|Comrade Che keeps an eye on British workers
Thursday, 24 October, 2002, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK by Owen Booth (BBC)
The iconic image of a windswept Che Guevara stared from the walls of many a bed-sit in the 1960s and 70s. Now he's back, keeping watch over Britain's new trade union leaders Union leaders Andy Gilchrist and Bob Crow keep a picture of their hero on the wall, so did Arthur Scargill in his heyday. Mick Rix, the general secretary of Aslef, even named his dog after him. Who is he? Che Guevara - hero of the Cuban revolution, left-wing icon and the face that has sold more posters than anyone else in history.
Remembered as a romantic freedom fighter, an expert in guerrilla warfare, and a thoughtful philosopher who died young for his cause, Guevara has always been the revolutionaries' revolutionary. Stylish, vehemently anti-American and considerably better looking than Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, he practically invented the image of the bearded, beret-wearing left-wing radical, as adopted by thousands during the 1960s and 70s. But what does Guevara - and especially his image - mean today? A former medical student from a very middle class Argentine family, Ernesto "Che" Guevara was an unlikely revolutionary hero.
He attributed his political awakening to a 1952 motorbike tour of South America he took as a student, during which he saw the poverty and inequality of the continent first-hand, and which he later recorded in the book The Motorcycle Diaries. Leaving Argentina to escape military service, he was involved in left-wing movements in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala before meeting Fidel Castro and joining the revolution to overthrow the Batista dictatorship in Cuba.
As Castro's chief advisor and a major in his guerrilla army, Guevara trained his men in military tactics and revolutionary thought, and was rewarded with a place in Castro's government and the title of "native-born Cuban" when the communists took power in 1959. But after leading the defence against the US-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Guevara took off again, initially to fight "North-American imperialism" in Africa's Congo, and then attempting to "export the revolution" to the rest of South America.
In October 1967, Guevara disappeared while leading an uprising against the Bolivian government. He had been captured and executed by the Bolivian army, something that ensured his elevation to heroic martyr for the revolutionary cause. That the exact whereabouts of his body would remain secret for another 30 years only added to the Guevara myth. Legend has it his last words to his executioner were "shoot, coward, you're only going to kill one man".
Across the world his face - windswept, handsome, staring heroically into the distance - has appeared on millions of revolutionary book covers, T-shirts, badges, keyrings and mugs, as well as the ubiquitous poster that covered thousands of students' walls in the 60s and 70s. Guevara - his nickname Che means "hey, you!" - has become shorthand for radical thought. A version of him as Jesus was even used by one Christian organisation. But the same image also recently appeared on a poster advertising Smirnoff vodka, surely proof that the Che "brand" has become so overused as to be meaningless?
The Argentine writer Ariel Dorfman has suggested Guevara's enduring appeal might be because "to those who will never follow in his footsteps, submerged as they are in a world of cynicism, self-interest and frantic consumption, nothing could be more vicariously gratifying than Che's disdain for material comfort and everyday desires".
In other words: revolutionary chic is a great way to sell things. Undoubtedly, it's an view that Messrs Gilchrist, Rix and Crow, and other emerging "hardliners" in the UK's trade union movement, would chose to disassociate themselves with.