Using and abusing Che Guevara

I feel bad most times I see the iconic Che Guevara’s photo, accidentally taken by Alberto Díaz (aka Alberto Korda) exactly 50 years ago, in 1960. I don’t know whether el Che would’ve enjoyed seeing himself as the universal representation of The Rebel, his image being used and abused by teens and grown-ups all over the globe.

I doubt he'd wear this...

Korda became worldwide famous for this single pic, though, and he seemed quite happy about it.

As well as the Cuban Castrist regime. There's controversy about the depth of the disagreement between Che and Fidel, and on whether Castro indeed left Che's small guerrilla group to be smashed by the army in Bolivia in 1967, as some say. It was Cuba, anyway, who inaugurated the costume of using and abusing Che Guevara's image, regardless of what he might have supported or not. El Che became a powerful, multipurpose, copyright-free brand-name.

Every major government-organised demo in Cuba takes place in the Plaza de la Revolución, under Che's sight.

"We want you to be like Che": in other words, obbey and support us, demands the regime in his name

El Che has indeed been a huge source of inspiration for peoples all over the world, naturally with a particular pull in Latin America

And so the icon was used by political movements the Cuban governments many times supports (and in some cases, we can assume el Che would have too).

Both from the opposition and clandestinity and from the top of power

It's ok if your simpathizers use and abuse Che and other icons to canonise you in this life (why wait?)

Living dictators with no bit of resemblance to Che can claim to have a similar heroic standing, like Syrian dynastic president-for-life Bashir al Assad.


No particular artistic skills are required

They refashioned him in a religious way


Once divinised, they put him at the very centre of diverse Revolutionary Pantheons

Hiphoppers somehow turned him into a fan of bling.

His followers wanted to have him everywhere, as on their feet


...or under their feet

Some entrepreneurial capitalists detected a promising market niche

And developed the neccesary commercial infrastructure

To make some good money that won't go to help Cuban children or any other cool purpose -at least doesn't state it anywhere on its webpage

Zippo, for instance, took advantage of the fashion (and you can engrave on the lighter any sentence praising or deriding Che)


How many companies around the world have used him as a hook for mass consumers?

They put him at the very centre of the coolest Beer Pantheon

They auction commemorative coins (Guevara turned into golden money by Cuba, by the way) and Che memorabilia in as socially-conscious sites as

And his holy protective abilities are purported to help you at the most intimate levels

And as any other objet du desir, his image was stamped in holy places as Giselle Bündchen's bikini

Not that I'd complain just for this, right?

Che was reduced to a fashion statement

Though Che's enemies have been more vociferous against all this consummerism than his fans

Use and abuse of Che's icon seems to annoy some right-wingers more than many left-wingers

They use him to denounce everyone in his supposed ideological side, from Stalin to Pol Pot

They pretend to defame him

They ridiculise him

And they accuse other foes of being 21st century Ches.


All of which are things that we all had more or less seen.

But there are other uses and abuses of el Che’s image that are more confusing to me. It’s about political movements that, for all what I’ve read on el Che and about how he would always stick to his principles (which are not the matter of this article), he would have never supported. Many times they even go totally against what he fought for as a man opposed to religious fanatics, racists and other Chauvinists, greedy plutocrats and colonialist adventures.

I saw a poster of him in a Basij militia’s quarters in a Tehran’s mosque, just after the electoral fraud in June last year, when the Basijis were beating and killing young protestors in the streets (Hugo Chávez may be as pragmatic as to ally himself with Iran’s bloody dictator, but I believe that would have been unacceptable for el Che).  South Africa’s ANC’s youth movement has used Che’s banners in racist demos against whites. A friend in Jerusalem just told me that some Israeli soldiers who rejected orders to force the settlers to withdraw from Gaza, in 2005, used Korda’s  photo as a symbol of resistance. And today, I saw this iamge on the press, aparently taken on April 24th in Bangkok:

These are the so-called "red shirts" who have taken Thailand's capital's central district in a bid to overthrow the government.

There are no “good guys” in this conflict, it’s a fight between elites in which it’s the common people who shed their blood. Nothing new. But the red shirts represent no idealistic cause to go ever onward to victory, as el Che used to say. Their leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, is the richest man in the country, a corrupt businessman and deeply demagogic politician, whose personal ambitions have helped to put Thailand in fire and have already caused tens of deaths.

People, companies and governments feel completely free to make use and abuse of el Che and Korda’s photo. I can’t know what he would say about this, but I bet he’d surely feel quite frustrated. Sad thing will be if, after Cuba’s ever more visible failure, a powerful, multipurpose, copyright free brand name was to be the by far the best known trace of el Che’s legacy. Such are the dangers of becoming a universal icon in a mediatic world.

