Che Guevara, 4 decades later, gets a hometown statue

ROSARIO, Argentina - While Ernesto "Che" Guevara remains the most famous export of this sleepy city, his legacy here has long been a low-key one.

Except for a handful of businesses named in his honor, few markers alert visitors that the revolutionary leader was born here exactly 80 years ago before becoming one of the most mythic figures of the 20th century.

That changed Saturday when civic leaders inaugurated the first official monument honoring the revolutionary leader in Argentina, ending decades of government silence about the controversial figure.

A 13-foot-high bronze statue unveiled before hundreds of cheering admirers depicts the beret-wearing Guevara standing defiantly while facing toward Santa Clara, Cuba, where another statue of Guevara faces toward Argentina.

Much of Guevara's family, including three of his children, attended the ceremony along with other veterans of the Cuban Revolution who fought beside Guevara.

Sculptor Andres Zerneri, who created the statue, said the time had come in Guevara's native country for such a monument, especially as the revolutionary's influence spreads around a Latin America increasingly dominated by leftist governments.

As a show of Guevara's international fame, Zerneri solicited donations of keys from around the world to be melted for the bronze used in the statue. That request unleashed a flood of some 75,000 keys.

"There's a more Latin American consciousness now in the region, and it's the direct influence of Che," Zerneri said. "We understand now that he didn't do all this just for the sake of revolution but to change the political face of Latin America."

Yet the fact that Argentina's first monument to Guevara comes 41 years after his death reveals the ambivalence many in this country feel about one of their most famous native sons, said political analyst Julio Burdman.

Statues of Guevara have already been erected in Cuba, Bolivia and other countries, and he's been the subject of several films, including a much-awaited biopic starring Benicio del Toro.

In particular, Guevara's philosophy of armed, socialist revolution has long made Argentine governments uncomfortable with his legacy and has been out of place in politics here, Burdman said.

Elsewhere in Latin America, however, leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales regularly cite Guevara as an inspiration.

"Guevara never left any solid political movement in Argentina," Burdman said. "He's more of an image that's been used by political movements around the world than a relevant figure here."

While flag-waving, drum-banging leftist groups marched through Rosario Saturday, some residents said honoring Guevara was a waste of public money.

"I'm in total disagreement with this homage," said Luis Oskis, 50, who owns a store in the city's downtown. "I'm against all extreme movements and all wars, whether they're from the left or the right. After all, Che ordered a lot of deaths."

Guevara was born to a family of Irish and Basque descent before leaving to study medicine in the capital of Buenos Aires. He became radicalized while traveling around Latin America and eventually joined Fidel Castro in overthrowing Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

As part of Castro's Communist government, Guevara oversaw the trials and executions of several hundred people considered traitors and war criminals. He left Cuba to lead failed insurgencies in the Congo and Bolivia, where he was caught with U.S. support and executed in 1967.

Since then, Guevara's handsome, stern face has become one of the most reproduced images in the world, and leftists hail him as a romantic symbol of doomed political idealism.

Last week, Guevara's image was even used by a Socialist group in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, during protests demanding judicial reforms.

Juan Menendez, a self-described Marxist-Leninist activist, said he came to Rosario Saturday to help "rescue" Guevara's legacy from over-commercialism and to remind people of what Guevara fought for. Menendez spoke while holding a giant red banner adorned with the famous image of Guevara created by photographer Alberto Korda.

"We need to remember Guevara as a figure in the fight against injustice," the 18-year-old said. "People have emptied the content of Che and just used his image, and we're trying to revive his message."

Teacher Mirtha del Valle, who was at the front of the crowd, said many Argentines have forgotten about Guevara, even as the rest of the world debates his legacy. She blamed a succession of military and center-right governments who she said had suppressed the history.

"The governments have made sure that people don't know about Che," del Valle said. "In fact, we know less about him than anyone else in Latin America."