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009. el che as an icon

Updated: May 10, 2021

Fryda: [00:00:00] Hey, carmen.

Carmen: [00:00:10] Hey Fryda.

Fryda: [00:00:12] Guess who's back,

Carmen: [00:00:13] back again.

Fryda: [00:00:14] teikirisi's back

Carmen: [00:00:16] Tell a

Fryda: [00:00:19] friend..

So in the words of Eminem, slash Slim Shady, teikirisi is back for a second season. And yes, we are so excited and we are getting started with a radical topic.

So. Wow. How do we even do this again? Carmen?

Carmen: [00:00:43] Yeah, I forgot. It's like we took a hiatus and now we forgot how to do this, but okay guys. So this episode is about el Comandante Che Guevara. Ernesto Che Guevara as an icon.

Fryda: [00:00:57] We are kicking off a season where we are going to be exploring a lot about artistry and iconography in the context of Cuba and Cuban-American life. And what is one of the most popular images symbolizing revolutionary, and radical politics that you can even think of? For me, it's definitely that image of Che Guevara, wearing a beret and looking off into a distance. Why are we going into this topic of el Che Guevara?

Carmen: [00:01:31] So the year is 2009 and I'm at my very first college party and I'm chilling, you know, relaxing, all cool, not playing some b-ball. And some guy walks in with a Che Guevara t-shirt and immediately it caught my eye because number one, I'm Cuban and number two, it's Che Guevara, and number three, it's a white guy wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. And it wasn't very different from many of the times that I saw Che Guevara anywhere else, but suddenly some white kid walking into a party wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt had me feeling things that I had never felt before when I had seen Che Guevara's image and I grew up seeing Che Guevera's image almost everywhere. Growing up in Miami you're not really presented with people who are very different from your upbringing. So growing up with a bunch of Cubans, it never occurred to anybody to put Che Guevara on a t-shirt and walk around with it.

Fryda: [00:02:17] Carmen and I were both raised Cuban Americans in Miami. Where the perspective of Che Guevara, I would say is generally that this man was a very violent figure in the revolution.

Carmen: [00:02:29] It's the very first time I think that I was confronted with the fact that somebody else might have a different idea of what this image stands for. So. Let's get into the image, the image I'm talking about. I'm sure you've seen countless amount of times. It has been said that it is the most reproduced photograph of the 20th century and it is the image of Che Guevara looking off into the distance. He's very serious. He's got long hair and he's wearing a beret with a single star in the middle.

Fryda: [00:03:00] The image is called, Guerrillero Heroico or

Carmen: [00:03:05] heroic warrior. Yup. Wow. I have never translated that and now, as I'm saying it in English it's even weirder. So it was taken on March 5th, 1960 in la habana at a Memorial service for the victims of la coubre explosion. It was taken by a photographer Alberto Korda.

Fryda: [00:03:24] And Korda is Castro's official photographer. So he is someone who was going around pretty much documenting the various exploits of young revolutionary, Fidel Castro and the crew that he ran with.

Carmen: [00:03:39] And so this is 1960, just one year after the revolution, almost one year cuz march, but so la coubre was a European vessel that was delivering munitions, right to the port of Havana, which if you know anything and I don't really know anything, but if you know anything about how boats and harbors and ports work, you know, that you don't unload munitions straight off of a boat onto a port because they can explode. Which is exactly what happened. Interestingly enough, the Cuban government has presented this as an act of terrorism. Che who was a trained medic at the time came immediately to help the victims of the explosion.

And also later was in attendance of this Memorial service where there were other really famous people like Simone de Beauvoir and John Paul Sartre, who were also photographed in this exact same role as Che. Fun fact at this Memorial, Castro gave a eulogy for these victims. And this is the very first time that we ever hear him say the phrase “Patria o Muerte,” Homeland or death.

Which is really irrelevant right now because one of the hottest songs coming out of the Cuban diaspora is by artists Gente de Zona, Yotuel, Desember Bueno, Maykel, y El Funky. These guys got together and made a song called Patria y Vida, Homeland and life. As a matter of fact, there's a whole album by the same name. And it's a big statement on how the Cuban government has caused so much suffering to the people.

But anyway, I digress. So Alberto Korda was photographing the event, not necessarily Che Guevara or necessarily the leaders or anything like that. He also had photos of Castro, of Simone of John Paul Sartre, everybody. And he took those images to the newspaper at the time of the revolution and they didn't publish Che Guevara's image.

