Che Guevara is a cult figure. His image with a bandana featuring a star, a dishevelled beard and a gaze that seems to be looking into the horizon, have immortalised him. But only recently, I chanced upon the image’s origins. The iconic picture was taken at a 1965 memorial service by a photographer called Alberto Korda in Cuba.
The image, meanwhile, is called the Guerrillero Heroico. A now popular iteration of the picture is that of Che’s image set against a red background. This rendition was created by an Irish artist called Jim Fitzpatrick who’d once met the revolutionary in Ireland.
The Irishman was apparently distraught at Che’s eventual execution in Bolivia. But Fitzpatrick was no anonymous sympathiser. He did add in a subtle ‘F’ on Che’s left shoulder in the now iconic image.
Also, I am not sure if it is sheer co-incidence or clear inspiration, but there were marked similarities between Che’s image and that of Barack Obama’s 2008-09 ‘hope’ picture.
Che merchandise is all the rage
From a purely commercial standpoint, Korda, the photographer, or Che’s surviving family could have made a fortune by licensing his image for merchandise use. But Korda didn’t take a dime when he allowed an Italian publisher to first use the Guerrillero Heroico in 1967. In the decades since, this image has epitomised both anti-establishment protests as also high fashion.
The protest part is understandable since Che was a revolutionary; he stood for anti-capitalism. But why did it catch on in t-shirts, jackets, caps and wallets? Several fashion houses, spanning the likes of Urban Outfitters, Gap and even Louis Vuitton have used Che’s image. And strangely, several popular figures such as Jonny Depp, rapper Jay-Z and even Prince Harry have been seen sporting Che t-shirts.
In case you’ve missed the irony, the fashion houses and the famous personalities, are both representatives of capitalism. So, what exactly makes Che merchandise so coveted? Or what has earned Che such a wide fan following?
As I see it, the face of a communist has been used to make significant capitalist gains. Perhaps there is a certain sense of romanticism that is associated with one who died young ‘fighting for his cause’. Maybe it is a sense of rebellion that the wearer tries to express, which could explain Prince Harry’s decision to sport a Che t-shirt.
Posters and flags bearing the revolutionary’s image have, meanwhile, been used in protests in several countries around the world, including India.
A few among numerous contrasts
That Che was an accomplished academic cannot be denied. He was a medical doctor prior to him becoming a revolutionary. His first wife, Hilda Gadea, was a noted economist and his family was affluent. I mean how else could he afford medical school and take-off on motorcycling holidays?
What I find especially intriguing is the many nationalities Che was associated with. He was of Spanish-Irish origin and was born in Argentina. Che then went to Guatemala, married a Peruvian, worked in Mexico, fought for the Cuban revolution, aligned with the Russians, then became pro-China, and eventually met his end in Bolivia.
As a member of Cuba’s communist government, he was first appointed as President of the National Bank of Cuba. He was only 31 at the time.
Later, as minister of trade, he toured numerous countries across Asia, Europe and Africa. But his legacy on the economic front is there for all the world to see — one of monumental failure and incompetence. The very poverty that he’d supppsedly wanted to eliminate is what has entrapped Cuba’s residents for well over half a century.
A 1995 Newsweek opinion piece said his star status was on account of him being ‘a man with values’ amid a world rife with consumerism and other such ills. On the other end of the spectrum, the principled man was directly responsible for at least 124 killings.
A Cuban newspaper called Revolución reported that Guevara had said, “in times of excessive tension we cannot proceed weakly. At the Sierra Maestra, we executed many people by ﬁring squad without knowing if they were fully guilty. At times, the revolution cannot stop to conduct much investigation; it has the obligation to triumph.” The year was 1962.
Only five years later, in 1967, when Che surrendered to Bolivian soldiers, he was promptly executed by firing squad. The nine shots ordered were also without a court trial.