14 responses to “Using and abusing Che Guevara

  1. Good post and lovely pictures. So how about making the next post about the image of Jesus?

  2. Hey Amir! I read that Korda’s pic is the most reproduced image in world’s history, but I’m not sure about that… is it like Lennon saying The Beatles are more popular than Jesus?

    Maybe there are just too many representations of Jesus to choose from, whereas Korda’s is clearly way more known than any other photo of Che.

    What other image could compete with this one, then?

    A post on jesus’ image would be interesting. Wait for inspiration to come down to me!

  3. May the holy spirit come down to earth to inspire you 😉

    Actually, call me an alien, but I didn’t really have Korda’s picture burnt in my mind anywhere…

    Che is a symbol and it doesn’t really matter what he did and what he stood for. Symbol change meaning. The most famous is probably the

  4. Ooops, Amir, that almost makes you an alien…

    I’m not sure you can compare Korda’s pic and the Swastika, they correspond to two different phenomena… the Swastika is thousands of years old and along the millenia, different peoples and movements have used it for different purposes. Korda’s pic would be a tiny baby in comparison, with it’s half-century of existance, and rather a subkect of ultra-fast re-semantisation by this mediatic, consummerist world.

    Which is more remarkable because it is not an abstract symbol, it represents a person with a clearly traceable ideology and political trajectory. If we have any interest on what our work-of-a-lifetime should mean in the near future, this is an eloquent example that suggests that none of us has any real control over it.

  5. A great article on the famous Che image …

    “Che’s life is an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom, we will always honor his memory.” — Nelson Mandela

  6. Sometimes messages simply can’t be understood.

    Our commentator Savendra invites us to visit wikipedia, but his name links us to a discussion place,

    Which in turn drags us to… its very own, which is introduced like this: “Welcome to the world’s best Ernesto Che Guevara merchandise collection of Shirts, Tshirts & tees available online today!!”

    It says it is “in association with”, and just as this shop fails to, it doesn’t say where the profits are going to, no cool cause nor anything. It only has a “Note: Che-Lives has to finance it’s own web server and without this commercial section CheLives can’t stay online.”

    They keep the money, that’s what they’re basically saying. Regardless that platforms like wordpress or any other offer similar space to hold discussions or revere every heroe for free. They are just using and abusing Che, as so many others.

    Qué vergüenza me dan, la neta, bola de mentirosos.

  7. Keeping Che’s memory alive by having people question and read more about “that man on the shirt” is not exploitation.

    And Che-lives is not my site, I simply thought it was a relevant link to the discussion.

  8. Maybe it’s not your site, but that’s what wordpress asks you to do when your are not logged in and you are leaving a comment: attach your website to your name. And you are promoting it, in any case.

    There are many ways to keep Che’s memory alive and have people to read more about him. A website is a good form. You don’t need to seel souvenirs for that, there are too many free platforms and the site you want us to visit is not provinding any extraordinary content, it’s the same you can find anywhere on the web. It’s not that they’ve spent lots on research or paying famous writers. Even their downloadable files are quite common.

    What do they do with the proceeds from the souvenirs? Do they support any valuable cause? If I were contributing to the capitalist appropiation and resemantisation of the Che’s image, at least I’d try to do it for a worthy purpose, not just keeping a website that does what so many social movements and research institutions have been doing for decades and a lot better. and (note that in both cases they are .coms and not .orgs) are perfect examples of what I’m talking about in this article. They use and abuse Che’s image for commercial profit.

    Do you think Che would be proud of such a revolutionary slogan like this one?: “Welcome to the world’s best Ernesto Che Guevara merchandise collection of Shirts, Tshirts & tees available online today!!”

  9. Temoris, interesting and well written article. i enjoying reading it, espacially the comments

    do they have those che bikkinis for men, too? 🙂

    by the way, same thing is about to happen in Israel, with our own dead simbol – Itzhack Rabbin.
    Rummers say that the goverment is going to print a new 500 shekels bill with his portrait on it. Rabin will (and already is) become an israeli simbol of “the fight for peace”, regardless of the actions he took during his life.
    the new bill is already making news here, as many right wing and extreme right wing activists oppose it..

  10. So will you rush to the Central Bus Station mall to buy Itzhack Rabbin’s men bikinis as soon as they start seeling them?

    Or what exactly are you suggesting, Matan?

    If you do, find me a bikini in blue and white, with C cups. I’ll be forever greatful 🙂

  11. Rabin doesn’t have enough carisma to become a bikini 🙂
    but i got your point

  12. I like the bikini one, LOL


  13. Pingback: Tweets that mention Using and abusing Che Guevara « UBUNTU --

  14. I like bikini and cool all

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