RAMBO, CHE AND I were getting nowhere. Neither were the building worker and his elephant next to us. Like the other vehicles—rusty trucks laden with teak, buses jam-packed with schoolchildren, sleek BMWs whose tinted windows hid the city’s shady nouveaux riches—my three-wheeled Tuk-Tuk taxi and the four-footed elephant were stuck in the gridlocked traffic of Din Daeng Road. My warrior companions glared at each other from the mud flaps attached to the chassis beneath me, while my English students twirled their pens and tapped their feet. Class would start late today, as would the job on a downtown construction site, which awaited the services of the great lumbering beast beside me.
Staying put meant enduring the incessant noise, the exhaust fumes, and the all-consuming humidity of the city’s tropical air. But these were unavoidable mainstays of Bangkok in 1990. So too was the problem of running late. I was used to them. So I ignored the discomforts and took delight in my sharing a traffic jam with an elephant. Who back home would believe this?
I had come to Bangkok for a short visit, attracted by a passing interest in Thailand’s unique culture. The six- week stay extended into a year, as I couldn’t seem to get enough of its many oddly juxtaposed situations. I’d spot a saffron- robed monk wearing earphones or a traditional Thai “spirit house”—intended to keep the resident ghosts at bay—decked out as a mini- McDonald’s. The bust of Rambo with the visage of Che Guevara on the back flap of a Tuk-Tuk, a vehicle so named for the sputtering sound of their two- stroke engines, was just another of these odd pairings. But it was an especially vexing one.
I could explain the burger joint for ghosts, the Walkman-wearing monk, the BMW idling by the elephant, all by-products of the clash between the old and the new in a rapidly changing city. As with the presence of two Western icons on the Tuk- Tuk, itself a long- lasting icon of Thailand, these were all signs that foreign modernity had come to coexist with Thai tradition. But what I, as a know- it- all twenty- two- year- old backpacker, failed to grasp was why Che, the most famous Marxist guerrilla of the Cold War, had ended up with Rambo, the Sylvester Stallone character whose vengeful victory over Vietnam’s communists had thrilled American moviegoers. A hopeful declaration of peace, a wish for common ground between the United States and Cuba expressed 10,000 miles from Havana? Or was it a Taoist message, a yin and yang pairing of eternally interacting opposite forces?
Rambo’s appearance was relatively easily explained: Both Rambo: First Blood II and Rambo III had recently been filmed on location in the country, and his picture generated a certain amount of national pride. But the long- dead Argentine revolutionary riding through Bangkok with him? That was a puzzle. Surely Che was turning in his grave, his image living out eternity on the back of a noisy vehicle full of bag- laden tourists in a fume-choked foreign city—all the while with his darkest enemy, an icon of anticommunism, just three feet away from him.
Here was one of history’s most contested figures, now condemned to a purgatorial existence. What a way to spend an afterlife.
Through encounters with him in Europe, the United States, and Latin America, I would later realize that Ernesto Guevara, better known as Che, is living not just one surreal eternity, but thousands. With his beret askew, his wispy beard, and his piercing eyes staring intently into the distant horizon, Che is now everywhere. In its common form as a two-tone abstraction of Alberto Korda’s famous 1960 photograph, his image is simultaneously a potent symbol of resistance in the developing world, an anti-globalization banner, and a favored sales vehicle among globally engaged marketing executives. Korda’s image has given Che what the Argentine-born revolutionary seemed to search for throughout his action-packed life: immortality. It gives true meaning to the popular slogan “El Che Vive!” (Che Lives!)
Death—and how to cheat death—were constant themes during Guevara’s flesh-and-blood life. For thirty-nine years, the legendary revolutionary and right- hand man to Fidel Castro defied his mortality countless times. As an infant in Argentina, Ernesto was brought to within an inch of his life by a severe bout of bronchial pneumonia; it left him chronically prone to a debilitating form of asthma. He and travel partner Alberto Granado survived hair-raising crashes on their motorcycle odyssey across South America, including a headlong run into a cow in Chile after their brakes snapped. In Guatemala, Che had to flee security forces intent on killing him. Later, after he left Mexico for Cuba with eighty- two of Castro’s invaders on the overloaded Granma pleasure yacht, he was one of at most twenty- two survivors. (Officially Cuban history puts the figure at twelve, a number filled with apostolic symbolism.) Over the course of the Cuban campaign Che was shot three times—in the neck, in the foot, and across his chest—not to mention the time a medicine tin protected him from a bullet headed for his heart. And while he was participating in Cuba’s defense against the Bay of Pigs invasion, Che’s gun somehow discharged into his cheek.
On October 9, 1967, in a little Bolivian town called La Higuera, his luck finally ran out. There, the nervous, half- drunk Bolivian sergeant major who was sent to finish off the prisoner hesitated when he got face-to-face with his victim. “Shoot, coward, you’re only going to kill a man,” Che said, or so his assassin later claimed. Commander Guevara had ordered his own execution.
In the decade before then, news headlines frequently reported his death—erroneously, it turned out. These stories appeared during the Cuban civil war when the Batista government fed false information to foreign journalists. They resurfaced throughout the first four months of Che’s clandestine Congo insurgency in 1965, when his sudden disappearance from Cuban public life gave rise to a colorful array of rumors. (The most common opinion was that Castro had him murdered for being pro-China.) And amid constant speculation over his whereabouts during his next failed campaign—this time in Bolivia—the Central Intelligence Agency prematurely pronounced Che’s demise on at least one occasion.
Invariably, Che recovered from his mishaps to prove the reports of his death wrong, breeding an underground myth of immortality. Cuban campesinos, poor country folk, came to believe in him as their protector, a Christlike figure brought to deliver them to salvation. Like any good Marxist, Che disdained such religious superstitions. But that didn’t stop people from wanting to believe he was blessed with godlike powers.
