A Darker Look at Che's Revolution

Ernesto "Che" Guevara's famous beret is gone. His iconic beard is filthy and matted against skeletal cheekbones. Bushy eyebrows arch over his half-open eyes.

As a Bolivian country surgeon methodically saws off his lifeless hands, Che appears vaguely amused.

Gustavo Villoldo, a stocky figure in green army fatigues, stands just inside the tiny laundry room where the Cuban revolutionary's corpse rests atop a sink. For five months, the CIA operative led soldiers hunting Guevara through the rough crags and valleys of southern Bolivia. Less than 24 hours ago, his team captured and executed him in the village of La Higuera and then brought his body here to Vallegrande.

Gustavo watches the olive-skinned doctor take notes in a small notebook. One bullet wound to the left collarbone. Another in the right collarbone, causing a compound fracture. Three slugs in the dorsal region around the rib cage. A ragged hole in the left pectoral. A bullet in the right calf. A graze wound on the inner thigh. A bullet through the forearm. Several shots crisscrossed his asthmatic lungs and lodged in his vertebrae. Che died, the surgeon notes, from hemorrhaging in the chest.

Gustavo stares at the body. He thinks of all the deaths Che has caused, from Havana to Bolivia to the Congo. He imagines all the Cuban patriots the revolutionary leader has killed.

Patriots like Gustavo's own father.

Gustavo has trailed Che for more than two years, from the jungles of the Congo to the windy Bolivian altiplano. But looking at the bloody, emaciated corpse, he feels mostly tired and sad.

The surgeon finishes his autopsy. He lifts prints off Che's amputated hands — evidence of the kill.

It's a little after 8 p.m. In Havana, Fidel Castro is already planning a hero's funeral and martyr's welcome to greet Guevara's remains. Gustavo won't let that happen. He heads to a nearby safe house. Just after midnight, he changes into jeans and a dark Bolivian sweater and then tucks a Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol into the waistband. Silently, he walks through the darkness to the laundry room, where he meets two Bolivians. They hoist Che and two other dead revolutionaries onto a truck and cover the bodies with a canvas.

A light drizzle blows out of the mountains and glazes the grass as they drive to a jungle airport. Next to the pitch-dark landing strip, a small bulldozer waits near a hole; it's 15 feet deep and 30 feet wide.

Gustavo and the two men grab the canvas and flip the three bodies into the wet earth. A hard rain falls as the bulldozer pushes dirt over the corpses. By morning, Che Guevara's unmarked grave is soaked and invisible.

Gustavo's mission in Bolivia is complete. But his personal war against the men who killed his father, stole his family's fortune and drove him from his homeland is far from finished.

The story of his lifelong crusade against Castro and Guevara — which has never before been reported in full — is remarkable. It begins with a childhood among Havana's elite and continues with a narrow escape from the Bay of Pigs disaster and a daring 1971 invasion of a Cuban fishing village. Recently, he struck a new, resounding blow at Castro when he and his brother Alfredo won the largest civil judgment leveled against the Cuban government — for $1 billion. They had sued the dictator for stealing the Villoldo estate, tearing apart their family and killing their dad.

After all of this, Gustavo's legacy is still in dispute. There's little question that, as former top CIA analyst Brian Latell puts it, he played a "very critical role in the capture of Che Guevara." But while some exiles consider Gustavo a hero, Che fans and scholars such as UCLA's Peter McLaren call him a "narrow-minded ideologue who set out to avenge his father and took his anger out on a great man."

Gustavo's parents, Margarita and Gustavo Sr., descended from wealthy Spaniards and grew up in Havana's high society. In the early 1920s, Gustavo Sr. graduated from the Wharton School of Business in Pennsylvania, moved home and started a successful law firm in Havana.

By the time the younger Gustavo was born on January 21, 1936, his family owned a 30,000-acre farm in northwest Cuba as well as a General Motors plant. Alfredo was born the next year.

When Gustavo was only 11 years old, his papi taught him to fly a Piper airplane. The boy took the controls on just his third flight as Gustavo Sr. sat next to him. Before the fourth ascent, his father said simply, "Well, come back soon," and sent his son up alone.

Later that year, Gustavo boarded a commercial flight from Havana to Miami and then headed for South Bend, Indiana, where he enrolled in the Culver Military Academy. The boarding school was among the finest in America. Its inspector general was Omar Bradley, the legendary World War II leader.

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Tim Elfrink
Contact: Tim Elfrink