Fifty years af­ter Che Gue­vara’s death, he re­mains the poster boy for global re­bel­lion. Stephen Smith con­sid­ers his legacy

Half a cen­tury af­ter his death, Che Gue­vara is big­ger than ever. The revo­lu­tion­ary im­mor­talised in Al­berto Korda’s brood­ing por­trait, which has been called the most fa­mous pho­to­graph ever taken, is the poster boy for the free-as­so­ci­at­ing, un­der­ground protest move­ments which are roil­ing pol­i­tics and so­cial me­dia around the globe. But could this anti-cap­i­tal­ist fire­brand be any re­la­tion of one of the great ad­ver­tis­ing leg­ends of our time, beloved of the mad men for his match­less ca­pac­ity to shift ev­ery­thing from T-shirts to baby-gros, who also trades un­der the brand name Che Gue­vara?

Guer­rillero Heroico, as his like­ness is dubbed, is so con­tem­po­rary it ap­pears to an­tic­i­pate the selfie, at least four decades avant la let­tre (and with all due apolo­gies to the mae­stro pho­tog­ra­pher). And stak­ing a claim to it are some of the most pow­er­ful and ap­par­ently con­flict­ing forces at work in the world to­day. Or to put it an­other way, the revo­lu­tion will be mer­chan­dised.

It’s al­most trite to say that Korda’s study is an iconic im­age, ex­cept that for once the term may be ap­plied lit­er­ally, or very nearly. It’s helped to con­firm Gue­vara’s sec­u­lar saint­hood among his ad­mir­ers, as an al­tru­is­tic free­dom fighter who top­pled a cor­rupt dic­ta­tor in Cuba, only to re­nounce the trap­pings of power for him­self and de­vote the re­main­der of his brief life to the strug­gle for lib­er­a­tion in Africa and Latin Amer­ica. That said, many oth­ers see him in an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent light, as a blood­thirsty killer who presided over show tri­als of the over­thrown old or­der in Ha­vana, and as a fla­grantly un­re­con­structed ho­mo­phobe.

Orig­i­nally snapped on 5 March 1960, Korda’s Che — now much meme’d, gif’d, What­sapp’d — mul­ti­plies and mul­ti­plies. Mean­while, the man him­self, who was cor­nered in Bo­livia by lo­cal troops and CIA agents and shot dead in 1967, is a greatly di­min­ished fig­ure these days. As The New Yorker cor­re­spon­dent Jon Lee An­der­son re­ported in his ex­haus­tive biog­ra­phy, the Bo­li­vian mil­i­tary cut off Che’s hands, per­haps to prove iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, per­haps out of bloody-minded spite, and buried him at the bot­tom of a mass grave, his late com­rades heaved in on top of him. His re­mains were later ex­humed and flown to Cuba, the scene of his great­est tri­umph, the revo­lu­tion of 1959, in which the olive-clad, ci­gar-munch­ing Che and Fidel Cas­tro swept the Amer­i­can-backed Pres­i­dent Ful­gen­cio Batista from Ha­vana.

Che’s bones are in­terred in the city of Santa Clara, where the Cuban rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies won a fa­mous bat­tle on the road to vic­tory. These hal­lowed relics were still ex­ert­ing a suf­fi­cient other-worldly fris­son to throw Cas­tro him­self off his stride a lit­tle more than a decade ago. A sup­posed split be­tween Fidel and Che, which led to the lat­ter leav­ing Ha­vana in 1965 to fo­ment revo­lu­tion abroad, com­mands al­most as much pop cul­ture scru­tiny as the rift be­tween Len­non and McCart­ney. Cubans of a su­per­sti­tious bent (which would be most of them) be­lieve it was bad karma, a pay­back of San­te­ria (Cuban voodoo), when Cas­tro fell over and took sick as he de­claimed a eu­logy over Che’s tomb. It was the be­gin­ning of El Com­man­dante’s long with­drawal from pub­lic life, cul­mi­nat­ing in his death last Novem­ber at the age of 90.

