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Sunday 6 January 2008

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The “left-ist but strangely capitalist”

With 35 million Google results returned on his name, there is no doubt Jesus Christ is big. But how much bigger would he be if the church had a photographic brand as powerful as Che Guevara’s?

Che’s name returns six million Google results. And he’s only been dead 40 years.

When I recently cycled through Cuba I was struck by the power with which the Castro regime uses Che’s image to represent the moral strength and energy of their revolution. Che’s image is everywhere, usually with accompanying heroic rhetoric.

Castro says in a recent biography: “Che is an example. An indestructible moral force. His cause, his ideas, in this age of the fight against neoliberal globalization, are triumphing.”

“We want our children to be like Che,” he said. By the way, Castro only returns 4.5 million Google results so he’s got some catching up to do.

Che has become a revolutionary brand based on a photograph taken by Alberto Korda in 1960 at a memorial service in Havana. The picture is called Guerrillero heroico (Heroic Guerrilla). Korda copyrighted the image but never received any royalties.

He died in 2001 but not before suing Smirnoff and winning a US$50,000 settlement for illegal use of the image in an advertisement (which he donated to the Cuban health care system).

It’s arguably the most powerful brand image in the world today. And, in effect, no one “owns” it.

Commenting on the illicit use of his photograph, the artist said: "As a supporter of the ideals for which Che Guevara died, I am not averse to its reproduction by those who wish to propagate his memory and the cause of social justice throughout the world, but I am categorically against the exploitation of Che's image for the promotion of products such as alcohol, or for any purpose that denigrates the reputation of Che."

So how would he feel about the mega-business that has become Che Guevara merchandise?

Sure, the image out there on tee-shirts and caps promotes the brand. And the brand represents rebellion. So it must be OK? says: “The spirit and passion of Che Guevara have attracted a vast and devoted international following that avidly embraces Che as the definitive symbol of rebellion, a legendary leader of revolution, and a 20th Century cultural pop icon.”

It further offers: “the largest collection of Ernesto Che Guevara merchandise found anywhere in the world. works closely with more than 15 companies worldwide to put this collection together for you.”

At the bottom of every page, it claims: “All Che Guevara merchandise is officially licensed.”

By whom I wonder?

There must be millions of garments and other paraphernalia bearing the Che image manufactured and sold throughout the world every day.

The profits generated would be bigger than the Cuban economy.
And I can’t image any profits made from use of the image making their way back to the Cuban health care system.

There’s some supreme irony in all this isn’t there?


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