Almost half a century since the image’s creation, the iconic portrait of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara has become the inspiration to global groups as diverse as East Timorese freedom fighters, fashion designers, South American presidents and even neo Nazis. Here in Argentina the mythical face, dubbed “the most enduring political brand of our age”, populates workers protests, homages to the disappeared and souvenir shops alike.
It was from here that Australian-born writer Michael Casey embarked on a journey to track the famous portrait through Che’s Latin American homeland and beyond for his new book ‘Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image’. In Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina and Miami, Casey found that the icon still ignites strong feelings from religious adoration to angry hatred.
The strength of feeling surrounding Che couldn’t have been better demonstrated than by angry reactions to the low-key presentation of Casey’s book at the Buenos Aires’ book fair in April. Republican senator Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – representing conservative Cuban neighbourhoods in Miami – formally complained to secretary of state Hilary Clinton when she heard that the event had been hosted by Argentina’s US Embassy. She referred to what she saw as the “deplorable” use of taxpayers’ money to “venerate” a “ruthless murderer and enthusiastic enemy of the US”.
The Miami Herald also published an article that interpreted the reading as an uncritical celebration of the guerrilla, which they believed to be part of the new US government’s attempts to “rebrand” themselves in Latin America. “Obama stoops to even a lower low,” said one online comment on the article, while another described the event as, “US Kissing Latin America’s A$$$”.
Casey, rejecting this extreme interpretation of what he terms his “non ideological” book, was nevertheless not surprised by it. This reaction, after all, only served to highlight what the icon was all about: “Che is about filtering out the complex reality and choosing what you want to take out of it,” he explains.
“That’s an icon. These people don’t want to hear about how this book was also critical of Cuba or how this was just a one dollar reading. They want to use it as a vehicle to write their political thoughts on. It’s at that level of selective reading of facts and history that the Che myth works.”
Casey also points out that there are many in the left who would maintain that Che never killed a single person, or that what he did was not violence since it was undertaken for social justice. “The two sides are locked in a closed argument,” he says, “an endless cycle for which there’s no mediation.”
The war of words between Che idolisers and conservative Miami Cubans is just one of the discourses attached to the icon that Casey examines. The idea for the book was initially sparked by the image’s recent use by the new Latin American left.
“I had been writing about the rise of Evo Morales, Hugo Chávez and Lula,” he says. “It struck me that the resurgence of the left in Latin America, unlike the cold war, was a battle of symbols and brands. It was a war between the image of Uncle Sam and Che.”
The Birth of an Icon
Casey began his examination of the contemporary use of the image by tracing its historical roots. The original photo was taken in 1960 by photographer Alberto Korda, at the state funeral following a lethal explosion on a munitions ship bound for Havana harbour, thought to be caused by US forces. Originally overlooked by the daily press in favour of pictures of Fidel Castro, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, it did not garner much public exposure for several years.
Casey emphasises Castro’s later use of the striking portrait to market a sexy, romantic idea of the Cuban revolution to the world at a time when the European left had become tired of conservative Russia. For this reason the image had already began to enjoy an amplified profile in the lead up to Che’s death in 1967.
When Che died in an ill-fated Bolivian guerrilla campaign that October, his image took on the martyr-like aura of a saint. With the title ‘Guerrillero Heroico’, Casey describes how the photo enjoyed a global relaunch, hitting an international chord when a generation of young people was “rising up in rebellion across the industrialised West”, and “those in the third world were taking up arms in the hope of replicating Cuba’s revolution”.
These days the commoditisation of the rebel’s image in the West, branded on a skimpy bikini modelled by Gisele Bündchen, and on Magnum ice cream and Smirnoff vodka packaging, might suggest that global capitalism has diluted its political meaning. But nevertheless the icon seems unwilling to disappear. Casey quotes ‘No Logo’ author Naomi Klein who says he is “among a small group of counterculture symbols that can survive the appropriation by corporate marketers”.
Its enduring use as an emblem of political resistance is evidence of the image’s capacity for rebirth. “Whenever young people rise up, Korda’s Che is there, crossing religious, ethnic and even political divides,” states Casey. He cites Nepalese Maoists, East Timorese independence fighters, liberation theologians of Central America, the IRA and the Palestinian Intifada as resistance movements using Che as their inspiration. A 2007 documentary, ‘Personal Che’, even found a group of German neo-Nazis who used the portrait as their emblem.
Che in Latin America
Although he could have written about the image’s usage almost anywhere in the world, Casey mainly concentrates his investigation on Latin America. Here the political symbol of Che is alive and well, and is also used in many contradictory ways. As Casey travelled through each country, he uses the image as a lens through which to view its political struggles and collective psychology.
