Pull up a chair and gather around for a brief history of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. A medical student turned Marxist revolutionist and central figure of the Cuban Revolution, Che has been reduced to a counter-culture symbol idealized by college freshman and the purveyors of Hot Topic t-shirts. Through his travels across Central and Latin America, Che came to the conclusion “that the region’s ingrained economic inequalities were an intrinsic result of monopoly capitalism, neocolonialism, and imperialism, with the only remedy being world revolution.” Joining Fidel and Raul Castro’s 26th of July Movement, Che helped invade Cuba and later overthrow the US-backed Batista regime. While participating in the newly formed Castro government, Che served a number of roles including “reviewing the appeals and firing squads for those convicted as war criminals during the revolutionary tribunals, instituting agrarian reform as minister of industries, serving as both national bank president and instructional director for Cuba’s armed forces, and traversing the globe as a diplomat on behalf of Cuban socialism.” Che was ultimately captured and executed by CIA-assisted forces in Bolivia after a failed revolution attempt in 1967.
Although Time Magazine named Che as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, few people know of him beyond his iconic t-shirt status and the book/movie The Motor Cycle Diaries. As I’m sure every buyer of Che merchandise knows, he vehemently despised the consumer culture. For a revolutionist who wanted to overthrow the bourgeoisie and start a new world order, buyers of his swag have done a good job of making him one of the most recognized marketing images in the world behind the Nike Swoosh and McDonald’s Golden Arches.
When his image appears on t-shirts, posters, hats, coffee mugs, baby onesies, etc., it is a little hard to take him and anyone who wears the image very seriously. Nothing says youthful rebellion, fighting the establishment, and questioning authority like a t-shirt of the world-wide champion of the oppressed that you paid $24.99 for from the local mall that got it from a manufacturer who imported it from a third-world country sweatshop that abuses their workers and pays them pennies a week in wages. If you even need to ask, wearing one of a Che t-shirt is about as clever as wearing Shepard Fairey’s “Obey [Andre the] Giant.”