Fifty years ago this month, Bolivian government forces shot dead the revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, ending a decade of Communist activity by the celebrated guerrilla fighter.
American officials, in a private memo, described the cold-blooded killing as “stupid,” and it is easy to see why. Afterwards, as the body was laid out for the world to see, some local people began to cut off bits of his hair as relics. Rather than showing Che's defeat, the image of his corpse bore a striking resemblance to Andrea's Mantegna's “Lamentation of Christ.” In death, Che became more powerful than ever.
Shortly before the killing, Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinello had acquired the rights to buy his Bolivian Diary, and was directed by the Cuban authorities towards Marxist photographer Alberto Korda to find a picture to illustrate it. Korda gave him an image he'd taken seven years previously, and which had until then appeared only on his own wall. When the book was published the following year the photo, showing Guevara looking into the distance and wearing a beret and severe expression, appeared on the front. Today it is known as Guerrillero Heroico - the “Heroic Guerrilla Fighter” – and while the word iconic is overused, it does indeed have a sacred air.
Guerrillero Heroico has since appeared on an untold number of students’ walls, as well as murals, statues, t-shirts, and countless advertising campaigns. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, it is the most reproduced image in history, and if you don't recognize it, you're probably a Replicant. Soon after Che's death it was adapted by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, who made an even more famous stylised version: Che in black on a sharp red background, and it is this which features on a new stamp issued by the Republic or Ireland, much to the disgust of many Cuban-American exiles.
As Yale Professor Carlos Eire lamented:
Che was my neighbor in Havana, and I actually saw him in the flesh several times. He lived in an opulent mansion just a few blocks from my small house, and also ran the prison of La Cabaña, where some of my relatives ended up being tortured and murdered by him. Their crime was to voice an opinion different from Che’s. Or, in the case of my uncle Filo, it was the simple fact that his son Fernando had voiced an opinion Che didn’t like.
The stamp is in recognition of the Argentinean's ancestry and features a quote from Che's father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, who said of his eldest that “in my son’s veins flowed the blood of Irish rebels.” Their ancestor, Patrick Lynch, had come from one of the 14 “Tribes of Galway,” the Catholic gentry families that had dominated the county since the twelfth century, and had left in 1740 in the face of growing Protestant domination and repression. Among his descendants are some of the cream of Argentine society, and the younger Ernesto grew up in a comfortable intellectual household that was home to 3,000 books, which he read avidly. Unfortunately, among them were the works of Engels, Lenin, and Marx.
Already from a left-wing family, his political consciousness was further raised during a youthful motorcycle trip around South America, where he witnessed horrific poverty. Later, he wanted to work in Africa and swore “a promise to fight for a better world, for a better life for all the poor and exploited.” Once he might have made a zealous missionary, spreading the faith, setting up rudimentary healthcare services, and fighting oppressive local customs. But in the twentieth century, the faith that attracted angry young men and idealists was Communism.