After his execution, Guevara's body was lashed to the landing skids of a helicopter and flown to nearby Vallegrande, where photographs were taken of him lying on a concrete slab in the laundry room of the Nuestra Señora de Malta. Several witnesses were called to confirm that it was Guevara, key amongst them British journalist Richard Gott, the only witness to have met Guevara when he was alive.
Put on public show as hundreds of local residents filed past the body, Guevara's corpse was considered by many to represent a "Christ-like" visage, with some even surreptitiously clipping locks of his hair as divine relics. Such comparisons were further extended when English art critic John Berger, two weeks later upon seeing the post-mortem photographs, observed that they resembled two famous paintings: Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and Andrea Mantegna's Lamentation over the Dead Christ. There were also four correspondents present when Guevara's body arrived in Vallegrande, including Bjorn Kumm of the Swedish Aftonbladet, who described the scene in an November 11, 1967 exclusive for The New Republic.
A declassified memorandum dated October 11, 1967 to United States President Lyndon B. Johnson from his National Security AdvisorWalt Whitman Rostow, called the decision to kill Guevara "stupid" but "understandable from a Bolivian standpoint". After the execution Rodríguez took several of Guevara's personal items—including a Rolex GMT Master wristwatch that he continued to wear many years later—often showing them to reporters during the ensuing years.Today some of these belongings, including his flashlight, are on display at the CIA. After a military doctor amputated his hands, Bolivian army officers transferred Guevara's body to an undisclosed location and refused to reveal whether his remains had been buried or cremated. The hands were preserved in formaldehyde to be sent to Buenos Aires for fingerprint identification. (His fingerprints were on file with the Argentine police.) They were later sent to Cuba.
On October 15 Fidel Castro publicly acknowledged that Guevara was dead and proclaimed three days of public mourning throughout Cuba. On October 18 Castro addressed a crowd of one million mourners in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución and spoke about Guevara's character as a revolutionary. Fidel Castro closed his impassioned eulogy thusly:
"If we wish to express what we want the men of future generations to be, we must say: Let them be like Che! If we wish to say how we want our children to be educated, we must say without hesitation: We want them to be educated in Che’s spirit! If we want the model of a man, who does not belong to our times but to the future, I say from the depths of my heart that such a model, without a single stain on his conduct, without a single stain on his action, is Che!"
French intellectual Régis Debray, who was captured in April 1967 while with Guevara in Bolivia, gave an interview from prison in August 1968, in which he enlarged on the circumstances of Guevara's capture. Debray, who had lived with Guevara's band of guerrillas for a short time, said that in his view they were "victims of the forest" and thus "eaten by the jungle". Debray described a destitute situation where Guevara's men suffered malnutrition, lack of water, absence of shoes, and only possessed six blankets for 22 men. Debray recounts that Guevara and the others had been suffering an "illness" which caused their hands and feet to swell into "mounds of flesh" to the point where you could not discern the fingers on their hands. Debray described Guevara as "optimistic about the future of Latin America" despite the futile situation, and remarked that Guevara was "resigned to die in the knowledge that his death would be a sort of renaissance", noting that Guevara perceived death "as a promise of rebirth" and "ritual of renewal".
In late 1995 retired Bolivian General Mario Vargas revealed to Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, that Guevara's body was located near a Vallegrandeairstrip. The result was a multi-national search for the remains, which would last more than a year. In July 1997 a team of Cuban geologists and Argentine forensic anthropologistsdiscovered the remnants of seven bodies in two mass graves, including one man with amputated hands (like Guevara). Bolivian government officials with the Ministry of Interior later identified the body as Guevara when the excavated teeth "perfectly matched" a plaster mold of Che's teeth made in Cuba prior to his Congolese expedition. The "clincher" then arrived when Argentine forensic anthropologist Alejandro Inchaurregui inspected the inside hidden pocket of a blue jacket dug up next to the handless cadaver and found a small bag of pipe tobacco. Nino de Guzman, the Bolivian helicopter pilot who had given Che a small bag of tobacco, later remarked that he "had serious doubts" at first and "thought the Cubans would just find any old bones and call it Che"; but "after hearing about the tobacco pouch, I have no doubts." On October 17, 1997, Guevara's remains, with those of six of his fellow combatants, were laid to rest with military honors in a specially built mausoleum in the Cuban city of Santa Clara, where he had commanded over the decisive military victory of the Cuban Revolution.
Removed when Guevara was captured were his 30,000-word, hand-written diary, a collection of his personal poetry, and a short story he had authored about a young Communist guerrilla who learns to overcome his fears. His diary documented events of the guerrilla campaign in Bolivia, with the first entry on November 7, 1966, shortly after his arrival at the farm in Ñancahuazú, and the last dated October 7, 1967, the day before his capture. The diary tells how the guerrillas were forced to begin operations prematurely because of discovery by the Bolivian Army, explains Guevara's decision to divide the column into two units that were subsequently unable to re-establish contact, and describes their overall unsuccessful venture. It also records the rift between Guevara and the Communist Party of Bolivia that resulted in Guevara having significantly fewer soldiers than originally expected, and shows that Guevara had a great deal of difficulty recruiting from the local populace, partly because of the fact that the guerrilla group had learned Quechua, unaware that the local language was actually a Tupí–Guaraní language. As the campaign drew to an unexpected close, Guevara became increasingly ill. He suffered from ever-worsening bouts of asthma, and most of his last offensives were carried out in an attempt to obtain medicine.
