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 CHEstore.com 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 ebay.com
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.