Che Guevara continues to mean something to the sons and daughters of the '60s, and to their offspring in the '90s, he also inspires enough respect from his friends, enemies and colleagues to allow the full story to be told.

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