During t-shirt weather it’s hard to miss the haunting photogenic face of Che Guevara: The communist star on the beret, the unkempt long hair and scraggly beard. You can also find him on coffee mugs, pendants and underwear. That one black-on-white image, the beautiful bad boy look, is the most famous in the world, according to the Maryland Institute of the College of Art, in the US.
Britain’s Prince Harry wore that famous face at a party two years ago. Musician Carlos Santana proudly displayed Che at the 2005 Academy Awards. Actor Johnny Depp has the image on a necklace and Angelina Jolie has a Che tattoo but won’t say where. The ubiquitous image helped Che earn a spot on Time magazine’s list of the top 100 most important people of the 20th century.
That one black-on-white image, the beautiful bad boy look, is the most famous in the world.
When you actually ask people wearing Che about who he is, they offer platitudes. They might mention freedom fighting but they rarely give you details or back up their claims. Typically, they don’t really know who he is, which makes their hold on this "hero" suspiciously reeking of adolescent rebellion.
"He’s a Mexican freedom fighter," said one young man at our local market in Canada’s capital city of Ottawa.
"Is it Bob Marley?" asked a 20-year-old, looking at a photo of the famous face. "Does it have something to do with drugs? I’ve seen his picture in rooms of students I know who are into drugs."
Ask those who sell the shirts and they know little more. Said a young man with a nose ring selling Che t-shirts and flags at an outside kiosk: “He’s a guerrilla fighter. He’s from Columbia or Venezuela.”
“Why’s he famous?” I asked.
“He fought for his people."
“What did he do?"
“He’s a freedom fighter.”
That famous “freedom fighter” face became an icon of the anti-establishment and anti-Americanism in the late 1960s and has spawned a multi-million dollar memorabilia industry and you are going to see more of it. 2007 is the 40th anniversary of the death of Che, captured and shot in Bolivia with the help of the CIA. And there you have it. CIA: bad. Che: good. No brainer. Using the same logic, we might one day see college kids wearing t-shirts with Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden.
The underdog hero image is helped by books like Che: A Revolutionary Life, an 800-page tribute written by New Yorker writer Jon Anderson in 1998. Anderson argues he has not unearthed one legitimate claim that Che executed an innocent man. Director Steven Soderbergh is now shooting what will become two movies about Che, both based on Anderson’s book, with Benicio Del Toro playing the hero. A few more pro-Che books are being published this year.
Meantime, the anti-Che memorabilia industry is catching up. You can also buy the famous face on a t-shirt blazened with the words "Murdering communist bastard." There’s the more tame: "Che Guevara: Fooling middle class white kids since 1967." My favourite t-shirt reads: "Don’t know who this guy is but he sure sells a lot of t-shirts."
The Canadian conservative magazine, the Western Standard, now sells t-shirts of columnist Mark Steyn, his face poised in a way that mimics the famous Che photo.
In time for the October anniversary, Cuban-born Humberto Fontova has also written about Che but it’s hardly gushing. Entitled Exposing the real Che Guevara , Fontova was seven years old when his family fled Cuba with little more than the clothes on their backs. Castro’s soldiers yanked off his mothers’ earrings at the airport saying they now belonged to the revolution. The author’s cousin was not so lucky. He taught catechism lessons at a local church where he also spoke against the revolution. He disappeared one day. His dead body showed up at a police station.
Fontova is also highly critical of author Anderson, noting that hundreds of eyewitnesses to Che’s executions are only one taxi ride away from Anderson in New York City. If Fontova’s book were the evidence for a trial, it would be more than enough to find Che guilty of murder. Fontova openly relishes grinding his axe for Che, as he piles eyewitness account upon eyewitness account. At least, he acknowledges his own aggression. "If Cuban Americans strike you as too passionate, over the top, even a little crazy, there is a reason," he writes. "Practically, every day, we turn on our televisions or go out to the street only to see the image of the very man who trained the secret police to murder our relatives -– thousands of men, women and boys."
For people sick of the whitewashed accounts of Che, as in Robert Redford’s 2004 movie Motorcycle Diaries, reading Fontova’s book is a victorious breath of fresh air when it’s not reading like a heart-wrenching victim impact statement. The real Ernesto "Che" Guevara, according to Fontova, started his adult life as a wandering Argentinean misfit from a wealthy family. "Che" was slang for "dude" and it was how he signed his name. He was not a doctor, as has been widely reported. He read widely and became a hard-core communist. He joined the Cuban revolution with Fidel Castro and, until one day in 1957 when Castro ordered his first execution, he was a nobody.
Che volunteered to accompany the executioner, who hesitated in completing Castro’s command. Che quickly stepped in and shot the victim in the temple. He later wrote to his father that "at that moment I discovered that I really like killing".
Castro took note. He needed an efficient executioner, a man who could kill without a troubled conscience, as there were many dissidents to dispose of. Che became head of the main prison, La Cabana, where anyone suspected of opposing Castro was incarcerated. In the first three months at La Cabana, Guevara signed 400 death warrants. Over the course of time and with his own hand he shot at least 180 people. Pierre San Martin was in La Cabana and recalled seeing a 14-year-old boy dragged in front of Che. His crime was defending his father, who had been arrested and shot. "We saw Che unholstering his pistol. He put the barrel to the back of the boy’s neck and blasted. The shot almost decapitated the young boy."
In 1961, there were 300,000 Cubans in prison out of a population of 6.4 million. That’s about one person in prison for every 21 people. At any one time in the notorious Soviet Gulag, there was one person in prison for every 110 people in the country. That same year, Castro’s regime, propped up by support from the Soviet Union, received nuclear missiles. To avoid war, the American and Soviet governments agreed to allow a Communist government in Cuba in exchange for the removal of the weapons. In 1962, thinking that he was speaking off-record, Che told the London Daily Worker: "If the nuclear missiles had remained we would have used them against the very heart of America, including New York City."
Yet Che Guevara was applauded at the United Nations General Assembly in 1964 when he announced that Cuba killed people. "Certainly we execute," he said. On that same trip he helped plan a bombing of the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell and Washington Monument. But the bombs never went off. The New York Police Department discovered the plot.
There’s a legion of uncomplimentary documented facts about Che Guevara and they are not difficult to unearth. This makes it more apparent that the Che fanfare is a symptom of a big problem. It seems that juvenile rebellion and apathy is now common among grown men and women, well into their adult life. Characterized by dishonesty and laziness, people simply believe what they want to believe. Author Fontova includes this outrageous anecdote about guitarist Carlos Santana. He got up from his seat in a café to confront a young Cuban wearing a t-shirt stamped with the homemade lettering: "Che’s dead—get over it." The young Henry Gomez argued that Che had killed hundreds of people.
Gomez reported that Santana, incredibly, told him: "You’re getting hung up on facts, man. We’re only free when we free our hearts."
Ironically, those t-shirts celebrating Che tell us a more about the people wearing the shirts than they do about that Argentinean butcher.
Patrick Meagher is MercatorNet's Contributing Editor for Canada.