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Che Guevara: 7 Things You Should Know Before Putting On That T-Shirt

Feared for his brutality, famed for his ideals.

08/10/2017 08:23

In the 50 years since he was killed, that image of poster boy for Communist Cuba - Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara - has claimed a special place in the homes and on the chests of students and would-be revolutionaries globally.  

This striking picture of the long-haired Guerrilla fighter, wearing a soldier’s beret with a single star, has ensured him legendary status as an international folk hero and symbol of rebellion, half a century after his death.

Keystone-France via Getty Images
The iconic picture of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, taken by Alberto Korda (pictured), who died in 2001 

The photo was once deemed by the Maryland Institute of Art as the most famous of all time - but how much do you know about the Marxist revolutionary it depicts?

Is there a doctor in the house? 

Guevara qualified as a doctor in 1953, leaving Argentina soon afterwards. During a motorcycle journey through South America with his childhood friend Alberto Granado, Guevara served as a medic for three weeks at the San Pablo leper colony in Peru. The experience is said to have radicalised Guevara into a lifelong crusade against what he regarded as the capitalist exploitation of Latin America by the US. “If you tremble with indignation at every injustice then you are a comrade of mine,” became one of his more memorable quotes. 

Rex Features
Guevara pictured with Fidel Castro in 1961

Revolutionary friends in high places

Argentine-born Guevara fought alongside Fidel Castro and helped him to reach one-party state power in Cuba’s 1959 revolution. He was central bank governor and industry minister in the early years of Castro’s rule. He advocated nationalising private businesses and dreamed of a classless society where money would be abolished and wages unnecessary. In his book Guerilla Warfare (published in 1961), Guevara wrote: “The peasant must always be helped technically, economically, morally and culturally. The guerilla fighter will be a sort of guiding angel who has fallen into the zone, helping the poor always and bothering the rich as little as possible in the first phases of the war.” 

Guevara was also feared for his brutality and ruthlessness and oversaw the executions of deserters, informers and spies. In one particularly dispassionate diary entry he wrote of executing peasant army guide Eutimio Guerra for treason: “I fired a .32-calibre bullet into the right hemisphere of his brain which came out through the left temple. He moaned for a few seconds, then died.”

FilmFour
2004's The Motorcycle Diaries starred Gael Garcia Bernal as Che Guevara and Rodrigo De la Serna as Alberto Granado 

The Hollywood treatment 

Guevara’s early travels through South America made it to the silver screen in 2004 in The Motorcycle Diaries. The film was co-produced by Robert Redford and was heavily criticised for portraying him as a youthful idealist.

Anthony Daniels, an outspoken of Guevara’s, argued that the film wrongfully glorified him. “The film is thus the cinematic equivalent of the Che Guevara T-shirt; it is morally monstrous and emotionally trivial.” He added: “It is as if someone were to make a film about Adolf Hitler by portraying him as a vegetarian who loved animals and was against unemployment. This would be true, but... rather beside the point.” 

Oswaldo Rivas / Reuters
Merchandise featuring the iconic image of Che - once deemed by the Maryland Institute of Art as the most famous of all time - remains popular 

The anti-capitalist celebrated by capitalism 

Speaking of morally monstrous, the iconic image has been massively reproduced on T-shirts, mugs, baseball caps, Swatch watches, bikinis and other products of the capitalist society Guevara loathed and fought against.

Let’s not forget he had once vowed: “Once more I was able to convince myself how criminal the capitalistic octopuses are. On a picture of our old and bewailed comrade Stalin, I swore not to rest before these capitalistic octopuses are destroyed.” 

Money talks 

Though he dreamed of a society where money would be abolished, to this day Guevara appears on a Cuban banknote cutting sugar cane with a machete in fields. He remains a national hero in Cuba where he is remembered for promoting unpaid voluntary work by toiling on building sites or hauling sacks of sugar. 

Claudio Divizia via Getty Images
Guevara on a 3 pesos Cuban banknote 
Claudio Divizia via Getty Images

A key figure 

In Rosario, the Argentine city of his birth, there is a 12ft bronze statue of him created from 75,000 donated, melted-down keys donated by supporters from around the world.

Erected on the 80th anniversary of his birth, The Wall Street Journal quipped: “Che Guevara finally gets more than a lousy t-shirt.”

MCT via Getty Images
The statue of Guevara, unveiled in his hometown of Rosario, Argentina, in 2008 was made from 75,000 melted keys donated by supporters from around the world

An ignominious death 

Guevara left Cuba in 1966 to start a new anti-US guerrilla movement in the jungles of eastern Bolivia, hoping to create “two, three, many Vietnams” in Latin America. He was captured by CIA-backed Bolivian soldiers on 8 October 1967 and was shot the next day in a schoolhouse. His bullet-riddled body, eyes wide open, was put on display in a hospital laundry room and later buried in an unmarked grave. He was 39. Guevara’s remains were dug up and placed in a mausoleum in 1997.

STR New / Reuters
Bolivian soldiers with the body of Guevara, as he lay dead on the laundry room sink of Vallegrande hospital, placed there for the public to view 
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