The myth of his divinity strengthened after his real death. Bolivian peasant women took locks from the hair of Che’s corpse in the belief that these relics would protect them. One of countless pop art reproductions of the Korda print was the “Chesucristo,” a rendering of Christ in Che’s image, the Guerrillero Heroico with a crown of thorns or a halo. Even atheistic Marxists ascribed supernatural powers to his ghost when nearly all the Bolivian army officers involved in hunting him down died violent deaths in the years that followed. “Che is watching over us. He is our secular saint,” wrote novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II at the conclusion of his devotedly sympathetic biography of Guevara.
Che himself prophesied his own death and legacy in the final paragraphs of The Motorcycle Diaries, his 1953 account of the Latin American road trip he took the previous year as a twenty three-year-old medical student. Ernesto ended the book with an “Afterthought,” a passage in which a mysterious character appears to tell the young Guevara, “You will die with your fist clenched and your jaw tense, the perfect manifestation of hatred and struggle.” Duly warned, Che concludes his story with a fiery pledge: “I brace my body, ready for combat, and prepare myself to be a sacred precinct within which the bestial howl of the victorious proletariat can resound with new vigor and new hope.”
However, Ernesto could not have foreseen the kind of immortality he has today: an eternity determined by human, not divine, intervention. Political opportunism, the publishing industry, photography, silk-screening, pop art, graphic design, computers, the Internet, copyright laws, and consumer-marketing theories have all collaborated in the maintenance of Che’s afterlife.
Of course Che is not the only famous person to live on in popular memory—society provides some form of posthumous earthly existence to anyone notable enough to be remembered. But Che’s legacy is different from most celebrities’. His fame has not only been sustained by historians but has also constantly evolved on account of a single 1960 image that has taken on a kind of postmortem life of its own. Whereas the compelling events of his real life and the story of its violent end perpetuated his legacy, it took the mass replication, reproduction, and marketing of the Korda photo to years later transform him into a pop superstar of immense iconic power.
To no small degree, Che’s immortality reflects the versatility of the Korda image. The photo is at once an advertising tool for “tribal marketers” selling just about any consumer product imaginable and a lasting symbol of resistance to the capitalist system promoting such products. The image seems to resonate with this self-contained irony. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman tells us that in order to prosper in the globalization era, people and institutions should act globally, be adaptable and durable, respond to decentralized decision- making, and above all, embrace change. That describes our twenty-first-century Che Guevara perfectly. Yet the contradictions contained in this posthumous engagement with global capitalism leave us with another question: Is there a core meaning at the heart of this image’s lasting power, and if so, what is it?
The publicity generated by the diary and the compelling story behind Che’s Bolivia campaign gave it a significance for Cuba and the international left that far outweighed its relevance as a military event. President Barrientos’s depiction of the operation as a “Cuban invasion”—an effort to dissuade impressionable young Bolivians from buying Cuba’s portrayal of it as a liberation struggle—was hardly an accurate description of the ragtag band who had wandered for months through an unimportant part of Santa Cruz, most of them to die pointless deaths.
Fast- forward to October 8, 2006: La Higuera, memorial for the thirty- ninth anniversary of the last day of Ernesto Guevara’s life. Four decades later, the invasion foreseen by Barrientos is finally in full swing. And this time the Cubans are doing it right—with their culture, not with guns. Ably assisted by their Caribbean cousins from Venezuela, they have taken over this remote outpost of civilization with gaudy colors and loud music.
We arrived in a convoy—the official dignitaries in SUVs, the hangers- on like me in taxis, minivans, or trucks—raising clouds of dust as we descended upon this little town of mud- brick and thatched- straw houses at the dead end of a hundred- mile trek from Vallegrande. There it seemed that the only features maintained or upgraded since October 1967 were the town’s proliferating Che murals and statues. Many of these sported fresh paint jobs for this year’s ceremony. After all, the date did not merely signify that thirty- nine years had passed since Che’s execution; it was the beginning of twelve months of preparation for an international gathering planned to mark the even more important fortieth anniversary. What’s more, this was the first time the memorial had been held during the administration of Evo Morales, a socialist president who hangs a Korda Che made from coca leaves in his office.
Just fifty meters away from the place where Guevara was executed, the organizers of the event had set up two banks of speakers alongside a stage draped with Cuban and Bolivian flags and more pictures of the Guerrillero Heroico. A tape of Che- themed folk songs, including the ever- popular “Hasta siempre comandante,” was blaring out into the valley below while the little plaza rapidly filled with visitors. Each was handed a paper Bolivian, Venezuelan, or Cuban flag. The biggest contingent, a group of Bolivia-based Cuban doctors, was settling into the folding chairs in front of the stage.
As members of their country’s 30,000- strong foreign medical corps, these doctors are part of a Cuban aid program administering free health care in sixty- eight countries. They are the vanguard of Havana’s new developing-world solidarity strategy. They deliver much- needed services, for which in return Cuba gets much-needed goods—subsidized Venezuelan oil, for one. As the face of their country’s humanism, they are also pivotal to what economist Archibald Ritter describes as its bid to rebrand itself: “Cuba is trying to reduce the emphasis on tourism . . . and become recognized as a source of medicine and education services worldwide.”
The marketing pitch behind this new brand centers on differentiating Cuba’s free universal health care system from the dysfunctional, expensive American one. But it is also clearly hitched to the old Che brand. A disproportionately large mission of Cuban doctors works out of the Dr. Ernesto Guevara Clinic at Vallegrande’s hospital, for example, the same one whose laundry room once housed its namesake’s lifeless body. At the anniversary ceremonies in La Higuera, the two brands were synthesized into a single image: Each of the 240 or so doctors in attendance wore a white lab coat unbuttoned to reveal a red or blue Che T-shirt.
By 11:30 a.m., the doctors and hundreds of others who’d arrived in La Higuera were getting edgy. Jeeps carrying dignitaries from Vallegrande were already an hour late. Without them, the memorial ceremonies could not begin. I used the time to visit the museum housed inside a small building on the site of the old schoolhouse in which Che was detained and shot. There I found a man introducing himself to visitors. He was Eusebio Tapia Aruni, and as he verified by pointing to his name on a list of victims and survivors, he had fought with Che. “It wasn’t true, it was a mistake,” I overheard him telling a Cuban doctor, who looked at him warily. I later found Tapia Aruni selling his autobiography and other printed material from a ragged blanket on the ground near the town’s main Che statue. It wasn’t until I read his book that I was able to put his presence there into its rightful context.
