Che Guevara : a symbol of revolution or a mere stylish popular icon ?

source : history.com/topics/che-guevara/videos/che-guevara-fast-facts

(Version française en-dessous, comme d’habitude, mais juste l’intro 😉 )

Yup, I’m sharing my university work again. Once again, I had the opportunity to work on something I’m very keen on, so it makes sense to publish it.

As far as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by Che Guevara. I don’t even know why – obviously, when I was younger I didn’t know anything about him except, roughly speaking, his name and his face. Later, I got to watch The motorcycle diaries” (Diarios de motocicleta) and I fell in love with the character : a charming man (I know it’s only a movie, but judging by the videos and photos of the real Che Guevara, that’s not a lie) who discovers the inequalities and starts being deeply revolted about the poor conditions some people live in. He later comes to the conclusion that something has to be done, that a big change has to occur, however this movie only shows the construction of Che Guevara’s thought, not what happens afterwards. Anyway, that character really is endearing. Now I’ve watched that movie like 1267393 times.

I also saw the two-part Che movie of Steven Soderbergh, and loved it as well. Benicio del Toro is absolutely fantastic and perfect in this role. Plus this movie is a complement to The Motorcycle diaries, as the latter takes place before Che’s revolutionary commitment, and Soderbergh shows what happens afterwards, with the Cuban Revolution and the attempt to start a revolution in Bolivia. While watching Che : Part 2, I kept hoping that the end would be different, that there could be a miracle and that history could be changed… His death is so heartbreaking and unfair. Why would they kill him ? No answer is satisfactory to me…

Anyway, in addition to that I did my own research of course ; I read articles, watched documentaries, speeches, interviews, and I also read Che Guevara’s diary (the movie is actually based on that diary, hence its title). However I was young when I read it so I guess there were many things that I missed out, plus it was in French – evidently, it’s always better to read the original versions. So I don’t have much to say about that book, apart from the fact that I found it captivating ; I absolutely need to read it again (in Spanish this time !) Also, Che Guevara’s face inspired me for a few drawings – yeah, I used to draw, but my skills have vanished in the meantime.

I do not particularly share his communist, marxist, or whatever ideas, or maybe I do – it’s just that these are very deep and serious topics and I’d need to read much more books and do much more research in order to know what I think about all he wrote/said. Therefore I’m only saying that it’s the man himself that fascinates me. To me he seems like a very courageous and determined person, who wanted inequalities to disappear and people to stop living in unfair conditions, and who actually did something about that. He spent his life fighting on behalf of those whose voices were not heard ; peace was the ultimate goal, even if it had to come down to violence in order to reach that goal. He could have been a doctor for the rest of his days, living in comfortable conditions in a big house with his wife and kids. (Plus he was asthmatic, which is not an ideal condition to go fight in the jungle…) But he felt that he needed to fight, to take down the leaders that oppressed their people, to do his best to change a reality he couldn’t accept. That’s something I’d like to do. Not a revolution – and I’m a 100% against weapons and violence – but maybe leave my comfortable life some day and go save animals around the world. That’s the cause I want to fight for. Not that I don’t care about other causes, but I’m not Superman I cannot do everything, and I remember that as a kid my dream was indeed to, later, “save all the animals all around the world”.

Apart from all this “fight against inequalities” thing, I’m so in love with Latin America. (without ever having been there, yep) It’s one of my biggest dreams to visit those countries – all of them – and why not by travelling on a motorcycle like he did, I guess that’s the best way not to miss any landscape ! I feel so attracted to that part of the world and I also adore Spanish Latin American accents, I would love to talk to everyone there (well except serial killers, I could do without them).

Well, that was supposed to be a quick introduction to the presentation hereafter, but I guess I could write many more paragraphs so I’ll just stop here. And no, I’m not worshiping Che Guevara – I’m actually not worshiping anyone (except maybe the Dalai Lama ? haha, I’m very interested in buddhism but that’s another topic) – you can indeed notice that I’ve written a part about how cruel some people say he was… (but from what I understood, his intention was not to start a “free hugs” movement anyway 😉 )

 

Is Che Guevara still a symbol of rebellion and revolution or a mere stylish popular icon ?

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, commonly called Che Guevara, was born in Argentina (Rosario) on the 14th of June, 1928. He came from a quite wealthy family, however his father worked with people from different social backgrounds so from a young age he was aware of the modest conditions of other families. During his youth, he spent a lot of time reading and he started thinking about social and political matters.

In 1947, he enrolled in the medical school of Buenos Aires. In 1952, his love of adventure and his interest in pre-Columbian civilisations led him to take a trip through Latin America. During that trip, he was faced with significant social realities, such as the difficult condition of miners in Chile. All this was a real awareness and deeply changed him. He came to the conclusion that socio-economic inequalities could only be abolished with a revolution, and he started studying Marxism more deeply.

