BBC News on the Cult of Che

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Che Gandhi

The BBC News website has a long-ish piece on the genealogy of Alberto Korba's iconic image of freelance Argentinian imperialist Che Guevera. It, of course, neglects to mention that, in the words of Paul Berman (two mentions in one day, I know), Guevara "was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favored a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won." But boy was he good-looking:

It's now 40 years since the Argentine-born rebel was shot dead, so any young radicals who cheered on his revolutionary struggles in Cuba and Bolivia are well into middle age.

Many of those who "cheered" Che, of course, ultimately found themselves on the wrong end of his firing squads. But why quibble?

"There is no other image like it. What other image has been sustained in this way?" asks Trisha Ziff, the curator of a touring exhibition on the iconography of Che.

"Che Guevara has become a brand. And the brand's logo is the image, which represents change. It has becomes the icon of the outside thinker, at whatever level—whether it is anti-war, pro-green or anti-globalisation," she says. "[The image] has become a corporation, an empire, at this point." The unchecked proliferation of the picture—based on a photograph by Alberto Korda in 1960—is partly due to a political choice by Korda and others not to demand payment for non-commercial use of the image.

"The way they killed him, there was to be no memorial, no place of pilgrimage, nothing. I was determined that the image should receive the broadest possible circulation," he adds.

"His image will never die, his name will never die."

Unfortunately true. The author neglects to point out that, as far as I can tell, there is no memorial, no place of pilgrimage for the countless lives extinguished by Guevara; those accused of being "counterrevolutionary traitors," for instance. Take this diary entry from 1957, in which Che explains how he dealt with someone suspected of being a spy in the rebel's Sierra Maestra camp: "I ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain…. His belongings were now mine."

In 2002, Cynthia Grenier read through Che's Congo diaries and found that "the beloved revolutionary icon sounds pretty much like an old-fashioned racist…"

Above image: An absurd 2005 Der Spiegel cover which reads: "The Heirs of Ghandi and Guevara: Europe's Peaceful Revolutionaries."