In March 1967, with rivalry and conflict brewing among his men, Che wrote in his diary that he had placed Tapia Aruni in a reject group before demoting him to the rear guard. It was a purge of what he called “the dregs,” and later, “the quitters.” Three months afterward, Tapia Aruni and another Bolivian, Hugo Choque, were captured. (The official Cuban version is that they deserted.) In response to army radio broadcasts about their surrender, Che wrote that he had no doubt they talked. But after reading Tapia Aruni’s own account—how he was a victim of a struggle inside the guerrilla group, how he valiantly endured torture by his captors, how he believed in the revolutionary cause to the end—I’m not sure Che had it right. Either way, I could feel nothing but pity for the diminutive Bolivian: He’d been dubbed a traitor by none other than El Che, a man he’d nonetheless continued to idolize. A founder of Bolivia’s Che Guevara Foundation and the author of more than ten books—on his life, on Che, on the revolutionary struggle, and on the injustices of neoliberalism—Tapia Aruni has spent his entire adult life trying to clear his name.
The sound of tires skidding to a halt on dusty pavement signaled the arrival of the anniversary organizer, Osvaldo (Chato) Peredo. With him came an entourage of Bolivian, Cuban, Venezuelan, and Argentine officials, including the guest of honor for the anniversary, Aleida Guevara. It was the first time Che’s daughter had visited the place in which her father had died. After a tearful tour of the museum, she was led back to the plaza to address the crowd. “I never thought I’d be able to come to La Higuera,” she said before a sea of waving paper Bolivian, Cuban, and Venezuelan flags. “But in fact I have a great sense of peace right now.” Dr. Aleida Guevara said she was emboldened by the support of her medical colleagues, those “who’ve come again from our Cuban island in the Caribbean to bring health and education, and all the love possible to the men and women of this land.” They’d followed in the footsteps of her father’s men in 1967, she said, who’d similarly “left their families for a deep and beautiful ideal: to bring liberty and sovereignty to other peoples.”
From then on, the program moved quickly. A lineup of speakers took to the podium, their speeches interspersed with audience chants prompted by an announcer: “Fidel!” “Viva!” “Chávez!” “Viva!” “Evo!” “Viva!” The wife of one of the Miami Five held on espionage charges in the United States, “the most terrorist nation on earth,” called tearfully for their release. In a demonstration of diplomacy Cuban-style, the country’s ambassador to Bolivia, an imposingly tall man with a mustache, railed against “the genocide facilitated by a servile opposition to the interests of the Bush government.”
And the Argentine representative, piquetero leader Luis D’Elia, who would later play a pivotal role in his country’s political crisis of 2008, declared that a newly socialist Latin America, in “saying no to Bush, no to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and no to free trade treaties,” was proving that “Che is not dead.”
The sound of a military helicopter drowned out the Argentine’s voice, however. Bearing both a Bolivian flag and the letters FAV (Venezuelan air force), the presidential chopper landed in a nearby field, kicking up dust and leaves that drifted over the plaza before descending onto the throng like gritty rain. There was a great sense of anticipation as we waited for the blades to stop. But the door opened and no Evo Morales was to be seen. A spokesman conveyed the president’s apologies: He was delivering televisions in flood- affected areas.
As we returned to our seats, a guitarist played a few more melancholy Che ballads before Chato Peredo took the microphone. Such events are emotional affairs for this man, the brother of Coco and Inti Peredo, both of whom fought with Guevara and died in the struggle. In 1970, Chato led his own doomed attack on a U.S.-financed gold mine at Teoponte, north of La Paz, in which all but nine of the sixty- seven young guerrillas died. Today, however, he was acting as the most senior representative of Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) alliance, the new power in Bolivian politics. And in this capacity he had found himself in a slightly sticky situation as he explained why the official delegation had been held up earlier. The people of nearby Pucará, he told the crowd, had used this occasion to enforce a fifteen- year outstanding demand on the government. When Peredo’s entourage had reached their little town, the townsfolk had stood in his way, refusing to budge until he signed a document promising them electricity.
After Peredo’s remarks, the people of La Higuera made a ceremonial presentation to Aleida Guevara. Once this was concluded, the Cuban ambassador hustled the guest of honor into a waiting SUV while attendants took charge of her gift. Standing behind the jeep, I watched three men lift a solid two- foot- high replica of La Higuera’s main monument, a bust of Aleida Guevara’s father, into the back of her car. As it sped off up the hill in another cloud of dust, Che’s eyes stared at me through the rear windshield.
Aleida’s departure triggered a mass exodus. Just as quickly as it had arrived, the invading army retreated up the same track. Within an hour, the Bolivian officials, the Cuban doctors, a delegation of Venezuelan teachers, three different state TV crews, and a variety of banner-waving student groups had all disappeared. Save for a few stragglers, La Higuera was quiet again. It returned to being a town in the middle of nowhere.
I caught a ride with an Italian chef and his Swedish girlfriend, who offered to share their taxi to Vallegrande. Fausto Borelli and Angela Fjordmarke had been making their living for the past ten years in the now booming city of Dublin, which explained their odd-sounding Irish-Italian and Irish-Swedish accents. They were now taking their hard- earned euros on a whirlwind bus trip through Bolivia. Fausto told me it had always been his dream to visit La Higuera. He’d been to Cuba three times and had traced Che’s steps from the arrival point of the Granma yacht through the Sierra Maestra to Santa Clara and then to Havana. On this trip, he’d been in Rosario, Che’s Argentine birthplace, and he had now finally made it to La Higuera, the climax point for Che’s story. “It’s amazing. I have goose bumps. I tell you, I might cry later,” he said. Fausto insisted his interest in Che had nothing to do with politics or religion and was simply because “this guy did so many good things and helped poor people wherever he went.” In fact, Fausto didn’t even like those who use Che’s image “for protests and things like that, because he wouldn’t have wanted to be used as an idol.”
