As a supporter and partner to Fidel Castro, Guevara assisted Castro and his revolutionary forces in the coup of the pro-American leader of Cuba, Fulgencio Batista, in 1959, and further solidified the ties with, what was then, Communist Russia. That resulting relationship led to what has become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was a nuclear stand-off between Russia and America, over the placement of destructive missleson the Cuban islands. That crisis was just three years after the Castro revolution, and the ending of that crisis left Cuba without real international support when Russia agreed to withdraw the ballistic missiles. The treaty that ended the crisis also promised that America would remove missiles placed in Turkey, and that it would not invade Cuba. It is no surprise, then, that since Castro’s revolution, America has frozen and terminated ties with Cuba.
Guevara left Cuba shortly thereafter, travelling to Africa, to ignite further revolutionary change, against governments that were supported by America. He was killed in Bolivia in 1967.
Perhaps, though, he would never have been as famous had it not been for this image, taken at a memorial service for maybe one hundred Cubans, who had died in the explosion of a Belgian ship carrying munitions:
This picture, taken by Alberto Korda, has become iconic, and representative, in the last sixty years, of revolutionary desire. It has been called, by some, the most recognized photograph of the twentieth century, and maybe the most reproduced, since Korda never sought royalties for it’s reproduction.
The picture was further stylized by Jim Fitzpatrick, a sympathizer. In an interview with the BBC in October, 2007, he stated that he wanted this image to “breed like rabbits.” He was upset and distraught that this man, so highly respected for his revolutionary zeal, was never given so much as a memorial.
Trisha Ziff, who, at the time of the 2007 BBC interview, was the curator of a traveling exhibit of Che’s images. She stated in the interview that, “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.”
All of that may be true. Isabel Hilton, in an article which appeared in the New Statesmen, on October 8, 2007, wrote that Che took upon himself the sins of the world and the causes of the oppressed, and because of that, and because of his death at a relatively young age, he has come to represent a modern Messiah. She continues to say that, “To this assorted list, as to oppressed peoples elsewhere, Che has little to offer as a guide to making revolution. What he does have is the messianic image of sacrifice for the sins–or sufferings–of others. Regardless of his failures and contradictions, or the obsolescence of his methods and ideology, the potency of that image, with its symbolic, religious quality, continues to inspire.”
This iconography was so powerful that in 1999, the Church of England used the template of Fitzpatrick’s Che to encourage people to attend church.
The ad campaign was intended to bring more people to church on Easter Sunday, in 1999. It invoked a wave of controversy as well, seemingly placing Christ in the revolutionary mindset of what modern revolutionaries look like. It also prompted those within the Church of England to defend their ad campaign.
The original image has also inspired modern artist Shepard Fairey to design a poster for one of our current presidential candidates.
This image has catapulted Fairey to the national stage, especially when the story broke earlier this year Che’s image was found at one of the campaign headquarters in Houston, Texas. And though the campaign denounced that particular action, they have not denounced, per se, the reproduction of this image.
So Che now, after half of a century, represents change in its purest form. And maybe he has become something of a brand. But the frightening thing is that Che himself, removed from the image and the campaigns, represented change that was distinctly against America, and the imperialism that Guevara and Castro both believed existed, in Cuba, and elsewhere.
There are, I think, a few problems using his image in any other capacity.
Using it for Christ poses a rather large problem. Christ was not a revolutionary against the Roman government, and nothing really supports that, particularly when Christ makes a statement to his critics, telling them to give to Caesar whatever belongs to Caesar. If anything, Christ was a revolutionary against Judaic law, which, though ruled the Jewish people, was rather insignificant on the world stage. But even if you make the argument that he was a revolutionary against the Judaic law, then he would be a rather insignificant revolutionary at that. His true revolutionary stance, when viewed theologically, was that he spurred personal revolutions against human tendencies, and human fraility, and the freedom he offers is not really freedom from any government, or any law, and to reduce him and his image to that really dilutes the central message of his story.
On the other front, using Che’s image for a presidential candidate again poses another problem altogether. Guevara was the physical representation of someone who abhors America, by validating revolutionary forces that were reactionaries against supported American governments in the various represented countries. To be fair, no presidential candidate authorized this image to be made. But not condemning the image is, in a way, validating it.
Guevara’s image, by itself, is powerful, even if one is unfamiliar with it’s historical surroundings. It evokes something in us that wants us to know more about this man, and about his situation. And though the core beliefs of Guevara, beliefs of change and revolution, are, at their foundations, admirable, those beliefs are worth a second look, particularly when his image is used to support the most famous man whom has ever lived, and maybe the most famous man alive today.