One of the most iconic images of the last decade is a simple Alberto Korda monochromatic portrait reproduced on t-shirts from London to Sydney and everywhere in between. Trendy teenagers throughout the world have poster sized versions adorning their walls. Most probably without any idea who he is, some may not even recognise the name; Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
The truth is that few of us probably know the real man; between romanticised Hollywood biopics and American Cold War anti-communist propaganda it is difficult to discover the true story of the Argentinian born Marxist revolutionary. Countless biographies, essays and history books have been printed detailing his life and the events of the Cuban revolution. Whilst the facts of the battles, skirmishes and executions cannot be disputed often the story between the lines seems blurred. They are written with the bias of the author, finding objective literature is a challenge.
Opinions about Che are polarised, either considering him a great revolutionary and leader or one of the last centuries worst terrorists. An American gentleman after noticing my reading material once enquired of me; “How can you admire a mass murderer and coward, he begged for his life when he died”?
This is typical of the perception of many. There were a number of atrocities committed by both sides of the Cuban revolution and Guevara is Certainly not guilt free. He was a soldier, though also described as a glory seeking mercenary. However mass murderer seems over the top and branding him a coward certainly wide of the mark. Such a comment is easy to make in a comfortable airport lounge but it seems doubtful his accuser has ever had a weapon pointed in his direction. His reaction would probably be similar.
Guevara appears to have been an idealist; usually an uncompromising breed. They perceive the world in black and white, right or wrong with little in-between. Uncompromising characters tend to polarise opinion, they are either loved or hated and this is certainly true of Che Guevara.
It is difficult to dispute that Guevara was a man of principle, he gave up his ‘hero’ status and a very comfortable life under the Castro regime to fight in the uncomfortable jungle of the Congo. He believed it was his duty to struggle on behalf of the oppressed and choosing the tough life of a guerrilla fighter instead of a politicians casts further doubt on his cowardice.
Travelling through Cuba his image and influence is everywhere, the iconic image adorns walls, placards and posters, hotels, streets and restaurants bear his name. His famous phrase “Hasta la Victoria Siempre!” (“Forever, Until Victory”) emblazons countless walls and he looks down on an adoring people from almost as many posters as Fidel or Raul.
Is this idolisation or merely commercial enterprise, cashing in on the myth which has grown around the revolutionary or is there genuine affection?
Discussing his popularity with my tour guide it became apparent he is still highly regarded by many Cubans. Whilst schools probably paint a rose-tinted account of the Castro revolution and the part played by his commander, my guide is intelligent and articulate, capable of forming his own opinions. He has reservations about the current regime and is unsure that things will change as much as outsiders believe in the near future. However he speaks about Che with respect, accepting he made mistakes but believing that the revolutionary had suspected the direction in which Castro would take Cuba. His disapproval was at least in part the reason he left the country.
Visiting the official Che Guevara memorial at Santa Clara site of his most famous victory, his status seems to be confirmed. The site is dominated by a 22 foot high statue of the man himself looking down from a lofty pedestal. There are a number of memorials including the mausoleum with all the names of the ‘heroes’ of the Cuban revolution and those that died with Guevara in Bolivia in 1967.
His remains were exhumed from Bolivia in 1997 and laid to rest here with full military honours, there is also an eternal flame lit by Castro himself. Many of his comrades have also been successfully exhumed and remains laid to rest with their commandante.
As our group traipsed silently past the mausoleum in solemn respect we passed several Cubans that were openly weeping. Our guide who visited often even appeared slightly emotional as he whispered a quick explanation of various plaques and the flame. The experience almost felt like a pilgrimage, perhaps for some it is.
There are probably many Cubans which do not hold him in such high esteem but he was popular with all the people I spoke when travelling across the Caribbean island. Certainly if symbolism is any indication he is a national hero with iconic status.
The popular myth of Guevara maybe slightly flawed, the man himself almost certainly was. However his legend has been perpetuated, his image is one of the fashion statements of the past decade, a global merchandising success. Ironic considering Che detested commercialism but love him or loathe him it is difficult to avoid him.