- by Graham Holton
- The Guardian
- Issue #2072
Photo: Matthew Hoelscher – flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0)
In January 1974 I was staying at a cheap boarding house in La Paz, Bolivia, when plainclothes detectives came in to my room, saw the patch of Che Guevara on my jacket and tore it off. “There is no Communism in Bolivia.” I was ordered to go to the CIB where I was lined up with others along a brick wall, which had bullet holes at chest height. After the interrogation I was ordered to leave the country. It was my introduction to the fear Guevara held in Bolivia, then under the dictatorship of Hugo Banzer, a far-right dictator responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Indigenous people.
Che Guevara was executed on 9th October 1967 in the small town of La Higuera, Bolivia. Mario Terán, the Bolivian soldier who executed Che under orders from the CIA, died in March 2022 at the age 80. The names of Che’s executioners are long forgotten, but Che’s image lived on as part of popular culture and as a symbol of the revolutionary movements against US imperialism. Following the coup in Chile in 1973, paintings of Che Guevara were burnt publicly in Santiago, in an attempt to stop the influence his image held as a symbol of the Left. From a feared symbol of revolutionary movements his image became appropriated as art, a fashion icon and in kitsch portraits. Che had become an image for bourgeois entertainment.
Philip Agee, a former CIA employee and author of Inside the Company (1975), wrote: “There was no person more feared by the company (CIA) than Che Guevara because he had the capacity and charisma necessary to direct the struggle against the political repression of the traditional hierarchies in power in the countries of Latin America.” The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described him as “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age.” In the Pan-African community Frantz Fanon saw Guevara as “the world symbol of the possibilities of one man.” Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael eulogised that “Che Guevara is not dead, his ideas are with us.” Anthony Boadle, wrote in 2007 that Guevara was: “the poster boy of communist Cuba, held up as a selfless leader who set an example of voluntary work with his own sweat, pushing a wheelbarrow at a building site or cutting sugar cane in the fields with a machete.” Che Guevara remains a national hero in Cuba. His image appears on his mausoleum in Santa Clara, Cuba, and his face is on the 3 peso banknote. School children begin each morning by pledging “We will be like Che.”
The Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick created the graphic image of Che’s face in 1968. The poster bearing this image was shown at the Arts Laboratory in London. It quickly became the image used prominently in the student riots that swept across France in May 1968. Since then, Che’s face has been commodified, merchandised and objectified, appearing in Australia on T-shirts, ice cream wrappers, posters and mural art. His life is told in films, such as The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), in documentaries, plays, and in songs. The American singer Madonna uses Che’s iconic photo on the cover of her 2003 album American Life. Yet the rights to Che’s face are not owned by the Guevara family, but by the photographer and artist who created the image.
I was teaching Cuban history at La Trobe University in Melbourne, when I first researched the commodification of Che Guevara. The famous photograph of Guevara in a beret was taken by Alberto Korda (Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez) in 1960, titled Guerrillero Heroico (Heroic Guerrilla Warrior). British pop artist Sir Peter Blake regarded it as ‘one of the great icons of the 20th century.’ This photograph was the beginning of the commodification of the image of Che. Even in death Che was photographed. After his execution, Che’s hands were cut off as proof of his death and his body was buried in an unmarked grave. The photograph taken of soldiers examining Guevara’s body laid out on a table appears Christ-like, awaiting resurrection. Che soon appears as a ‘Saintly Christ-like’ figure amongst the Bolivian rural poor and was used as an insignia for youth striving for social rebellion. Carmen Oquendo-Villar writes in Che to Che: Sexual Politics in Chile that Che’s image is an ever-present political and social emblem that has been morphed in popular culture. It operates as ‘both a fashionable de-politicized logo, as well as a potent anti-establishment symbol used by a wide spectrum of human rights movements and individuals affirming their own liberation.’
Che’s image has become a counter-cultural symbol that operates independent of who he was as a person, metamorphosed from his life as a revolutionary appropriated into a work of art. Hannah Charlton writes in The Sunday Times (2006) that ‘Possibly more than the Mona Lisa, more than images of Christ, more than comparable icons such as the Beatles or Monroe, Che’s image has continued to hold the imagination of generation after generation.’ Marc Lacey writes in The New York Times (2006) that ‘40 years after his death Che is as much a marketing tool as an international revolutionary icon. Which raises the question of what exactly does the sheer proliferation of his image – the distant gaze, the scraggly beard and the beret adorned with a star – mean in a decidedly capitalist world?” Che’s image has been preserved in popular myth; a world devoid of its initial reality. The image’s commodification has lost its fear by the CIA, that of a revolution in Latin America. Today it makes money for corporations, which have no fear of nationalisation by Left-wing governments.
Vladimir Lenin explains in The State and Revolution (1917) this process of conversion from a feared political image into bourgeois icon. “During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.”