The chef was nursing a hangover from the night before, but he was still keen to restock his beer supply for the journey back to Vallegrande. So we stopped in Pucará, which sat at the halfway point in the two- hour journey. While Fausto stepped into a kiosk, I dashed off into the town square, where I hoped to find the mayor who’d organized the blockade at the start of the day. Chato Peredo, the ex-guerrilla and current representative of the Bolivian government who’d led the delegation of officials at the ceremony in La Higuera, had earlier told me he sympathized with the town’s situation. “I come by here four or more times a year. It gives me great pain to see that in this era of human history there is still a town that doesn’t have electricity,” Peredo said. He’d insisted, however, that the solution was not confrontation, but rather dialogue. I figured the mayor would disagree.
He wasn’t hard to find. “Over there, the one who’s dancing in the yellow top,” said a local, pointing out one of the town leaders, in a little group of revelers. Mayor Fernando Rengel seemed to be expecting me. “Imagine, we here, a municipality of 2,500 inhabitants and nineteen communities, we are the only municipality in all of the Department of Santa Cruz that doesn’t have electricity. It’s a truly incredible thing. What century are we in? We are in the twenty- first century,” Rengel said, stopping occasionally to spit flecks of coca leaf from his teeth. For the next twelve months of events related to the fortieth anniversary of Che’s death, his people were going to block the road repeatedly, the mayor vowed. “We are not going to let anyone past until we resolve this problem,” he declared, adding that there’d been a $130,000 plan in place for twelve years to install electric cables and signaling equipment, but the prefecture and the government had failed to agree on how to implement it. “Well, no more agreements. They mean nothing! We are not going to let anyone continue on to La Higuera until we see the installations begin . . . How are we supposed to have appropriate conditions for all the tourists who are coming here without energy? We don’t even have a hotel or a hostel. Why not? Because we don’t have energy!”
I thanked my interviewee and returned to the car, where Fausto handed me a beer. After I’d recounted Rengel’s words, the Italian looked at me earnestly and said, “I tell you, Che would have been proud of him.”
Maybe it’s the lack of electricity, the dusty unsealed roads, or the various other shortcomings in the infrastructure that hint at an inhospitable terrain’s refusal to be tamed; or maybe it’s the insularity of the people who inhabit it and the way they cling to a subsistence lifestyle. In any case, this part of Bolivia seems to be cut off from the outside world. Even after forty years of foreigners traipsing through it, it feels trapped in time. This is despite the fact that the area around La Higuera is both highly politicized and part of a giant multinational culture. It is the contradiction between this vast global identity and a small- world local reality that is so striking about the lack of development here, not the limited amenities per se or even the persistence of pre-Columbian traditions and languages.
The taxi that delivered my European traveling partners and me to Vallegrande seemed to symbolize this dogged resistance to the outside world’s influence. Known as a transformado, our vehicle was once a right- hand- drive car designed for some left-side-of-the-road foreign country. It had ended up in Bolivia’s used-car market, and to comply with local road rules, an auto shop had shifted the steering shaft to the left- hand side. And yet the instrument display had been left on the right. Once again, the foreign had failed to merge with the local.
As I watched the speedometer tick before me in the front passenger eat, I became acutely aware of the gulf between our lives and that of the fourth occupant of the car, the driver. We three travelers had a connection forged out of a new era of global interconnectedness.
I was an Australian- born employee of a U.S. multinational living in Buenos Aires; they were from Italy and Sweden and had met as fellow immigrant workers in Ireland, the land my ancestors had fled in starvation now transformed into a high- tech powerhouse with an insatiable demand for foreign labor. We were hardly alike, but as we shared thoughts about a dead, Spanish- speaking white guy in a common international language, our differences began to look superficial. By contrast, when I glanced at the driver, I sensed an unfathomable cultural divide. Unable to make sense of our chatter, he dipped constantly into the plastic bag of coca leaves between us and chewed on its contents voraciously. He did not say a single word throughout the three-hour journey.
There is something tragic about this persistent cultural and economic gap, especially as it pertains to the outsiders who arrive here every year to rededicate themselves to the struggle for the poor and honor a man who did the same. For all the attention paid to La Higuera, they have delivered close to no material advancement to its impoverished residents. The pre-Columbian, animistic traditions of this place do not mesh with the ideas and sensibilities of the industrialized West. It’s the same clash of cultures that stymied Che’s attempts to introduce a progressive strain of that Western thought, as if those who follow in his footsteps are condemned to repeat his mistakes. Consider the scene each October—hordes of foreign dignitaries, political leaders, social activists, alternative lifestyle advocates, and romantic dreamers spend three hours in a remote, dusty village of decrepit mud-brick huts to hear bombastic speeches and plaintive ballads through giant speakers. Surely this is what Marx meant when he said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
OUR PURSUIT OF the globalized Che brings us full circle, back to the country in which his iconic image was born. Although so many other places have contributed to the construction of the icon since then, Cuba continues to loom large in Che’s afterlife. The Cuba of the twenty- first century—a very different place from the Cuba of 1960, especially now that it faces a future without Fidel Castro—is the perfect place to comprehend the contradictions that revolve around the icon in the age of globalization, as well as the contemporary economic, political, and social factors that shape its place in society. Contemporary Cuba is at once a product of that age—dependent on tourists, foreign investment, and overseas remittances—and a throwback to the insulated, inefficient, restricted Cold War world.
Like Che, the Cuban revolution survives as an ideal and a marketable brand, one that is increasingly distant from the reality of daily life on the island. While some of Cuba’s heralded successes have been maintained at great cost to the public purse—notably, its universal health care system—its wider economy has collapsed while its professed commitment to socialist principles has been challenged by the inequities of a dual- currency system that was erected in desperation in 1991. In this system, Cuba is not one country, but two—one geared toward a more open future and a place in the global economy and another clinging to a Cold War–era past and its noble but nonetheless failing principles of egalitarianism.