In 1953, he took a second trip that led him to Bolivia, where important social reforms were being instituted, and to Guatemala, which was (is?) one of the poorest countries of Latin America and where he refined his political education. He then headed to Mexico, where he made a decisive encounter : he met Fidel Castro, who shared his « anti-yankee » ideas, and he started his revolutionary commitment.
He then contributed to Castro’s seizure of power in Cuba in 1959, after the overthrow of the dictator Batista. He developed a reputation of a remarkable fighter and commander. His political role became very important ; he held positions like Minister of Industry and represented Cuba in international meetings.

In 1965, Che Guevara left office so as to keep up the armed conflict in Congo and then in Bolivia. He ended up murdered on the 9th of October 1967 in Bolivia, at 39 years old, while he was trying to prepare a revolution.

During his lifetime, Che Guevara was a politicized and controversial figure as well as a popular hero, but after his death he became much more than that : he became an icon and a worldwide emblem for many causes. He became a symbol of the idealist, the rebel, and the martyr. He didn’t consider himself as a hero though ; he wrote « I am not a hero nor a myth, I am an idealist. »
Nowadays, he is considered as an inspirational icon of revolution as well as a retro logo. Around 20 millions of persons around the world own a t-shirt that represents him. According to author Michael Casey (in Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image), Che Guevara has become « the quintessential postmodern icon signifying anything to anyone and everything to everyone. »

However, there are also people like former soldiers or victims who don’t worship him at all and depict a very negative portrait of the guerrilla leader : he’s described as a cold-hearted, brutal, and authoritarian man, who is responsible for the deaths of many innocents. Has the myth around Che Guevara distorted our perception of reality ?

Generally speaking, is he still a strong symbol of rebellion and revolution or a mere stylish popular icon ?

 

CHE GUEVARA IN POPULAR CULTURE

Che Guevara is very much rooted in popular culture. Throughout television, music, books, he is an omnipresent political and apolitical symbol that has been perpetually transformed over the last decades of visual popular culture. This allows him to be « both a fashionable de-politicized logo, as well as a potent anti-establishment symbol used by a wide spectrum of human rights movements and individuals affirming their own liberation. » (Carmen Oquendo-Villar)

ART
The most famous photo of Che Guevara was taken in 1960 by Alberto Korda and is titled « Guerrillero Heroico ». It was used on a book cover after Che Guevara’s death, and after that it was spread with art ; in 1968, Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick made a two-toned portrait based on Korda’s photo. That portrait can now be seen on all kinds of items throughout the world.

ADVERTISING
The strength of Che Guevara’s image became obvious, and in the 90’s his portrait started to be used in advertising. It has now been used by a large number of brands/associations and for various products/campaigns, so the messages or values his portrait transmit can be adapted to many situations. Advertisers are aware that it’s a worldwide-known face and they know exactly how to take advantage of it.

CINEMA
« The Motorcycle Diaries » by Walter Salles was released in 2004. It’s a biopic about the journey and written memoir of the 23-year-old Ernesto Guevara. It shows his rising awareness of the difficult social conditions that exist throughout Latin America, in other words it shows the construction of his thought.
« Part 1: The Argentine » and « Che : Part two » by Steven Soderbergh is a two-part biopic released in 2008. It focuses on the Cuban Revolution until the overthrow of Batista, and then on Guevara’s attempt to bring revolution to Bolivia.

Both movies depict a heroic image of Che Guevara, so they are definitely part of the elements that contribute to the positive popular opinion about him.

MUSIC
Hasta Siempre by Carlos Puebla (the « singer of the Cuban revolution ») was released in 1965. It’s a tribute to Che Guevara, the lyrics are about key moments of the Cuban Revolution and describe Che Guevara’s role as a commander. The song became iconic and many artists recorded their own versions afterwards. The title comes from Guevara’s well known saying “¡Hasta la victoria siempre!” (« Until victory, always ! »)
In 1997, the song was re-released by Nathalie Cardone and was a huge success again.

EXHIBITIONS
Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon” in 2006 at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London) :
« It examines how Korda’s classic image of Guevara has morphed into an icon larger than the man himself, and taken on a life of its own in popular consciousness and culture. »
« It will focus on the history of this single image during the past 45 years, bringing together photography, posters, films, fine art, clothing and artefacts from more than 30 countries – from Madonna’s album American Life and Jean-Paul Gaultier’s sunglasses campaign to Vik Muniz’s Che Frijol and Ricky Gervais’s Politics dvd. »
Unfortunately I didn’t see that exhibition, but from what we can read about it, it showed the strong influence that Che Guevara’s image has had for decades now and its omnipresence and importance in many aspects of culture.

