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Che Guevara Photo: The Iconic Image Explained

Historical Art | March 5, 2020

Guerrillero Heroico. (Wikipedia Commons)

Taken on March 5, 1960 in Havana, Cuba by photographer Alberto Korda, this famous photo of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara is one of the most unavoidable photos in pop culture and human history. Titled Guerillero Heroico, you've undoubtedly seen Che Guevara's photo on mugs, t-shirts, purses, posters, magnets, and perhaps even painted on the sides of buildings. But just who is this Che Guevara character, and why is his face all over the place?

Che Guevara was an Argentine Communist revolutionary who was most notable for helping Fidel Castro take Cuba from the brutal dictator Fulgencio Batista and restructure the nation into a socialist republic. Che's legacy is a complicated one, and your opinion of whether or not he was a good person probably depends on what country you live in. In America, for example, there are two Ches: The idealist leader who fought for human rights and stands as a symbol of progressive social revolution, and the mass-murdering psychopath whose cruelty barely overshadowed his half-baked notions of foreign policy and the economy. It's all very sticky.

Che as Minister of Industry in 1963. (Wikipedia Commons)

So what's the truth? Which Che Guevara is real? Let's start this with what we know as fact. Che was born as Ernesto Guevara in Rosario, Argentina on June 14, 1928. He was an exceptionally bright boy and didn't let his asthma stop him from being active in sports. Both of his parents were politically and socially minded, encouraging him to read philosophy, poetry, and mathematics. He earned a medical degree from the University of Buenos Aires, but he took lengthy breaks from his studies to ride his motorcycle across rural South America, where he saw poverty and starvation like he had never imagined. In his most famous book, The Motorcycle Diaries, he credits this experience for influencing his views on the world and his place in it.

Fidel Castro in D.C. (Wikipedia Commons)

Che Guevara was only a doctor for a few months, leaving the world he knew behind to become a political revolutionary. His first experience in this arena was through his support of Guatemalan President Jacobo Guzman, who struggled to redistribute property from the United Fruit Company (an American corporation monopolizing the land) back to the local working class. The U.S. didn't like that, so they disseminated propaganda against the Guatemalan president and also funded and armed mercenaries in an effort to violently remove the democratically elected Guzman from office.

Guzman fled, and Che became disillusioned with the idea of peaceful revolution. He moved on to Mexico, where he came into contact with another left-wing revolutionary, Fidel Castro. Together, they concocted a plan to travel to Cuba and overthrow the truly ruthless dictator Batista.

Those are the irrefutable facts. Here's where things get messy.

Cuba from space. (NASA/Wikipedia Commons)

Some people say that the famous Che Guevara photo shouldn't be celebrated because he's a murderer. To be sure, he did kill a lot of people. During the Revolution, he personally took the lives of many Batista soldiers and even some of his own people who he believed to be deserters or spies. Many of these accounts are chilling, as Guevara's approach to swift execution was said to be cold and merciless. However, when we compare these stories to those about, say, George Washington, things get a little foggy. Did Washington execute those that deserted the Continental Army? Yep. Did Washington execute spies? Yep. Did Washington displace entire communities through violent methods? Oh, you betcha.

Street in Havana, Cuba. 2019. (Wikipedia Commons)

So is the American perception of Che Guevara as a cruel and merciless murderer just anti-Communist propoganda? Not exactly. What truly earned Guevara international infamy was what came after the Cuban Revolution's success. He's often called "the Butcher of La Cabana" because of his part in executing hundreds of Batista's people after the revolution was won. However, the image in many Americans' minds of Guevara roaming the streets randomly accusing civilians of disloyalty and shooting them is untrue. Those killed at La Cabana were in some way involved with the Batista government or military. They stood trial and were convicted and formally sentenced to death by a tribunal that Guevara claims was at least loosely based on the Nuremberg trial model (that thing that we used to convict Nazis). In fact, many historians argue that the Cuban people overwhelmingly approved of this after suffering for years under Batista's government, which routinely tortured and murdered its people. On the other hand, many also claim that some of the charges were bogus and Guevara simply wielded his power to ruthlessly silence dissenting beliefs.

Cuban missile map 16 October 1962. (Wikipedia Commons)

Still, Guevara has other marks on his record. It was he who invited the Soviet Union to bring missiles into Cuba and egged them on during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Luckily, the Soviet Union backed down, but Guevara's eagerness to start a nuclear war is alarming to say the least. Likewise, there is the issue of forced labor camps, the elimination of all free media, the conviction of political enemies based on paper-thin evidence, and lots and lots of arbitrary detentions of civilians. Also, once the Revolution was over and Guevara actually got his coveted leadership in the Cuban government, his policies were almost always failures from an economic perspective. There was food rationing. It wasn't great.

And yet for all the bad, there is still good. Guevara's social and educational initiatives were responsible for pumping the literacy rate up to a whopping 96% from 77% pre-Revolution. He opened public colleges, nationalized banks, and improved public healthcare. Eventually, however, he realized he was a little bit better at guerilla warfare than he was at running the government, so he set off to other countries like the Congo to support their Communist uprisings. He failed and was eventually captured by C.I.A. operatives in Bolivia, where he was executed by firing squad. They buried his body and sent his severed hands back to Cuba so they could identify his fingerprints and announce his demise to the people.

Photo taken on March 5, 1960, published within Cuba in 1961, internationally in 1967. (Wikipedia Commons)

If it's still not clear why Che Guevara's photo is all over novelty gift shops and in the dorm room of every liberal arts major in America, it comes down to a few things. One: It's a good photo! Despite the grandiose posturing, it's actually a candid shot that was cropped down and rotated slightly to make it look as if it were a portrait. The gravitas in Guevara's expression is due to his mourning of the lives lost at the explosion of the French freighting ship La Coubre that was docked in Havana the day before. Guevara was in a building near the explosion and ran to the scene despite the evident danger, delivering emergency medical treatment to several of the victims. The Cuban government believed the C.I.A. was behind the whole thing, and an American on board was later tried and executed for the attack. The raw and haunting emotion on Guevara's face resonates with people, and it makes the photo striking from a purely artistic perspective.

Images of Che Guevara are silk screened onto fabric by automated process. (Getty Images)

Secondly, the man who took the photo, who was also anti-capitalist, released the photo into the public domain in accordance with Guevara's belief system. That means it's free to print. Third, or maybe just as a result of that last thing, it has a long tradition of being used as a catch-all symbol for left-wing revolution every since publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli spread it across Italy in 1967 to promote leftist sympathies toward Guevara's cause. Today, most people use it simply as a symbol for progressive revolution. If you asked someone wearing a Guerrillero Heroico shirt to tell you 10 facts about Che Guevara, they likely couldn't answer you, but maybe that doesn't matter. In the 21st century, Guerrillero Heroico isn't really about Che Guevara, the complex man with a sordid history. Guerrillero Heroico is about conflict, social justice, and political revolution.

Tags: art | che guevara | cuba | fidel castro | politics | south america

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