It is in effect, a country in denial. In one of those two Cubas, anyone possessing hard currency lives out his daily existence inside an exclusive economy reserved for this elite form of legal tender, bringing with it the material comforts of a more or less normal consumer existence. Millions of others, however, are trapped in the other Cuba, where the dilapidated economy of the revolution’s worthless original currency offers little more than the dwindling pickings of the government’s daily ration book.
Nothing defines twenty-first-century Cuba more than the contrast between these two economies and the daily battles its citizens wage to break from one into the other. And while the Cuban government, to its credit, does little to hide their economic hardships, displaying the country’s collapsing infrastructure in all its glory (and blaming it, where possible, on the U.S. embargo), the regime is not being honest with its people, with the world, and with itself. There is a wide gap between the ideals of the Cuban revolution and the reality of life on the island, which means that its myths, including its most lasting and influential one—that of Che—are laid bare. And yet, despite all of this, somehow they survive, defying the comical incongruities that surround them.
The contradiction is embodied in a lanky- framed man who struts back and forth outside the Ambos Mundos Hotel in Old Havana each morning. The man’s livelihood is simultaneously dependent on the strength of the old Cuba’s revolutionary branding and the new Cuba’s insertion into the modern global economy. With his hands folded behind his stiffly upright back and his eyes locked in a serious expression, the gentleman projects an air of authority. Yet he is obviously not a policeman, nor indeed does he perfor many other official function. He has a long, graying goatee of wispy, curly hair pulled into a triangular point at his chest. An unlit cigar protrudes from his left breast pocket and a plastic whistle dangles from the other. His shirt sports a Cuban flag pin and another that looks like a military medal but is in fact a commemorative badge for volunteer cane- cutting work. Two toy military radios are attached to his belt, one on either hip, and a fake plastic mobile phone is clipped to his right pants pocket. This uniformed sentry s on the lookout not for wrongdoers but for tourists. Through them he makes a living and through them his image, just like that of the man he imitates, travels the world.
“My name is”—he started to tell me—“. . . actually, most people around here know me as El Che.” And to prove this, he called out to a passerby. “Hey, excuse me, what’s my name?” The answer was immediate: “You are El Che.” He began to explain his “job” for the revolution, veering into a rambling speech about imperialism, love, war, peace, and the evils of El Presidente Doble Bush. (Literally, “President Double Bush”—he apparently dropped the second part of the Spanish word for W, doble ve.)
“Many tourists who come here to Cuba, which is blockaded by American imperialism, the American policy of President Double Bush, they come to see me and get to know me as a personality,” said El Che, who later confided that his parents had given him the name Omar Sandovar Pose when he was born in 1946. “And, you know, I have been in Italy, in Austria also; I’ve been in France, in England, in Honduras . . . all the nations of the people who come to visit me here in Cuba. They come to take a photo and take it to their country . . . I’ve even been in America.”
And what did this Che think of the real Che? He answered in the present tense: “He is a man of principle and ideals, a man of well- formed morals, a man who always fights for the liberty of all people, and not only in Cuba, a man who is difficult to characterize, a personality of conscience. He is, as we say in Cuba, the patriotic conscience of our nation. You feel him always in your heart, but also in the hearts of the world.” This feeling, Omar explained, is shared by “the American people, but not by the government.” Americans, he said, “respect Che very much, they see him and they love him, because he is a man who fights to liberate people from this imperialist monster Double Bush . . . But there is a place in heaven where there will be a judgment and this President Double Bush will pay for all that he has done, in Cuba especially and in the world, everywhere . . . Viva Cuba! Viva all people of good moral conscience! Viva la revolución! Viva our comandante Fidel! May he have good health and may he recover rapidly according to the wishes of the Cuban people and the people of the world. And viva our comandante Che! Hasta la victoria siempre!”
With that he moved across the street and took up position against a painted brick wall. Stiffening, he adopted a fixed stare, looking in my general direction but focused above my right shoulder. And there it was, the look perfected over the years, the Korda look that had sent the image of this old man and his wispy beard around the world.
I snapped some shots and it was time for payment. Never comfortable with the ugly business of haggling with a person whose income is pitifully smaller than mine, I’d neglected to set a price beforehand. “How much?” I asked.
“I’m just interested. What do you think Che would think of what you do?”
He seemed to take offense. “This is my work,” he replied. “It is my job. I do it for the people.”
We parted ways. Omar Sandover Pose returned to his patrol on the other side of the street. Tourists approached and the look returned to his face. He was back on the job.
I paid my Che impersonator in convertible pesos, the special currency into which incoming foreign currencies must be converted for the bearer to gain access to a range of goods not available in moneda nacional, the old peso in which most Cubans are paid their government salary. In recent years, the value of the convertible peso has been at more than twenty times that of the old peso.
The trigger that brought this patently unfair two- currency system into being came with Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. When the Soviet premier halted sugar subsidies for Cuba in 1990, he plunged Castro’s government into bankruptcy. With no inflows to fund them, Cuba began printing massive amounts of moneda nacional simply to pay the 9 million Cubans on its payroll. It was a recipe for disaster.
With literally nothing to buy beyond the narrow list of fixed-price goods in their government-issued ration book, Cubans sent all these new, excess pesos in search of foreign currency. The value of the dollar against the peso soared in the black market, where it went from its one-to-one rate in the protected Soviet economy to 130, a clear sign of how things had become unhinged. Eventually, in a desperate and somewhat successful bid to save its finances, the government legalized the dollar in 1993 and shifted a host of “nonessential” products into high- priced, exclusively dollars- only stores. A year later it introduced the newly invented convertible peso as a vehicle for capturing the incoming dollars and other currencies. These days, the original peso is good for public transport—if and when the buses arrive—utilities, and an ever-shrinking and deteriorating selection of items on the monthly ration book. Anything imported, any electronic goods, any half-decent restaurant, anything of passable quality must be paid for in convertible pesos, for which a person essentially needs foreign currency. At $15 a month, the average moneda nacional government salary won’t buy you very much of that.
