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Che Guevara. The man vs. the icon

You cannot travel to Cuba without coming to face-to-face with him – on T-shirts, postcards, books, posters, paintings, hats, towels, even bikinis.

He gazes at you from the back of the Cuban 3 Peso bank note which you might use to tip your guide after visiting Havana's Plaza de la Revolución where a towering steel facade of his face stares down at you from a government building. If you were to visit a school you would hear children begin the day by pledging: “We will be like Che.”

Of course, I am talking about Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who’s iconic image seems more like an Andy Warhol creation than a real person. (In fact Warhol did agree to take credit for a famous, but fake 'Warhol Che Guevara’ poster created by Gerald Malanga, after the creator agreed to turn all the profits over to Warhol.)

Che's photo/icon follows you around Cuba

During a recent trip to Cuba, my wife and I started to feel like Che was following us. Once you start looking, you see him everywhere. In the souvenir shop at our resort, boxes of Cuban cigars and bottles of Havana Club Rum competed for shelf space with Che books, memoirs, diaries, photo essays and hats.

On the day we toured Havana, I asked our guide what she thought of Che. She laughed and pointed to a building across the bay that we could see from our vantage point overlooking the city. “He lived there,” she said, pointing to a large structure, apparently a museum now but the house in used to live in during the early 1960's.

I asked her about my impression that he was more an icon than anything else, and her reaction was interesting. She asked if I had seen the movie about Che - The Motorcycle Diaries. I had not.

“After I watched it,” she told us, “and saw that he slept with the wife of a man he stayed with… well.” She hesitated, perhaps afraid to share her true feelings. “I don’t think he was such a hero.”

At the Varadero airport waiting to board our flight back to Canada, I browsed through some Che biographies, (available in a dozen different languages) and tried to get a sense of the man, which I discovered was easier said than done.

Myths, Mysteries and Misconceptions

All of that served as my impetus to learn more about the story behind that determined face. What I found was that whichever way you try to categorize Ernesto Guevara, you would probably be wrong, unless you're willing to overlook the conflicting facets of his personality and the life of drama that he lived. If you were an author like me, looking for examples of a complex fictional character, you would do well, to study Che’s life, loves, politics, writing and the contradictions that still define him. And still provoke strong feelings, especially among Latin Americans.

He was born and raised in Argentina in 1928, but after being captured and executed in Bolivia at only 37, Che became one of Cuba’s most idolized figures. Over one million mourners filled the revolution plaza in Havana to pay respects upon hearing news of his death.

Che was trained as a medical doctor and worked as a volunteer in a leper colony. But he also executed as many as a 100 men in Cuba without a trial. One critic described him as a “cold-blooded” killing machine.

As a young man, he was deeply troubled by the poverty he saw throughout his travels in South America. He worked as a doctor in the allergy section of the General Hospital in Mexico in 1954 where he obsessed over an elderly cleaning lady he was treating and vowed to her he would “fight for a better world, for a better life for all the poor and exploited.”

It was during this time in Mexico that he met Raúl and Fidel Castro. After many long evenings in discussion with Fidel, Che Guevara said he had found the cause he had been searching for - the Castro brothers plan to overthrow the Batista dictatorship in Cuba. He spent the following weeks training with them as a guerrilla fighter, but his official role was as the medic for the team.

And yet as even as a sympathetic physician, he did not hesitate to shoot his enemies. and eventually wrote a manual on guerrilla warfare - La Guerra de Guerrillas, which became a blueprint for armed insurrection around the world and a guide for the CIA to fight them.

He detested inequality in all forms, particularly apartheid and discrimination based on gender and economic status. He earned praise from Nelson Mandela who called him “an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom.” However, many others were disturbed that Che advocated violence to achieve those freedoms, and to maintain the ‘collective good.’

A black and white photograph becomes an icon

Perhaps the most ironic of all of Che Guevara’s legacies, is his face itself.

He was radically devoted to the principals of Marxism and committed to anti-imperialism as the means to achieve the fairest distribution of wealth across society. Idealistic to a fault (to put a positive spin on it) his life ended violently in aid of Bolivian revolutionaries trying to overthrow the government and create a socialist state.

He wrote dozens of books and papers extolling the evils of capitalism. He was a very well read man and the prolific author of dozens of books and as well as essays, articles, diaries and speeches, most of which were very personal, extolling his political ideals and beliefs.

The contradictions of the man - poet vs. warrior, murderer vs. angel to the poor, guerrilla vs. philosopher and his conflicting qualities of logic and violence, love and hate all transformed a simple photo of him taken in 1960 in Havana by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda, into a symbol that would be understood in by people of all languages around the world. And of course, make many of them a tidy profit.

The photograph was snapped on March 5, 1960 during Fidel Castro’s eulogy to the victims of the La Coubre explosion in Havana Harbor. Korda captured the picture on frame number 40 of a roll of black and white photographs he was taking of the event with his Leica camera.

Alberto Korda's proof sheet from March 5, 1960. Frame 40 would become legendary.

The 31 year old Che appeared for only a few seconds during the speech, and Korda remembers the feeling he got looking through his viewfinder that day. Years later he remarked “I am still startled by the impact… it shakes me so powerfully.”

Over the the following years, Korda's photo made its way around the world. The stoic image of Che, which Korda said showed “absolute implacability as well as anger and pain,” is the most copied and reproduced photograph in history. In 1968, Jim Fitzpatrick in England used it to create a two-tone portrait based on the photo. He released it copyright free for use by revolutionary groups in Europe.

The photograph and the two-tone poster were used to make to millions of dollars by the same capitalists Che detested. They printed, digitized, embroidered, tattooed, painted, silk-screened, sculpted or sketched his image on… well just about everything.

Whether all this commerce based on his image is a fitting tribute to the man, or a slap in the face to the ideals he fought and died for, is a question still being debated.

Che was a man who lived life devoted to high ideals, but unrealistically so. Che was a teacher and a poet, yet wielded a machine gun as effectively as a pen. He fought for the poor and disadvantaged, saw everyone as equals, but then murdered those who stood in his way - apparently with no regrets.

He is the gold standard for a character study of someone who has all the colours of good and evil and everything in between.


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