OBJECTS
He can be seen on a wide range of items like t-shirts, flags, bags, wallets, lighters,… (apparently we can even see his image on dogs) To some it is only a generic visual emblem of marketing, while to others it represents civil disobedience or political awareness.
To those who object to his veneration, the proliferation of his image represents superficiality and ignorance, and they find it absurd. Hannah Charlton, a journalist of The Sunday Times, commented about the use of Che Guevara’s image « T-shirt wearers might wear Che’s face as an easy replacement for real activism, or as a surrogate for it. »

 

IS IT INAPPROPRIATE TO WORSHIP SUCH A CONTROVERSIAL FIGURE ?

If we take into account the negative testimonies on Che Guevara, the fact that he’s considered as a hero and that so many songs, documentaries, etc pay tribute to him and that he’s so rooted in popular culture may seem inappropriate. Here are a few examples of those negative testimonies.

✳︎ Luciano Medina, Castro’s personal postman :
« Guevara ? He treated people badly. Very badly. »
« For him, killing people was like drinking a glass of water. It was quickly done, quickly resolved. »
« There was that man that he charged with being a spy related to Batista. In fact, the only fault of this poor man was to claim that he didn’t adhere to the revolution. An hour later, the unfortunate farmer was executed in front of his wife and his three young children. »

✳︎ Father Javier Arzuaga, chaplain in the Cabaña prison :
« Che Guevara never tried to hide his cruelty. On the contrary ; the more you sought his compassion, the more cruel he was. He was completely devoted to his utopia. Revolution required that he killed, so he killed ; it required that he lied, so he lied. »
« At the prison, when families came to visit their loved ones, Guevara, the height of sadism,  demanded that they’d walk past the execution wall, full of fresh blood… »

✳︎ Huber Matos, commander of the Revolution :
« I think that he enjoyed killing people. »

While Castro gave passionate speeches, Che Guevara did all the dirty work. According to Armando Lago (vice-president of the Cuba Archive Research Institute), he is responsible for 216 murders, which makes him the number one killer of the Cuban Revolution with Raul Castro (551 executions).

che-guevara-gun

 

>>
The huge scale of his action and the enormous impact of his thought made Che Guevara become a considerable figure of Latin America and its modern history. The fact that he was killed so suddenly, and so that he left his work unfinished, and the aura he still emits helped create a whole myth around him and turned him into a symbol.
More than 50 years after his death, he’s still the subject of controversies among historians, and keeps being very present in popular culture. We can wonder if this fascination about Che Guevara will persist, or if it will fade away in the next decades/century, or even if he will be “replaced” by another figure…

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Eh oui, encore une fois, je partage mes travaux universitaires. J’ai de nouveau eu l’occasion de travailler sur un sujet qui me passionne, cela m’intéresse donc de le partager !

Aussi loin que je me souvienne, Che Guevara m’a toujours fascinée. Je ne sais même pas pourquoi – de toute évidence, lorsque j’étais plus jeune je ne connaissais rien à son sujet à part, en gros, son nom et son visage. Par la suite, j’ai vu le film « Carnets de voyages » (Diarios de motocicleta) et je suis tombée amoureuse du personnage : un homme plein de charme (il ne s’agit certes que d’un film, mais d’après les photos et vidéos du vrai Che Guevara, ce n’est pas un mensonge) qui découvre les inégalités, les conditions très précaires dans lesquelles vit une partie de la population. Il en arrive par la suite à la conclusion que quelque chose doit être fait, qu’un changement important doit avoir lieu, toutefois ce film ne montre que sa progressive prise de conscience, et non ce qui se passe par la suite. Bref, c’est vraiment un personnage attachant. J’ai dû voir ce film des centaines de fois depuis…

J’ai également vu le film en deux parties de Steven Soderbergh, que j’ai tout autant adoré. Benicio del Toro est absolument génial et parfait dans ce rôle. De plus, ce film est un complément à Carnets de voyages, étant donné que ce dernier se déroule avant l’engagement révolutionnaire du Che, et Soderbergh montre ce qu’il se passe par la suite, avec la Révolution Cubaine et la tentative de révolution en Bolivie. Lorsque je regardais Che : Part 2, je ne cessais d’espérer que la fin serait différente, qu’il pourrait y avoir un miracle et que l’histoire pourrait être toute autre… Sa mort me révolte et me parait tellement injuste. Pourquoi le tuer ? Aucune réponse ne saurait me satisfaire…

