Che Chic

IT TOOK NEARLY 30 YEARS FOR THE rugged Bolivian mountains to give up the final secret about Ernesto (Che) Guevara. Late last month, near the remote town of Vallegrande, a team of Cuban and Argentine scientists knelt inside a deep pit before seven dusty skeletons. They were all but certain that the pit contained the remains of the legendary guerrilla leader, who was executed by Bolivian troops on Oct. 9, 1967. The scientists homed in on ""Skeleton No. 2,'' which was lying face down, its skull shrouded by a moldy olive army jacket like the one Che was photographed in after his capture. Another grisly clue: the skeleton was missing both hands. After his execution, Che's hands were sawed off and preserved in formaldehyde to prove to disbelievers that he truly was dead.

Before lifting the jacket, a Cuban geophysicist lowered his head in a gesture of respect. Watching journalists and local townspeople fell silent. Several scientists sobbed as the jacket was removed. ""Che was such a mythic figure, and there were a hundred different versions about what happened to his body,'' says Patricia Bernardi, one of three Argentine forensic experts on the excavation team. ""Now the last chapter has been written.''

More likely, it is merely the latest chapter in a legend that won't die. Experts who have studied dental records and autopsy reports confirmed the remains as Che's; on Saturday the Bolivian government confirmed their findings. A publicist couldn't have timed the discovery better: Che, whose severed hands now reportedly reside in Cuba's Palace of the Revolution, was already being resurrected - commercially, if not politically. Suddenly, Che is chic. The anniversary of his death is generating a frenzied rush of books, documentaries and feature films about the asthmatic Argentine who, by force of will, transformed himself into Fi- del Castro's fearless companero. And Che's image is being used to sell everything from rock music and designer clothes to watches and skis. One recent episode of ""The Simpsons'' featured a Latin nightclub called ""Chez Guevara.''

Cuba will mark the return of Che's remains to his relatives as a state occasion. The pomp and pageantry will energize the commemoration of his death. But it may cause uneasiness, too. Even as it promotes Guevara as a saint to emulate, the Cuban government is scrambling to stay afloat by abandoning many of the principles he held sacred. The unsettling ironies can be found in places like Havana's Palacio de Artesanias, a coloni- al mansion cum mall that sells everything from Coca-Cola to Adidas shoes to Che memorabilia - for U.S. dollars only.

What explains Che mania? After all, he failed in all but one of his revolutionary adventures. And in Cuba, where he was one of four top comandantes in the 1959 rebel triumph, he directly participated in dozens of executions. In 1962 he helped push Nikita Khrushchev to place nuclear missiles in Cuba; then during the missile crisis he argued in favor of a first strike, only to be bitterly disappointed when Moscow withdrew its offensive missiles. Guevara's allure seems to stem, rather, from a longing for the pure, uncompromising ideals of the past. ""In a world of ferocious competition and consumerism, some element of humanity is still looking for a hero with values,'' says Orlando Borrego, a Che confidant during the early years of the revolution. ""In Che, they have a paradigm: a man who was absolutely honest, completely selfless.'' Che has other things going for him, too: he died young (at 39), and he looked good in a beret.

Part of Guevara's appeal is that his revolutionary ideals no longer pose much of a threat in the post-cold-war world. Thirty years have tamed the anti-imperialist tiger and turned him into a rebel without claws. These days the Cuban government buys up Swatch Revolucion watches with Che's image - not to confiscate them, but to sell them back to tourists. In America, Che's appeal is no longer limited to aging leftists. He's got Gen-X cool, too. The rock-rap group Rage Against the Machine uses his image to sell its music. Over the past two years, sales of Fischer Revolution skis have quadrupled; Che's likeness decorates vans that promote the skis. Then there's Label, a New York boutique. It now has a post-grunge fashion line of dresses and shirts with Che military motifs.

The rebel's other incarnations are so gentle they could be called Che Lite. Take ""The Motorcycle Diaries'' (Verso), Guevara's journal of his 1952 road trip through South America. The adventure opened the 23-year-old's eyes to poverty and imperialism, and marked the beginning of his voyage from middle-class Argentina to the armed struggle in Cuba. Havana didn't allow the book's publication until 1995, reportedly because young Ernesto displayed ""bourgeois concerns'' for seducing women and mooching meals. Since last year the book has sold more than 30,000 copies in both the United States and Britain - and 80,000 in Italy. Even more is expected from ""Tania,'' an upcoming Warner Brothers film about the apocryphal romance between Guevara and East German spy Tamara (Tania) Bunke, who also died in Bolivia. Director Michael (""Il Postino'') Radford and ex- ecutive producer Mick Jagger want Antonio Banderas to play Che, as he did in ""Evita.''

Che's resurrection as a cuddly pop- culture icon hasn't pleased everybody. Cuban exiles see the Argentine guerrilla as a murderous interloper responsible for the destruction of their homeland. And Jon Lee Anderson's authoritative new biography, ""Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life'' (Grove Press), shows both the passionate idealist and the cold-hearted disciplinarian who sent 55 people to their deaths and punished errant workers with stints at a remote labor camp. Guevara himself might be bemused to observe his rising popularity. But not surprised: he self-consciously created the legend.

His transformation from Ernesto Guevara to the implacable Che (Argentine for ""buddy'') began when he joined Fidel Castro and his band of rebels in Mexico in 1955 as they prepared to go to war against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. By the time they rolled into Havana in January 1959, Che had become the ""New Socialist Man'': disciplined and willing to die for the cause.

After the revolution, he tried to be an ex- emplary minister and national-bank president in Havana, building society around the New Man. But he worried about Castro's tightening embrace with the Soviet Union. And he always felt more alive, more Che, when he was fomenting revolution. His first two attempts, in Argentina and the Congo, were disasters. Undeterred, Che set out in late 1966 for Bolivia, from which he thought he could spread unrest throughout the hemisphere. But his allies were weak and divided, the peasants were reluctant and rear-guard support from Cuba was sporadic. Che was captured and executed by a CIA-trained unit of the Bolivian government. But that only enhanced his legend. ""It wasn't a useless death,'' muses Alberto Granado, an old Argentine friend who traveled with Che around South America. ""He died well.'' So well, in fact, that it seems as though he never died at all.