Richard Gott is a British journalist, historian and a former Latin America correspondent and features editor for The Guardian. He was in Bolivia at the time of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara's assassination, and was called to identify the body.
In an exclusive interview with teleSUR, Gott talks about what happened 50 years ago when Latin America's most iconic revolutionary was killed.
teleSUR: How was you first encounter with Che in Cuba? What did you talk about?
Richard Gott: I first met Che in Havana in October 1963. We were both present at the Soviet embassy in Havana at a party to celebrate the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. I was part of a small group that had been waiting to talk to Che. We sat with him on some steps outside in the garden, overlooking the sea. We talked about the possibility of extending the Cuban Revolution out into the mainland of Latin America. Che was very enthusiastic about this, and we went on talking until well after midnight.
TS: What were you doing in Bolivia at the time of his death? How was it that you were contacted, and what did officials say to you exactly?
RG: I was in Bolivia in October 1967 preparing to make a television film about the guerrilla movement led by Guevara, and also about the trial of Regis Debray, the French intellectual who was being held in the oil town of Camiri. I had been visiting the headquarters of the U.S. training mission and had met the U.S. officers running it.
The next day, a Sunday, I met them again by chance at a cafe in the town of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. A U.S. officer said: "I have got news for you. Your man has been captured. He has been wounded and may not survive the night. You had better get out to Vallegrande as soon as you can.” He was talking about Che, and Vallegrande was the headquarters of the army in the fight against the guerrillas. It was already evening, and I set out with two companions in a jeep to drive through the night.
TS: What were your thoughts and feelings when you saw the cadaver? What do you remember about the atmosphere in La Higuera on that day?
RG: We arrived at 9 o’clock the following morning, Monday, Oct. 9. We knew that Guevara was being held in the village of La Higuera, some 30 kilometers away, but we were not allowed to leave the town. Not until 5 pm was Che’s body brought by helicopter to the airstrip at Vallegrande. His body was laid out on laundry shelf in a hut on the premises of the local hospital, and for about half an hour we were allowed to look at it. The hospital grounds were filled with local villagers, and there was almost a religious atmosphere. Then we had to drive back to Santa Cruz to carry the news to the outside world.
TS: Have you been back to Bolivia since?
RG: I have been back to Bolivia many times since and have been a witness to many eventful moments in the history of that country, but none so momentous as the death of Che Guevara.
TS: Did you imagine that he would have become so influential around the world, and do you think this would have happened if he had not been martyred?
RG: I thought at the time that Guevara’s death would mark the end of the outbreak of guerrilla movements in Latin America for which Che had been responsible. This was too pessimistic, for in fact guerrilla movements still continued, notably in Nicaragua. I think that Che’s early death certainly helped to promote his legacy.
TS: What do you think Che's legacy is today and what do you think the Left can still learn from him?
RG: Che’s legacy is that of a man who abandoned all his achievements and worldly goods in order to promote his ideas about socialist revolution. Although he was not immediately successful, people will continue to raise his revolutionary banner.