Guevara's last stand

Chris Bradley discovers how thousands of bronze keys have helped Argentina to honour a home-grown he

Argentina is a country that honours even its minor heroes with statues, street names and their very own squares. Yet, for decades, one of its most famous sons - Ernesto "Che" Guevara - has been largely overlooked. Now, however, thanks to the donations of more than 14,000 people, among them poets, musicians and scientists, this is about to change with the unveiling of Argentina's first major monument to the popular revolutionary. On 14 June, Guevara's official birth date, a four-metre bronze statue, sculpted by Andres Zerneri, will be unveiled in Rosario, Guevara's birthplace.

Rosario was my first stop on a recent visit to Argentina, during which I hoped to find some lasting markers of Che's origins. His first home, at 480 Entre Rios Street, is still standing. The Parisian-style apartment building retains little evidence of its former occupant. An anonymous list of residents' names on the brass entry panel, almost rubbed away by the passing of time, offered no clue. I eventually spotted a small sign that I had walked past without even noticing, confirming that this was, indeed, the place.

Information booths in the city receive daily requests from tourists expecting to see some major museum or memorial dedicated to the infamous guerrilla. But, apart from this signpost and a small nearby mural, there is nothing to tell them. This comes as no surprise to Eladio "Toto" González, whom I meet on my next stop, in Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires. Between 1996 and 2002, he ran what described itself as the "first museum in South America dedicated to Che Guevara". The museum attracted thousands of foreign visitors a year thanks to a listing in the Lonely Planet guidebook. But after the country's economic crash at the turn of the century, and with a strict policy of free entry, González could no longer afford the rent. Repeated requests for government support fell on deaf ears. All that remains of the museum is a selection of photos and a visitor book, scattered among other random objects in a bric-a-brac shop. Most of the collection sits in storage; González hopes eventually to find a new venue for it.

I also tried the medical faculty of the University of Buenos Aires, where the adolescent Guevara studied to become a doctor. It certainly looked like an appropriate place; the building is an ageing, more utilitarian version of the MI6 headquarters. A banner hanging over the entrance protested: "With no budget and no gas supply we can't give classes, research or study."

Inside, a student union representative confirmed that a record of Che's marks could be found upstairs in the library. But was there any public memorial to one of the faculty's more famous alumni, I wondered? "There used to be a bronze plaque outside on the wall," he said, "but they stole it." Who did? "People," he shrugged.

Back outside, I searched for signs of where this mysterious plaque might once have been. Instead, in the classic form of expression of South American popular politics, I found what I'd been looking for graffitied on the wall. "Monument to Che! 14 June, everyone to Rosario!" announced the scrawled black letters, just visible above the head of a homeless man sitting propped against the wall.

With the help of a website, the address of which was also conveniently provided, I found my way to the workshop of Andres Zerneri in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Palermo. The artist has spent the past two and a half years receiving donations of assorted bronze objects, from which he created his statue, which is based on Alberto Korda's iconic photograph of Guevara. Thanks to the generosity of donors, the three tonnes of bronze that Zerneri required were provided without appeal to any kind of sponsorship or state support.

"There are people who say, 'Why have a monument to Che in Argentina?' because he didn't do anything in Argentina," says Zerneri. "But it doesn't matter to me if it was in Cuba or Bolivia or any other place. The fact that he did it elsewhere in this continent serves as an example that the same can be done in other places."

The sculptor feels that making this a popular project right from the beginning gave it more legitimacy than the usual method, by which a statue is imposed on the people from above. Some enthusiastic supporters even offered their free time to help build the statue. As for the bronze donated, it came mostly in the form of keys, but there were also decorative and sentimental items such as sports trophies, guitar tuning pegs and even parts of precision scientific instruments.

One example Zerneri gives is that of an Argentinian family that fled the dictatorship in 1976 and settled in Stuttgart. Despite being forced to abandon their home, they had kept the key as a symbol of the possibility that one day they would return to their homeland. After three decades in Germany, where they raised their children, the family decided to donate the key for the monument.

"When they came to bring me the key and they told me this story and began to cry, I realised that there are people who have given much more than just a little bit of bronze," Zerneri says.

All this means that Guevara, who remains a countercultural symbol and hero to the dispossessed more than 40 years after his death, will finally be honoured in his homeland. But what would the man himself have made of it all?

"The history of the left is so often about how the parties separate and fight," explains Zerneri, "but this is a good excuse for everyone to get together instead.

"I'm sure Che wouldn't have liked the idea of a monument, but what he might have appreciated is that, once more, he was the reason for all of these people coming together for a cause."