The Bolivian Diary was quickly and crudely translated by Ramparts magazine and circulated around the world. There are at least four additional diaries in existence—those of Israel Reyes Zayas (Alias "Braulio"), Harry Villegas Tamayo ("Pombo"), Eliseo Reyes Rodriguez ("Rolando") and Dariel Alarcón Ramírez ("Benigno")—each of which reveals additional aspects of the events. In July 2008 the Bolivian government of Evo Morales unveiled Guevara's formerly sealed diaries composed in two frayed notebooks, along with a logbook and several black-and-white photographs. At this event Bolivia's vice-minister of culture, Pablo Groux, expressed that there were plans to publish photographs of every handwritten page later in the year. Meanwhile, in August 2009 anthropologists working for Bolivia's Justice Ministry discovered and unearthed five of Guevara's fellow guerrillas near the Bolivian town of Teoponte.
"The discovery of Che’s remains metonymically activated a series of interlinked associations – rebel, martyr, rogue figure from a picaresque adventure, savior, renegade, extremist – in which there was no fixed divide among them. The current court of opinion places Che on a continuum that teeters between viewing him as a misguided rebel, a coruscatingly brilliant guerrilla philosopher, a poet-warrior jousting at windmills, a brazen warrior who threw down the gauntlet to the bourgeoisie, the object of fervent paeans to his sainthood, or a mass murderer clothed in the guise of an avenging angel whose every action is imbricated in violence – the archetypal Fanatical Terrorist."
Over forty years after his execution, Che's life and legacy still remain a contentious issue. The contradictions of his ethos at various points in his life have created a complex character of unending duality.
An array of notable individuals have lauded Guevara as a hero; for example, Nelson Mandela referred to him as "an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom", while Jean-Paul Sartre described him as "not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age". Others who have expressed their admiration include authors Graham Greene, who remarked that Che "represented the idea of gallantry, chivalry, and adventure", and Susan Sontag, who expounded that "[Che's] goal was nothing less than the cause of humanity itself." In the black community, philosopher Frantz Fanon professed Guevara to be "the world symbol of the possibilities of one man", while Black Panther Party head Stokely Carmichael eulogized that "Che Guevara is not dead, his ideas are with us." Praise has been reflected throughout the political spectrum, with the libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard extolling Guevara as a "heroic figure", lamenting after his death that "more than any man of our epoch or even of our century, [Che] was the living embodiment of the principle of revolution", while journalist Christopher Hitchens commented that "[Che's] death meant a lot to me and countless like me at the time, he was a role model, albeit an impossible one for us bourgeois romantics insofar as he went and did what revolutionaries were meant to do—fought and died for his beliefs."
Conversely, Jacobo Machover, an exiled opposition author, dismisses the hero-worshipping and portrays him as a ruthless executioner. Former Cuban prisoner Armando Valladares echoes similar sentiments, declaring Che "a man full of hatred" while accusing him of executing dozens who never stood trial. Alvaro Vargas Llosa of The Independent Institute has hypothesized that Guevara’s contemporary followers "delude themselves by clinging to a myth", while describing Guevara as "Marxist Puritan" who employed his rigid power to suppress dissent, while also operating as a "cold-blooded killing machine". Llosa has also accused Guevara's "fanatical disposition" as being the linchpin of the "Sovietization" of the Cuban revolution, speculating that he possessed a "total subordination of reality to blind ideological orthodoxy". Detractors have further theorized that Che-inspired revolutions in much of Latin America had the practical result of reinforcing brutal militarism and internecine conflict for many years. In an assessment of Guevara, British historian Hugh Thomas opines that Che was a "brave, sincere and determined man who was also obstinate, narrow, and dogmatic." At the end of his life, according to Thomas, "he seems to have become convinced of the virtues of violence for its own sake", while "his influence over Castro for good or evil" grew after his death, as Fidel took up many of his views. In Thomas' assessment, "As in the case of Martí, or Lawrence of Arabia, failure has brightened, not dimmed the legend."
Meanwhile, Guevara remains a beloved national hero to many in Cuba, where his image adorns the $3 Cuban peso and school children begin each morning by pledging "We will be like Che." In his homeland of Argentina, where high schools bear his name, numerous Che museums dot the country, which in 2008 unveiled a 12-foot (3.7 m) bronze statue of him in the city of his birth, Rosario. Additionally, Guevara has been sanctified by some Bolivian campesinos as "Saint Ernesto", to whom they pray for assistance. In stark contrast, Guevara remains a hated figure amongst many in the Cuban exile and Cuban-American community of the United States, who view him with animosity as "the butcher of La Cabaña". Despite this polarized status, a high-contrast monochrome graphic of Che's face, created in 1968 by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, has become one of the world's most universally merchandized and objectified images, found on an endless array of items, including T-shirts, hats, posters, tattoos, and bikinis, ironically contributing to the consumer culture Guevara despised. Yet, he still remains a transcendent figure both in specifically political contexts and as a wide-ranging popular icon of youthful rebellion.