Fifty four years ago, on 9 October 1967, Ernesto Che Guevara was murdered in the Bolivian village of La Higuera. Trapped a day earlier by Bolivian soldiers in the jungles near the village, thirteen days into the siege he and his fellow guerrillas had been surrounded in, Che was bound hand and foot and made to lie down on the floor of a classroom in a school. Near him lay the bodies of two of his murdered comrades. Tired and worn out and obviously in a state of humiliation, Che was subjected to systematic questioning by Bolivian officers as well as Felix Rodriguez, an agent of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). His self-esteem intact, the man who had with Fidel Castro caused the revolution in Cuba on New Year's Day in 1959 would not give anything away, save only to murmur, sadly, that he had failed.
The CIA agent Rodriguez, for all his antipathy to Che, seemed to empathise with him in his moment of defeat. At one point, he took Che outside and put his arms around the bedraggled guerrilla as a photographer recorded the scene on his camera. It was to be the last image of Che Guevara alive. Soon afterward, a ruffian named Teran, instructed to shoot Che below the face, fired at his leg. Che bit his wrist in order not to scream out in pain. Teran fired again and again. The last bullet, the ninth, hit Che in the throat. The blood filled his lungs. He was dead.
The moments after Che was killed remains a story that was to turn into a modern legend, almost of an epic sort. His body, with its eyes open (giving onlookers the eerie feeling that he was alive) was placed on display for the public. Once the display was done, it was washed by a nurse who would later tell people she felt she was giving Jesus Christ his last rites. There were reports that some of those present at that final ritual of a bath surreptitiously clipped off bits of Che's hair to keep them as mementoes.
The Bolivian government of then military ruler Rene Barrientos wished to decapitate the dead Che and keep the head as a sign of its triumph in tracking down the 'most dangerous' individual in the world. The thought was, however, quickly abandoned. What followed was something simpler, though no less revolting. Che's hands were sawn off and later sent to Havana, to convince the Cuban authorities that their hero had indeed died in the jungles of Bolivia. It was a somber Castro who informed his people of the tragic end of the man who, having left his native Argentina, had identified with the Cuban revolution and then set out to revolutionise the world.
The murder of Che Guevara was in several ways the end of idealism for people across vast tracts of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Che believed, and millions believed with him, that socialism offered a way out of the woods for the world's underprivileged and disenfranchised. Cuba, Che had convinced himself, could be a powerful symbol of revolution, of the socialism that could act as a catalyst for change. In his final moments, when a Bolivian army officer asked him why he had come to Bolivia with his revolution, Che answered, "I am a Cuban, an Argentine, a Peruvian, a Bolivian, a Chilean, an Ecuadorian."
Those final words defined him. In a career that would not rest on laurels, Che would reach out to every segment of society that suffered at the hands of exploitative forces. He was in the Congo when he thought men like Laurent Kabila needed to offer a clear vision about emancipation to a nation wracked by conflict since the murder of the patriot Patrice Lumumba in 1961. It was Che's belief, like that of any other Marxist, that revolution was not to be confined to geography but move beyond and across frontiers if it was to be purposeful. Revolution is an inclusive affair. Socialism is always about internationalism and because it is, Che believed that he could play a leading role in disseminating the socialistic message across the globe.
Che served as a minister in Castro's government and in that capacity he went out into the wider world informing global leaders of what it meant to be a Cuban revolutionary and what it would mean once the Cuban revolution was replicated around the world. Che was eminently equipped to carry out this responsibility. He was, besides being a guerrilla, a doctor and an intellectual. There was no ambiguity in him about the modalities in which revolution was to come to the dirt poor homes of the world's impoverished. He exchanged ideas with Mao Zedong on the nature of revolution; he was at home with Ahmed Ben Bella in a free Algeria; and he marvelled at the way Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser went about constructing the edifice of Arab nationalism. At the United Nations in 1964, he was clear in his conviction that the world, including its capitalist zones, needed to be enlightened on the utilitarian aspects of socialism. His words were a robust defence of the beauty inherent in leftwing thinking. He minced no words in his excoriation of imperialism.
And then Ernesto Che Guevara went out into the night. Divesting himself of all the perks and perquisites of power, he went into disguise as a middle-aged western businessman before walking away into what he believed would soon become a wider, more substantive world of truly Marxist dimensions.
And then he died. He was only 39. In that brief span of a fullness of life, Che Guevara reflected on the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca and John Keats. In the writings of Jawaharlal Nehru and Franz Kafka and Albert Camus he sought the meaning of existence. He was, as Jean-Paul Sartre was to say of him, 'the most complete human being of our time'.
Ernesto Che Guevara's remains were discovered, along with those of his comrades, thirty years after his assassination in a secluded spot near an airstrip in Vallegrande. In a changed world, they were dispatched to Havana. On October 17, 1997, they were buried in Santa Clara with full military honours. He remains a beacon of hope for millions struggling for decent existence, for the chance to claim the good earth as their own.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist and writer.