Escape was impossible. The room had but one barred window in the rear. There were troops all around the schoolhouse. No, the soldier was only complying with his orders. The Bolivians didn't want any prisoners. They wanted the guerrillas dead. I turned without saying anything and went back into the room where Che lay, his arms and legs trussed together.
The place was small-about eight feet long and ten feet wide with mud walls and earthen floor. The tiny window was the sole source of light. There was a single, narrow door also facing the front. Che lay next to an old wooden bench. In the rear of the room, just across from him were the bodies of Antonio and Arturo.
I examined him more closely than I had before. He was a wreck. His clothes were filthy, ripped in several places and missing most of their buttons. He didn't even have proper shoes, only pieces of leather wrapped around his feet and tied with cord.
I stood above Che, my boots near his head, just as Che had once stood over my dear friend and fellow 2506 Brigade member, Nestor Pino. Captured at the Bay of Pigs, Pino was beaten by Castro's soldiers when he told them that he was not a cook or radio operator but the company commander of a paratroop battalion. His body battered, he lay on the earthen floor of a seaside hut taking the kicks and blows. Suddenly, they stopped.
Pino opened his eyes and saw a pair of polished boots next to his face. He looked up. It was Che Guevara, staring coolly down at him. Che spoke as matter-of-factly as if he was telling a child tomorrow is a school day. "We're going to kill you all," he said to Pino.
Pino had survived his ordeal. Now, the situation was reversed. Che Guevara lay at my feet. He looked like a piece of trash.
I said, "Che Guevara, I want to talk to you."
Even now he played the role of comandante. His eyes flashed. "Nobody interrogates me," he replied sarcastically.
"Comandante, " I said, somewhat amazed that he had chosen to answer me at all, "I didn't come to interrogate you. Our ideals are different. But I admire you. You used to be a minister of state in Cuba. Now look at you - you are like this because you believe in your ideals. I have come to talk to you."
He looked at me for about a minute in silence, then agreed to speak and asked if he could sit up. I ordered a soldier to untie him and got him propped onto the rickety wooden bench. I got him tobacco for his pipe.
He would not discuss tactical matters or technical things. When I asked him about some of his specific operations, he responded by saying only, "You know I cannot answer that."
But to more general questions, like "Comandante, of all the possible countries in the region, why did you pick Bolivia to export your revolution?" he answered at length.
He told me he had considered other places - Venezuela, Central America, and the Dominican Republic were three he named. But, he added, experience had shown that when Cuba tried to foment unrest so close to the U.S., the Yanquis reacted strongly and the revolutionary activities failed.
So, Che continued, since countries like Venezuela and Nicaragua were "too important to Yankee imperialism, and the Americans hadn't allowed us any success there, we figured that, by picking a country so far from the U.S. it wouldn't appear to present an immediate threat, the Yanquis wouldn't concern themselves with what we did. Bolivia fulfills that requirement.
"Second," he added, "we were looking for a poor country-and Bolivia is poor. And third, Bolivia shares boundaries with five countries. If we are successful in Bolivia, then we can move into other places-Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Peru, Paraguay."
He told me he believed that he'd lost support in Bolivia because the people were too provincial. "They cannot see their revolution in broad terms-as an international guerrilla movement working for the proletariat-but only as a regional issue," he said. "They want a Boliviano comandante, not a Cuban, even though I am an expert in these matters."
We talked about Cuba. He admitted to me that the economy was in a shambles, largely because of the economic boycott by the U.S. "But you helped cause that," I told Che. "You-a doctor-were made president of the Cuban National Bank. What does a doctor know about economics?"
"Do you know how I became president of the Cuban National Bank?" he asked me. "No. "
"I'll tell you a joke." He laughed. "We were sitting in a meeting one day, and Fidel came in and he asked for a dedicated economista. I misheard him - I thought he was asking for a dedicated comunista, so I raised my hand." He shrugged. "And that's why Fidel selected me as head of the Cuban economy. "
He refused to talk about what he had done in Africa although, when I said we'd been told he had a ten thousand-man guerrilla force, but that his African soldiers were a disaster, he laughed sadly and said, "If I'd really had ten thousand guerrillas it would have been different. But you are right, you know - the Africans were very, very bad soldiers."
He refused to speak badly about Fidel, although he damned him with faint praise. Actually, Che was evasive when Fidel's name came up. It became apparent to me that he was bitter over the Cuban dictator's lack of support for the Bolivian incursion. Indeed, that Che admitted how bad the Cuban economy was represented an indictment of Fidel's leadership, even though he did not specifically criticize him.
Che and I talked for about an hour and a half until, shortly before noon, I heard the chopper arrive. I went outside and discovered that Nino de Guzman had brought a camera from Major Saucedo, who wanted a picture of the prisoner. That was when I purposely screwed up the Bolivian's camera, but had Nino de Guzman snap a picture of
Che and me using my own Pentax. It is the only photograph of Che alive on the day he died.
Back inside, we resumed our conversation. Che expressed surprise that I knew so much about him, and about Cuba. "You are not a Bolivian," he said.
"No, I am not. Where do you think I am from?"
"You could be a Puerto Rican or a Cuban. Whoever you are, by the sorts of questions you've been asking I believe that you work for the intelligence service of the United States."
"You are right, Comandante," I said. "I am a Cuban. I was a member of the 2506 Brigade. In fact, I was a member of the infiltration teams that operated inside Cuba before the invasion at the Bay of Pigs."
"What's your name?"
"Felix. Just Felix, Comandante." I wanted to say more, but I didn't dare. There was still a slim possibility that he might get out of this alive, and I didn't want my identity to escape with him.
"Ha," Che answered. Nothing more. I don't know what he was thinking at the moment and I never asked.
We started to talk about the Cuban economy once again when we were interrupted by shots, followed by the sounds of a body falling to the floor. Aniceto had been executed in the adjoining room. Che stopped talking. He did not say anything about the shooting, but his face reflected sadness and he shook his head slowly from left to right several times.
Perhaps it was in that instant that he realized that he, too, was doomed, even though I did not tell him so until just before 1 P.M.
I had been putting off the inevitable, shuttling between Che's room and the table where I was photographing his documents. I was taking pictures of his diary when the village schoolteacher arrived.
I looked up from my work. "Yes?"
"When are you going to shoot him?"
That caught my attention. "Why are you asking me that?" I asked.
"Because the radio is already reporting that he is dead from combat wounds."
The Bolivians were taking no chances. That radio report sealed Che's fate. I went down the hill, into the schoolhouse and looked Che in the face. "Comandante, " I said, "I have done everything in my power, but orders have come from the Supreme Bolivian Command..."
His face turned as white as writing paper. "It is better like this, Felix. I should never have been captured alive."
When I asked him if he had any message for his family, he said, "Tell Fidel that he will soon see a triumphant revolution in America." He said it in a way that, to me, seemed to mock the Cuban dictator for abandoning him here in the Bolivian jungle. Then Che added, "And tell my wife to get remarried and try to be happy."
Then we embraced, and it was a tremendously emotional moment for me. I no longer hated him. His moment of truth had come, and he was conducting himself like a man. He was facing his death with courage and grace.
I looked at my watch. It was one in the afternoon. I walked outside to where Mario Teran and Lieutenant Perez stood. I looked at Teran, whose face shone as if he had been drinking. I told him not to shoot Che in the face, but from the neck down. Then I walked up the hill and began making notes. When I heard the shots I checked my watch. It was 1: 10 P.M.
Che was dead.