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Nick Turse © 2003

 

 
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Okay, I’ll admit it.  I’ve got two in my closet.  I wear them to work, at home, at school and, yes, I bought them for far more than one should pay for a tee-shirt.  Like many radicals, communists, fellow-travelers, would-be and pseudo-revolutionaries, disaffected youth and nostalgic leftists, I own Che Guevara-themed clothing.  Two shirts to be exact.  One is the classic variety featuring the famous Korda (Alberto Diaz Gutierrez) portrait in black silhouetted against the stark red fabric of the tee-shirt.  The other has three smaller Korda portraits in red, green and yellow emblazoned above the phrase “The Day of the Heroic Guerilla”.  

As the actual “Day of the Heroic Guerilla,” celebrated every October 8th in honor of Latin American guerrilla leader and revolutionary theorist Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s last battle, approached, I began to take inventory in my home and elsewhere of Che’s influence and legacy.  In addition to my tee-shirts, I have books written by Che, books written about Che and, in my workspace, a large Che banner given to me as a gift.  I am literally surrounded by images of Che.  Clearly, I can live with the comodification of Che even if his image has been tainted by the ever-co-opting capitalist system.  Perhaps attrition renders it less offensive; for a long time now dorm rooms and people’s chests have been adorned with his image. In that role Che was being used to advance recognition of Che, his ideals and “the revolution.”  Che selling “Che” never bothered me too much.

Shirts, posters, baseball hats and key rings are one thing, but way back when I read John Lee Anderson’s mammoth (and indispensable) biography Che (1997), I was rather appalled by the revelation of the existence of “Che”-brand beer and cigars.  Using Che’s image and face-recognition to hawk alcohol and tobacco rubbed me the wrong way.  Not because I think Che would find drink or smoke offensive (after all he enjoyed his cigars and wasn’t shy of the bottle), but because, at least to me, Che has always been a symbol of principled rebellion, idealism, selflessness and total commitment to the revolution  – a radical saint, of sorts.  “Che” brand beer reduced him to the likes of Spuds Mackenzie (if you can still remember that beer-hawking pit bull) or the Coor’s Light twins. Indeed, Che’s descent into marketing hell parallels’ America’s own brewer-patriot, Sam Adams whose radical beliefs, like his dictum that “It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds,” have been all but forgotten.

Some years back the Simpsons television series ran an episode (“Who Shot Mr. Burns (Part 2)”) which featured a nightclub named “Chez Guevara.”  I laughed then and have since at the many re-runs.  Then recently, in a rather lousy article, I read that anti-World Trade Organization protesters met at the "Cafe Che Guevara" in Mexico City.  I have no idea if such an establishment actually exists, but the mere mention made me think back to the old Simpsons episode and wonder if life was imitating art.  Of course, it wouldn’t have surprised me if “Cafe Che Guevara” was for real.  After all, a few months back I happened upon “The Che Store” - an online shop that hawks Che-themed items from cigarette lighters to berets and claims to cater to “All Your Revolutionary Needs.”  Wow!  A $150 “Che” Swatch watch.  ˇViva la revolución!  Or for those of the guajiro class without the funds for such fine wrist-wear, there’s always a Che figurine  - yours for just $29.99.

Only days after reading the WTO piece, however, the existence of Mexico’s alleged “Cafe Che Guevara” became irrelevant when I heard about a Che Guevara eatery in Cairo, Egypt that hopes to soon become a full-blown chain of restaurants.  So long Chez Guevara.  Hello, McGuevara’s!  Done up in a black and red motif and replete with pictures of Che, the restaurant also boasts a corps of waiters clad in olive-green fatigues, combat boots and, of course, compulsory berets!  But, in addition to its Che Guevara-face placemats, the restaurant also boasts numerous television sets showing the latest music videos during the day (although they are switched off in the evenings) – a rather odd combination.

  According to the chief manager, an advertising guru dreamed up the Che Guevara theme because of the revolutionary’s international name and face recognition in order to appeal to a wide cross section of customers since, the manager confesses, such a plan is “better from a commercial and marketing point of view…”  Still, he maintains, the restaurant does try to educate the public about Che and his ideals.  I remembered Che once noting that a revolutionary band must sometimes take needed food in exchange for a promissory note.  I wondered if his café would accept such “bonds of hope”, as Che termed them, as an IOU for the “Cuban smothered chicken” or “Guevara potato boats” they serve?  I doubted they would.

