By Rosa Tania Valdes
SANTA CLARA, Cuba, Oct 8 (Reuters) - Communist Cuba paid tribute on Monday to its poster boy, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, 40 years after the guerrilla fighter was captured and executed in Bolivia.
The man he helped to power in Cuba’s 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro, was too ill to attend a memorial rally at the mausoleum where Guevara’s remains were placed when they were dug up from an unmarked Bolivian grave in 1997.
But Castro marked the anniversary in a newspaper column written from his sickbed, saying the Argentine-born doctor sowed the seeds of social conscience in Latin America and the world, and describing him as a flower prematurely cut from its stem.
"I make a halt in day-to-day combat to bow my head, with respect and gratitude, before the exceptional fighter who fell 40 years ago," Castro wrote.
Guevara was captured by CIA-backed Bolivian soldiers on Oct. 8, 1967, and was shot the next day in a schoolhouse. His bullet-ridden body, eyes wide open, was put on display in a hospital laundry room and later buried in an unmarked grave. He was 39.
About 10,000 Cuban workers and students gathered on Monday before a monument of the guerrilla fighter carrying a rifle in Santa Clara, the city in central Cuba that Guevara "liberated" in 1958 in the decisive battle of the Cuban revolution.
"Che was loved, in spite of being stern and demanding. We would give our life for him," said 80-year-old Tomas Alba, who fought under Guevara’s command. A banner proclaimed him as a "true example of revolutionary virtues."
Guevara remains a national hero in Cuba where he is remembered for promoting unpaid voluntary work by working shirtless on building sites or hauling sacks of sugar. To this day, he appears on a Cuban banknote cutting sugar cane with a machete in the fields.
He was central bank governor and industry minister in the early years of Castro’s rule. He advocated nationalizing private businesses and dreamed of a classless society where money would be abolished and wages unnecessary.
But he left Cuba in 1966 to start a new anti-U.S. guerrilla movement in the jungle of eastern Bolivia, hoping to create "two, three, many Vietnams" in Latin America.
Posters of the long-haired Guevara wearing a soldier’s beret with a single star turned the revolutionary outlaw into an international folk hero and symbol of rebellion.
The image, based on a picture taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda, has been massively reproduced on T-shirts, mugs, baseball caps, Swatch watches, bikinis and other products of the capitalist consumer society he fought against.
Fidel Castro, 81, has not appeared in public since an intestinal illness forced him to hand over power to his brother Raul 14 months ago. As Castro fades from the political stage and Cubans debate reforms to an inefficient state-run economy, no one is advocating Guevara’s economic policies anymore.
Cuba stopped exporting armed revolution to Latin America in the 1980s —one of the last shipments of weapons was used in Chile to ambush military dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1986. Pinochet survived the attack.
The one-party state built by Castro with Guevara’s help 90 miles (135 km) away from the United States has endured CIA-backed invasion plans and assassination plots, and the hostility of 10 U.S. administrations.
"In almost five decades of extensive covert efforts to roll back the Cuban revolution, the capture and death of Che stands as really the only CIA success story," said Peter Kornbluh, an expert on Latin America at the National Security Archives, a public interest documentation center in Washington.