Making of a Revolutionary Icon

Che-Guevara-in-La-Plaza-in-CubaIn Cuba, Fidel Castro announced the death of Che on October 15 and declared three days of mourning. He eulogized his former comrade-in-arms in the Plaza de la Revolución before a crowd of over a million grieving Cubans. Since then Cuban monuments to Che Guevara have multiplied. In 1988 an enormous monument to Che was completed in Santa Clara. As well as a 22 foot statue of the hero of the revolution the complex includes relief sculptures depicting episodes in his life. It was only in 1997 that the remains of Che, confirmed by forensic evidence, were uncovered in Bolivia. The initiative for their discovery was taken by Bolivian President Evo Morales for whom Che is a heroic martyr of the his country’s socialist transformation. Che’s remains were taken to Cuba and interred at the Santa Clara monument on October 1997. In Bolivia the reverence paid to the spirit of Che has elevated him to the status of a secular saint. Photographs of his body after his execution were said by a British art historian to be reminiscent of some Renaissance paintings of the dead Christ. This idea was taken up with enthusiasm among the peasants of Vallegrande who pray to him as they would to the Virgin Mary. Tourists flock to the region to walk Che Guevara Trail connecting Vallegrande and the site of Che’s camp. Opened in 2004 the trail passes by a Giant Bust of Che at La Higuera installed in 1997. An even larger statue of Che constructed from scrap metal dominates a square in El Alto near Bolivia’s capital city, La Paz. Che-Guevara-T-ShirtSculptural images of Che continue to proliferate around the world. A glass monument erected by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at Mérida on October 8, 2007 was destroyed by gunshots 10 days later. In the garden behind the Museo de San Carolos in Mexico City there is yet another bust of Che. In his native town of Rosario, Argentina an enormous statue of Che was erected in 2008 as part of the celebration of the 80th anniversary of the birth of the hero. Not to be outdone Che enthusiasts in 2012 convinced the council of Galway in Ireland to erect a monument to Che. With pressure from locals and abroad from America the project was abandoned. Since the death of Che. his image, from the Korda photograph and the graphic created from it by the Irish artist Jim Fitzpatric, has appeared on flags, t-shirts, baseball caps and on an infinite number of souvenirs and kitsch art. These items fill the tourist shops and kiosks in Cuba. Throughout the world the image of Che is raised as an icon at demonstrations promoting left wing causes. But just as commonly his face is used to decorate clothing that has been created by entrepreneurial capitalists to satisfy the demands of the hip and the cool. Che has been a popular subject for dozens of films, both dramatic and documentary. Among the more recent are Peter de Kock’s documentary The Hands of Che Guevara (2006 – see above), Steven Soderbergh’s 2009, two-part bio pic Che and Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries. As with all icons the meaning of the image of Che depends very much on the eye of the beholder. What for example, Nicaraguans see in a mural of faces of Che in Granada (above), the Spanish see in a monumental sculpture with the face of Che in Oleiros, or American teens see in a t-shirt emblazoned with Che will be dissimilar. Over time the image and idea of Che has taken on a multitude of contradictory roles. These are determined by one’s understanding of the life of Che gained through reading and visiting one of the many Che museums such as the Museo del Che in Havana, the Che Museum at the Monument in Santa Clara, Cuba, La Casa del Che in Alta Gracia, Argentina, the Museo Ernesto Che Guevara in Buenos Aires and the Che Museum in Vallegrande, Bolivia.


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