In 2008, as Raúl Castro formally took power from his ailing brother and began gingerly pursuing a China-like moderation in policy, much attention was given to various “liberalizing” measures he introduced: He permitted the sale of computers, DVDs, cell phones, and other electronic goods to individual consumers and did away with an apartheid- like ban on Cuban citizens staying in hotels—which were previously reserved exclusively for foreign tourists. But along with some punitive measures taken against Havana-based bloggers, the perpetuation of the distorting dual-currency system was an indication that there were serious limits on this shift toward moderation. Making these “luxury” items legal does not mean that the millions of Cubans who are stuck earning the worthless local currency can come anywhere close to buying them. If anything, the opening up of this market will only widen the wealth gap between the owners of foreign currency and those who earn local currency. It will also likely deepen a severe racial divide: The Cubans with the easiest access to dollars are the mostly white citizens with family members living abroad, while black Cubans tend to live in poor rural communities cut off from foreign income sources. Given these worsening divisions, it’s hard to see how Raúl Castro can achieve his goal of “equal opportunity” without dismantling the deeply flawed dual-currency system.
But this is a daunting task. The 2,000 percent gap between the two currencies must be bridged without either creating rampant inflation or a devastating contraction in demand. It’s tempting to speculate that some in his administration now wish they’d found a different solution to the crisis provoked by the Soviet collapse. But the truth is, the roots of this monetary breakdown go much further back than 1989, to a man who thirty years earlier took a highly inappropriate posting as Cuba’s top central banker.
Che Guevara often joked that he mistakenly volunteered for that top finance job when Castro said he was looking for an economist to run the bank because he thought he’d said “communist.” Once in office he signed the first new bank notes with a simple “Che,” converting his nickname into something akin to a graffiti artist’s tag. The country’s banking community, or what was left of it, was aghast at the impropriety. They didn’t know the half of it. In symbolically discrediting the revolution’s first currency, this man who foresaw a socialist utopia dispensing with money altogether was willing its descent into worthlessness. And that’s precisely where it ended up.
As if to commemorate Che’s association with the valueless official currency, his face is all over it. (Given all the notes in circulation, it undoubtedly represents the largest single reproduction of the Korda image in the world.) Most prominently, the Guerrillero Heroico image appears on the three- peso bill. Yes, a three-peso bill. Not being a factor of ten, bank notes denominated in threes have a dubious reputation in many cultures—note the expression “as phony as three-dollar bill”—which is perhaps why few countries print them. Ever willing to go against the international grain, Cuba reintroduced the three- peso bill in 1995, when all other ex–Soviet bloc countries were taking theirs out of circulation.
One reason to do so, apparently, was the bill’s popularity with foreign collectors as a piece of Che memorabilia. In terms of its ostensible purpose, however—as legal tender for commerce—the moneda nacional three- peso bill doesn’t command much respect from the locals.
“You’re interested in Che? Well, here, have this,” a passerby said to me in a back street of Havana’s Cerro district. Then he doubled back: “Oh, and have another one.” The joke was clear: This gift was not a gift at all, for he’d given me something that was worthless to him. Yet we both valued the exchange. He’d earned a laugh and I was given a priceless reminder of the harsh differences between Cuba’s myths and its material existence. (The two “worthless” bills now occupy pride of place on a bookshelf of mine in Buenos Aires.)
I’d arrived in this gritty neighborhood via the services of a wiry-bodied rickshaw driver, from whom I received another lesson in the dynamics of Cuba’s great currency game. I was looking for homes with pictures of Che converted into mini-shrines. Throughout a bumpy ride punctuated by potholes, I watched Havana’s dilapidated infrastructure get worse and worse as we got away from the tourist center of Old Havana. Whole apartment blocks defied gravity, some supported solely by rusted steel girders exposed by the erosion of their concrete foundations. Against this material deprivation, the resourcefulness and spirit of Cuban society was on full display. From many higher apartments, people were pulling little packages up on a rope—a less tiring way to obtain groceries when the elevator doesn’t work—and from virtually every open doorway, chatter, laughter, music, and people were spilling out into the street.
Suddenly my driver turned to me and said, “Quick! Police! Get out, get out!” He’d neglected to tell me he wasn’t licensed to carry tourists. Only motorized taxis could do that, and with a tall blond guy in the backseat of a slow- moving, open-air vehicle, he was a sitting duck. It didn’t mean the deal was off, though. I just had to slink away behind him as he went ahead solo for a block or two. Later I was to rejoin him. We repeated the same dismounting exercise six times before we got to our destination. Frequently someone would come over and warn us that the police were at an upcoming intersection. Thanking them, we’d take a detour, or I’d get out and walk a couple of blocks, trying to look like an innocent tourist in a neighborhood that was well off the tourist map.
Why this strange cat-and-mouse game with the police? And why were neighbors so willing to assist in our subterfuge? The answer is that although his official job is to carry Cubans around, my driver, like nearly everyone in Cuba, makes his living off people like me. His survival, or at least his chance to enjoy a small luxury every now and then, depends on finding a way around government restrictions on a most prized possession: foreign currency.
Thanks to this system, with stark distinctions between the haves and have- nots, all manner of illegalities have arisen. Prostitution has boomed, producing the common and unappealing sight of young Cuban jinetera girls on the arms of old foreign men.
Meanwhile, workers paid in the worthless local currency steal their enterprise’s output and sell it at a twentyfold markup in convertible pesos. Among countless other scams, I heard stories of employees in moneda nacional bakeries diverting the day’s supply of bread rolls to hard-currency restaurants and cafés for a 2,000 percent profit. Of course this only means there are fewer products available for the wider, moneda nacional–carrying population.
Despite these inequalities, Cubans readily display their famous solidarity. Hitchhiking is commonplace. (Ride- sharing gets around the inefficiencies of public transport.) The barrios of Havana have their doors wide open. And there’s a palpable euphoria at nightclubs, where gyrating youngsters seem to be celebrating their country’s survival and independence. There is joy in Cuba, even if some Cubans (such as the country’s political prisoners) are prohibited from sharing it. And this, it must be said, would not be possible if the government did not sustain some key elements of socialism—free medicine, education, housing (however substandard), and other basic necessities.
