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4 October 2007

What Che means to me

By Staff Blogger

Juan de Marcos González, founder of the Buena Vista Social Club and musical director of DM Ahora! Records

I consider Che Guevara to be one of the greatest personalities of the 20th century, and one of those who has most influenced my personal values. My ideas about independence, equality and social justice might not be quite as utopian as those of Che’s generation, but essentially they are the same. I have realised from studying many different texts that Che’s Leninist discourse (along with the irresponsible politics of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations) was the factor that determined the pro-Russian stance of the Cuban revolution as early as 1959-60.

Che Guevara, along with other celebrities with his idealistic spirit – Malcolm X, Lennon, Marley and Hendrix – is a great idol for generations of Latin Americans, including my own. That is why for many years I have worn a beret similar to the one he wore in the second half of the 1950s, when the shade of the ceiba trees sustained him and his dreams of liberty and adventure.

Gavin Turk , a British artist who has used the image of Che Guevara in his work

As an artist I was fascinated by the question: what is the most important image of the 20th century? I found the battered, highly reproduced and deteriorated Alberto Korda picture of Che in the background at a political conference. The photo has been hijacked as a political slogan and manifesto and taken on a life of its own. It means different things to many different people – it has a strange mutability.

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The image is synonymous with the idea of revolution – of making a stand, of taking charge of your future and your destiny. It has become highly romanticised – you could replace the word “revolution” in a book with this picture and everyone would still understand what it meant.

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Che was actually subjected to the image as well. After he’d been shot, his killers needed to prove that it was him, so they styled the corpse to make him look like that picture. It’s apt that in death he was made to play out his own iconoclastic portrait.

You can print it forwards, backwards, upside down – it still works and is still instantly recognisable.

Gary Hart, former US presidential candidate and author of I, Che Guevara

As a liberal democrat, I would have to take a largely negative view of Che Guevara. To achieve his ends he was brutal. But as an observer of modern history, the tenacity of Che Guevara’s image is amazing to me. To a lot of people it represents a vague notion of revolution. But if he is a motivating factor for 21st-century revolutions, then this is not evident.

It does seem to have a lot to do with the famous picture – getting an image into people’s minds. You have a generation of students, in Latin America in particular, who don’t have a clue who he is but still have his poster on their wall.

In my novel I speculated that Che Guevara would return to create a “radical republic” in Cuba, a third way between the corrupted capitalism of America and the corrupted communism of Cuba. But unfortunately I don’t see Cuba becoming democratic. And I certainly don’t actually believe that if Che had survived that he would have become a democrat. But I do think the vast majority of Americans think it’s strange that we don’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba now – it is a clear example of political cowardice.

Interviews by Matt Sandy

Evo Morales claims Guevara as his inspiration

In La Paz, the bestselling T-shirts on the market stalls display the image not of Che Guevara, but of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president, with the same graphic treatment.

“I see myself now in a position of homage to him. For me Che is my leader, ” Morales says, reflecting on the approaching anniversary of Guevara’s death. “What he did cannot be forgotten.”

Morales, a former coca farmer, holds up Guevara as his example to follow: “Che realised that the only way to resolve the social/ economic problems in the world is through socialism, he realised that equality is collectivism,” he says. “We have to try to redistribute wealth to the people and we have to recover our natural resources. Bolivia is not going to be the poorest country in Latin America for long.”

Morales’s stated aims are to turn Che’s vision of a unified Latin America, free from the shackles of imperial powers, into a reality. “Che fought for Latin America and for humanity. Now in Latin America we have started to live in solidarity and complement each other. We co-operate in matters of politics, ideology, culture and credit, as we are all aiming for Latin America’s liberation.”

This “solidarity” has manifested itself in many ways, including large financial gifts from Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, favourable trade deals with Argentina and medical resources from Cuba. Guevara’s guerrilla warfare tactics have been replaced with regional trading agreements and joint infrastructure projects. Internally, however, Morales’s “democratic revolution” in Bolivia is polarising the country.

“In Che’s time it was necessary for the people to take up arms against the empire in their fight for equality,” he observes. “They were different times then and those methods may have been necessary. Now we search for equality through democracy not arms. Today, unlike then, we have to use the weapons of knowledge, not war, in the fight for equality and justice.”

Does Morales represent a 21st-century Guevara, as the T-shirts suggest? “The people will have to decide whether I am the new Che. What amazes me the most is that after having been dead all this time he remains in the minds of young people, revolutionary people and people who want equality. He will always remain in my mind. Che is my symbol.” Ana Caistor-Arendar