I’ve never owned a Che Guevara T-shirt because I never understood how anybody could venerate a monster. But the iconic image of the Latin American revolutionary — youthful, bearded and bedraggled — made him a poster boy for the Cuban revolution.
This week marks 50 years since Ernesto “Che” Guevara was executed by the Bolivian military, on October 9, 1967. But the mythology of his role in the revolution, and his dream of a global guerrilla movement to replace capitalism with communism, is as strong as ever.
It is a legend wrapped in romanticism. Guevara’s image — he is always portrayed clad in army fatigues and starred beret — has become a symbol of popular culture. The famous photograph of him taken by Alberto Korda is everywhere. It has come to represent rebellion and idealism, but this symbolism is divorced from reality.
Guevara’s place in history has been reimagined as a mix of Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. He is often shown holding a cigar or a rose, rather than the Cristobal automatic rifle that rarely left his side in the 1950s and 60s.
His portrait has been used to promote almost any cause, including going to church, and as a marketing tool to sell commodities from cigarettes, magnets and coffee mugs to Smirnoff Vodka and Magnum ice cream. Just this week, Ireland issued a €1 postage stamp with Guevara’s image on it (right). What were they thinking?
The Argentinian-born doctor was, no doubt, a charismatic man who inspired many. But he was also a brutal man who jailed, tortured and executed hundreds of people who were enemies of the Cuban revolution.
Guevara’s ideology — the implementation of communism by force — is utterly discredited. It has wrought nothing but misery, starvation, stagnation, violence and death wherever attempts were made to implement it.
There is a strange moral superiority that many on the left of politics, and especially in the union movement, attach to Guevara. His crimes are overlooked. In reality, he is not that far removed from any of the other revolutionaries and dictators who marked the 20th century, such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.
It is why I also never understood the appeal that so many had, and still have, for Fidel Castro’s Cuba. He was no saint either. Castro and Guevara did not believe in democracy, human rights or the rule of law. They did not tolerate political dissent, there was no free media and they banned unions from organising workers.
While Castro ran a corrupt and nepotistic government, holding power with fear and force, many Cubans lived in misery. The state-run health and education systems are no justification for the murder, torture or jailing of thousands of people.
The idea of a political novelty tour to this Soviet-era relic, including listening to Castro drone on for hours in one of his public addresses and then take a 1950s pink Chevrolet for a spin, also had zero appeal to me. But many politicians, staff members and unionists raved about it.
The story of Fidel and Che continues to inspire books, documentaries and movies, alongside T-shirts, posters and banners. There is something about these two revolutionaries that charms politicos who should know better. Their ignorance is staggering.
When Castro died last year, he was lauded by the likes of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Greens senator Lee Rhiannon — who was once a youthful operative in the pro-Moscow Socialist Party of Australia — said Castro had “inspired many” and “liberated Cuba from corruption (and) exploitation”. This is nonsense.
The legend of Guevara has always run deeper among the left. They rave about his book, The Motorcycle Diaries, chronicling his formative journey across South America with Alberto Granado in 1952. They admire his work to end poverty and disease as his revolutionary ideals took shape.
In 1955-56, Guevara joined Castro and helped to overthrow the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista, who fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic in 1959.
Guevara provided military and political advice, waged battles from the Sierra Maestra mountains and led his forces into Havana as the government fell. He also ran the notorious La Cabana prison. Hundreds of political prisoners were interrogated, tortured and executed under his command.
Cuba, Guevara believed, was only the beginning of a global revolution. He travelled the world propagating Marxist claptrap.
In 1965, he failed to excite revolution in the Congo. In 1967, he spent months in Bolivia leading a campaign with a small band of revolutionaries trying to overthrow the government. It is suspected that Castro, who encouraged and supported Guevara’s expeditions, wanted him out of the way.
In October that year, Guevara met a grisly death. He was executed by the CIA-backed Bolivian military in the schoolhouse of a small village, La Higuera. He was 39.
His corpse was put on display in a laundry room at the local hospital. His hands were cut off and the body was buried in a secret location. His remains were found three decades later and returned to Cuba. La Higuera has become a popular tourist destination.
What has lived on is the stuff of Marxist fantasy sentimentalised in Korda’s photograph of Guevara, taken in 1960. It is one of the most reproduced photos. Korda was formerly a fashion photographer who was working for a newspaper at the time and was close to Castro. The photo hung on his wall for years before it gained notoriety.
Korda gave a copy for free to Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who mass reproduced it. Korda was never paid for the photo of Guevara and he never earned a royalty for its use. He later said he didn’t mind because he left something for “humanity”. But this is the kind of exploitation that Marx railed against.
The irony is that all those radical students, politicians and unionists buying shirts emblazoned with Guevara’s image are just buying a brand that serves the capitalist system he devoted his life to destroying.