Where Cuban society breaks down is in its relationship with the state. Rates for crimes against individuals are low—although rising—but the state earns no respect. “They pretend to pay us; we pretend to work,” goes a common expression. In fact, for countless pretend workers, stealing from their pretend paymaster is a daily undertaking. It’s a matter of survival.
Even true believers in the revolution—remarkably, they still exist—accept that some corruption is unavoidable. For them, the question becomes: Where is the line between survival and capitalist greed? For a Cuban friend in whose tiny, dingy apartment I shared a late- night chat with some of her pals, a gathering interrupted by a neighbor eager to buy some of her contraband rum, “survival” meant the freedom to talk poetry and politics over coffee—to have what the Latin American left calls una vida digna, a dignified life. Defining the parameters of such a life is a personal matter. The problem is that the myth- laden language of the Cuban revolution allows no room for ambiguity or choice.
IN MARCH 2008, when Fidel Castro announced his official departure from Cuba’s political stage, I published an op- ed examining his legacy in The Wall Street Journal. The response gave me a taste of what I imagine is to come with the publication of this book. The column, which drew upon my research into the Che icon to argue that Castro owed much of his political longevity to the Cuban revolution’s success as a brand, evoked some strong opinions in the blogosphere. And many of them were, in my mind, way off base. The anti- Castro camp assumed that, in revealing the revolution as a hollow facade, I was doing its bidding. Just as predictably, the left saw the article as pure Cuba- bashing. “No matter what Cuba does, it’s always bad, according to the Wall Steet [sic] Journal. Remember: bad, Bad, BAD, BBAADD!!” wrote Cuba solidarity activistWalter Lippmann in a posting to his CubaNews list.
This response was hardly surprising. According to the unwritten rules of American political discourse, a byline in The Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages tends to automatically flag the columnist as “conservative.” Indeed, the Journal’s on-staff editorial writers have dedicated tens of thousands of words over the years to discrediting Castro. Although they also criticize the U.S. embargo—with an intellectually consistent adherence to free trade principles—that history meant that the antagonists on either side of the Cuba divide, trapped in the ideological straitjackets of their respective narratives, pigeonholed my article. It was quickly slotted into the rigid dichotomy of their endless dispute.
While the language of branding is a product of modern U.S. capitalism, it is really just a commercially practical way to describe how symbols and images are used in many forms of communication. The stores of values that brands are said to represent had existed for centuries before U.S. business schools began offering classes in something called marketing. The nexus between image and message was at play in the evolution of religious symbols such as the Christian cross or the Islamic crescent, in the display of family crests by European nobles, in the prevalence of tribal markings, and in the development of cave painting. Humans have always used meaning- laden images to promote (sell) ideas, to build loyalty among followers (customers), to cultivate a sense of belonging within communities (markets), and to differentiate themselves from their enemies (competitors). In some cases, the icons that evolved did so organically (which was partly the case with the Korda Che); in others, they were overtly produced by and for political or economic interest groups (also present in the Korda Che).
What’s key is that in our current era, as we are increasingly inundated with data, ideas, arguments, and sales pitches, this image-creating activity has become more and more important. The digital revolution is propelling us into a world of infinite resources for publication, throwing us all into greater competition for our prospective audience’s finite capacity for attention and retention. This imbalance between supply and demand is the defining feature of the giant global information economy. Technological advances simultaneously empower and challenge anyone seeking to get a message across—be they companies, politicians, churches, NGOs, ideologues, activists, countries, or just regular joes. The line between commercial branding techniques and traditional, noncommercial communication and image- building is increasingly blurred.
I can understand why this would present a depressing picture to anyone who has decided that revolutionary solutions are needed to fix the world’s injustices. Such people would be offended when some financial journalist reduces the struggles in which they’ve shed blood, sweat, and tears to the seemingly soulless business of branding. After all, according to the stereotype, marketing is about deceit—it suggests a situation in which the marketer, or the brand manager, controls and manipulates his ignorant target. No one likes to be told they’ve been conned.
But this is not what I’m saying. Acknowledging the role that branding and image- building play in politics does not mean, as Marxist sociologist Nelson Valdes sarcastically suggested in a critique of my article, that one believes “the entire globe is inhabited by dupes and idiots while the only people who comprehend the reality of the world are those who manipulate images.” We owe it to ourselves to recognize human agency in the act of consumption and especially in forging brand loyalties. There’s nothing to say that customers—or voters or activists or religious devotees—must be ill informed or disempowered when they make such choices.
The gap between Castro’s socialism brand and its economic reality is too wide for me—especially since the country scores so poorly on freedom of expression, personal liberty, and other principles I regard as important. But a person who prioritizes social equality over individual freedom and property rights might see Cuba’s universal health care, the success of its free education system, and its low crime rates as legitimate reasons to prefer it over the alternative, Brand USA. What matters is that this package of constructed image and real facts fits their personal value system. Choosing a brand—much as choosing to display a loved one’s photo, to don a religious pendant or national flag pin, to wear a favorite team’s colors, or to declare our admiration for a political, artistic, or sporting hero—is a personal act. Brands, symbols, and images are incorporated into a person’s identity. They form part of the idealized self with which we define our place in the world.
This is why the Korda Che brand is so prevalent and so enduring: It feeds the soul. Far from fitting Cuban-American writer Humberto Fontova’s description of them as “useful idiots,” people are drawn to the Che image for reasons that will defy outsiders’ political characterizations. Very often what matters is a personal connection to the image itself, more so than the story of Ernesto Guevara. In fact, the brand is powerful because, quite independently of Che and his story, the icon that emerged from Alberto Korda’s photograph is independently capable of stirring the forces of human imagination and of tapping into deep- seated longings for a better world.
Let us now return to Argentina, to a far less picture- perfect setting than the Blue Mountains National Park, to a community with more immediate concerns than skateboarders’ graffiti. We’ll head back to Villa de Arrojo la Pierda, the dirt- poor shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires that I visited with the Jóvenes de Pie activists, a place in which an overflowing canal had weeks earlier drowned a young boy and a wheelchair- bound man.