Dead at 39, Che was young enough to leave a good-look­ing corpse, and al­though the Bo­li­vians de­nied him that in per­son, he is eter­nally young and strik­ing and smoul­der­ingly dan­ger­ous in his pho­to­graphic con­tact sheets. And yet for all the totemic power of Korda’s icon, its sin­gu­lar­ity, it is also in some ways a cu­ri­ously de­based coinage. We’re told that one of the many boons of dig­i­tal re­pro­duc­tion is that there’s no loss of qual­ity, of def­i­ni­tion — the umpteenth it­er­a­tion is as pin-sharp as the orig­i­nal neg­a­tive. But I won­der if that’s quite true. Doesn’t sat­u­ra­tion di­min­ish im­pact? (Per­son­ally, I’ve al­ways much pre­ferred the same pho­tog­ra­pher’s joy­ously un­guarded stills of Gue­vara and Cas­tro shar­ing nine holes of pitch and putt, or cast­ing lug­worm for mar­lin in a fish­ing boat off the shim­mer­ing prom­e­nade of the Malecón.)

When Che served as pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Bank of Cuba, and his sig­na­ture some­what im­prob­a­bly ap­peared on the coun­try’s ban­knotes, you can only imag­ine how faded it be­came af­ter the pe­sos were run off the hu­mid Ha­vana presses in their grubby, in­fla­tion­ary wads. Has the same thing hap­pened to Korda’s pro­to­type emoji (the beret, the badge, the 1,000-yard stare)? In short, what is the cur­rency of a Che in 2017? In search of an an­swer to that, I went look­ing for what I could find of him, though not among the cease­lessly repli­cat­ing looka­likes of Korda’s dark­room. No, I was on the trail of the real, the mor­tal Che, his own flesh and blood, sanc­ti­fied or oth­er­wise.

Ernesto Gue­vara Lynch was born in Rosario, Ar­gentina, on 14 June 1928, the el­dest child of mid­dle-class par­ents. His mother was an in­tel­lec­tual, some­thing of a bo­hemian, his fa­ther a would-be schemer but in prac­tice more of a dreamer. The young Ernesto played rugby, which, like polo, is a sport as­so­ci­ated with the an­glophile elite of Ar­gen­tinian so­ci­ety, and he stud­ied to be a doc­tor. It was hardly the back­ground of a Marx­ist revo­lu­tion­ary, but it was on


Che’s now-well-known mo­tor­cy­cle jour­neys through South Amer­ica as a young man that his po­lit­i­cal views were formed by the poverty and hard­ship he saw at first hand. The fam­ily later moved to the cap­i­tal, Buenos Aires, the great, ur­bane, “Paris of the South”, and it was there that I tracked down Che’s kid brother, Juan Martin Gue­vara, now in his mid-seven­ties, who still lives in the city.

Juan Martin is one of the last sur­viv­ing links with the elu­sive, cy­clostyled per­son of the late guer­rilla. Fifty years af­ter his brother’s death, Juan Martin has bro­ken a long si­lence to give his first full ac­count of life with Che — and with­out him. He turned out to have a lot in com­mon with the man we think we know, in­clud­ing some­thing of his rel­a­tive’s very Latino charisma. There was also the un­ex­pected mat­ter of a rib­ald sense of hu­mour, ev­i­dently some­thing that runs in the fam­ily, and largely ef­faced in both the ha­giog­ra­phy and the de­monology that sur­rounds the el­dest Gue­vara brother.

“Che was 15 years older than me. My four si­b­lings were all older than me, and to­gether all the time. And so when I ar­rived, ev­ery­thing changed and I was the lit­tle brother,” he says. “I used to have a good time with Ernesto be­cause he was re­ally funny. We used to fight and we used dirty words all the time. He would call me ‘lit­tle arse­hole’ and I would call him ‘big arse­hole’. That was the way we used to talk to each other when no­body was around. We couldn’t say those words in pub­lic. Then, we would call each other ‘Ernestito’ and ‘Patatí’.”

In a grey T-shirt and jeans, with a mous­tache as bushy as a pa­per­hanger’s brush, Juan Martin was strik­ingly en­er­getic for a man of his years, and twin­klingly mis­chievous. We met in his aus­terely fur­nished of­fice in the shadow of the tow­er­ing Obelisco, a na­tional viril­ity sym­bol at the heart of Buenos Aires. (Why did the Obelisco stand so proudly? asks Juan Martin. Be­cause of the stim­u­lat­ing at­ten­tions of the metro trains, on the subtes, run­ning di­rectly be­neath it, he ex­plains saltily.)

