LA PAZ – A Bolivian soldier who was among a group of prisoners whose lives were spared by Ernesto “Che” Guevara on May 9, 1967, said he respected the late Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary but did not admire him because he had invaded his country.
Nestor Cuentas was 18 when he enlisted in the Bolivian armed forces to fulfill his military requirement for the 1966-1967 period and was among the troops tasked with putting down a Guevara-led rebellion.
“I respect him for his ideology, but not for the invasion he carried out in our country,” Cuentas told EFE.
His remarks come as soldiers of that period remember those who fell in battle 50 years ago and President Evo Morales’ leftist government organizes events paying homage to the Communist revolutionary.
On May 8, 1967, some of Cuentas’ fellow troops who had camped near the convergence of the Ñancahuazu and Iquiri rivers in south-central Bolivia had gone looking for something to eat when the first clash with the guerrillas occurred, a confrontation in which two soldiers were taken prisoner, he recalled.
“We organized ourselves to attack in three groups, down river, but they had organized themselves in the shape of an ‘L’ and began firing at us from the side and straight ahead. They had ambushed us,” Cuentas said.
The fighting lasted nearly two hours in the bed of the Ñancahuazu river until the Bolivian recruits ran out of ammunition and were captured.
The leader of the group of army soldiers was shot and killed in combat, while the other troops were initially told they would be executed.
However, a guerrilla named “Coco” subsequently told them that the commander (Guevara) had decided to spare their lives and was giving them a half-hour to leave their place of capture and take away their wounded.
Five months later, on Oct. 8, 1967, the Bolivian army – with backing from the United States’ CIA – captured Guevara and wiped out his rebel forces; the revolutionary leader was executed the following day in the southern village of La Higuera on the orders of Bolivian President Rene Barrientos.
Cuentas and dozens of other former military men from that era attended a Mass Friday in La Paz to remember the roughly 50 Bolivian soldiers who died in clashes with Guevara’s guerrilla forces.