In fact, Che Guevara's image was not really seen by anybody except for Alberto Korda.

Fryda: [00:05:39] Sidenote on Simone de Beauvoir and John Paul Sartre, they hung around right after the revolution happened to take in like the revolutionary spirit and John Paul Sart... sarter... uh.. Sar-tray? Sartre. After having some conversations with Che Guevera , he called him like the most complete man in existence. A couple of years after the revolution, when they saw that Fidel Castro and the entire regime had actually imprisoned an artist that they knew, they condemned everything that Che and Fidel Castro had done during that time saying like, you know, like “The people of Cuba do not seem joyous anymore. This is more of a dictatorship.”

So I think we can include that letter. But I think that it's interesting to see the way that John. John Paul salt started to think about this man versus how he ended up thinking at least about the impact of the revolution in Cuba.

Carmen: [00:06:37] So this picture I wanted to tell you about this scene, because I wanted you to know exactly what was the moment that this photo was captured in.

So this isn't Che Guevara looking off into, you know, some sort of battlefield or any other situation. This is Che Guevara likely looking at Castro or likely looking at the scene of people who are mourning the loss of their loved ones. Also, the picture that we know right now is Che Guevara’s image and it's isolated, but the picture of the original one had a palm tree to the right side and a random man's face ever so slightly out of focus in profile to the left side.

And this is really important because the minute you crop that picture to isolate Che Guevara’s face, that is when you take that moment and you separate it from history, that's when it becomes timeless. And that is when it becomes something that's transferable something that's easy to photocopy and distribute, which is effectively how we got here to the t-shirt.

The other key person in this distribution of this image is a man by the name Jim Fitzpatrick is an artist that met at a bar in Ireland and later came to Cuba and visited Alberto Korda. And he requested that he give him two copies of his photograph of Che. Jim Fitzpatrick took that image, stylized it and altered it slightly.

He put an “F” all the way to the right-hand side of the image part of Che’s shirt. If you're not looking for it, you'll never know find it.

Fryda: [00:08:18] MM-MM I didn’t.

Carmen: [00:08:17] You had to go over this for like five minutes. And so. In doing this, Jim Fitzpatrick has effectively stolen that copyright. Now this sort of raises the question of whether or not he's ever benefited or profited from it.

We don't actually know I'm willing to bet that he has, but this is really important because it was not supposed to have copyright. Under Communist ideals. You do not have copyright artists don't exist in the same way that you and I maybe understand artists to exist where credit is given to people when they make stuff.

That just doesn't happen because images are thought to be free, to belong to the people of the people and by the people. And more than that, the state owns everything. It wasn't until 2011 that the family of Alberto Korda decided to start enforcing any type of copyright. Which by the way is really tricky to do internationally because every country has a different take on copyright, what counts, what doesn't and how to possibly combat it.

But all of this to say that it is now one of the most identifiable symbols, and more than that, it's become a brand and a symbol and North Star image for this sort of young Marxist leftist activist person who is sort of screaming for change.

Fryda: [00:09:37] A moment of silence to appreciate the irony of the mass production of this image in a capitalist society.

When, when this man is either communist or Marxist or some call him Stalinist and would not have appreciated at least the marketing of his image. But I think this takes us perfectly well to the subject that we really also want to get into. When Carmen saw someone wearing this man's image on a t-shirt, she wasn't upset because it was a very capitalist thing of him to do.

We grew up hearing about atrocities committed by this man. And so how could this man who committed atrocities also be so inspiring to so many people?

Carmen: [00:10:32] So let's talk about Jay and his beginnings. He was a Argentinian born to a well-to-do family. His family was very leftist and eventually he went to school for medicine.

I can't find any records of him having actually finished. And he went on this very famous road trip, which he uh journaled all the way through. And now there is a movie that is called The Motorcycle Diaries. Cause he got on a motorcycle with one of his friends and rode all the way up to Venezuela. And then I believe all the way eventually up to Mexico where he met Fidel Castro and that whole road trip, the whole purpose of it, he has written, was that he was in search for a cause he was in search for something bigger than himself that he could be of service to.