Che, that stir­ring nom de guerre, trans­lates — with some dimin­u­endo — as “Hey”, or “Man”, or “Dude”. But it was only one tag among many, ac­cord­ing to Juan Martin. “When my brother wrote ar­ti­cles for a rugby mag­a­zine, he called him­self ChangCho, which is re­ally a play on an­other of his pet names, Pig. Peo­ple used to call him Pig be­cause he wasn’t very clean. But my fa­ther didn’t like it much when peo­ple called us the Pig fam­ily: Fa­ther Pig, Mummy Pig and the lit­tle pigs!”

Here was break­ing news to have fash­ion ed­i­tors rend­ing their gar­ments and de­sign­ers weep­ing into their asym­met­ri­cal lenses: Che Gue­vara, one of the coolest pin-ups of the cul­ture, was so noi­some that he was nick­named af­ter live­stock.

Juan Martin warmed to his theme. “He had a shirt that we used call the ‘weekly shirt’ be­cause he used to wear it the whole week and he didn’t wash it very of­ten. And he was very un­tidy. He didn’t take care of his ap­pear­ance, at least not when he was Ernesto Gue­vara. When he be­came Che, I imag­ine he re­alised that he was a mir­ror who re­flected the peo­ple. He looked at (his im­age) and the peo­ple looked at it, too. But no, as his brother, let me tell you that he didn’t care what he looked like.”

Juan Martin and I caught the city’s lu­bri­cious un­der­ground rail­way. We were mak­ing a sen­ti­men­tal jour­ney to his old neigh­bour­hood, Calle Aráoz, where the Gue­vara chil­dren were raised. I’m afraid that my sparkling small talk failed to en­gross my com­pan­ion more than the two comely den­tal nurses who hap­pened to be shar­ing our car­riage. Surely Juan Martin’s late brother had been cat­nip to the ladies, I sug­gested.

“The Gue­vara men have all been mar­ried more than once, we’ve had a lot of chil­dren.” Juan Martin smiled, “A funny thing about Ernesto: we used to call him the kerosene lamp. That’s what peo­ple used to have in the coun­try­side. In the night, when peo­ple hung the light up, it would at­tract all the nightlife. Let’s say that my brother wasn’t the most dis­cern­ing, he had no fil­ter.”

Juan Martin had fore­warned me that casa Gue­vara was no more. In place of the el­e­gant colo­nial build­ing that he showed me in black-and-white fam­ily snaps — the men­folk tak­ing the air on a bal­cony, Juan Martin in short trousers be­side a stocky, teenaged Ernesto — there was now a low-rise Seven­ties apart­ment block, with an elec­tri­cian’s shop at street level. “In Buenos Aires, there are no plaques say­ing ‘Che Gue­vara lived here’,” said Juan Martin.

A prophet in his own land, Che has not basked in the un­stint­ing warmth of Ar­gentina’s rul­ing class. These days, they are politi­cians in the spiffy suits of smooth, busi­ness-friendly glob­alis­ers, but once upon a time, they were un­smil­ing men in uni­form, a mil­i­tary junta, who took out their dis­plea­sure with Gue­vara and all he stood for on his sur­viv­ing fam­ily. Juan Martin spent more than eight years in prison for shar­ing Che’s po­lit­i­cal sym­pa­thies, not to men­tion his DNA.

That said, the dash­ing vi­sion­ary of armed up­ris­ing is no more for­got­ten in his old home than the great ar­chi­tect of Lon­don, Sir Christo­pher Wren, is in the Big Smoke, where an epi­taph at St Paul’s Cathe­dral says, “Reader, if you seek his mon­u­ment, look around you.” Ad­mit­tedly, Che is re­mem­bered not by vault­ing stone but by al­to­gether more ver­nac­u­lar keep­sakes, all bear­ing that fa­mil­iar face: key fobs, Zippo lighters, bot­tle-open­ers, post­cards, notepads, wrist­watches and a good deal more. I even came across one en­ter­pris­ing ar­ti­san who was whit­tling titchy Ches out of matches and sticks of chalk. In the malls and mar­kets of BA, sales of Che gee­gaws and tchotchkes hold their own against those of the big mon­eyspin­ners: the Ar­gen­tinian foot­ball team and the Ar­gen­tinian Pope.

“Of course, I’m not a big fan of the mar­ket­ing of my brother’s im­age,” said Juan

Pho­tog­ra­pher Al­berto Korda holds both the orig­i­nal frame and the fa­mous, cropped por­trait of his iconic 1960 Che Gue­vara pho­to­graph, 1989

Juan Martin Gue­vara, younger brother of Che, pho­tographed in Bergmannstraße, Ber­lin, 2017

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