Che's Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image (Vintage Originals)
by Michael Casey
A review by Maurice Isserman
On October 9, 1967, a Bolivian army communique from La Paz announced that Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary comandante turned itinerant guerrilla, had been hunted down by soldiers and killed in battle. The New York Times responded editorially, and with evident satisfaction, that if the report proved true, "as now seems probable," then "a myth as well as a man has been laid to rest." It was not the Times's most accurate prediction.
Photographs of Che's lifeless body soon appeared in newspapers around the globe, putting to rest doubts about his death. Perhaps the most famous image was one taken by Freddy Alborta, showing Che's corpse being displayed to the press by Bolivian army officers. Yet controversy over the circumstances of Che's death continued to brew. Was he killed in combat, or in cold-blooded execution? The latter. Did the soldiers who killed him amputate and preserve his hands and then cremate the body? His amputated hands were smuggled to Cuba in 1970, and his bones were discovered by a Cuban forensic team in Bolivia in 1997 and returned to Cuba for state burial.
In Che's Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image, Michael Casey reports that local peasant women who paraded by Che's corpse on October 9 with the permission of triumphant Bolivian officers "surreptitiously clipped locks of hair from Che's head, saving themselves a future talisman." A few weeks later, the journalist and novelist Jose Yglesias, reporting on Che's death for The Nation, indulged his readers with a different sort of memorabilia. Yglesias wrote that like the relics of St. Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth-century Carmelite nun and mystic, Che's hands "may well be with us for a long time to strengthen the nonreligious but barefoot Order -- like Saint Teresa's stoical Carmelites -- of the guerrillas of South America." The mythic appeal of the slain revolutionary, known to many today in Latin America as "San Ernesto," has only grown in subsequent years. "Unwittingly, the Bolivian military delivered the world a lasting and sympathetic picture of the man they'd hunted down," Casey writes. "They gave it a crucified Che." Indeed, John Berger and other art critics have argued that Freddy Alborta's photo of Che's corpse bears a startling resemblance to Renaissance depictions of Jesus Christ at the moment he was brought down from the cross by the Romans.
Che hardly ever sat for a bad photo -- even in death. But of all surviving photographs of him, one in particular stands out: the head-and-shoulders portrait of a bearded, longhaired, 31-year-old Che, wearing a bomber jacket and his trademark beret emblazoned with the comandante star. Casey makes this image the central concern of Che's Afterlife, and in the book's opening chapter he offers a vivid re-creation of the "frozen millisecond" when the photo was taken. The date was March 5, 1960; the location a spot near Havana's Colon cemetery; the occasion a public funeral sponsored by the revolutionary government. The previous day a French munitions ship delivering arms to Cuba had mysteriously blown up in Havana harbor, killing scores of people and wounding hundreds. CIA involvement was suspected but never proven. Che, who had been at a meeting nearby in downtown Havana when the ship exploded, rushed to the docks and helped provide medical aid to the wounded and the dying.
On March 5, Che was standing on the speaker's platform while Castro harangued the crowd. He was gazing upon the assembly when photographer Alberto "Korda" Diaz Gutierrez snapped a picture of him for Revolucion, the official newspaper of Castro's 26th of July Movement. At the moment the shutter clicked, Che was hunched inside his bomber jacket against the unseasonable cold of that March day. The tension in his posture, combined with his piercing gaze ("angry and grieved" was the impression that Korda had of his subject's mood), made for a formally dynamic image. Citing art historian David Kunzle, Casey notes the "aesthetic magnets" of hair, beard and star, all of which both "steer the eye's attention" when looking at the photograph and "provide reference points for derivative art," allowing for simplified forms of "mass reproduction as a two-tone icon."
Korda knew he had taken a good picture, but his editors failed to agree: the photograph did not run in the following day's Revolucion. Over the next few years it would enjoy only a few low-key appearances in Cuban periodicals. Eventually, someone in a position of influence recognized the image's iconic possibilities. Shortly before Che's death, the photo -- by then known as "Guerrillero Heroico" -- was made a centerpiece of official Cuban propaganda. It adorned the hall at an international gathering of artists and writers in Havana in May 1967 and later that summer was displayed at the founding meeting of the Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS). Korda's "Guerrillero Heroico" became routinely coupled with Che's famous slogan calling on the international left to "create two, three...many Vietnams." In the aftermath of Che's death, the Korda photo, or various graphic derivations, became a staple of radical newspapers and left-wing poster art in North and South America and Western Europe. And in an ironic post-1960s development, the image took on yet another life -- this time as a marketing device, used to sell everything from air fresheners to condoms to an ice cream bar called Cherry Guevara.
Michael Casey, bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires and a frequent correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, seems especially to relish the commercial taint of recent appropriations of Che's image, the "commoditization of an anticapitalist rebel who opposed all that his hyper-commercialized image now represents." As Casey sees it, the issue is not that Che's image is without continuing political appeal but that it has too many diverse meanings to be the symbol of any coherent ideology. As one would expect, the Korda photo remains "the symbol of choice" for contemporary Latin American rebels, "wherever regional activists give the middle finger to the U.S.-backed free market system." It has also shown up in recent years as movement iconography in Palestine, Nepal, East Timor and many other locales caught up in radical insurgencies. But its appeal is not limited to conventional left-wing movements; it has been embraced, for instance, by "U.S.-backed Christian rebels in Sudan who are fighting a Muslim regime." He argues shrewdly that the contemporary meaning of Che's image ultimately isn't about communism or anti-imperialism: it's about attitude, and it's about sacrifice. "A man, a teacher, lays down a code of personal conduct from which to build a just society, a utopia, and then proceeds to live and die according to
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." Revolucion, 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."