Fryda: [00:11:29] So he wanted to find himself, on a road trip

Carmen: [00:11:30] So he wanted to find himself, in the middle of college

Fryda: [00:11:34] Which you know, we get it

Carmen: [00:11:36] We get it, cut to me in South Korea. I get it

Carmen: [00:11:41] All the way through this whole road trip in which he eventually found himself… He met all of these people with actual struggles and actual problems from what I've read in Bolivia, he showed up and wanted to stir up this militant, militia, guerrilla style revolution, but really the people there were struggling workers who wanted to go about the revolution in a much different way.

I'm not sure how you can call that revolutionary when you're just walking into some place, forcing your ideas onto a community, not understanding who they are and what they want for themselves. And I think this is a good time to start begging the question of, did he ever really consider that he could be an ally and what the role of an ally is versus being some kind of white savior?

Fryda: [00:12:37] We might be able to discuss that from the context of the Cuban revolution.

Carmen: [00:12:42] So he gets to Mexico where he meets me. They've got through this is before the revolution he meets and there's a bunch of pictures of this meeting, actually, an end of them talking. And he decides “I have found it. This is the cause that I have been searching for.”

And they decided to go back to Cuba and overthrow Batista. It's important to note the state of Cuba Batista. So if we had to paint a picture, it was all of the glitzy, glamorous, romantic, beautiful, lively things that you all know of Cuba. So think Havana with the nightclubs and the casinos and all of the music and the rum and the Rumba and all of that good stuff.

But that only existed in the cities everywhere else was just this immensely, poor rural sprawling country of people who were farming and we're uneducated. These people, we call Guajiros. And so Che and Castro set out to level out the playing field to bring communism to the country and to make everyone equal, to give everyone opportunities and kick out the US kick out imperialism.

And in the aftermath of the revolution, many things happened.

Fryda: [00:13:56] After the fight is one and the revolution happened in Cuba, which by the way, was a gorilla led, Coup d’etat. After that happened, the real work began. And part of the real work was retribution against people who did not support the revolution and people who were also involved in the regime of Batista and Che was named the head of lack of Vanya, Military Fortress, where several hundred executions were carried out in the months after 1959.

These executions did not have any trial and were pretty much by the whim of el Che and who he felt deserved death. And so there were innocent people executed though. I will say, not in any large, large numbers, but it was hundreds. And there are enough accounts of el Che being an arrogant and just overall shitty person who killed a 14 year old boy for trying to defend his father and another young boy that was 16 years old, that Che Guevara refused to pardon?

What I'll say about these executions is that Cubans and Cuban-Americans still talk about those to this day and more so, because they were part of the continuation of violence that happened even after the revolution. And it definitely set the tone.

There are some people that will say, “well, that's just part of war or that's just part of the retribution after an already bloody reign by Batista”

I will ask you this - Is putting LGBTQ people, dissidents and other non-conforming folks in a forced labor internment camp part of war?

And I ask you that because el Che contributed to, he had a very important role in starting the Guanahacabibes, and I hope I'm saying that right, camp, which was the first camp of this kind in Cuba for people who, according to el Che Guevara people who have committed crimes against revolutionary morals.

Now, what does that mean?

Carmen: [00:16:03] Well, if you want to refer back to our previous episodes, that could mean fucking anything.

Fryda: [00:16:08] If you're a social deviant or dissident, it includes homosexuals, Jehovah's witnesses, practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions and even nonpolitical rebels. This actually started a practice called UMAP, which are las Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Produccion, which was a series of camps that according to a 1967 human rights report, over 300,000 internees were forced to work for free sunrise to sunset seven days a week, spoiled food, unhealthy water, unclean plates, no showers and inmates are given the same treatment as political prisoners.

I think that this is one of the most condemning parts of the legacy of El Che. To have such strict black and white revolutionary morals, such that people are able to be imprisoned and forced into labor. And Carmen, forced labor was a pretty big part of what Che Guevara stood for.

Carmen: [00:17:12] Che thought of labor as the currency of the individual.

He thought of it as the only trade that should exist between sectors as opposed to money. This sounds like a terrible nightmare because it forces you to live to work. On that note he was tapped to be the President of the National Bank, the ministry of industries, and he was also in charge of agrarian reform being in charge of the national bank.

He kicked out the IMF kicked out all of the foreign banks and tried to do away with bank notes. Much of his belief was to separate labor from money. And so, because of that in 1964, he introduced 24 salary wages and a 15% bonus for over-completion. And within the system, he meant to include material incentives, which sounds a lot to me like dangling a bike in front of somebody and then telling them that if they're a good worker, then they can have the opportunity to buy that bike.

