Hero, martyr, doctor, revolutionary, killer

Icon: The Che image is still as popular and as marketable as ever.

Should we celebrate Che Guevara? To mark the 50th anniversary of his death today the Cuban president laid a white rose on his tomb and Ireland issued a set of commemorative stamps.

“I fired a .32 calibre bullet into the right hemisphere of his brain which came out through his left temple. He moaned for a few moments, then died.”

This is how Ernesto “Che” Guevara describes executing Eutimio Guerra, an army guide who admitted to giving away the position of Guevara’s rebels during the Cuban revolution.

After the revolution had succeeded and Guevara was one of Fidel Castro’s most trusted ministers and advisers, he would lie on top of a wall at La Cabana prison, jauntily smoking a cigar and watching firing squads kill the victims of his show trials.

Che Guevara died 50 years ago today. He was caught and killed by the Bolivian army, in the last country in which he would attempt to foment a rebellion. How did such a bloodthirsty killer become a trendy fashion icon?

Originally from Argentina, Guevara was born into a middle-class, left-wing family. While studying medicine he took a motorcycle tour around South America and came to see the continent not as collection of separate nations, but as a single entity requiring mass liberation.

He developed an "affinity for the poor” and thought popular communist uprisings could change the social order and the poverty. His first stops on the revolution trail were Guatemala and Mexico, but it was as a leader of Fidel Castro’s Cuban guerrillas that Guevara found fame.

A year after the revolution in Cuba succeeded, Alberto Korda Díaz took the photograph of Guevara that can now be seen on T-shirts, hats and posters around the world.

At a time when the world’s most important communists were old men in grey suits in grey cities in eastern Europe, Guevara fitted the bill perfectly as the archetypal freedom fighter — romantic, bearded and young.

His attitude to life was simple. He believed change was necessary and should come quickly. “Don’t drag out the process. This is a revolution,” he said.

But there is another view represented by philosophers such as Roger Scruton who says, “Good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”

Revolutionaries often get hero-worshipped by the young. But should they?

People power

“Without revolutions, the world would still be run by brutal kings and emperors,” say some. Violence is a bad thing but against oppressive dictatorships there is often no other option. Some regimes are so toxic that only a radical break from the past can erase them.

“Simplistic rubbish,” say others. The world is not black and white. The horrific violence of the Reign of Terror in France or of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s was all caused by revolutionaries. They brutalise countries and put nations at war with their history. Gradual change that is mindful of the merits of the past is the answer.

You Decide

  1. Are you pro-revolution or anti-revolution?
  2. Is it immoral to wear a Che Guevara T-shirt?

Activities

  1. Sketch a stencil drawing of a well-known person in the style of the famous Che Guevara image.
  2. “Revolutions always eat their children.” In 500 words, discuss this saying and cite examples of it happening.

Some People Say...

“Wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt is now the least rebellious thing in the world.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinian revolutionary, was killed 50 years ago this week in Bolivia. According to Time magazine, he is one of the most influential people of the 20th century. His legacy still divides opinion: those who idolise him see him as a defender of the poor around the world. His detractors cite his violence and the repressive nature of the revolutionary governments he supported.
What do we not know?
Whether Che will remain an idol for young revolutionaries in years to come. Across the West, sympathy for his left-wing ideas has risen again in recent years. We also do not know whether a wave of popular revolutions will hit the world in the coming years, just as they did in the Middle East in 2011.

Word Watch

Bolivian
Guevara travelled to Bolivia to lead forces in revolt against the government of René Barrientos Ortuño. With US assistance, the Bolivian army captured and executed Guevara, burying his body in a secret location. In 1997 his remains were discovered, exhumed and returned to Cuba, where he was reburied.
Fidel Castro
Ruler of Cuba from 1959 until 2008,when he retired from ill health in favour of his brother, finally dying aged 90 last year.
Photograph
As Chris Berg noted in The Age, "Ironically, his longevity as a cultural symbol has been thanks to the very economic system he sought to destroy.”
Roger Scruton
An English philosopher who is regarded as one of the foremost conservative thinkers of his generation.
Reign of Terror
A period in the wake of the French revolution where 16,594 official death sentences were given out. However, the total number of deaths is believed to be much higher.
Stalin’s purges
A campaign of savage political repression in the 1930s; 600,000 people, from peasants to priests to opponents of communism, were killed at the hands of the Soviet government.

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