ROSARIO, Argentina (Reuters) - A bronze statue of Ernesto “Che” Guevara was unveiled on Saturday in the Argentine city where he was born exactly 80 years ago, the first such monument to the revolutionary in his homeland.
Thousands of students, leftist activists and residents marched through Rosario to pay homage to the long-haired guerrilla fighter, who left his country as a young man to lead armed struggles including Cuba’s 1959 revolution alongside Fidel Castro.
“I believe in the revolution, that’s why I love Che,” said Monica Nielson, 49, wearing a soldier’s beret with a single star like that worn by Guevara in a photo that turned him into a 20th Century icon.
“El Che,” a national hero in Communist Cuba, is one of Argentina’s most famous sons. But he has been slow to get recognition as a national figure at home.
For years after CIA-backed troops executed him in the Bolivian jungle in 1967, he was still too controversial for public recognition in Argentina.
The leaders of the country’s 1976-83 “dirty war” dictatorship banned his image, and attackers bombed the middle-class Rosario apartment building where Guevara was born in 1928 after the local council put up a commemorative plaque there.
A handful of high schools bear Guevara’s name, and a small museum opened in one of his former homes in 2001. But in a country with a penchant for naming streets and avenues after obscure Spanish viceroys, his absence is notable, said leftist historian Felipe Pigna.
“It’s disgraceful that in a city like Buenos Aires ... there’s not a single street named after Doctor Guevara,” he said.
Members of Rosario’s socialist city council, which organized Saturday’s events, say controversy over Guevara has eased after 25 years of democracy.
“Che is more of a historical figure nowadays,” said Horacio Ghirardi, organizer of the tribute in Rosario. “He was always very controversial in the country, especially among the right, which couldn’t stand him or even tolerate debate about him.”
In Cuba, where a series of acts have taken place during the week to mark Saturday’s anniversary, Vice President Carlos Lage praised Guevara as “a mythic icon.”
The Cuban commemorations included days of unpaid voluntary labor — something advocated by Che, who is remembered for toiling shirtless on building sites and cutting sugar cane.
Guevara’s daughter, Aleida Guevara, arrived in Rosario to cheers and chants of “Viva!” when she visited a makeshift campsite set up for the celebrations, which culminated in the unveiling of the 2.7 tonne, 12-foot (4-metre) statue made out of thousands of donated, melted-down keys.
Guevara was depicted in his typical military uniform, striking a defiant pose.
“It’s good for me to see so many young people here. Monuments aren’t important, what matters is that we put Che’s beliefs into practice,” she said.
Several thousand people, some carrying red Communist party flags and banging drums, gathered in Rosario’s newly built Ernesto “Che” Guevara plaza, where local officials unveiled the centerpiece statue.
Skeptics suggest Rosario’s leaders just want to cash in on the lucrative Che brand by attracting tourists to the city in which he did not grow up, and some leftist groups boycotted the official festivities. Guevara spent most of his childhood in neighboring Cordoba province.
Many Argentines say Guevara did nothing for his country, leaving at an early age to fight battles elsewhere and eventually becoming a citizen of Cuba.
For some, he is still a threatening figure.
“He was a terrorist. There are a lot of other people who deserve to have statues. It’s not right to give killers monuments,” said taxi driver Diego Benitez. “To cap it off they use public money. We all pay whether we like it or not.”
Additional reporting by Miguel Lo Bianco in Rosario and Nelson Acosta in Havana, Editing by Anthony Boadle