Saturday, October 9, 2010

Ernesto (Che) Guevara (June 14, 1928 - October 9th, 1967)

"On October 9th, 1967, Ernesto "Che" Guevara was put to death by Bolivian soldiers, trained, equipped and guided by U.S. Green Beret and CIA operatives. His execution remains a historic and controversial event; and thirty years later, the circumstances of his guerrilla foray into Bolivia, his capture, killing, and burial are still the subject of intense public interest and discussion around the world."

Ernesto (Che) Guevara was born to Celia de la Serna y Llosa and Ernesto Guevara Lynch in Rosario in Argentine on June 14, 1928. He was the eldest of five children in a white Argentine family of Spanish, Basque and Irish descent.
I had long been fascinated by the stern-faced revolutionary staring out from t-shirts, flags, banners and pamphlets; an iconic image that has come to signify restlessness and revolution, eternal vigilance and the struggle against tyranny. Long before I knew who he really was or what he stood for, Che Guevara was as recogniseable to me as John Lennon or Colonel Sanders.
The image is based on a photo, "Guerillero Heroico" by Albert Korda taken at a memorial service in 1960 and was hardly known about until after his death when it became the most commonly used image of him, easily reproduced in two tone black and white for lithographs and stencils. The original photo however, does indeed contain magic - there is something in Che's intense glare that captures the viewer in a way that few portrait photographs have managed. As a revolutionary symbol, Che has never lost his appeal to the students, dissidents and artists across the globe who continue to use the image in political rallies and protests almost as a statement of purpose; by carrying the visage of Che, perhaps the steely-eyed resolve of Guevara will serve as a warning to any opposition that the protest is as serious and unflinching as the man himself.
Because photographer Korda never sought royalty payments for the reproduction of the image, coupled with its enigmatic nature meant that it was quickly and wholeheartedly sucked into the milieu of revolutionary culture. Korda himself observed that as a fellow advocate of Che's socialist ideals and a former staff photographer of Fidel Castro, it would be hypocritical to seek payment for a photograph used to promote Che's revolutionary ideals. Korda sued over the use of the image just once during his lifetime; when it was appropriated by Smirnoff to promote vodka. Korda observed that advertising was against the spirit (no pun intended) of the image and that Guevara himself was teetotal. The action settled out of court, and the proceeds were donated by Korda to the Cuban Health System.
In part due to Guevara's unsettlingly Christ-like countenance, the image has raised him to a level of popularity many political leaders actively aspired to. The socio-political phenomenon known as 'the cult of personality' has often been used by revolutionary politicians and dictators such as Mao, Stalin, Hitler and even today by Kim Jong Il of North Korea, bestowing upon the glorious leader an almost god-like status demanding full and unwavering acquiesence from his countrymen. The cult of personality requires a slick and cunning propaganda machine in order to exalt the heroic deeds of the leader, turning ordinary actions (and often complete falsehoods) into folklore. I would contend that Che has become the subject of a cult of personality of sorts; the propaganda is more often than not passed by word of mouth from the recollections of those who fought beside him. The written word is based in part on the diaries he left behind, mere glimpses into the psyche of a man who was more than likely aware that his actions would one day make him a figure of historical discussion and debate. Castro himself understood the value of Che's popularity and now Guevara is so intrinsically linked to the Cuban revolution that he is often wrongly identified as Cuban. The famous image is arguably more identifiable to the average Westerner than the flags of Argentina, Cuba or Bolivia and undoubtedly plays an important role in this.
Guevara could not have foretold that his image would one day balance precariously between revolutionary symbol and gaudy sales gimmick. More than 40 years after his death, Che will remain a revolutionary enigma. A cold and ruthless killer, he was also a gifted doctor. Despite his privileged upbringing, he was acutely aware of those less fortunate than himself. And despite the complete and utter failure of his shambolic campaign to oust the Bolivian Government, his death is remembered as the heroic last stand of a martyr; dying for the cause he believed in.

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