The sudden recess of the Debray trial gave me some time to ask some questions about Tania and see how the government in La Paz viewed the guerrilla situation.
Through Walter Montenegro, our resident correspondent in La Paz, I had arranged an interview with President René Barrientos, whom I knew well. The interview had been set for around 2 p.m. in order to give me plenty of time to get in from the airport after flying in from my Rio base, check into the Crillon, and have lunch. Once in my room, I called Walter, who agreed to have lunch with me at the hotel. We discussed recent events in the guerrilla war and Tania. And while he brought me up to date, we admired the beautiful snow capped Illimani Volcano from the second story dining room.
Suddenly I realized that the time had got away from me. I looked down from the second story dining room, but there were no taxis in front of the hotel. There are two kinds of taxis in La Paz, regular taxis and those that pick up several passengers like a bus. The custom is that the first passenger determines where a multidestination taxi is going, and the driver only picks up others if they are going in the same direction. It was very close to the time of my interview and it seemed that I would not be able to get a taxi. Finally one stopped. I ran down the stairs and out into the street, impatiently pushed aside the two men who got out, jumped in, and told the driver, "To the Palacio Quemado as fast as you can, and don't pick up anybody. I'll make it worth your while." He looked back at me kind of funny, glanced at the man who had jumped back in the car after me, and drove on. Before the taxi came to a complete stop in front of the palace, I started to open the door, asked how much the fare was. Again the driver looked back at the man beside me, and this time I was startled to hear the man beside me say, "Nothing. It's my pleasure." Was I ever taken aback. I had commandeered the personal car of the local representative of the Inter American Bank! I stammered my apologies while he and I hurriedly exchanged cards. The bank official had taken a friend to the hotel, but on seeing the pressure written all over my face he bid his friend a hurried goodbye and quickly jumped back in his car. We promised each other we'd meet for lunch sometime, and I ran into the palace.
I found Barrientos very calm, as usual, confident his troops would wipe out the guerrillas in a few weeks. Extremely polite, like most Bolivians, he showed no emotion, but when referring to Guevara the sarcasm was clear when he said: "I don't know what that gentleman is looking for here.
After leaving the palace I continued my inquiries about Tania. She had lived in Camirí. She was the girl guerrilla, the courier that maintained contact between the guerrillas and their urban support apparatus in La Paz. Her real name was Haydée Tamara Bunke Biber and she was born and educated in Buenos Aires. She went to East Germany in 1954 when her parents who had fled Nazi Germany returned to live in Pankow. Tania became a militant in the Unified Socialist Party and first came in contact with the Cubans in 1959, when a delegation from Castro's Revolutionary Government visited East Germany. She acted as their guide. In December of the same year she met Che Guevara when he visited East Germany, and by mid 1961 she had made her way to Havana. The Argentine Secret Service began keeping track of her movements during the latter part of that year. Six years later, the same authorities noted her exit from Argentina, referring to her as "Laura Gutiérrez, a Bolivian who had made contact with Argentine guerrillas."
She was Laura Gutiérrez in Bolivia but everyone called her Tania. She worked briefly in the private office of Gonzalo López Muñoz, who at the time was also director general of information of the presidency. From La Paz she went to Camirí, where she had a chatty program aimed at women over Radio Zaranenda. This was her cover. She gave homemaking advice, told mothers how to care for their children, and played records. The job allowed her to make frequent trips to La Paz and made it easy for her to slip off to the Ñancahuazú guerrilla base. A small, slim honey blonde with green eyes, Tania was well known in Camirí, where she lived at the Londres Hotel, a scant block away from Fourth Division headquarters. Camireños remember that she favored black shirts and blue jeans, wore her hair in a pony tail tied with a bow, and always used dark glasses. The taxi drivers used to vie with each other to take her to the Choreti airstrip; besides being good company, she paid well—about three times the normal fare. Two of Guevara's deserters eventually gave her away, forcing her to join the guerrillas and remain with them for good at the end of March.
Reports of the girl guerrilla started filtering out shortly after the guerrilla war began. Campesinos in the area occasionally mentioned her. Tania was eventually identified, and early in September many of us newsmen saw what she looked like for the first time when she was recognized by some persons in the audience as the girl standing beside Che Guevara in the guerrilla pictures shown us by General Alfredo Ovando in La Paz. But it was a year before I saw a good picture of her. I was then in Southeastern Bolivia, at Valle Grande. Doctor Moisés Abraham took her picture from his wallet and showed it to me.
Tania was much maligned after her death. Loose accusations have been made that she was pregnant when she was killed, that her autopsy showed this. Tania was with the rear guard group led by “Joaquín”, which became hopelessly separated and lost from Guevara's main group in mid April and was wiped out by the army while crossing the Río Grande on August 31st. Her body, fished out of the river after eight days in the water, was badly decomposed. There was no autopsy and no evidence she was pregnant or suffering from cancer. Neither is there any evidence to support or logical reason to believe the story planted by the CIA in Bolivia and leaked to reporters in Washington that she was a double agent entrusted by the Russians to betray Guevara.
The brief examination of her body conducted by Doctor Abraham at Valle Grande showed two bullet wounds. In her knapsack he found her passport, an address book, a list of popular songs—mainly sambas—and her picture. He turned all of this over to CIA agent Gabriel García except the picture. A large number of Vallegrandinos turned out for her funeral, and the troops of the Eighth Division gallantly gave her a military burial.