But that's episode four of season one. Anyway, while being in Charge of Agrarian Reform, one of the things that he did was establish a work culture, which later led to less the school of the country, which all Cubans and Cuban-Americans know to be a program where school-aged children were sent to the countryside to do hard manual labor in the sun.

Again, with poor food, poor conditions, oftentimes no running water and no actual supervision to pick crops for the state. Basically sending children to go do forced labor and everyone had to go. And if you were a good student, well you had to go even longer.

Fryda: [00:18:52] right fun fact. My mom was a good student. So from age 11 to age 18, she stopped living with her parents and was taken to una escuela del campo where she was boarded all year and picked tobacco from like 6:00 AM to who knows when, and then went to school and was judged on how much tobacco she was able to pick. So thank you so much, Che Guevara.

Carmen: [00:19:20] Cheers. Goodbye. That's the best thing to do with smart kids, right? Super! Yeah. As minister of industries, Che economic roadmap for Cuba involved, highly centralizing, eliminating the concept of markets and relying on moral incentives, completely disregarding workers’ agency, and economic participation.

This is in stark contrast with Marxist-Leninist thought and very in line with Stalinism.

Fryda: [00:19:47] El Che had admiration for Stalinism and wanted to use Stalinist principles to restructure Cuba. And you can see that in his Stalinis gulags, in his militancy and more, El Che admired the political model of the USSR, which is a very repressive, all encompassing one party state owning and controlling the economy.

And this means without unions or particular civil liberties. It's so, so important to distinguish between the version of communism that ended up being enforced by the guerrilla leaders that took charge of Cuba. And it wasn't that close to Marxism. It was so close to Stalinism. El Che actually also directly admired Joseph Stalin as a figure.

This dude wrote his aunt Beatrice and would sign his name Stalin 2, believing that he was like the next Stalin. He even visited the USSR. Yeah. And he put flowers in Stalin's tomb. And this was in 1960, which was after everyone knew about Stalin's crimes.

So in the history of the love affair of Stalin and Che in later years, like in 1965, he started to distance himself from the USSR. But it doesn't seem related to the atrocities committed. He believed the USSR had become too privatized. So basically for more economic reasons. And so all in all his admiration of Joseph Stalin definitely helps to paint a picture of what this man's values were and what he tried to impose on other people.

Carmen: [00:21:32] And going back to this, this whole like militant guerrilla-style approach to the revolution, it kind of starts to point to this new “ism,” this Guevaraism, which is more of a theory of the gorilla elite, right? The people who are willing to, you know, ride or die for the revolution and the causes that have been laid out.

But the problem with that is that Guerrilla warfare is a strategy. It's not a revolution. And so when it comes time to actually start to restructure after the so-called fight, you really don't have a lot to draw from. And this is a big reason why so many of his programs actually failed, I would say, and this is why it's difficult to think of him as a successful key architect of restructuring the Cuban state and economy.

Which we all know how that turned out so... I would go as far as saying that this idea of, and I'm doing air quotes, revolution being the most important thing, extending past the time of the actual revolution occurring is a big part of the reason Cuba is the way it is now. And by that, I mean, terrible.

Fryda: [00:22:36] Cubans raised in Cuba were taught to be like Che. And so part of revolutionary, very upbringing in Cuba is to actually truly admire Che like this complete and kind of perfect human being and martyr of the revolution in the middle of the Revolutionary Plaza there's an image of Che Guevara. And I'm aware that like my family grew up only knowing that side of Che Guevara in Cuba.

In Cuba when your own pionero, and so let's go back to episode four of season one, where we talk about the various communist groups that you must belong to at stages of your life. And so the youngest stage is when you are just a kid and you are un pionero de la revolución, or a pioneer of the revolution,

Cuban school child calls out [00:23:27] “Pioneros por el comunismo”

Cuban school children respond [00:23:30]: “Seremos como el Che!”

That is the motto “pioneers of the revolution, let’s be like Che” And so El Che legacy was used and is used in Cuban revolutionary politics to uphold militancy and/or to uphold utter commitments to the revolution.

Carmen: [00:23:53] Pioneros por el comunismo, seremos como el Che, and these little kids don't actually know anything about what the revolution truly means.

