40 years after Che's death, his image is a battleground
By Marc Lacey
Monday, October 8, 2007
SANTA CLARA, Cuba: Aleida Guevara March, the 46-year-old daughter of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, says she can bear the Che T-shirts, the Che key chains, the Che postcards and Che paintings sold all over Cuba, not to mention the world.
At least some of the purchasers truly cherish Che, she says. On Monday she was surrounded by thousands of Che fans wearing his image here in Santa Clara, where her father's remains are kept, and where she sat in the front row of a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of his death.
Acting President Raúl Castro attended. A message was read from his older brother Fidel, who ceded power in August 2006 after emergency surgery, likening his former comrade in arms to "a flower that was plucked from his stem prematurely." But amid all the ceremony, what really gets to Guevara is the use of the man she calls "Poppy" in ways that she says are completely removed from his revolutionary ideals, like when a designer recently put Che on a bikini.
In fact, 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? Even in Cuba, one of the world's last communist bastions, Che is used to make both a buck and a point. "He sells," said a Cuban shop clerk, who had Che after Che starring down from a wall full of T-shirts.
But at least here he is also used to inspire the next generation of Cubans, brought up in classes dealing with everything from medicine to economics to political science. Schoolchildren invoke his name every morning, declaring with a salute, "We want to be like Che." His quotations are recited almost as often as those of his revolutionary comrade in arms, Fidel Castro.
"Che is part of all our thinking," said Juan Vela Valdés, the Cuban minister of higher education, who introduced a concentration in Che while he was rector at the University of Havana.
A movie showed at Santa Clara University on the eve of Monday's ceremony went so far as to compare Che to Jesus, both in appearance and in ideals.
But Che's mythic status as a homegrown revolutionary does not extend everywhere, even if his image does. When Target stores in the United States put his image on a CD carrying case last year, critics who consider him a murderer and symbol of totalitarianism pressured the retailer to pull the item.
"What next? Hitler backpacks? Pol Pot cookware? Pinochet pantyhose?" Investor's Business Daily said in an editorial, calling the use of the image an example of "tyrant-chic." The famous image, by a Cuban photographer Alberto Korda Díaz, was taken at a March 5, 1960, funeral rally in which dozens of Cubans were killed in a boat explosion that Cuban blamed on the United States. The picture became famous after appearing in Paris Match magazine in 1967, just weeks before Che was killed by soldiers in Bolivia, apparently aided by the CIA.
Korda, who died in 2001 at age 72, never received royalties, but he did sue a British advertising agency over the use of the photo in a campaign for vodka. He won $50,000, which he donated for medicine for children.
Aledia Guevara March and her family, too, have attempted to stop the marketing of Che's image in ways that they find abhorrent. She says they have reached out to lawyers in New York, whom she would not name, to pursue companies the family thinks is misusing the image, not to sue them for damages, but to ask them to stop.
"We're not after money," she said of the family's ongoing fight. "We just don't want him misused. He can be a universal person, but respect the image."
Some of Che's star power has rubbed off on his four surviving children, one of whom is named Ernesto Guevara and drove to Monday's memorial on a motorcycle, just like Dad. Cubans hug the Guevaras in the street, and tourists get giddy when they learn who they are.
"I have goose bumps," said Alfredo Moreno, 32, a Mexican who posed for a picture with Aledia Guevara March, clearly overcome with emotion. "I can't describe to you what this moment means to me."
As Moreno went on and on, Guevara told him to stop his fawning words.
"I'm a child of Che," she explained, "but I'm not Che." It can be hard to see her father's face in hers, mostly because Che's most recognizable feature was his scraggly beard. But she, although resembling more a Cuban soccer mom than a revolutionary, says her eyes and his are shaped the same and that her nose and mouth are similar as well.
Guevara, who was 6 when her father died, says she is used to the attention she gets. "I feel richer than the queen of England," she said of all the love.
It can be a weighty responsibility to carry Che's genetic material in one's blood. Guevara is a pediatrician. Her sister is a veterinarian who specializes in marine mammals. One brother manages a center devoted to Che in Havana. Then there is Ernesto, a Harley Davidson aficionado. All of them are called on by the Cuban government from time to time to help continue the legacy of Che.
One detects a bit of exhaustion in all this, particularly now, when Cuba and much of Latin America are holding events to honor his death and, next June, what would have been his 80th birthday.
"I can't be everywhere," Guevara said. "I can't multiply myself." Guevara travels the world speaking at conferences dealing with Che. At one in Italy, she learned after signing T-shirts for some young people that they were Fascists. "They knew nothing about him," she said with a sigh.
It was another meeting, though, that she found the most fascinating of all. She said she once bumped into John F. Kennedy Jr. in Europe and discussed with him the challenges of being the offspring of a famous man. She said he told her that having the same name as his father only increased the weight.
She called John Kennedy Jr. "a beautiful person" and said she was able to separate him from his father, who ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion to topple the government that Che had helped put in place in Cuba.
But bring up United States foreign policy and then the resemblance to her father really emerges. The fiery rhetoric flows when she discusses the war in Iraq. She calls the economic embargo of Cuba that has stretched on for 50 years "so brutal, so stupid, so irrational."
And don't even get her started about the Bush administration.
mercredi, octobre 10, 2007
In December 2005, I saw the ¡Che! Revolution and Commerce exhibit at the International Center of Photography. This spring, I saw "Kordavision," a documentary about Alberto Korda Díaz, the photographer who shot the iconic images we now see mass-marketed on everything from posters to purses. It's interesting to watch the commodification of Che into a trendy, artsy product forty years after he was assassinated by the CIA and Bolivian security forces.