The Many Faces of Che Guevara

By Ethan Freedman

HAVANA – Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara has become one of history’s most lionized figures, a character simultaneously cast as a martyr, a murderer, a Marxist, and a man with a brand image most would associate with capitalism.

Che’s image has been subjugated to what could be called the “Roshomon effect,” named after the classic Japanese film where a murder was simultaneously witnessed by four different people, who in turn described the crime in four contradictory ways.

The late Christopher Hitchens may have summed it up best when, in an interview with the Guardian, he waxed poetic that Che “belongs more to the romantic tradition than the revolutionary one …When one thinks of Che as a hero, it is more in terms of Byron than Marx.”

For proof, one has to look no further than Che’s second most famous photo, a photo of Che on his deathbed, postmortem. It is a photo that, according to art critic John Berger, resembles Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, which is a painting of the dissection of a cadaver, and Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ, which is a painting of the dead Christ in the realism fashion.

Guevara’s death photo does not promote his Marxist theories so much as the idea of an idealized heroic victim, a martyr, in essence.

Indeed, comparing Che to Christ might seem a stretch, but is less far off the mark than you might think. French academic and journalist Jules Régis Debray, who fought alongside Che, remarked to the now-defunct Ramparts Magazine that Guevara believed that death was “a promise of rebirth.”

Che has been canonized in a similar light. In the Bolivian town of Vallegrande, where Che was first buried, there was a scene described in a 2007 Guardian article.

“Father Agustin, the Polish priest, reads out prayers written down by local people: ‘For my mother who is sick, I pray to the Lord and …’, hesitantly, ‘to Saint Ernesto, to the soul of Che Guevara.’ ‘Saint Ernesto,’ the parishioners murmur in response.”

According to the Guardian, the nurse, Susana Osinaga, who was in charge of cleaning Guevara’s body after his death, said that Che was “just like a Christ, with his strong eyes, his beard, his long hair.”

Yet, one cannot deny Che’s militant streak. He was a ruthless commander. There are two brands of warfare born out of Che’s personal ideology: Foco and Guevarism, both being forms of Marxist guerrilla warfare. He was known to kill defectors from his cause. He was fearless of death. Before he was killed, he was said to have looked at his executioner, Mario Terán, and said, “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward! You are only going to kill a man!”

Che’s fearlessness is exemplified by his most famous photo, if his admirers are to be believed. The iconic image of Che, Guerrillero Heroico, features Che looking out in to the horizon, after the memorial of the La Coubre explosion. He is wearing a mystifying expression, perhaps matching only the Mona Lisa in terms of its implacability. His admirers, such as the photographer of the photo, Alberto Korda, are quick to interpret his look as stoical. Yet, it is probably because of its mystique that the photo has become a utilitarian image for revolutionaries around the world. The reason Che’s image has been able to circulate so widely was, largely, because Korda, whose real name was Alberto Diaz Gutierrez, eschewed collecting royalties for the photograph.

Che came up with Fidel in the Cuban Revolution — so intertwined was Che with Castro that in 1960 Time Magazine wrote an article about him entitled “Castro’s Brain.” Yet while Fidel’s image was by and large controlled, Che’s image has grown to unbelievable levels.  Buying and selling items with Fidel’s likeness is generally frowned upon in Cuba since Castro has said that he does not condone a cult of personality. So, interestingly enough, it is Che’s image that has become the symbol of the Cuban Revolution. It is Che’s image that appears on the three peso Cuban bill and children in Cuban schools are told to recite the words, “We will grow up to be like Che.”

It would be easy to say Che serves as a martyr for the socialist cause in all its particulars. He was a huge proponent of expropriation, and redistribution for war purposes, during his lifetime. Fifty three years after the fighting ended, many Cubans still strongly believe in the Revolution.

That’s the problem. Che’s image has been used as everything from a symbol for the Cuban Revolution to, recently and perhaps more controversially, a symbol for the sale of a new Mercedes Benz. He thus, in death, represents different ideologies to different people, depending on their politics.

Never before has one person’s image been so widespread and represented. Well perhaps the image of one other. From a couple of millennia ago.