I mean, they're words that they get taught in school, but to embody this and have to profess their intention to be just like Che in their own lifetimes. I mean, that's a little ridiculous.

Fryda: [00:24:11] I think that if we bring it back to the concept of Patria o Muerte, which means Homeland or death, this is the kind of decision that you have to make in times of war to choose your homeland or die.

And those stakes are incredibly high. Does the concept of homeland or death fit into restructuring and building a Cuba that's better for its people? I think that Che Guevara and his guerilla politics was really good at overthrowing a dictator because he did that by violent means and a coup d’etat , but then he was also really, really good at admiring a dictator, AKA Stalin, and trying to enforce policies and create structures that would pave the way for another dictatorship, Fidel Castro.

Carmen: [00:24:59] He went around internationally trying to organize, radicalize and form guerrilla militia in the name of violent revolution. And so there's a lot of people in Bolivia who I'm sure have very strong opinions about him, people in the Congo, people in Argentina, people in Guatemala, and some places he's revered and regarded as a saint and people look up to him, people look up to him as somebody who fought for workers and indigenous struggles.

Fryda: [00:25:26] The fact that this man wore this beret and the piece of radical figure inspired - the Black Panthers, it inspired brown beret wearers, like Chicano activists. There's also people who see him just standing for anti-imperialism and they wear the t-shirt with his face on it, because they're just like “this system sucks.”

And if he stands for that, then you can also be behind him. He was killed by what we may call imperialist forces.

He was fighting a U S backed force in Bolivia, since that's exactly what he had been fighting against his whole life- This helped escalate him more so into martyrdom.

Carmen: [00:26:211] The thing about el Che is that he quote unquote lived and then he definitely died for, and by his beliefs. And that in and of itself is already something that could make you an icon dying for the things you believe in.

So he was assassinated in 1967 and it wasn't until 1968 that this image started being mass produced and appearing in the pair of student riots and all over Belfast, all over Berkeley, Vietnam, all over the world. You started seeing student protests with posters of Che Guevara popping up. So he never saw his image become so popular.

Fryda: [00:26:48] That's what happens after you die. What's left is what you , what a would a version of what you stood for and kind of nothing else.

Carmen: [00:27:14] The story of Che Guevara to me is a story of contradictions. One quote of his, this really, really popular is “At the risk of seeming ridiculous let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.”

This is something that people who wear him on a t-shirt would probably identify with, but then he also said that “A Revolutionary is a cold killing machine motivated by a pure hate.”

Fryda: [00:27:44] Look, if you want to admire and print a different face, that still stands for like egalitarian politics and anti-imperialism and workers’ politics.

Like, dude, go ahead. Do it, everyone should have like all sorts of different opinions about how to rule the world and all of that. But the thing is this guy sucked. And so, you know, like

Carmen: [00:28:12] This is just what we think, you know, I live in Brooklyn. Half of Brooklyn probably owns a Che Guevara t-shirt I don't hate any of them.

I love you all. We just wanted to tell you some stuff. That's all he has become this super popular image. Everybody knows who Che Guevara is at this point. There's movies made about him, his pictures on everything from little kids, socks to t-shirts and I don't really think that would be this giant figure.

If it hadn't been for his image, I don't think he's that unique. I think everything that he contributed to history would have happened anyway. It just would have been by somebody else.

Fryda: [00:28:42] Claro que si, Carmen, como dios pinto a perico. And with that, we're moving on to our Cubanismo..

Carmen: [00:28:51] Like God painted the parakeet

Fryda: [00:28:58] or like God painted some guy named Perico. Who knows? It's a call and response when nothing else could have happened. Like when it's inevitable, instead of saying, yeah, obviously you can just say como dios pinto a perico.

Carmen: [00:29:11] yeah.

Fryda: [00:29:12] Like God painted a parakeet, because I guess it was no other way that it could have happened.

Carmen: [00:29:35] Thank you so much to all of our patrons, Jesse, Kellis, Ivett, Josh, Daniel, Jason, Karina, Suli, Sarah, Kristen, Amaury, Keyleigh, Lauren, Catherine, Salia, Susan, Jose, Ryan, Andy, Derek, Dee. We love you all so much thank you for being wonderful supporters and seeing us into our second season. You know where to find us on social media.

It's @teikrisipod. And if you want to shoot us an email it’s See you next time. And take it easy.

Fryda: [00:29:48] Take it easy folks!

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