A feat of Cuban science
• 10 years after the discovery and identification of the remains of Che and his comrades
BY FREDDY PEREZ CABRERA AND ORLANDO ORAMAS LEON—Granma daily staff writers—
SANTA CLARA.— The search for, discovery and identification of the remains of Che and his fellow guerrilla fighters was a scientific feat, the result of research and multidisciplinary efforts by Cuban experts and institutions.
That was the conclusion of a commemorative workshop on the 10th anniversary of those findings of indisputable patriotic, humane and above all scientific value, at the Santa Clara Social Workers School, a few steps away from the memorial where the remains of Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara and his comrades-in-struggle lie.
Organized by the Academy of Science, the event featured the participation of Commander of the Revolution Ramiro Valdés Menéndez and Major General Rogelio Acevedo González, comrades of Che during the revolutionary struggle; Rolando Alfonso Borges, head of the Ideological Department of the Central Committee of the Party; Doctors Fernando González, acting minister of the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment (CITMA) and Ismael Clark, president of the Academy of Science; representatives of the diplomatic corps and researchers from different branches of the sciences in Cuba who took part in that effort, along with members of the group that worked in Bolivia to find the guerrilla fighters’ remains.
Others present included authorities of Villa Clara province, led by Omar Ruiz Martín, first secretary of the Party.
A decade after the return of that “Reinforcement Brigade” —as Fidel called it—the importance of the entire scientific process, backed by DNA tests, which led to the identification of the revolutionary fighters’ remains, was ratified.
The success of that effort was the not result of chance or improvisation, but the careful compilation, analysis and interpretation of information collected from investigations carried out for years, in each period of collective effort and inter-institutional cooperation.
The mission depended on exemplary integration, contributions from historic investigations, anthropology, sociology and other social sciences, as well as extremely important contributions from technical disciplines such as geology, geodesy, geochemistry and mapmaking, as well as informatics, botany, edaphology, geophysics and forensic medicine, including the most modern molecular techniques and physical anthropology, the CITMA minister emphasized.
FROM THE FIRST MOMENT
Cuba’s first steps to find and bring home Che’s remains began after receiving the first news of his death.
A decisive moment came in 1995, when retired Bolivian general Mario Vargas Salina, who led the ambush in Vado del Yeso, stated that Che was buried in Vallegrande.
That year, a work commission was created, presided over by General of the Army and Second Secretary of the Party Raúl Castro, and an executive group led by Commander of the Revolution Ramiro Valdés, charged with coordinating the tasks of searching, exhumation and identification.
An identification group was formed for that purpose by the Institute of Legal Medicine and the Central Laboratory of Criminal Science, which collected primary information, including that contributed by family members. A search for data in the field was organized to guide the work of prospecting, based on a system of artificial intelligence.
At the same time, coordination was carried out among various Cuban research centers and institutions for the participation of top experts, and the process of selecting, locating and/or producing the technical means necessary for these labors was undertaken.
In Cuba, several multidisciplinary groups with experts from every branch of science contributed to the effort to find the burial spots and then apply the available techniques for the positive identification of each combatant found. No resources or specialties were spared.
A work team led by Doctor Jorge González Pérez, director of the Institute of Legal Medicine at the time, traveled progressively to Bolivia in late 1995, near the end of what was conceived of as the first stage of the search, carried out by Argentine anthropologists who drafted a technical report enabling the research to continue.
Communication was thus established between Cuban experts in Bolivia and the executive group in Havana, which in its turn had at its disposition a considerable team for supporting and orienting the work of those in the field.
And in Santa Clara, in a brief synthesis, it was demonstrated how the scientific process worked, through the integration of institutions and experts, to facilitate the process of historic studies, basic research, search in the field, exhumation and identification of the remains.
From the persistence of Dr. María del Carmen Ariet in establishing the history and with it the methodology, to Dr. Fernando Ortega and engineer Carlos Sacasas in their studies in the field, with techniques ranging from geo-radar to simpler ones for reaching the conclusion of where to dig, to anthropologist Héctor Soto and others in Bolivia.
Then doctors Luis Herrera Martínez and Ricardo Leonard Cruz provided a simple explanation of the complex methodology used in Cuba via universally applied DNA techniques. This made it possible to authenticate the methods later used by Cuban anthropologists and forensic scientists in identifying Che. The DNA techniques, including the establishment of paternity in two of his children, confirmed the complete identification of the remains, a finding issued in November 1997.
In his particular case, six markers were used to calculate the genetic profile frequency of the remains studies, which could only be found in one out of 500 million people. The paternity tests, for their part, found coincidence of more than 99%. This area included the participation of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, the Central Laboratory of Criminal Science, the Institute of Legal Medicine and the Civil Defense Laboratory.
Doctor Jorge González referred to evidence that, from the first moment, made it possible to conclude the identity of revolutionary hero, particularly the comparison of his teeth with a study of the existing anthropological dental characterization.
There are no two individuals in the world that have exactly the same teeth: size, position, rotation — all of them proof that was at hand in Che’s case, he explained.
Other coincidences were also confirmed: a previous fracture, others described by the autopsy, and for the first time a photo was shown of his cranium with the characteristic protuberance in the upper arch that added to the other factual evidence in his identification, including the clothing he was buried in and the tobacco pouch found in his jacket pocket.
Finally, Dr. García Gutiérrez (Fisin) explained the reasons for the detailed odontological study that existed for Che, noting that it was essential for the work of superimposition had to be performed on his teeth to guarantee his safety by disguising him.
Ten years after that unprecedented feat by Cuban science, the workshop commemorating it was not at all mournful, but a confirmation of the validity of the example set by those whom we now honor every day.
A graphic example of this was provided by members of the Argentine anthropological team that began the search in Bolivia. In a message sent to the event, they recalled a phrase painted by an anonymous person onto a wall in Vallegrante: “Che, you are alive, despite their wish.” •