A Very Modern Icon; Che Guevara Represents What Today's Politicians Conspicuously Lack: Idealism, Self-Sacrifice and a Deep Connection with Young People. That's Why His Image Is an Enduring Inspiration, Writes George Galloway
Galloway, George, New Statesman (1996)
On a visit to Cuba last month, I stayed in an apartment complex the floor above Camilo Guevara, Ernesto "Che" Guevara's eldest son, and his children. Now that's a tough number--being the son of a legend for whom a single name suffices, an icon who is more ubiquitous now than he was at the time of his death in 1967. Camilo maintains, however, that distinctive revolutionary rectitude, working as a humble civil servant with no privileges of any kind.
I looked out over the old harbour of Havana, where Alberto Korda took his famed portrait of Che, currently the subject of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was taken on 4 March 1960 at a funeral service and not published until seven years later, after Guevara's death. I mulled over how, since that time, the photograph--like the posters and murals derived from it--has become associated with every site of struggle from Soweto to the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organisation.
That image continues to be one of the most iconic in contemporary culture, with reproductions available in the most surprising places. Che T-shirts are on sale at the cut-price clothing chain Primark. Smirnoff tried to use it for a vodka promotion a few years ago, prompting successful legal action by Korda. Though he had received no royalties for the image, he took umbrage at that particular distillation of the Che legacy. "As a supporter of the ideals for which Che Guevara died," he said, "I am not averse to its reproduction by those who wish to propagate his memory and the cause of social justice throughout the world. But I am categorically against the exploitation of Che's image for the promotion of products such as alcohol, or for any purpose that denigrates the reputation of Che."
Korda (real name Alberto Diaz Guttierez) was a fashion photographer when first assigned to the Cuban paper Revolucion--and some argue that history has transformed Che's revolutionary image into just another fashion accessory. It is tempting for those of us on the left to feel uncomfortable with his popular appeal; rather like music fans who, when their favourite underground band hits the big time, moan that they've "gone commercial" and sagely tell new enthusiasts that the latest gigs aren't a patch on "the night they played the Crooked Billet in Scunthorpe".
I don't see it that way. If only 10 per cent of the people who wear the image of this incredibly handsome figure know what he stood for, that is still many millions. Overwhelmingly, they are also young people, with their hearts set on making the world a better place. Indeed, in my experience, many more than 10 per cent have a very good idea of what he stood for. It is an excellent example of the younger generation confounding the low expectations of them.
The image is given further contemporary relevance by the renaissance of the radical left across Latin America. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez is fast becoming a touchstone for anti-war activists and campaigners against corporate globalisation. The "axis of good" conference Chavez will attend in Havana in September, alongside Fidel Castro and Evo Morales, is already creating a similar energy to the great gatherings of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
If Che's image seems to be everywhere, that is because what he fought and died for is more fashionable than ever. It's hard to imagine a more potent symbol of internationalism. He was born in Argentina of mixed Spanish and Irish descent; a motorcycle journey the length of South America awakened him to the injustice of US domination in the hemisphere, and to the suffering colonialism brought to its original inhabitants.
The CIA-sponsored overthrow of the popular government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 deepened Che's commitment to revolutionary change. …