Historian aims to debunk the myths surrounding Che's female guerrilla

New book disputes long-held account that "Tania" was Guevara's lover

On August 31, 1967, at a place in Bolivia where the rivers of Masicurí and Grande meet, a platoon of soldiers was hiding in the weeds waiting for a group of Cuban guerrillas to the cross the stream. It was 5.20pm, and they had already spent about 10 hours in the burning heat.

With the help of a farmer, they had set a trap to ambush the revolutionary fighters who were preparing to cross the river.

The group, codenamed "Joaquin," crossed in a single file through the waist-high water, which in some areas reached as high as their chins. Suddenly, the soldiers saw the beautiful body of a thin woman emerge from the river. She was wearing a tight, short-sleeved shirt, with a lock of hair covering her face.

It was an unreal image for this group of soldiers, who had been chasing Che Guevara through the Bolivian jungle. It was her: the only female guerrilla who formed part of the group of revolutionaries that the papers were talking about. Captain Vargas Salinas gave the order and the shooting started, machine guns pumping lead into the bodies, which fell into the water like pins in a bowling alley.

A bullet hit "Tania," who clutched at her chest and fell into the water. The current swept along her body, with its backpack filled with secrets - and she was a woman with many secrets, having three names and three identities, besides being a dreamer, a master of disguise and a craftsman of lies, not to mention a guerrilla and a spy.

She is a woman whose life is surrounded by myths and legends. It is this confusion that the prestigious Bolivian historian Gustavo Rodríguez Ostria is hoping to clear up.

An expert on Guevara's guerrilla activities, the historian has taken three years to write Tamara, Laura, Tania. Un misterio en la guerrilla del Che (or, Tamara, Laura, Tania. A mystery in Che's guerrilla movement).

It is a book based on multiple interviews with the main players of those years, along with reports from the Stasi, the Bolivian Army and the CIA. Ambitiously reconstructed and extensively documented, the book shatters the theories long held by authors such as John Lee Anderson, Paco Taibo II and José Friedl Zapata.

The Cuban Revolution has built a mythical narrative around Tamara, saying she tried to fire her machine gun when the first shots rang across the River Masicurí. Ostria Rodríguez denies this. "She did not fire a single shot," says the writer by telephone from Santiago, Chile, where he is researching his next book. "In the guerrilla insurgency, you were a fighter if you had a rifle. She had a pistol. She was given tasks that would not have exposed her to danger."

Rodríguez Ostria, author of a dozen books, also deconstructs the myth of the alleged relationship between Guevara and Tania. "She was not Che's mistress. They barely lived a month together as guerrillas," he says. It was between March and April 1967, and their relationship was, in fact, strained by Guevara's criticism of Tania having abandoned her intelligence-gathering role to join the guerrillas.

She was born Tamara Bunke on November 19, 1937 in Buenos Aires. Daughter of a German and a Russian, both communists, she returned to her father's homeland in July 1952, where, at 15, she joined the Free German Youth (JLA). She became a member of the dreaded Stasi, the secret service of the German Democratic Republic. Then she left for Cuba to get a first-hand look at the island's socialist experiment. After analyzing files from the former East Germany, Rodríguez Ostria debunks theories adopted by writers such as the Uruguayan Friedl Zapata, that she had traveled to Havana as a spy for the GDR.

Rodríguez Ostria is particularly satisfied with the information obtained through interviews with Paco, the lone survivor of the ambush that killed Tania, and the interview with the officer Barbery, the number two of the squad that killed her. Che did not want women on the front line. But Tania was determined to be there, and she was gunned down crossing a river. She was the only woman among an army of bearded revolutionaries. Inevitably, she became a legend.

Tania snaps a photo while Che Guevara (left) smiles in the background during a stop in the jungle of Ñancahuazú, Bolivia in 1967.
Tania snaps a photo while Che Guevara (left) smiles in the background during a stop in the jungle of Ñancahuazú, Bolivia in 1967.AFP

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