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Afterimages

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In Che's Afterlife, we learn almost as much about the photographer who captured the image "Guerrillero Heroico" as we do of its subject. Before the revolution, Korda established a reputation as Cuba's best fashion photographer, and his studio became "a meeting place for the beautiful people of Havana." As someone who devoted his leisure hours to collecting models, actresses and fine automobiles (an MG convertible and a Porsche), Korda might have seemed a likely prospect for an early exodus to Miami after Castro and Che's triumph in 1959; instead, he "made a surprisingly smooth transition from the world of glamorous models and film stars to that of Castro's scrappy soldiers." But perhaps the transition wasn't a surprise since, as Casey suggests, revolutionary Havana retained a streak of hedonism for a few years amid the asceticism of the new order: "If Korda's extravagant lifestyle ran counter to the discipline of Che Guevera," he writes, "it was in keeping with the mood of the early years of the revolution." Revolución, where many of Korda's photos appeared, favored a freewheeling iconoclasm, with "a bright, distinctly American aesthetic" that "borrowed some of the sex appeal of pre-revolutionary Cuba and planted it in the framework of what many assumed would be a politically liberating new era."

About the Author

Maurice Isserman
Maurice Isserman teaches history at Hamilton College. He is the author of The Other American: The Life of Michael...

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Unfortunately, that promise would go unrealized as Communist Cuba hardened in the shadow of its Soviet big brother. In the early days of the new regime--and in a moment most at odds with the Guerrillero Heroico legend--Che did a stint as a prison commander at La Cabaña fort in Havana, where a number of political prisoners were executed. (Estimates of the victims range widely, from a few hundred to many thousands.) Many of Revolución's editors and writers would themselves become exiles before the decade was over. As for Korda, he remained a revolutionary true believer throughout the difficult years that followed. He also became a savvy enough legal tactician to succeed in reclaiming the property rights of his famous photo and some of the profits generated by its unexpected commercial success in the late twentieth century. In a September 2000 legal settlement, an ad agency in Britain agreed to pay $75,000 for unauthorized use of "Guerrillero Heroico" in a Smirnoff vodka advertisement, and Korda donated the money to the Cuban healthcare system. The court's decision removed the photo from the public domain, establishing the aging photographer as the clear copyright owner. Korda died the next year, leaving various Cuban heirs to squabble over the newly valuable estate.

Casey has gotten hold of a good story and has some interesting things to say about it. His later chapters, exploring the meaning of Che's "afterlife" in contemporary Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Miami, are his most original, packed with reports of fascinating encounters with Che admirers, cultists, exploiters and vilifiers. Particularly gripping is his interview in Miami with Felix Rodríguez, a CIA agent sent to Bolivia in 1967 to train the troops fighting against Che's small band of guerrillas, who encountered the commander in captivity on his last day alive. According to Rodríguez's autobiography, Shadow Warrior (1989), after failing to persuade the Bolivians to spare their captive's life, he embraced Che before his execution. "His moment of truth had come, and he was conducting himself like a man. He was facing death with courage and grace." Casey is agnostic on the question of whether the CIA really wanted Che kept alive, though he signals some skepticism by noting that Rodríguez had spent "a life that constantly skirted the shadier moments of US history," including the Bay of Pigs, attempts on Castro's life and involvement with the Nicaragua Contras. In his interview with Casey, Rodríguez reiterates his admiration for the doomed revolutionary: "Look at what people write: The far right say that he was crying, which wasn't true. And then on the other hand, you have the far left saying that I tried to slap him in the face and that he spat on me, which is also not true.... The man conducted himself with respect to the very end. No matter what, everybody has to respect that."

There's much to like about Che's Afterlife, but the book would have benefited greatly from a sturdier historical frame. Perhaps reflecting his training as a business reporter, Casey seems overly enamored with the language of advertising and consumption. The popularization of Che's image, he writes, was "one of the Cuban revolution's greatest marketing accomplishments." On October 18, 1967, standing before an enormous reproduction of "Guerrillero Heroico" in downtown Havana, Castro delivered a speech eulogizing Che as a role model and hero. Casey describes the event as a "brand launch":

There, in the Plaza de la Revolución, the Cuban revolution's world headquarters, its leader converted the hitherto little-known Korda image into a powerful mnemonic, a lasting logo. Castro combined the Cuban revolution, Che's stellar qualities, and the Guerrillero Heroico image into a single attractive product.... Just as urban sneaker-wearing teenagers seem susceptible these days to advertisers who encourage them to identify with brands such as Nike or Tommy Hilfiger, in late 1967 radicalized students across the Western world were ripe for the Che brand.

The flaw of Casey's approach is not its irreverence or its cynicism--both of which might seem to be merited by the less than inspiring outcome of the Cuban Communist experiment--but rather its ahistoricism. Che was not, in fact, an unknown "brand" in student circles in the Western world that burst upon the scene in October 1967 like a hot new rock group (or a snazzy and well-promoted pair of sneakers). There is no indication in Che's Afterlife that Casey has read Where the Boys Are: Cuba, Cold War America and the Making of a New Left (1993), in which historian Van Gosse argues for the inspirational role of the Cuban Revolution for at least some American New Leftists at the very start of the 1960s. Casey does not mention either C. Wright Mills's influential and bestselling polemic Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba (1960), widely read in student circles in those years, or Malcolm X's praise of Che as "one of the most revolutionary men in this country right now," when the Cuban leader visited New York City in 1964 and denounced racism in South Africa and the American South in an address to the United Nations.

Casey's determination to pinpoint the moment of the "brand launch" of "Guerrillero Heroico" is simply irrelevant to the actual political history of the 1960s. Even though the image had gone unpublished outside obscure Cuban newspapers, the mainstream American media, as well as the radical press, had kept Che's name and face in the public eye for years: from his days as Castro's sidekick, to his disappearance from view in Cuba in 1965, to his life as an international man of mystery until October 9, 1967. The New York Times Magazine, for instance, ran a four-page feature story in 1966 with the headline ¿Dónde Está? Whatever Became of Che? Although critical of Che's politics, the article--unmentioned in Casey's account--quoted a recent graduate of Santo Domingo University in the Dominican Republic who called the vanished revolutionary "the purest of the pure," someone who "hasn't been corrupted by power." The Dominican student concluded, "I bet right now he is fighting the oligarchs and the yanquis not far from our country." The subsequent launch of the Che brand is already encapsulated in those words, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the marketing instincts of the Castro regime.

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