Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, but known simply as Che or el Che, was a man of many professions including a doctor, banker, revolutionary, economist, diplomat and theorist. It has been argued that it was the many aspects of his life that meant he has become the international icon that he is today (The Marxism of Che Guevara).
A little background on the man in question…
Born in Argentina, he went on to become a leader in the Cuban revolution encouraged by poverty he witnessed whilst travelling through South America. He joined other prominent figures such as Raul Castro and his brother Fidel Castro with the aim to overthrow the dictator of Cuba, Fulgencio Batista.
Post- revolution he continued to play a vital role in Cuban development, instigating a nationwide literacy campaign, working to promote Cuban Socialism and on land re-distribution throughout the country.
This revolutionary like many before him and since is still revered and respected many years after his death. Influential activists such as Nelson Mandella on Che Guevara said his life is “an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom” (Hey-che.com). He remains a national hero in Cuba with his face on the $3 peso and with many school chlidren throughout the country starting each day with a pledge to “Be like Che” (BBC News, 2007).
In his home country he is also honoured with many high schools bearing his name and many Che museums throughout the country including in his hometown (Che Guevara Museum, Alta Gracia). In 2008 a 12ft bronze statue was unveiled in the city of his birth, Rosario, (seen below) which was made from 75,000 bronze keys donated by Argentines from all over the world. This fact alone indicates continued respect amoungt the Argentine people.
So why has Che grown to be such a legend when his fellow revolutionaries like Fidel Castro have not recieved such reverence?
There are arguably a number of reasons why this legend lives on 45 years after his assasination, but the most significant in my opinion lies in the biographies and memoirs he wrote throughout his life. Although his life was short in some ways, within it there were many different phases where his views and behaviour changed drastically, loving tender doctor to cold-blooded killing machine. His ability to write about his experiences meant that many years later people can seek inspiration from his thoughts and gain a clearer understanding about what made him the man he came to be. His writings have since influenced a large number of documentaries, and films (Che!, Che Part One, Che Part Two). The Motorcycle Diaries, now a New York Times bestseller, is an account he wrote after a solo trip around South America based on memoirs he had written at the time, which personally I found to be a very interesting read.
Another reason I think he is so widely loved is to many he himself represents the “underdog” (Schuman & Harding, 1963). I think this is something that many people can relate to and seek inspiration from. Despite being a lifelong sufferer of acute asthma, he excelled in many sports including cycling, rugby, swimming and football. His experiences of class struggles, poverty and fighting for independence is something that many people worldwide can relate to and commend (especially when you consuder his background and the fact he wasn’t even from Cuba). The things he achieved were done not out of poverty but out of a need to see change and his actions changed the lives of many South Americans.
Finally and arguably the most significant influence on the legend of Che is the image below.
Guerrillero Heroico which simply translates as ‘Heroic Guerrilla Fighter’ was taken by Alberto Korda (Alberto Diaz Guitterez) in 1960. Today it has been argued by Maryland Institute College of Art to be the ‘most famous picture in the world’ (BBC News, 2001).
This photograph along with many other factors has meant that Che in many ways has become a brand. This image has become a symbol and like many brand logos has come to represent something in itself – revolution, freedom and courage (BBC News, 2007). Frantz Fanon sums this up quite nicely when he said Che was “the world symbol of the possibilities of one man” (Hey-Che.com). Supporting this man in whatever aspect helps to establish and convey your core cultural values; three being expected social behaviours, one of which based on truth (Hofstede & Bond, 1988).
Variations of this image can now be seen on a huge selection of merchandise including t-shirts, hats, posters, tattoos, and even (scarily) bikinis.
There is even an online shop dedicated specifically to Che-related items (TheCheStore.com). It is ironic that a well known communist activist would contribute to the materialistic capitalist consumer culture that he himself was so against (Forbes.com). Personally I would love to hear his opinions on this trend that has developed since his death, as it seems anyone who has read his memoirs or has taken an interest in his life would realise how opposed to this consumer behaviour he would be. It seems that many people who ‘support’ Che Guevara have absolutely no idea why they should or much about the man in question. This rebellious trend is emphasized by a saying in Argentina: “Tengo una remera del Che, y no sé por qué,” which translates roughly to “I have a Che T-shirt, and I don’t know why” (Askmen.com).
This feeds into my own personal opinions about the fact most people wearing the shirt are simply doing it because it is now ‘cool’ and has absolutely no base in their own political beliefs. The act of buying Che -related items instead is simply to convey your desired self-image to others around you and alter people’s perceptions of you – a form of self promotion (Tetlock & Manstead, 1985).
One particular moment that emphasizes this is a personal experience of mine whilst sat on a train listening to two teenagers talking about one of their new “Fidel Castro t-shirts”….
Almost predictiably based on the fact Che was known to smoke cigars, cigarette companies have also tried to cash in on this consumer trend. In many ways he is the perfect embassador for cigarettes as for many he embodies rebellion, and smoking cigarettes is today seen a such a rebellious act.
However as with many legends it is very easy to get swept away with idealistic fantasies about what this man was like. Many aspects of Che’s life are conveniently forgotten by many, and it is hard to establish how much of an icon he really was. Although loved by many , Che is not viewed so favourably by everyone.
Jacobo Machover was an exiled author who opposed Che and portrays him as a ruthless executioner (Cubanet.org). It is also believed by some that in later life this once idealistic revolutionary became a “man full of hatred” who executed many who never stood trial (Armando Vallandres, Human Rights Foundation). He is still hated by many in Cuban-American community and referred to as “the butcher of La Cabana.”
“To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary … these procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail. This is a revolution! And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.” (Imdb.com, Che Guevara – blogspot. co uk).
So it is very unclear about how much Ernesto Che Guevara should be looked to as a role model. I think in many ways nostalgia is having a huge effect on consumer behaviour towards Che – remembering the best bits and conveniently forgetting the bad (Holbrook, 1993). Revolutionaries although inspiring in their ideals are also by nature in many cases guilty of terrible crimes in order to achieve their aims. Whether you agree with his actions and ideals or not, it is remarkable to me that one picture and one man could be selling t-shirts in Topshop 45 years after his death.
Finally I will leave you with a quote from the man himself: “Better to die standing, than to live on your knees” (Biography.com)