Che's legacy: the spirit of revolution or t-shirts?

Monday 9 October was the 50th anniversary of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s execution at the hands of the Bolivian authorities. Synonymous with socialism, guerrilla warfare and revolution in his heyday, the modern-day Che is one of counterfeit t-shirts, tattoos and posters. Has one of Time magazine’s Top 25 political icons of all time been reduced to a mere t-shirt salesman? Or does this bountiful ephemera help spread his values to a new generation? 

“He is less dangerous if you commodify him,” claims Helen Yaffe, author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, who maintains that Che still symbolises “rebellion against authority” despite the fact that ‘Glastonbury goers’ clad in Che’s image “probably don’t know his history [or] how to pronounce his name”. Paul Bainsfair, Director General of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), agrees that Che’s image has become “shorthand for revolution and change”, but asserts that due to over-usage it “no longer packs a punch” and is “past its sell by date” from a marketing perspective.   

In both cases, it’s that image of Che – the one in your head – that holds the key to his current significance. 

What effect has Guerrillero Heróico had on Che’s legacy? 

Taken by Alberto Korda on March 5, 1960, it is officially called Guerrillero Heróico. Unofficially, it is the “world’s most famous photograph”, according to the Maryland Institute College of Art.

“Without that photo, he would not be the freedom fighter that he is seen as today”, claims Michael Pritchard, Chief Executive of the Royal Photographic Society, who believes the iconic photograph of a stern-faced, beret-wearing, moustache-sporting Guevara “managed to capture an expression that represented the mood of the time”. 

Che’s intensity was certainly immortalised by Korda’s photograph, but it was not an immediate success. Despite first appearing in Cuban newspaper Revolucíon in 1961, advertising a talk from the then Minister of Industries, the image didn’t catch fire internationally until the time of Che’s capture in Bolivia. 

Its subsequent propagation amongst Western advanced economies would lead it to become one of the most recognisable images in the world. 

Why did Guerrillero Heróico spread as extensively as it did?

Firstly, the broth of cult status was beginning to simmer long before the photo was taken. With his star-embossed berets, olive-green military fatigues, shaggy hair and handlebar moustache, Che had a trademark look. Seasoned with an endless list of quotable material and a rousing motto – ¡Hasta la victoria, siempre! (Until victory, always!), the cult broth was already flavoursome enough before he threw in revolutionary success and the final sprig of martyrdom.

Second, it was timely. The portrait conjured images of change and iconoclasm, which “struck a chord with the discontented youth” of 1968, according to Antoni Kapcia, Professor of Latin American History at the University of Nottingham. At a time of student protest in Paris, civil rights unrest in the US and the emergence of the Woodstock generation, its message of defiance and struggle was readily prevalent. 

Third was the issue of copyright; or lack thereof. Bainsfair notes that it is a “minefield” to get copyright in the world of advertising, especially “when photos are made in a different market”. Yet, Korda, a staunch communist who detested commercialisation, didn’t enforce his copyright on any reproduction of the image until 2000, when he was “offended by the use of the image” in an advert for ‘spicy’ vodka. By that time, the image had been floating in the ether for decades and as Pritchard succinctly puts it: “once the genie is out of the bottle it is hard to put it back”. 

Fourth was the idea of popularity. Pritchard notes the photo’s fame stemmed from its reproductive qualities, as the image could be “overlaid with almost anything” (pictures of Ken Livingstone wearing a t-shirt of Jeremy Corbyn as Che earlier this year springs to mind). Meanwhile, Kapcia associates its celebrity with versatility, as it can be “seen by people whichever way they want to see it”. 

Mixed together, it’s no surprise that Michael Casey, in his book Che’s Afterlife, claims that photo is as recognisable as the Nike Swoosh or McDonald’s Golden Arches. The Victoria and Albert Museum maintain it is the most reproduced image of all time. A quick eBay search in the UK shows over 16,500 articles of Che ephemera. From key-chains to bars of soap, bikinis to ice cream, it’s remarkably fun to imagine a product and add Che alongside it in the search bar; a game you don’t often lose.  

What does its mass recognition mean for Che’s legacy today? 

Trisha Ziff, director of documentary Chevolution, claims Che has become a “brand…a corporation, an empire”, while adding that the “portrait of Che has moved into the realm of caricature and parody”.  Bruce LaBruce, the iconic Canadian filmmaker, asserts the Che logo is “emptying out the signifiers of radicalism”. In other words, ‘Che Chic’ is defiling his achievements. 

Yet, Guevara’s eldest daughter has defended ‘Che Chic’, by noting that adherents to the trend tend to be those that “don’t conform [and] want more from society”, which she believes her father would have liked. Korda’s family appear to have taken a similar view, only enforcing copyright on the image in limited instances, while Yaffe is also in agreement: “if you put up a poster of Che [advertising a meeting on a university campus], people will turn up to that meeting”. He’s interesting, she claims, and “is not as whitewashed as it may seem” (although she laments that his “most important contribution”, his six years as Cuban Minister of Industries between 1959 and 1965, hardly features in most of his biographies). 

The proliferation of the image, therefore, seems to have had a minimal effect on what Che represents. He was ‘over-used’ by brands as they wanted to associate their product with his values and beliefs: revolution, defiance and change remain intrinsically linked with Western connotations of Che Guevara. 

Yet, the past half century has witnessed a gradual detachment between his symbolism and his achievements in Cuba. As Kapcia notes: “the more iconic he got, the greater the risk people would want to see what they want to see”. Be it diplomat or terrorist, competent or reckless, Che’s legacy is in the eye of the beholder. So, is he a Marxist revolutionary or a t-shirt vendor? Well, he can be either. Or both. Or neither.