Che Guevara’s name is already being classed with that of the Liberator, Simon Bolivar. Latin America’s marxist “liberation” has yet to look even likely, but Guevara has died with his reputation intact. From his middle-class Argentinian youth, he became a revolutionary by conviction and profession. With the two Castro brothers he invaded Cuba in the cockleshell Granma, stayed on to help run revolutionary Cuba as minister of industry, then, perhaps growing bored, took his leave of Cuba on a dedicated secret mission to set the continent alight. He failed. But many Latin Americans will go on believing that the legends that will be spun round his Pimpernel existence may one day lead to his picture being hung beside that of the Liberator in Latin American halls.All this bring me to a more recent Economist article on the famed Che Guevara. What forces drive the cult of Che? And, for that matter, the marketing muscle of Che? Some of it has to deal with growing anti-American sentiment, but there's more to it than that. Read on:
The bearded face—eyes staring defiantly to infinity, the long wavy hair beneath the beret stirred by the Caribbean breeze—has become one of the world's most familiar images. Alberto Korda's photograph of Ernesto “Che” Guevara may be waved aloft by anti-globalisation protesters but it has spawned a global brand. It has adorned cigarettes, ice cream and a bikini, and is tattooed on the bodies of footballers.
What explains the extraordinary appeal of Guevara, an Argentine who 40 years ago this week was captured and shot in Bolivia (see article)? Partly the consistency with which he followed his own injunction that “the duty of the revolutionary is to make the revolution”. A frail asthmatic, he took up arms with Fidel Castro's guerrillas in Cuba's Sierra Maestra. After their victory, Guevara would fight again in the Congo as well as Bolivia. He fought dictators who were backed by the United States in the name of anti-communism when the cold war was at its hottest, and when Guevara's cry to create “two, three...many Vietnams” resonated on university campuses across the world. His renewed popularity in recent years owes much to a revival of anti-Americanism.
But it is semiotics, more than politics, that leads teenagers ignorant of the Sierra Maestra to sport Che T-shirts. Korda's photograph established Guevara as a universal symbol of romantic rebellion. It helps, too, that he died young, at 39: as a member of the Cuban gerontocracy he would hardly have become the James Dean of world politics. A second picture, that of the bedraggled guerrilla's corpse, staring wide-eyed at the camera, provides another clue. It resembles Andrea Mantegna's portrait of the dead Christ. It fixes Guevara as a modern saint, the man who risked his life twice in countries that were not his own before giving it in a third, and whose invocation of the “new man”, driven by moral rather than material incentives, smacked of St Ignatius Loyola more than Marx.
In Cuba, he is the patron saint: at school, every child must repeat each morning, “We will be like Che.” His supposed relics are the object of official veneration. In 1997, when Cuba was reeling from the collapse of its Soviet ally, Mr Castro organised the excavation of Guevara's skeleton in Bolivia and its reburial in a mausoleum in Cuba. Except that in the tradition of medieval saints, it probably isn't his body at all, according to research by Bertrand de la Grange, a French journalist.
The wider the cult spreads, the further it strays from the man. Rather than a Christian romantic, Guevara was a ruthless and dogmatic Marxist, who stood not for liberation but for a new tyranny. In the Sierra Maestra, he shot those suspected of treachery; in victory, Mr Castro placed him in charge of the firing squads that executed “counter-revolutionaries”; as minister of industries, Guevara advocated expropriation down to the last farm and shop. His exhortation to guerrilla warfare, irrespective of political circumstance, lured thousands of idealistic Latin Americans to their deaths, helped to create brutal dictatorships and delayed the achievement of democracy.
Sadly, Guevara's example is invoked not just by teenagers but by some Latin American governments. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez wants to create the guevarista “new man” (see article), just when Cuba is having second thoughts. As Jorge Castañeda, one of Guevara's biographers, notes, Che's lingering influence has retarded the emergence of a modern, democratic left in parts of Latin America. Sadly, most of those who buy the T-shirt neither know nor care.