A former CIA operative has spoken out about the last hours of the Cuban revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara before his execution in the jungles of Bolivia 40 years ago, recalling how he looked like a "beggar" and was shot against the wishes of the US government.
Felix Rodriguez, a prominent Cuban exile in Miami with a long career working for the Central Intelligence Agency that spanned the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the Vietnam War, said Che was in "rags" when he was first brought to him after his capture by Bolivian soldiers near the town of La Higuera on 8 October 1967. The former brother-in-arms of Fidel Castro was in Bolivia trying to foment socialist revolution.
"I remembered him from the time that he used to visit Moscow and he used to visit Mao Tse-tung in China, that arrogant man in uniform, and now you see this man here who looks like a beggar," he told the BBC. " His uniform was basically in rags. He didn't have a pair of boots, it was just a pair of ... leather, covering his shoes. And, you know, I just felt sorry for the man as an individual, as a human being."
It was also the job of Rodriguez at the time to ensure that Che was kept alive and transported to Panama, where he would face interrogation by his American colleagues. In the interview, he explains how he was overruled during a phone call to the jungle encampment from Bolivia's military high command.
"When I answered the phone they gave me the codeword 'five hundred six hundred'," he recalled. "We had agreed a simple code; 'five hundred' was Che Guevara, 'six hundred' was dead, 'seven hundred' was alive. I asked him to repeat because the line had a lot of noise. And they confirmed, it was 'five hundred six hundred'."
Rodriguez, who earned the nickname Lazarus after surviving the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, was handpicked by the CIA to head up the team to track down Che, an experience he described in a book. Other historians have documented his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair and his acquaintance with the then vice-president George Bush Snr, who knew him while he was the CIA director.
Rodriguez said this week that he argued with his Bolivian counterpart in the jungle, whom he identified as a Colonel Senteno. "Felix, we are grateful for what you have done," the Colonel replied. "But this is an order from my president, from my commander-in-chief. I want your word of honour that at two o'clock in the afternoon, you will bring me back the dead body of Che. You can do anything you want because we know the harm he has done to your country."
Rodriguez said that upon his initial capture, Che was almost good-humoured, even agreeing to be photographed with him as he was led out of his hideaway. He also remembers the moment when he told the Argentine-born revolutionary that he would not be spared.
"I went into the room, I stood in front of him and said 'Commander Guevara, I'm sorry, I tried my best. But this is an order from the Bolivian high command'. He perfectly understood what I was saying; he turned white like a piece of paper, I've never seen anybody look depressed like he did. But he said, 'It's better this way, I should have never been captured alive.' It was one o'clock in the afternoon, Bolivian time, when we left that area. And between 1.10 and 1.20, I heard the burst."
The vivid memories of Rodriguez are not coloured with a great deal of regret over the way Guevara's life was ended, however. Nor does he believe that the killing of the revolutionary made him a martyr and resulted in his being mythologised in the decades since.
"That was done by the Cuban government," he said. "Most people don't know the real Che Guevara – the Che Guevara who wrote that he was thirsty for blood, the Che who assassinated thousands of people without any regard for any real legal process."