Volume 47, Number 7 - November 16, 2009

About the Reporter

Oliver Ortega
Oliver Ortega
Staff Writer

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Picture of che guevara ilustration
The photograph, christened “Guerrillero Heroico”, would remain relatively obscure until Guevara’s death in October of 1967. Ilustration by Lazaro Gamio.

"Che" remains an enigma to all

By Oliver Ortega

On March 5, 1960 Fidel Castro staged a state funeral in response to the bombing of the French freighter La Coubrein in Havana’s harbor the day before.  The relatively new leader immediately accused the American C.I.A. of having perpetrated the attacks, which resulted in the death of sixty seven people and injuries to several hundred more.

It was a gloomy day, ideal for the type of atmosphere Castro wanted to evoke.  Alberto Díaz  Gutíerrez, better known as Korda, was contracted to take pictures by Castro’s newspaper, Revolución.   As Korda surveyed the enormous crowd, his viewfinder stopped on the central bank president, a young man by the name of Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna, who had been instrumental in the Cuban revolution as Castro’s right hand man.  Before sitting next to a ranting Castro on the platform in front of Havana’s Colón cemetery, Guevara paused and looked at the gathering crowd intently.  Korda captured that infinitesimal second of time for an image that would later become famous throughout the world.

The photograph, christened “Guerrillero Heroico”, would remain relatively obscure after the rally.  Castro’s front page story would take precedence in the next day’s newspaper.   It wasn’t until Guevara’s death in October of 1967, that Korda’s picture rocketed to international recognition.

Two months before his death, Castro used the image as a backdrop in a speech he made at the organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS), “metaphorically resurrecting Che before he even died,” as writer Michael Casey puts it.  The Argentine Marxist revolutionary had not been heard from for several months after his failed campaign in the African Congo. He was rumored to be in several places at once, conducting guerilla warfare “somewhere in Latin America”, according to Castro.  After his death at the hands of the Bolivian government was confirmed, the Korda image began appearing all over the world, from rioter’s posters in the Paris riots of 1968 to art galleries in New York.

Today, the polemical image is protected under U.S. GATT visual art copyright number VA-1-276-975, which belongs to Korda’s daughter, Diana Díaz, and the Cuban government.  Web sites such as TheCheStore.com and jiiggy.com offer a wide variety of paraphernalia including, shirts, pants, caps, bandanas, wallets, backpacks, coffee mugs bearing the Korda image.  Díaz is constantly embroiled in litigation over the unlicensed use of the Korda image, which often results in large settlements for her.  It is unpleasantly ironic that the image of a man who vehemently opposed consumerism, and advocated a society based on “moral incentives” and the relinquishing of material goods, should have become one of its most recognizable and globalized faces. 

Guevara is no longer a valid countercultural or underground symbol; his image has become main stream through continual use and dissemination over the past four decades.  His myth and famous picture now belong to everyone, made to fit any way the wearer likes.  From the fourteen year-old girl living in a shanty in Buenos Aires, to the village of Vallegrande in Bolivia, where pious old women pray to shrines of “San Ernesto”, to the septuagenarian denouncing Guevara as the cold blooded mass murderer in a café on Calle Ocho. Guevara remains an enigma to all.  “Guerrillero Heroico” has propelled Guevara to legendary status both venerated and hated. His presence was ensured in the collective consciousness for years to come.

Some revere Guevara as nothing less than a hero, but there are voices of disagreement. Some view him as nothing more than a brutal executioner, responsible for hundreds of deaths during the La Cabaña tribunals, and claim his so called “revolutions” in South America to be reinforcement of brutal military juntas. British historian Hugh Thomas said, in his assessment of Guevara, called him a “brave, sincere and determined man who was also obstinate, narrow, and dogmatic…he seems to have become convinced of the virtues of violence for its own sake”.

But people, particularly the younger generations, continue to sport his face on their clothes. However, what is not alright is sporting such merchandise without knowing who the man was, what he stood for, and what he did.  Such ignorance and naiveté should be condemned considering how delicate the topic of Guevara is.

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