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Remembering 50th anniversary of freedom fighter's death

Sep. 28, 2017

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a major figure in the Cuban Revolution. The occasion has revived interest in Che in countries including Japan.

Guevara is known through as a symbol of the ideals of youth and freedom. In the Arab Spring of 2011, many young people held his picture.

Last month, an exhibition of Guevara's photos, which he took himself, was held in Tokyo.

The exhibition attracted many fans. Guevara carried a camera constantly. He often took photos of daily life and scenery whenever he traveled around the world.

There are also some private shots. One of him with his wife and revolutionary comrade Aleida, and one is Che in disguise. In 2013, UNESCO listed his collection of photographs in its Memory of the World register.

Guevara's eldest son, Camilo, organized the exhibition. He lost his father when he was 5 years old. He now travels the world to show people the loving, caring side of the man that he remembers, hoping to add depth to his heroic image.

“I think this particular series of photographs has great and definite value," he says. "Most of them were taken during an important time in Che's life.”

After the Cuban Revolution, Guevara visited Japan to see its progress after World War 2 and made an unplanned visit to Hiroshima. He wanted to see the site of the atomic bombing.

Within the collection are the photos he took of the cenotaph for atomic bomb victims. His visit sparked a greater interest in Hiroshima both in Cuba and other Latin American countries.

He wrote a letter to his wife around that time. It said, “I think people should visit this place to further the fight for peace.”

Guevara continued to wage guerrilla warfare and live as a revolutionary, driven by his desire to change the world.

In 1966, he went to Bolivia with a guerrilla force of about 40 people. He challenged the military dictatorship. But he and his comrades struggled in their confrontation with the Bolivian military, which had the support of the United States.

After a year-long guerrilla campaign, Che was captured and killed. At 39 years of age, his mission to change the world had ended.

The spot where he died is now considered a sacred place by people who look up to Guevara's ideals.

“He wished for children to become good revolutionaries," says Camilo. "That means working hard and being sympathetic to injustice in other countries, no matter where. In Cuba, his name is part of daily life: when things go wrong, people say, ‘Remember Che, if Che was here, this wouldn’t have happened.’ You hear this often.”

Memories of La Higuera
by Eiji Hamanishi, Correspondent, NHK World

In 1967, Revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara was killed in the mountainous village of La Higuera in central Bolivia. The village is roughly 170 kilometers from Viru Viru International Airport, near the country's eastern hub of Santa Cruz. But the drive to La Higuera from the airport takes more than 8 hours as unpaved, winding roads make for a difficult trip.

10 years ago, I took this route to visit La Higuera. Back then, events were underway around the world to mark the 40th anniversary of Guevara's death. During my drive, I came upon a section of road that was covered with mud from a landslide. My car somehow managed to squeeze through a narrow space on the side of the road. I thought the area's treacherous terrain was a perfect fit for Guevara's guerilla activities.

Despite the difficult access, the village attracts people from around the world. One person I met had walked 10 kilometers there, following in the footsteps of Guevara. The village, with a population of just slightly over 100 people, can become crowded with more than 1,000 visitors. It is a sacred place to those who love Guevara.

His life has fascinated many people. After the Cuban Revolution, Guevara went to Bolivia to stage another revolution, hiding with his comrades in a valley near La Higuera. But he was captured by the US-backed military on October 8th, 1967, and executed in the village the next day at the age of 39.

When I visited La Higuera, October 5th to 8th marked the height of a commemorative event held in the heart of the village, in front of a massive bust of Guevara. Organizers say they should celebrate the last day of his life. Participants talk about the revolutionary and sing songs to pay tribute.

During my visit, I noticed many young people visiting the village. They were born after the end of the socialist revolutionary era. But the freedom fighter is a likely hero to them in their struggles through today's complicated society.

Bolivia's government once saw Guevara as a dangerous figure. But under President Evo Morales, officials held a major event in 2007 to pay respect to him.

Morales attended a ceremony in the town of Vallegrande, about a 2-hour drive from La Higuera, where Guevara was buried.

In a speech, the president said Guevara was a commander and a great leader. He said Guevara not only had strong beliefs, but also had flawless leadership.

In January 2006, Morales became Bolivia's 1st indigenous president. He comes from a poor farming family.

In his inaugural address, Morales said he wants to end inequality and discrimination against indigenous people. He has since overseen a leftist administration.

Morales looks up to Guevara as a great predecessor, who sided with poor workers and brought down a government that was manipulated by the US and Cuba's upper class.

When Morales took office, some other Latin American countries already had leftists in power, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his Argentine counterpart, Nestor Kirchner. I believe that was when people in the region began to take a fresh look at Guevara.

10 years have passed since I covered the 40th anniversary of Guevara's death. During that time, Latin American nations have shifted from the left back to the right, one after another. Cuba has also restored diplomatic ties with Washington for the first time in more than 5 decades.

This change suggests these countries are drifting away from the ideal society Guevara envisioned. But as the world continues to face the same challenges, including abuses of power and wealth inequality, the ideals set forth by Guevara continue to shine.

In Japan, the life of a young man who fought alongside Ernesto "Che" Guevara has been attracting attention. He was a Bolivian, with a Japanese father. A Cuban and Japanese crew worked on a film about his life.

The movie is set in Cuba in the 1960s. It paints a detailed picture of an ordinary medical student who gained tremendous trust from Che and became his comrade.

He is Freddy Maemura Hurtado, a second-generation Japanese-Bolivian, born and raised in Bolivia.

His family published his memoir, and it’s now been translated into Japanese. In it, his life is likened to a samurai.

Freddy’s Japanese father went to Bolivia as an immigrant and married a local woman. They had 5 children. Freddy was their third child. He went to Cuba to study medicine, hoping to someday save the lives of children in poverty. This decision changed his life forever.

In Cuba, Freddy met Che, who was calling for the liberation of Central and South America from the ruling oligarchy, and became fascinated with him.

Having experienced the same inequality in his native Bolivia, Freddy decided to join Che’s army. That was when Guevara passed along his first name to Freddy to use as his revolutionary ‘warrior name.’

Joe Odagiri, a leading Japanese actor, played Freddy. He kept his Japanese identity in mind as he tried to grow into the role.

“I thought it was significant that Freddy had Japanese blood running through him," Odagiri says. "It made me think that the spirit of the samurai lived in him, so I wanted to find a way to express it with my Japanese side, given the opportunity.”

“I think Freddy's core value was justice, or fighting for what's right, so I was careful not to forget that,” says Odagiri.

One Che Guevara fan says, “I used to think revolutions were bad until I learned they wanted to do something for people living in poverty. It was touching.”

Another says, “They risked their own lives for the sake of their country. That’s really brave and rare these days, but surely people like them existed. I respect them.”

Junji Sakamoto directed the film. His work often focuses on social issues. While working on this film, he says he began to understand why the fascination with Che is so widespread, even in Japan.

“He’s no longer here, but he lives on," says Sakamoto. "And there’s no sense of tragedy. He’s simply someone who inspires courage. That’s what I thought when I saw these young people, and while I directed this film.”

The film will hit movie theaters next month in Japan, and it'll be shown in Cuba as well.