Che Guevara legacy contested 40 years after his death

Commemorations taking place nearly throughout Latin America 40 years after the death of Ernesto "Che" Guevara on Oct. 8, 1967, indicate just how much the world has changed since then—for better and for worse. Most significantly, in Bolivia—where he met his death, and where his name and image were anathema under military dictatorships and conservative regimes a generation thereafter—the official ceremony celebrating the legendary guerilla was presided over by the populist President Evo Morales. The commemoration was held at the village of Vallegrande in Santa Cruz department, where Guevara was captured, tortured and killed by Bolivian soldiers overseen by CIA agents.

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's left-populist president, held a ceremony at Pico del Aguila, in the west of the country, which Guevara visited 55 years ago. In Brazil, under the left-center government of President Lula de Silva, a special session of the senate in Guevara's honor is to be held Oct. 23. A memorial to Che is being built in in his native Argentina—now also under a left-center government—to celebrate the 80th anniversary of his birth in June 2008. Even in Mexico and Guatemala, both under conservative governments, ceremonies are to be held honoring Guevara—who planned and raised funds for the Cuban revolution in Mexico, and earlier served in the agrarian reform program of the Guatemalan "social revolution" under President Jacobo Arbenz before it was overturned in a CIA-backed military coup in 1954.

The main ceremony in Cuba was held in Santa Clara, where Guevara fought during the revolution in 1958 and where his remains lie—having been exhumed and identified from a mass grave in Vallegrande in 1997. Aleida March, Che's widow, attended the event, along with four of his children. Raul Castro presided in place of the ailing Fidel.

While once-impoverished Vallegrande is reaping a boom in Che souvenirs, there was dissent from the festivities in Bolivia. "We feel sick about this grand show that goes on every year on the anniversary of his death," said Gary Prado, the commander of the Bolivian army rangers unit that captured Che. "Rather than honor a man who came to invade the country, we should honour the armed forces, the soldiers who defended the country." Prado described the Bolivian ceremony as "an offense to the country's dignity." (AlJazeera, AFP, Oct. 8)

Then there's Felix Rodriguez, the right-wing Cuban exile and CIA operative who interrogated Che on his deathbed and pocketed the guerilla leader's wristwatch as a perverse keepsake. He would later boast of using the watch to time Contra resupply flights at El Salvador's Ilopango airbase as a member of the Reagan administration's "Secret Team" assigned to co-ordinate the Nicaraguan counter-revolution. Despite such treasonable offenses, Rodriguez continues to live peacefully in the Miami area, along with his buddy and accused terrorist Orlando Bosch. He admitted to the BBC that he presided over Che's summary extrajudicial execution after receiving a coded order from the Bolivian high command—then said, seemingly oblivious to the hilarious irony: "Most people don't know the real Che Guevara—the Che Guevara who wrote that he was thirsty for blood, the Che who assassinated thousands of people without any regard for any real legal process."

An Oct. 5 BBC report on the iconic stylized image of Che's face that adorns posters, t-shirts and even rock album covers (Rage Against the Machine) worldwide, provides some fascinating historical details of the myth-making process. "There is no other image like it," said Trisha Ziff, the curator of a touring exhibition on the iconography of Che. "What other image has been sustained in this way? The birth of the image happens at the death of Che in October 1967. He was good-looking, he was young, but more than that, he died for his ideals, so he automatically becomes an icon."

Jim Fitzpatrick, who produced the ubiquitous high-contrast drawing in the late 1960s as a young graphic artist, told BBC he actively wanted his art to be disseminated. "I deliberately designed it to breed like rabbits," he said of his image. "The way they killed him, there was to be no memorial, no place of pilgrimage, nothing. I was determined that the image should receive the broadest possible circulation."

The photo Fitzpatrick worked from was taken by Alberto Korda, Fidel Castro's official photographer, at a mass funeral in Havana on March 5, 1960, for 80 Cubans who had been killed when a French cargo ship loaded with ammunition exploded in the city's harbor—an act that Fidel blamed on US sabotage. Korda describes Che's expression in the picture, which he labelled "Guerrillero Heroico," as "encabronadao y dolente"—enraged and pained.

Unpublished for a year, the shot was seen only by those who passed through Korda's Havana studio, where it hung on a wall. Finally, it was brought to Europe by the leftist Italian publisher and intellectual, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who distributed posters across Italy in 1967. From there it started to make its way to publications and activist groups across Europe. Fitzpatrick first tried to work with a small copy from the German magazine Stern, but there was insufficient detail for satisfactory results. Eventually, "I'd got an original copy of the image sent to me by a guy involved with a group of Dutch anarchists, called the Provo," said Fitzpatrick. The Provos, in turn, are said to have been given the photo by Jean-Paul Sartre, who was present at the Havana funeral when it was taken. After Guevara's death, an outraged Fitzpatrick furiously reprinted originals of the poster and distributed them to activist groups throughout Europe and the world.

Part of Fitzpatrick's anger stemmed from a vivid memory of working behind a bar in Ireland as a teenager—and seeing Che walk in. The revolutionary was briefly exploring the homeland of his Irish ancestors—the full family name was Guevara Lynch—during a stopover on a flight to Moscow. "I must have been around 16 or 17," Fitzpatrick recollected. "I knew immediately who he was. He was an immensely charming man—likeable, roguish, good fun and very proud of being Irish."

Fitzpatrick recalled how his poster was the right image for the right time. "His death was followed by demonstrations, first in Milan and then elsewhere. Very soon afterwards there was the Prague Spring and May '68 in France. Europe was in turmoil. People wanted change, disruption and rebellion and he became a symbol of that change."

And that legacy still serves the image's power, even for those who don't know the history. "There is a theory that an image can only exist for a certain amount of time before capitalism appropriates it," said Trisha Ziff. "But capitalism only wants to appropriate images if they retain some sense of danger."

Fitzpatrick's icon has been put to some appropriate purposes—such as the logo of Guatemala's Guerilla Army of the Poor (EGP) (active from the early '70s through mid-'90s). Even conservatives who peddle anti-Che t-shirts with a red slash through the icon at least have an appreciation of what it means. Far worse is widespread decontextualized capitalist appropriation of the Guevara imagery and mythos—which reached its nadir with the (now happily abandoned for excessive political incorrectitude) Taco Bell ad campaign that featured Che as a talking chihuahua. This would be hideous enough even if Taco Bell didn't viciously exploit farmworkers—who might have their own reasons to emulate the real Che Guevara.

See our last posts on Bolivia, Cuba, and the media/culture wars.

  1. Che the Misfit
    It is fitting that Marxists and Communists world-wide use Che as their symbol…. A misfit.
    Yes he was a revolutionary… but more importantly a bloodthirsty incompetent who failed miserably as Cuba’s National Bank Minister, in the Congo and finally in Bolivia where the campesinos (poor farmers) turned him in…. And ended in ultimate defeat….
    A unkept dirty misfit …. perfect symbol for a decrepit rotting ideology of incompetence and mediocrity.

  2. What was it Borges called him?
    What was it Borges called him?

    A smelly, murderous pimp?

    I’d like to see comments about his life and legacy from the families of the people he liquidated. That might be some amusing light reading.