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 Cabana 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 Revolucion'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 Rodriguez, 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 Rodriguez'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 Rodriguez 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, Rodriguez 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 Revolucion, 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 "Donde Esta? 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.
Casey also displays an uncertain grasp of US history in the late 1960s, claiming that "the culture and politics of the '68 youth movement in the United States were dominated by the antiwar, pro-peace hippies." Casey believes that the version of Che embraced by the American left in 1968 had been thoroughly defanged by peaceniks. There were certainly lots of hippies involved in antiwar activism in 1968; but there were also lots of intensely political radicals in groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) -- the first unmentioned in Che's Afterlife, the second appearing only in a footnote. And, for better or worse, these radicals already knew a great deal about Comandante Guevera, and they weren't engaged in any of the "softening" Casey attributes to the hippie peaceniks. Greg Calvert, SDS national secretary, told a reporter from the New York Times in May 1967 that "Che's message is applicable to urban America as far as the psychology of guerrilla action goes.... Che sure lives in our hearts." Two months later, in July 1967, SNCC chair Stokely Carmichael traveled to Havana, where he was elected as an honorary delegate to the founding meeting of OLAS. According to the account published in the Times, "Mr. Carmichael said that he had decided to come to Cuba because of a message last April attributed to the vanished Cuban guerrilla leader, Maj. Ernesto ('Che') Guevara. This message called on Latin-American revolutionaries to create two, three or more Vietnams. He said that the guerrilla leader was an inspiration to American Negroes." Following the Columbia University student strike in April 1968, SDS founder Tom Hayden adapted Che's "two, three" Vietnams slogan to the struggle on American campuses in a manifesto published in Ramparts calling for the creation of "Two, Three, Many Columbias."
Casey also lacks a basic understanding of the chronology of the era. "Especially after the death of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968," he writes, "civil rights leaders such as Stokely Carmichael, Eldrige [sic] Cleaver, and Malcolm X became vocal advocates of a more militant struggle for black Americans." Malcolm, of course, had been assassinated more than three years before King (and shortly after praising Che), while Carmichael and Cleaver had been vocal advocates of "militant struggle" for quite some time before April 1968. For the sake of his pet marketing analysis, Casey seems to want to infantilize and trivialize all '60s radicals, depicting them as just so many naïve groupies bowled over by the Guerrillero Heroico consumer style: "Guevara the warrior fit the hippie stereotype of beauty -- strong and handsome, but sensitive and loving at the same time." No doubt there were youthful communards who pinned silk-screened posters of Che on the wall next to one of Jimi Hendrix and couldn't quite tell the two apart after a few tokes of Panama Red. But is that really the appeal and meaning Che held for Carmichael or Hayden -- neither one a hippie softie -- or their numerous followers?
Casey can't answer the question, because his study lacks a comparative dimension. Che's image was not uniquely popular among Western radicals in the 1960s -- it was not the undisputed "defining icon" of the era, as Casey would have it. There was the famous photo of Malcolm X in full rhetorical flight, finger pointing in accusation. There was Huey Newton sitting in a wicker chair, with a rifle in one hand and an African spear in the other. There were anonymous Vietcong soldiers, men and women, clutching AK-47s, the Guerrilleros Heroicos of another struggle, their images a regular feature in the pages of New Left Notes and similar publications. There were even enough posters of Chairman Mao to provoke the Beatles to sing in 1968, "If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain't going to make it with anyone, anyhow." Could John Lennon not think of anything to rhyme with "Che"?
Jose Yglesias died in 1995, late enough to have watched the Che myth evolve through its later manifestations but too soon to have seen an undoubted expert on the subject also use religious imagery to define Che's legacy. On the occasion of John Paul II's 1998 visit to Cuba, where he preached in a Havana plaza dominated by a steel sculpture of the "Guerrillero Heroico" visage, a journalist is reported to have asked the pope for his thoughts on Che Guevara, a "protagonist in recent Cuban history." His Holiness is said to have replied, "He is now before God's Tribunal. Let's let our Lord judge his merits. I am certain that he wanted to serve the poor."
Che was a hard man -- a fighter, a zealot, an idealist with blood on his hands. History is full of similar figures -- Oliver Cromwell, John Brown, Leon Trotsky. And yet I still understand why some of their examples, and especially Che's, might appeal to contemporary young activists (and ones far less bloody-minded than I once was). Even Casey rejects the idea that those drawn to Korda's photo in the twenty-first century can be classified simply as the useful idiots of a failed totalitarian experiment or, contradicting his earlier emphasis on style and marketing, as passive consumers of Che's charismatic appeal: "It is not only Guevara's high cheekbones, long eyelashes and cool bomber jacket that make this photo desirable. Its appeal also lies in its spirituality, in its ability to feed people's longings for a better world and to encourage them to dream of defeating death.... Korda's Che keeps hope alive."
Maurice Isserman is James L. Ferguson Professor of History at Hamilton College and the author, with Michael Kazin, of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (third edition, 2007)
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