En plus de tout cela, j’ai bien sûr effectué mes propres recherches ; j’ai lu des articles, regardé des documentaires, des discours, des interviews, et j’ai également lu les Notes de voyages de Che Guevara (le film est basé sur ces notes, d’où son intitulé). J’étais cependant assez jeune lorsque je l’ai lu donc je n’ai sans doute pas tout saisi, et il s’agissait de la version française – bien évidemment, c’est toujours mieux de lire les versions originales. Je n’ai donc pas grand-chose à dire à propos de ce livre, à part qu’il m’a captivée ; il faut absolument que je le relise (en espagnol cette fois !) Aussi, le visage de Che Guevara m’a inspirée pour quelques dessins – oui, je dessinais autrefois, mais mon « talent » s’est évaporé depuis…

Je ne partage pas particulièrement ses idées communistes, marxistes, ou autre, ou peut-être que si – c’est juste que ce sont des sujets extrêmement sérieux et profonds et il me faudrait donc lire bien davantage et effectuer beaucoup plus de recherches afin de savoir ce que je pense réellement de ses écrits et déclarations. Je suis donc simplement en train de dire que c’est cet homme en lui-même qui me fascine. A mes yeux, il semble être quelqu’un d’infiniment courageux et déterminé, qui voulait mettre un terme aux inégalités, aux conditions difficiles dans lesquelles vivait une partie de la population. Il a passé sa vie à lutter en faveur de ceux dont la voix n’était pas entendue ; son but ultime était la paix, même si pour atteindre ce but il fallait en passer par la violence. Il aurait pu se contenter de vivre confortablement pour le restant de ses jours, dans une grande maison avec sa femme et ses enfants, en exerçant sa profession de médecin. (De plus, il était asthmatique, ce qui n’est clairement pas idéal pour aller combattre dans la jungle…) Mais il sentait qu’il devait se battre, reverser les leaders qui oppressaient leur population, faire de son mieux pour changer une réalité qu’il ne pouvait accepter. C’est quelque chose que j’aimerais faire. Non pas une révolution – et je suis à 100% contre les armes et la violence – mais peut-être laisser ma vie confortable un jour pour m’en aller sauver les animaux tout autour du monde. C’est la cause dans laquelle je souhaite m’impliquer. Non pas que je me fiche des autres problèmes, mais n’étant pas Superman je ne peux pas me consacrer à tout, et lorsque j’étais enfant je me souviens que mon rêve était, effectivement, de « sauver tous les animaux dans le monde entier ».

Mis à part cette histoire de lutte contre les inégalités, je suis complètement amoureuse de l’Amérique latine. (sans y avoir jamais mis les pieds, oui) C’est l’un de mes plus grands rêves de visiter ces pays – absolument tous – et pourquoi pas effectuer ce voyage en motocyclette tout comme lui, je suppose que c’est le meilleur moyen de ne manquer aucun paysage ! Je suis fortement attirée par cette partie du monde et j’adore également les accents latino-américains en espagnol, j’aimerais discuter avec tout le monde là-bas (bon sauf peut-être les serials killers, je m’en passerais).

Bref, je pensais écrire une courte introduction à l’exposé ci-dessous, mais je pourrais probablement écrire de nombreux paragraphes supplémentaires donc je vais m’arrêter ici. Et non, je ne lui voue pas un culte, je ne voue d’ailleurs de culte à personne (à part peut-être le Dalai Lama ? haha, le bouddhisme m’intéresse beaucoup mais c’est une autre histoire), vous remarquerez quand même qu’il y a une partie qui porte sur des personnes témoignant de sa cruauté… (mais bon, de ce que j’ai compris, son intention n’était pas de lancer un mouvement de « free hugs » 😉 )

[Pour l’instant je n’ai traduit que l’intro en français ; peut-être pas le passage le plus intéressant, mais je suppose que la version anglaise n’est pas assez savante ou shakespearienne pour être incompréhensible haha]

Terminons sur cette magnifique photo, l’une de mes préférées, et cette jolie citation

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-4O0qt92X2P0/TtuLjVrukMI/AAAAAAAABbI/XlyaxuEFYmw/s1600/Che-Guevara-Rare-Pictures-5.jpg

 

Sources :
http://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/monde/amerique-nord/la-face-cachee-du-che_475196.html
http://www.histoire-pour-tous.fr/dossiers/99-xxe-siecle/3747-ernesto-che-guevara-une-vie-un-mythe.html
http://www.lemauricien.com/article/ernesto-guevara-la-mort-du-che
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hasta_Siempre,_Comandante
http://www.nbcnews.com/id/14317481/ns/world_news-americas/t/che-guevara-revolutionary-or-chic-icon/#.WK8O1xh7TaY
https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/2psvat/why_is_che_guevara_such_a_pop_culture_icon/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Che_Guevara_in_popular_culture
http://freshmanmonroe.blogs.wm.edu/2012/06/18/che-guevara-hero-or-terrorist-some-background-research/

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