In Bolivia, the country of Che’s death, president Evo Morales puts forward a vision of justice for the poor against the backdrop of a Che portrait made of coca leaves in his presidential palace. In contrast, businessman Fernando Porras from Bolivia’s rich autonomy seeking province, Santa Cruz, exploits the Che image to promote his brand of rum and cola, alongside ads featuring bikini-clad girls.
Casey describes Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez as: “The man who has done more than any other to associate the Che image with the revival of the Latin American left at the beginning of the twenty first century.” Although he does not actively promote the image like Morales or Castro, its popularity among Chavistas has meant it has become strongly associated with the state. As such it acts as a divisive symbol, and Casey cites cases where government backed Che sculptures have been destroyed by anti-government protestors just hours after they were erected.
In contrast, here in Argentina, which Casey describes as “an anarchic country where people don’t pay taxes and don’t trust politicians”, he suggests that the image almost always constitutes something against the state, which is considered the people’s biggest enemy.
Brand Che vs. Brand USA
Particularly notable throughout the book is the use of the terminology ‘branding’ with regard to the image’s use. In particular, descriptions of Castro as a kind of ‘brand manager’ of the communist revolution strike an ironic note in light of the term’s associations with global marketing and capitalism.
Casey, while emphasising this paradox, suggests that we have always used branding since the beginning of humanity. “From the use of tribal markings to Christian symbols and flags, images and ideas, whether religious or commercial, compete in a marketplace with each other,” he explains. “People invest their beliefs, hopes and ideas in such images.”
Casey explains that the Che brand always works against something else, from its use as a symbol of the revolution to its manifestation as an emblem of the left in contemporary Latin America. “Even when associating with the powers that be in Venezuela and Cuba, it needs an ugly other, i.e. the imperialist US monster,” he explains. “Without that you don’t get Che functioning properly.”
“Bush acted as the perfect foil to strengthen the Che brand, being almost like a gift for the icon, since he was so easily caricatured,” Casey explains. But the reality, he maintains, is not so black and white, and while the US does have a terrible history with Latin America, he also believes it has a good part. “Just as the Miami Cubans see everything Che did as bad,” he continues, “it’s easy to see everything the US does within some preconceived idea that it was all driven by some masterful capitalist at the top. When you get a president that seems to confirm all of that, the narrative gets strong and so does the brand that’s attached to it.”
With Barack Obama, however, there is no longer such a simplified dichotomy, especially in the light of his administration’s (albeit modest) lifting of sanctions on Cuba. “It’s a lot harder with Obama,” says Casey. “He just doesn’t fit the mould visually. He’s doing different things, so we’ll see what happens.”
The End of Che?
Does Casey consider that the lack of a strong iconic ‘enemy’ will mean the myth’s demise? “The icon is part of an almost religious dialogue between left and right in which each side believes they’re the holder of the absolute truth,” he explains.
He believes, however, that there could be an end to this pendulum swing in Latin America, taking Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as one example of a leader who is pursuing a middle way and a practical solution. If more were to follow this model, Casey considers that the power of the image would be diluted. “I’m fascinated by Che but if that ends up having to kill the icon then so be it,” he states.
That said, Casey admits that his study of Che has given him an increased appreciation for the revolutionary. “I’m the last person who would advocate Che’s path to utopia. I think it was disastrous,” he says. “But it’s rare in this world to find someone who does try their utmost for the sake of a cause.”
Ultimately, while Casey himself advocates a moderate political stance, he still believes that society needs ideologues and passionate people. “We need our Nelson Mandelas, our Ghandis, our Che Guevaras,” he reflects. “Being willing to give up everything for something important, that’s something to be admired.”
Michael Casey is a regular contributor to ‘The Wall Street Journal’ and until recently was bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. He now works in their New York office. For more information about his book, including how to order a copy, visit www.chesafterlife.com
The photographer behind the image
The man who snapped Che Guevara’s iconic portrait, ‘Guerrillero Heroico’, in 1960 was revolution photographer, Alberto Korda, who was born Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez in Havana in 1928. Korda was originally a fashion photographer, but in 1959 he turned his lens to the social transformation brought on by the arrival of Fidel Castro’s rebels in Cuba. He later accompanied Castro on overseas trips including tours of Russia and the US.
Casey’s research revealed him to be a charismatic, charming personality with a weakness for booze, nice cars and women, despite his commitment to social justice and the message of the revolution. The book describes him as “the yang to Che’s yin”, the opposite to the self-sacrificing guerrilla.
Korda, who never received royalties for the famous image, died in 2001 while presenting his work in Paris. Casey admits he is one of the key figures he would have most liked to have interviewed for his book. “He might not have liked some of the things I wrote,” Casey explains. “But I would have loved to have hung out with him. Who could possibly be like Che? No one. Korda was a human being.”