Che: A very modern Icon

By George Galloway.

Che Guevara represents what today’s politicians conspicuously lack: idealism, self-sacrifice and a deep connection with young people. That’s why his image is an enduring inspiration, writes George Galloway.

On a visit to Cuba last month, I stayed in an apartment complex the floor above Camilo Guevara, Ernesto «Che» Guevara’s eldest son, and his children. Now that’s a tough number – being the son of a legend for whom a single name suffices, an icon who is more ubiquitous now than he was at the time of his death in 1967. Camilo maintains, however, that distinctive revolutionary rectitude, working as a humble civil servant with no privileges of any kind.

I looked out over the old harbour of Havana, where Alberto Korda took his famed portrait of Che, currently the subject of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was taken on 4 March 1960 at a funeral service and not published until seven years later, after Guevara’s death. I mulled over how, since that time, the photograph – like the posters and murals derived from it – has become associated with every site of struggle from Soweto to the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organisation.

That image continues to be one of the most iconic in contemporary culture, with repro- ductions available in the most surprising places. Che T-shirts are on sale at the cut-price clothing chain Primark. Smirnoff tried to use it for a vodka promotion a few years ago, prompting successful legal action by Korda. Though he had received no royalties for the image, he took umbrage at that particular distillation of the Che legacy. «As a supporter of the ideals for which Che Guevara died,» he said, «I am not averse to its reproduction by those who wish to propagate his memory and the cause of social justice throughout the world. But I am categorically against the exploitation of Che’s image for the promotion of products such as alcohol, or for any purpose that denigrates the reputation of Che.»

Korda (real name Alberto Diaz Guttierez) was a fashion photographer when first assigned to the Cuban paper ‘Revolucion’ – and some argue that history has transformed Che’s revolutionary image into just another fashion accessory. It is tempting for those of us on the left to feel uncomfortable with his popular appeal; rather like music fans who, when their favourite underground band hits the big time, moan that they’ve «gone commercial» and sagely tell new enthusiasts that the latest gigs aren’t a patch on «the night they played the Crooked Billet in Scunthorpe».

I don’t see it that way. If only 10 per cent of the people who wear the image of this incredibly handsome figure know what he stood for, that is still many millions. Overwhelmingly, they are also young people, with their hearts set on making the world a better place. Indeed, in my experience, many more than 10 per cent have a very good idea of what he stood for. It is an excellent example of the younger generation confounding the low expectations of them.

The image is given further contemporary relevance by the renaissance of the radical left across Latin America. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez is fast becoming a touchstone for anti-war activists and campaigners against corporate globalisation. The «axis of good» conference Chavez will attend in Havana in September, alongside Fidel Castro and Evo Morales, is already creating a similar energy to the great gatherings of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

If Che’s image seems to be everywhere, that is because what he fought and died for is more fashionable than ever. It’s hard to imagine a more potent symbol of internationalism. He was born in Argentina of mixed Spanish and Irish descent; a motorcycle journey the length of South America awakened him to the injustice of US domination in the hemisphere, and to the suffering colonialism brought to its original inhabitants.

The CIA-sponsored overthrow of the popular government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 deepened Che’s commitment to revolutionary change. He was, in Fidel’s estimation, the more accomplished revolutionary thinker of the two when they met in Mexico.

«There are no frontiers in this struggle to the death,» Che told an international conference in 1965. «We cannot remain indifferent in the face of what occurs in any part of the world. A victory for any country against imperialism is our victory, just as any country’s defeat is our defeat.» In a refutation of every right-wing stereotype, he added that, «the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.»

But it is as a man of deeds rather than words that his reputation has been secured. He distinguished himself and was appointed Comandante in the rebel war of liberation that was led by Fidel and which brought victory on New Year’s Day 1959. The story of how Che became Cuba’s finance minister might be apocryphal, but it says everything about his willingness to take on the most demanding tasks, and the sheer optimism of the will he embodied. Legend has it that Fidel once asked his comrades who among them was an economista (economist). Che stuck his hand up, believing he had been asked who was a comunista (communist).

In his life, he set a model of the self-sacrifice that he held central to the creation of a new society, outlined in his letter «Man and Socialism in Cuba» (1965). The same year, he made his last appearance on an international stage, having already represented the Cuban revolution at the United Nations and across the developing world. He could have remained a revered leader of the revolution, facing the arduous task of constructing a society in the face of US aggression.

Che chose instead to return to the perils of guerrilla life. He travelled to the Congo, aiming to trigger a Cuban-style revolution that would simultaneously ease the island’s isolation and assist the wave of change breaking across Africa. Despite the bitter and near-fatal experience of the Congo campaign, he proceeded to the mountains of Bolivia, where the forces of the puppet government and its CIA paymasters cut short his life on 9 October 1967. He was 39. His legend continued to grow in the wake of the epoch-defining, global revolt of the following year.

And that, surely, explains why there is a resurgence of interest in, and affection for, Che. It is a manifestation of this renewed stirring of revolt – another generation standing up to imperialist savagery, articulating fresh hopes for a world of equality and justice. I hope these young people find in him what I do – that rarest of things: an inexhaustible source of inspiration, someone who did not simply theorise social change, but actually brought it about.

Not only that, but Che set a benchmark which the vast majority of contemporary politicians fail to reach. He communicated his ideas with verve and imagination to a mass audience, and particularly to young people.

«If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you are a comrade of mine,» he said. He is a comrade to so many because so many today are burning with indignation.

*George Galloway is a british politician and a Member of the British Parliament from 1987 to 2010. Since 2004 he is a member of the Socialist political party “Respect” in the United Kingdom.

Article published on «New Statesman», 12 June 2006.