There the women of the villa presented me, along with a film crew from the documentary Chevolution, with their Chica del Che, a girl who was never seen in public without her Che T- shirt. Thin, younger looking than her fourteen years, and wearing a black T- shirt with a faithful reproduction of Korda’s photo, Jaquelin Cantero was placed in a chair in the dusty yard of her mother’s lean- to. Before her stood Sylvia, the British director; Natalie, the film crew’s administrative assistant; the soundman Gabriel, who was wearing headphones and holding a microphone on a boom.
Jan, the Scottish cameraman, a $50,000 high- definition digital camera perched on his shoulder; four student activists; various villa women; and me. We were all eager to hear her answer the question we’d been scouring the world to answer: Why Che? In this case, the answer would not come easily. Partly that was because Jaquelin was tongue- tied with terror. But it is also because we were all looking for different things. And as it turned out, we were looking for the wrong thing.
“What does Che mean to you?” I asked, once camera and audio were rolling. If that question made me sound like a detective, it became even more threatening after Jaquelin’s mother, acting as an unsolicited “translator” of my sufficiently functional Spanish, rephrased it: “What do you know about Che?”
There was a long silence and then meekly, nervously, the girl began: “He was born in Rosario . . .”
Fear enveloped the rest of her answer. She stopped and looked around, seeking help that wouldn’t come. Her mother urged her on: “He was born in Rosario. And then?”
“He went to Bolivia . . .”
A long pause. Again, her mother: “You are speaking well, sweetheart.”
“And he fought with the Bolivians, who then . . .” Her voice stopped again, leaving us in another painful silence before it returned faintly. “He fell into a trap, and they took him to a little school. After that, they took photos of him, and then took him back in again, and they killed him.”
As her daughter’s eyes nervously darted back and forth, her mother sought to prompt her: “Where was he and who was he with?”
“In Bolivia . . .”
What bothered me was not this error of fact. It was the excruciating sensation that we were putting this poor girl on trial. The terrified Jaquelin seemed to assume she was being subjected to a history exam. The members of the Jóvenes de Pie had been regularly instructing the shantytown residents on Che and his message. Maybe she thought it had come to this: a test in front of a panel of foreign interrogators and an armory of intimidating equipment.
By now Jaquelin was frozen stiff. Still, the questions kept coming at her from all sides: “Why do you wear the Che T- shirt?” “What does Che mean to you?” “Why do you like this image and not some other Che image?” “What does it represent?”
Despite encouragement, our interviewee mostly remained in this trancelike state, offering very few responses other than to unconvincingly echo others’ ideas. (“Proud,” she said halfheartedly when we’d asked her to confirm her mother’s pronouncement that “Jaquelin always tells me she is proud to wear Che.”) Yet when I later read the transcript, I discovered some fleeting moments in which the Chica del Che seemed to speak independently about her attachment to the image, dropping clues that had failed to register at the time. “Because he is beautiful,” Jaquelin offered at one point, conflating the persona of Che with the T-shirt she never removes. “I always sleep with him,” she said at another. And in a final insight shortly before we cut the interview: “When I see someone with the T- shirt of Che, or on a big banner, I feel jealous, because, well, I dream of him always.”
Jaquelin’s Che was bound up in ideas of beauty, love, and dreams. It struck me that she didn’t need to recall or even accept the stories about Guevara’s valiant efforts to save the poor. What she sought in his image was beauty.
For all the young activists’ worthy attempts to help the residents of this slum take control of their lives, Jaquelin Cantero’s future is fairly bleak. She is a poor, undereducated adolescent living in an illegal settlement alongside a filthy waterway that’s capable of transforming into a malevolent, life- stealing force. Faced with outsiders’ repeated failures to fix such problems, Jaquelin may well have concluded that her escape from this depressing situation lay not in political mobilization but in the refuge of beauty. By making the exquisite Korda Che a part of herself, Jaquelin allows herself to dream, to imagine, to believe in magic, to do all those things that make her human and give her life purpose. For this she deserves not sympathy but something far more valuable: empathy.
Perhaps this, as much as anything, is why Alberto Korda’s Che continues to tap a deep wellspring of emotion among millions of people and why it functions as a multipurpose brand. His image is beauty made manifest, in this case in photochemical form. And so long as it remains more or less copyright-free, it is available for anyone to attach hopes and dreams to.
The randomness of the creation of the Korda image, the magic of a chance encounter, partly explains its power. In a perpetually dynamic, infinitely unpredictable universe, this moment of beauty was as fleeting as any. Yet in capturing it, the fashion photographer made it immortal. And immortality, we are told, is the stuff of art. Any great work’s attraction, theorists say, lies in its power to subvert the ravages of time. Shakespeare’s words are as beautiful now as they were four hundred years ago; the ancient Grecian urn so admired by Keats lives on, first in its physical form and later in his poetry. Art and beauty enrich and sustain the imaginative power that separates us from our earthly, mortal existence. With the Korda Che, this is taken to another level, since the very idea of immortality is contained in that image. What else is it that this man who stands before a funeral crowd is seeking to defy with his implacable expression if not death itself? When Ernesto Guevara was executed, it was natural that this image, one in which he seems to be defying death, would end up on the placards of Parisian students as they took to the streets and chanted, “El Che vive!” This image gave Che his afterlife.
Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder. And clearly, many people do not find it in the Korda Che. But to the millions who do, it offers a taste of immortality. It is not only Guevara’s high cheekbones, long eyelashes, and cool bomber jacket that make this photo desirable. Its appeal also lies in its spirituality, in its ability to feed people’s longings for a better world and to encourage them to dream of defeating death. It helps them confront that sinister force, whatever shape it takes for them—a military dictatorship; a CEO slashing jobs; an offense against their religion, their sexuality, or their favorite TV channel; or a flooding drainage canal. Against these real and imagined threats, Korda’s Che keeps hope alive.