October 24, 2007
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez may be among the bidders for items related to Cuban revolution leader Ernesto 'Che' Guevara
A lock of Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara's hair -- clipped by a Miami exile and about to go on the auction block this week -- could end up the property of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a devout follower of the Cuban revolution and its communist ideology.
On the eve of the two-day auction that begins Thursday in Dallas, Heritage Auction Galleries received an unusual emergency request for a catalog of the Che items -- from a high-level office in Caracas.
''We were requested to ship a catalog overnight to Venezuela, but we can't say to whom,'' said Kelley Norwine, a spokeswoman for Heritage.
Pressed on whether it was from the deep-pocketed Chávez himself or a source with an identifiable connection, Norwine replied: ``Can't say.''
The two-day auction has stirred worldwide controversy while the Che paraphernalia has been on display at Heritage, which has received threats and consequently tightened security this week. It also has drawn indignation from Che supporters who say it's in bad taste to sell the iconic rebel leader's hair.
But the owner of the items -- a collection of memorabilia related to Che's capture, death and burial in Bolivia -- just wants to get rid of them.
''It's time for me to let go of these things,'' said Gustavo Villoldo, 71, of south Miami-Dade. Villoldo was part of a group of Cuban exiles working with the CIA sent to capture Guevara. He says he buried the rebel leader on Oct. 11, 1967. ``I have no moral problem selling. As far as I'm concerned, Che was a murderer.''
And Villoldo says he does not care who buys the items and will not be attending the auction. In recent years, Villoldo has suspected that Cuba is not holding Che's remains because Cuban officials insist they were found in 1997 in a grave with six other men. Villoldo said he buried Che with only two others.
Another Miami-Dade resident watching the auction with interest and disbelief is Rene Barrientos, son of the Bolivian president of the same name, the president Che died trying to overthrow.
''My dad would probably wonder why anyone would like to buy Che's hair,'' said Barrientos, a college professor at Miami Dade College. ``History has proven that his doctrines and those of Lenin, Castro, Mao are not compatible with human nature. That's why they fail.''
So far, 33 regular Heritage customers have officially indicated they have plans to participate in the auction, which can be seen live on the Internet. The opening bid is now at $100,000, Norwine said.
Many more may join in Thursday. Through the years, the Argentine-born Che has become a beloved figure in some circles. From a collector's standpoint, any personal items of Che's are rare and valuable since he spent most of his adult life on the run as a guerrilla fighter.
Chávez's possible interest in the Che lot is understandable. Known to wear Che T-shirts, the Venezuelan president recently was in Santa Clara, Cuba, to commemorate Che's death. Like Che, Chávez often sports a beret and embraces populist beliefs.
Che's long-haired image made him the poster boy of the Cuban revolution -- and his death at 39 sparked a romantic mythology for many who may not know Che's history overseeing summary trials that resulted in firing-squad deaths for hundreds of Cubans.
Chávez is a close friend of Cuban President Fidel Castro. Castro's popularity in Cuba is challenged only by Che, whose face adorns many murals.
And Chávez may want a replacement for a recently shattered glass monument of Che unveiled in Venezuela in honor of the anniversary of the rebel leader's death earlier this month.
The monument was destroyed less than two weeks after the Chávez government unveiled it. Vandals shot at the glass plate and also took a sledgehammer to it at its home near the city of Merida. The government announced it will replace it.
The existence of the items came to light earlier this year in a Miami Herald article.
Villoldo told the newspaper that for years he had shared only with loved ones what he had done minutes before burying Che and his men in an airstrip under construction in Vallegrande, Bolivia: He snipped a three-inch lock of the rebel's leader's hair as proof of the end of Che.