Further, it all just seemed so wrong.  A chain of “Che” restaurants.  I could almost picture them popping up like little black and red Olive Gardens attached to shopping centers all across Amerika.  But would that necessarily be a terrible thing?  I tried to detach myself from possible Leftist chauvinism to analyze it in the abstract.  What about potential benefits?  Perhaps a chain of Che’s Argentinean Angus Steakhouses would generate an increased recognition for the late revolutionary and his teachings.  Maybe a trickle-down effect would result.  Eat at Che’s a few times, read the slightly-modified excerpts of Guerilla Warfare on the placemats  - “It is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making the revolution exist; the insurrection can create them” but why not wait just a little bit and have a Che parfait after your meal - and soon people all across Amerika would be donning berets and taking to the hills to begin a revolutionary struggle.

On further reflection, however, such dreams began to evaporate.  McDonald’s pitchman, ubiquitous as he may be, to my knowledge, has not spurred millions of youth to take up the clowning profession.  Nor have many, it seems, have found religion due to the proliferation of TGI Fridays – despite the chain’s emphasis on weekly worship.  Instead, I feared not only would Che’s message be watered down and irreparably altered, but his image ethos and mystique would damaged beyond repair (imagine his beret reduced to the Burger King’s crown).  Soon Che’s tenet of revolutionary struggle: “In underdeveloped America the countryside is the basic area for armed fighting” would become the Chez Guevara’s business plan of  “The underdeveloped strip mall is the basic area for commercial expansion.”  Worse yet, after Fidel Castro’s death, a Chez Guevara might even pop up 90 miles South of the U.S. in the midst of the wilds of Sierra Maestra (where Che, Fidel and their fellow revolutionaries once waged their guerilla struggle) to accommodate the tourists who now travel to “Che Guevara’s Mountain Retreat” as part of a 15-day “Cuba Libre” tour package.  

Okay, maybe the Che chain of American eateries (with a post-Fidel Cuban expansion) issn’t yet plausible.  But it raises the question of the possible Ronald McDonald-ization of Che.  While the sale of Che and other radical paraphernalia by hip capitalists, in the form of tee-shirts, posters, etc. may undercut the import of the rebel and his message to a certain extent, simply by dint of exposure to the capitalist enterprise, McGuevara’s would necessitate a remanufacture of Che.  While Ronald may be a powerful pitchman, he hasn’t spawned billions and billions of clowns, instead he’s sold billions and billions of burgers – the reason being that Ronald was created for one purpose and one alone, food sales.  Che, however, is not an artificial sales tool.  He has a powerful and competing ethos that runs counter to the capitalist system.  As such, to become the “rebel”-Ronald, Che would actually have to be stripped of his actual radical import and remanufactured utilizing a psuedo-radical chic aesthetic that preaches conformity and consumption in the guise of rebellion, turning him into something akin to Madonna’s Che-, Tania- (Che’s compatriot Hayde Tamara Bunker) and Patty Hearst-inspired creation on the cover of her American Life album.  Thus, while theoretically possible, it would take a tremendous amount of time and effort to strip away all spectre of communism, radicalism and armed rebellion from Che to allow for the uncomplicated co-optation of his image. 

The mere existence of the true Che ethos would create too many problems for the consumer-friendly fake Che - generating anger among those on both the left and the right about the appropriation of Che’s image and causing uncomfortable questions for capitalists behind McGuevara’s.  The power of Che’s image and the time and money it would take to de-radicalize and remanufacture the guerilla leader’s image would protect the iconography of Che from being transformed into a sanitized and de-radicalized sales-friendly icon ala Ronald.  Ironically, the capitalist obsession with cost-effectiveness is the ultimate insurance against casting Che as the rebel-Ronald, as it would be much easier to launch a totally faux-radical chain of eateries (perhaps American Life-Madonna would be interested in being the spokes-clown) or simply appropriate aspects of Che-inspired radical chic to hawk fast food - as Taco Bell did with their beret-clad Chihuahua’s “revolutionary taco” and “Gordita-ism” campaign of a few years back.

