Che Guevara – Idealism or revolutionary marketing?


Havana : Ernesto “Che” Guevara lived fast, died young and left, if not a good-looking corpse, at least one full of mysticism.

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But the Argentine-born guerrilla fighter also left a legacy of ideals against injustice in Latin America and beyond, which turned him into a global icon, albeit one full of controversy. He remains a symbol 40 years after his death.

Che Guevara’s image – particularly as it was immortalized in 1960 by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda, wearing a beret with a single star and looking into the distance – is used around the world as a leftist fetish or just a symbol of juvenile rebelliousness.

It adorns millions of T-shirts, flags, posters and key rings, and even the body in the form of tattoos like the one proudly worn by Argentine football legend Diego Maradona.

Aware of the impact of his image, those responsible for Guevara’s death on Oct 9, 1967 in the Bolivian town of La Higuera hid his corpse, which remained missing for 30 years. But that only made Che’s legend grow.

“For the radical left, the fetish of Che means a cultural victory after a political defeat,” Cuban essayist Ivan de la Nuez noted in a recent article.

Communist Cuba has watched almost with satisfaction the commercial success of its great figure, despite the paradox that, in so doing, it is giving its consent to the mercantilist practices that Che criticised so much.

The island is full of murals and posters with the effigy of the “heroic fighter” or his most famous phrases, and street markets are full of Che merchandise – avidly bought not only by tourists but also by many enthusiastic Cubans.

Cubans, however, are keen to point out that their sentiment is different.

“Here in Cuba whenever we have the chance to have a Che T-shirt we wear it with great affection and love and not because it is a fashionable object but because we really feel it,” medicine student Yendri Gatorno said.

Che’s grandson Canek Sanchez Guevara has repeatedly criticized a situation in which the fighter’s figure is used by the state in Cuba “as symbolic, moral and ethical capital of the revolution and then as merchandise of the residues of the revolution”.

A majority of Cuban supporters of the revolution led by Fidel Castro would not agree.

“At the beginning it bothered me to see those symbols, but I realized that I was actually wrong, that nobody becomes a millionaire selling T-shirts,” Alberto Granado – Che’s friend from youth – said in a recent documentary.

“The presence of Che in T-shirts, for young people, is a way to bother their parents. Even those who did not know who Che was knew that his presence was a way to bother their parents, who have done nothing to achieve a better world. And symbols are also a way to show presence,” Granado said.

For Veneranda Fe Garcia, the director of the Che Guevara Memorial in Santa Clara, Cuba, the sale of symbols of the fighter “is part of the impact that Che’s figure has in the years in which young people see Che as an expression of rebelliousness, as a spirit of resistance, or of change, of transformation.

“Nobody is going to get rich with those images … All that which is for sale is there because behind it there are always people with different expressions, aspirations,” she said.

Forty years after Che’s death, Cuba does not appear ready to stop exploiting the figure which, along with Fidel Castro, has most contributed to internationalise the ideals of revolutionary Cuba.

“We know that in other countries Che is used to market his figure and sell sweaters, T-shirts … We do not reject that policy because, one way or another, we are left with the joy that those people who have acquired the garments will some day feel more committed to Che,” student Yendri said.