A New York Times reporter was visiting with us recently, and she noticed the Che buttons gracing each of our shirts. “Oh, I love Che!” she said enthusiastically, which surprised us since she worked for the self-styled “newspaper of record,” an outlet that for over half a century echoed the State Department’s relentless attacks on the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara himself. But times change, and people as well as institutions are, of course, filled with contradictions, so, why not?
“You love Che? How come?”
“Oh,” she went on, “I was just in Cuba for the first time, and Che’s picture was everywhere. And he’s so appealing—those piercing eyes look right through you, and that valiant stance is so awesome. I bought Che T-shirts for my nephews, and Che coffee mugs for my parents!”
Well, it’s true: Che’s heroic image—larger than life—is everywhere you look, and not just in Cuba, but all over the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe. The famed Alberto Korda portrait—the one where Che gazes intently into the distance, eyes uplifted, beret slightly askew—has been reproduced more than almost any other image in the history of photography: on billboards and banners, commemorative plates and political posters, murals and mosaics. The iconic Che lives large in the popular culture, and the commodified Che is within easy reach of everyone.
But Che Guevara was also a flesh-and-blood human being—flawed, contradictory, trembling, and real—and as we mark the anniversary of his murder on October 9, 1967, it feels important to reflect on the Che who burned, intense and vital, for 39 years. This Che was a Marxist revolutionary and anti-imperialist, who saw the ravages of US foreign policy and fiercely fought against them; he was an internationalist, a believer in popular uprisings to end oppression and poverty—and for this he was assassinated with the active support and participation of the United States.
Dead now for 50 years, Che wasn’t much older than those of us who were radicalized in the 1960s, and he was formed by conditions not altogether different than those that affected us. To us, Che was a symbol of boldness, intelligence, internationalism, self-sacrifice, solidarity and, as he said, “at the risk of appearing ridiculous,” love. Che rejected personal gain and privilege for the leaders in a struggle for a fair and just society; he lived as he asked others to live.
It’s been said that Che was a citizen of the world. Perhaps more accurately, Che was a citizen of a world that did not yet exist.
Che’s earliest political ideas were forged in the bohemian home of his parents, offbeat Argentine aristocrats with more blue blood than money. Books and magazines covered the furniture, and the young Che, who had a capacious capacity for learning, imbibed it all. He read assiduously, including his father’s entire 25-volume collection of the Contemporary History of the Modern World, the collected works of Jules Verne, Freud, Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Mussolini, Stalin, Zola, Jack London, and Lenin. He read The Communist Manifesto, dipped into Das Kapital, and intended to write a biography of Marx.