Still, even if Che could not feasibly be transformed into Ronald, did it really matter?  With the “Che Store” hawking $150 watches and another site selling $50 designer Che shirts, perhaps it was already a lost cause.  Maybe I and others like me who bought our “revolutionary” tee-shirts had caused Che’s image to be commodified, commercialized and co-opted beyond redemption even if it hadn’t been remanufactured in the Ronald McDonald mold.  Perhaps, one could only make the best of the situation, as did Cuban musician Silvio Rodriguez who once said, “In the end it is better to put on a Che T-shirt than a [Ronald] Reagan one” or, for that matter, an anti-Che shirt.  Would I have to face facts that whatever he meant to the revolution, Che was now also a pitchman for whatever needed to be sold – whether it be designer clothing, food, cigarette lighters, watches, wine or vodka?

Ernesto "Che" Guevara would have been 75 years old this past June if he hadn’t been executed by a joint Bolivian Army-U.S. CIA team.  In the years since his death, had Che’s entire legacy been overhauled, if not nearly obliterated, and replaced by a readily consumable image?  Aside from his writings, I wondered, was there nothing of quality and substance left with Che’s name emblazoned on it?  Then I spied a recent article that restored my faith.   

In the tropical climes near the mouth of Vietnam’s Mekong River is Ben Tre province – a region of Vietnam especially famous for its hard-core female revolutionary fighters (like General Nguyen Thi Dinh) during the American war, it was there, over thirty years ago, that one of the first of the “Che” brands was introduced in Ben Tre – the Che Guevara School.  Unlike the Che-emblazoned cigarette lighters, which bear a disturbingly similar resemblance to the Zippo lighters that American soldiers used to burn down the villages of Vietnamese peasants, the Che Guevara School offers the something of the promise of Che’s vision instead of a manipulative way to make junk saleable to those who seek to identify with their revolutionary hero.

A product and symbol of the “longstanding relationship and that mutual affection” between the people of Cuba and those in Vietnam, the Che Guevara School offers its students an education in Che’s revolutionary vision, with his biography, as well as detailed lessons in Cuba’s history, integrated into the curriculum.  The education appears to be rubbing off.  Nguyen Thanh Van, a 10th-grade student in the school, recently told a group of Cuban visitors, “We're honored that our school is named after the great revolutionary leader of Cuba” and expressed hope that Cuban students would soon visit his school.  “My farming family is not well-off,” he said, “but if they want to stay I'm ready to invite them to live with us.”  The itinerant Argentinean guerilla would no doubt have approved of the sentiment and the cross-cultural alliances in might foster.

After his capture, Che was bound and held as a prisoner for a time.  When his executioner came to finish off the wounded revolutionary, Che shouted: “I know you've come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you're only going to kill a man.”  On October 9, 1967, Che Guevara died of multiple gunshot wounds.  Like Che, his image and the message have been repeatedly assailed.  He has been forced to bear the ignominy of selling beer or having his name attached to something called “potato boats.”  And yes, some Guevara’s self-professed ideological adherents have been forced to capitulate, most recently Victor Polay Campos of Peru’s Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. 

But, as he predicted, only the man died on that day in 1967.  The vision lives on still in Ben Tre and other Che Guevara schools, such as those in Cuba and Angola; at protests and rallies across the world where radicals of all stripes don Che-emblazoned clothing; and even among rebel groups, such as the re-emerging, re-politicized and now ideologically-reinvented Peruvian Shining Path guerillas - who have recently linked up with the Marxist rebel group known as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who have, in turn, created political cells in Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia.  Eschewing old tactics that often relied chiefly on terror, Shining Path guerillas now pay peasants for their food and provide political and ideological education to communities in their zones of operation.  Further, recent attacks on government forces have met with overwhelming success - both essential components of the successful guerilla struggle as documented by Che.

While Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s continental revolution might still be some time off, the growth of a newly resurgent pan-Latin American Marxist movement evokes shades (however faint) of Che’s ultimate vision; the schools named for him keep his legacy alive by educating the youth of the developing world about the revolutionary leader and his ideology; and his image at protests keeps his dream alive.  Not even expensive watches, “potato boat” appetizers or pricey designer shirts bearing the name or image of the “heroic guerilla” can tarnish this.  So wear your Che shirt at the next march or rally, eat at Chez Guevara only if you must and remember on the “Day of the Heroic Guerilla” and always, ˇViva Che!

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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