Che Guevara: Face of the revolution

Che Guevara was the socialist icon whose beret-capped face adorned countless students’ walls. But, 50 years after his death, his image is commodified – a symbol for revolution without context

How is the image of revolutionary Che Guevara commodified? Alex von Tunzelmann explores. (Photo by Francois ANCELLET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

By Alex von Tunzelmann

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On 5 March 1960, Cuban photojournalist Alberto Korda captured arguably the most famous portrait photograph in history. He was taking pictures of Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro delivering a speech when Che Guevara (who was, like Korda, 31 years old) appeared beside the podium.

Che’s face took on an expression of great emotion, barely restrained, and the metal star on his beret picked up the Caribbean sun. Korda snapped a couple of frames before Che disappeared, one of which – the image he entitled Guerrillero Heroico (Heroic Guerrilla) – went on to become one of the most reproduced photos of all time. On the 50th anniversary of Che’s death, it remains a global icon.

Korda made only one print of Heroic Guerrilla, which he hung in his studio. It achieved no fame until it was used on the cover of a reissue of Che’s book Guerrilla Warfare in 1967 – the year Che was murdered. Amid the tumultuous events of the following year – student protests in France, the Prague Spring, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy – the image caught the mood of the moment. 

Heroic Guerrilla had a passion and intensity that none of the many other images of Che could match, and the expression enhanced his resemblance to traditional depictions of Jesus of Nazareth. His image was taken up by protesters marching against the Vietnam War and for civil rights, and soon began to be co-opted by diverse liberatory or rebellious causes around the world.

While Che’s face has enduring appeal, his politics have not aged so well. Born in Argentina in 1928, from a young age Ernesto Guevara de la Serna leaned towards the extreme end of Marxist ideas. He trained as a doctor, toured Latin America on a motorcycle and hoped to reform the continent through violent revolution. He became an ardent admirer of Stalin and Mao Zedong: his instincts were always authoritarian, to the point of ruthlessness and brutality.

In 1953 Ernesto travelled to Guatemala, looking for his first revolution. There, he befriended some Cuban political exiles. They were amused by his Argentine habit of calling everyone “che”, meaning something like ‘mate’ – a friendly term that becomes impertinent if applied to a figure of authority – and nicknamed Ernesto ‘El Che’. 

The strict discipline and violence of guerrilla warfare did not deter Che; indeed, he took to them enthusiastically. He even liked the dirt

Two years later in Mexico City, Che’s friends introduced him to Raúl and Fidel Castro, exiled from Cuba after a failed attempt to overthrow the tyrannical regime of Fulgencio Batista. “We are in complete accord,” Che told his girlfriend (later, wife), Hilda: “it’s only someone like him [Fidel] I could go all out for.”

In the 1950s, Raúl Castro was a communist but Fidel was not, identifying instead with Cuban nationalism. Fidel and Che were united by strong anti-imperialist feelings and authoritarian inclinations, not by political theory.

In 1956, Fidel, Raúl and Che were among 82 guerrillas who crammed into a tiny yacht and crossed the Caribbean from Mexico to Cuba, aiming to oust Batista. The attempt was a disaster.

The yacht was damaged, many weapons were lost, and the men were attacked by Batista’s army and air force; Che was shot in the neck. When they regrouped, Che was berated by Fidel for giving their guns to peasants; he also suffered from severe asthma, and contracted malaria. 

Even so, this was a happy time. The strict discipline and violence of guerrilla warfare did not deter Che: he took to them enthusiastically. He even liked the dirt. “Our noses were completely habituated to this type of life,” he wrote cheerfully. “The hammocks of guerrilla fighters are known for their characteristic, individual odour.” Despite Che’s lifelong disinclination to wash, owing to his striking good looks he was constantly pursued by women. During the Cuban revolutionary war he met his second wife, Aleida, who would become the mother of four of his children.

After Batista was ousted on 1 January 1959, the first government installed by Fidel Castro was somewhat right of centre. It was not a foregone conclusion that Raúl and Che would win Fidel over to the far left. During the revolutionaries’ first 16 months in power, Fidel made repeated attempts to cooperate with the US. As his approaches continued to be rebuffed, Raúl and Che’s influence grew. Fidel finally declared the Cuban revolution socialist on 16 April 1961, when he knew the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion was on its way and all hope of reconciliation with Washington was lost. He sought the protection of the other superpower: the Soviet Union. 

(Illustration by Kate Hazell for BBC World Histories)
(Illustration by Kate Hazell for BBC World Histories)

The Cuban-Soviet alliance went badly for Che. His admiration for Stalin was received frostily by Khrushchev’s administration, and he became increasingly vocal about his preference for Chinese-style communism. Raúl, who was fully on board with the Soviet style, was embraced. Raúl and Che fell out during the run-up to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and in 1964 Fidel agreed that Che should leave Cuba, to act as an overseas ambassador for the revolution. 

In December 1964 Che represented Cuba at the UN, at his most charismatic in combat fatigues, smoking a fat cigar in his delegate seat. But in Algeria a few months later he gave a speech in brazenly pro-Chinese terms, offending Cuba’s Soviet patrons. Che was hustled back to Cuba for secret talks. Reportedly, Raúl accused him of the gravest sin in Soviet communism’s book: Trotskyism. 

Devotion and suffering

Che was no longer welcome inside the Cuban government, but continued to enjoy Fidel’s arm’s-length patronage. He became a roving revolutionary in Congo, then Bolivia. But his revolution failed to travel. In 1967, he was captured by state forces in Bolivia and summarily executed. 

If Che Guevara were to examine his own legacy 50 years on, he would have much cause for disappointment. The revolution for which he died fizzled out. Many communist states jettisoned that ideology in the late 1980s and 1990s. Though China’s Communist Party still has a tight grip on power, its economy has been reformed along capitalist lines. Under Raúl Castro – who has moved from the far left to a considerably more liberal position than his late brother
Fidel – there have been gradual reforms to Cuban communism too, though the easing of relations with the US has reversed since Donald Trump took office. 

Che might have been gratified to see socialism revived in Latin America, for example in Venezuela. It seems unlikely he would have been put off by the extreme measures taken by President Nicolás Maduro against his opponents. 

For his part, Maduro claims to be a proud follower of Che Guevara. To much of the rest of the world his rule in Venezuela may not look like liberation. But the world is now in flux, with the extremisms of the past taking new forms and returning in ways that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. The violent revolutions favoured by Che may not have disappeared forever.

When Heroic Guerrilla became famous, it was an image associated with martyrdom. If Che Guevara’s revolution had failed, that did not matter: his devotion and suffering were the point. Millions of people have held his image aloft on banners, worn it on T-shirts, daubed it on walls, referenced it on album covers, printed it on to mugs and keyrings – though few have subscribed to his authoritarian views. Recommodified for every cause, Che has become a universal symbol of revolution without context. For a man who spent his life searching for a context in which to start his revolution, perhaps that is poetic justice. 

Alex von Tunzelmann is a historian and writer, author of Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean (Simon & Schuster, 2011)

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This article was first published in Issue 7 of BBC World Histories