Whispering and hiding

The Bolivian Armed Forces will commemorate this Oct 8 the 40th anniversary of the biggest military operation undertaken since the Chaco War (1932-35) with Paraguay. But there will be no victory speeches like in Oct 1967, when they erratically announced the defeat of a Cuban-led guerrilla movement and the death of its commander, Ernesto Che Guevara.

The anniversary will go on without any fanfare and almost in whispers.  The official commemoration, if any, will be carried out just in the barracks and strictly among soldiers, according to sources consulted by this blog.

Che´s guerrilla was the most serious challenge faced by the Bolivian army in the second half of the 20th century.  Hundreds of soldiers were mobilized and in the end managed to crush it after over six months campaigning in the country´s eastern tropical jungle.

Some key actors in the victorious campaign don´t feel happy about the quiet way the Armed Forces want to commemorate it. Or rather its unwillingness to commemorate anything at all.

The country´s Armed Forces command “have authorized only private ceremonies within the barracks. To this, I say, “go to hell. I am not interested in ceremonies in the barracks, as though we were ashamed of our victory. It would look like a clandestine ceremony”, told me Gen. (r)  Gary Prado Salmon, whose regiment fought Che´s guerrilla column capturing the Argentine-Cuban guerrilla in El Churo battle.

He said Cuba and Venezuela, Bolivian President Evo Morales´ closest allies, coupled with Bolivian leftist parties, want to pay homage to Guevara in Vallegrande, a few miles off La Higuera, the little, humble village where Che was executed.  “Hundreds, probably as many as thousands of Cubans and Venezuelans would  go to Vallegrande to participate in ceremonies Oct. 8.”

Those homage ceremonies, he said, would be possible because of “the political process under which Bolivia is living these times.”

Mr. Morales, the first Bolivian Indian president, sees Cuba´s leader Fidel Castro as his main mentor. Since swearing in the country´s presidency in January 2006 he has traveled to Cuba several times looking for advice. And he often meets with Venezuela´s Hugo Chavez. Officially sponsoring commemoration of he 1967 military victory would be at least embarassing for him. But for the Armed Forces not commemorating the 40th anniversary would be embarassing too.  

“We would have liked to hold ceremonies commemorating the most important events of the campaign, including the decisive battles (that led) up to El Churo,” where Che as captured, Gen. (r) Lucio Anez Ribera. “But orders from above say the commemoration should have a very low profile.”

Gen. Prado told me that a few days ago he received a call from a lieutenant former colleague, also retired, wondering what to they should do on Oct. 8. “We have to do something”, he said he was told.

Gen. Prado said he replied, “It ´s not up to us.  It is up to the Armed Forces. We are not supposed to pay homage to ourselves.”

Prado has written in a book about the guerrilla and his role fighting it. The third edition of the original Spanish version of La Guerrilla Inmolada, is sold at all major bookstores in Bolivia. It is rich in details of the anti-guerrilla campaign and its epilogue. I strongly recommend it.

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