SANTA CLARA, Cuba, Oct 9 (Reuters) Communist Cuba paid tribute to its poster boy, Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara, 40 years after the guerrilla fighter was captured and executed in Bolivia.
The man he helped to power in Cuba's 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro, was too ill to attend a memorial rally at the mausoleum where Guevara's remains were placed when they were dug up from an unmarked Bolivian grave in 1997.
Castro instead marked the anniversary in a newspaper column that was read out at the rally, saying the Argentine-born doctor sowed the seeds of social conscience in Latin America and the world.
''I halt in my day-to-day combat to bow my head, with respect and gratitude, before the exceptional fighter who fell 40 years ago,'' Castro wrote.
Guevara was captured by CIA-backed Bolivian soldiers on October 8, 1967, and was shot the next day in a schoolhouse. His body, eyes wide open, was put on display in a hospital laundry room and later buried in an unmarked grave. He was 39.
About 10,000 Cuban workers and students gathered yesterday before a bronze statue of Guevara carrying a rifle in Santa Clara, the city in central Cuba that Guevara ''liberated'' in 1958 in the decisive battle of the Cuban revolution.
Guevara remains a national hero in Cuba, remembered for promoting unpaid voluntary work by toiling shirtless on building sites or hauling sacks of sugar. He still appears on banknotes cutting sugar cane in the fields.
He was central bank governor and industry minister in the early years of Castro's rule, but he left Cuba in 1966 to start a new anti-U.S. rebellion in the jungle of eastern Bolivia, hoping to create ''two, three, many Vietnams'' in Latin America.
SYMBOL OF REBELLION Posters of the long-haired Guevara wearing a soldier's beret with a single star turned the revolutionary outlaw into a 20th Century icon and symbol of rebellion.
The image, based on a picture taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda, has been massively reproduced on T-shirts, mugs, baseball caps, Swatch watches, bikinis and other products of the capitalist consumer society he fought against.
Guevara's tearful daughter Aleida Guevara, 46, said the recent leftward shift in Latin America had vindicated him.
''Today Latin America begins to awaken and their dreams are coming true,'' she said in the mausoleum that holds the remains of Guevara and other guerrillas who died with him in Bolivia.
Left-wing gains across Latin America in recent years have come in democratic elections rather than guerrilla wars.
Fidel Castro, 81, has not appeared in public since an intestinal illness forced him to hand over power to his brother Raul 14 months ago. As Castro fades from the political stage and Cubans debate reforms to an inefficient state-run economy, no one is advocating Guevara's economic policies anymore.
Critics also recall his role in executing opponents of the Cuban revolution.
Citing Guevara's call to fight US imperialism, Communications Minister Ramiro Valdes said in a speech at the memorial rally that Cuba would never come ''under the Yankee boot'' or ''renounce our Communist ideals''.
Across Latin America, Guevara remains a potent symbol of activism against social injustice.
''Che lives. His heroic struggle and that of other revolutionaries will continue until savage capitalism is changed,'' Bolivia's left-wing President Evo Morales said yesterday at the site where Guevara was exhumed a decade ago.
''Latin America cannot continue being the backyard of American imperialism,'' Morales said.
There are no monuments to Guevara in his native Argentina but artist Andres Zerneri has set out to build a 2.7 tonne, 12-foot (4 meter) statue by melting down donations of tens of thousands of bronze items, from keys and taps to door hinges.
REUTERS TB AS0445