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Sunday September 4, 2005

Reclaiming Che Guevara


WITH his picture on rock band posters, baseball caps and women's lingerie, Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara is firmly entrenched in the capitalist consumer society that he died fighting to overturn. 

The image of the Argentine-born guerrilla gazing sternly into the distance, long hair tucked into a beret with a single star, has been an enduring 20th century pop icon. 

This combo image shows paintings, inspired by the famous photograph of late revolutionary hero Ernesto ‘Che' Guevara, done by different Cuban artists. The image, captured by Cuban photographer Alberto ‘Korda' Diaz in 1960, fired the imagination of rioting Parisian students in May 1968 and became a symbol of idealistic revolt for a generation.
The picture – taken by a Cuban photographer in 1960 and printed on posters by an Italian publisher after Guevara's execution in Bolivia seven years later – fired the imagination of rioting Parisian students in May 1968 and became a symbol of idealistic revolt for a generation. 

But as well as being one of the world's most reproduced, the image has become one of its most merchandised. And Guevara's family is launching an effort to stop it. They plan to file lawsuits abroad against companies that they believe are exploiting the image and say lawyers in a number of countries have offered assistance. 

“We have a plan to deal with the misuse,” Guevara's Cuban widow Aleida March said in an interview. 

“We can't attack everyone with lances like Don Quixote, but we can try to maintain the ethics” of Guevara's legacy, said March, who will lead the effort from the Che Guevara Studies Center which is opening in Havana later this year. 

“The centre intends to contain the uncontrolled use of Che's image. It will be costly and difficult because each country has different laws, but a line has to be drawn,” said the legendary guerrilla's daughter, Aleida Guevara.  

Swatch has used Guevara on a wristwatch. Advertising firms have used his image to sell vodka. Supermodel Gisele Bundchen even took to the runway in Brazilian underwear stamped with Che's face. 

Guevara collectibles – from Zippo lighters to belt buckles and key chains – can be bought online at 

But a successful copyright lawsuit against Smirnoff vodka in Britain in 2000 set the precedent for legal action, establishing ownership of the photographic image. 

Lawyers say it will be an uphill struggle to deter non-photographic use of such a widely reproduced image, other than in countries like Italy where laws protect image rights. 

Korda vs Smirnoff

The famous picture was shot by Alberto Diaz, a fashion photographer better known as Korda, at a funeral for victims of the explosion of a French freighter transporting weapons to Cuba one year after Fidel Castro's revolution triumphed with the help of Guevara. 

Korda's group photograph was not printed by his newspaper the next day. Seven years later, when Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli showed up looking for a cover picture for an edition of Che's Bolivian Diary , Korda gave him two prints for free. 

Guevara was captured six months later in the Bolivian jungle, where his bid to start an armed peasant revolution ended in fiasco. On news on his death, Feltrinelli cropped the photo and published large posters that quickly sold one million copies. 

Korda beside his iconic portrait of Guevara at the Royal National Theatre in London. Since the lensman's death in 2001, his family has been fighting over ownership of the famous photo.
The guerrilla fighter was transformed into martyr, pop celebrity and radical chic poster boy. Korda said he never received a penny from Feltrinelli. 

But a year before his death in 2001, the photographer won a lawsuit against London agency Lowe Lintas for unauthorised use of the picture in a Smirnoff vodka advertising campaign. The Smirnoff brand is now owned by Britain's Diageo Plc. 

Korda later donated the US$70,000 (RM259,000) award to children's health care in communist Cuba. 

Razi Mireskandari, the London lawyer who filed the copyright case, said Korda worried that the image of Che, who did not drink, was being trivialised by its use in promoting an alcoholic beverage that bore no relation to Cuba or his political message. 

“We felt there were so many people you could take action against that we had to start somewhere,” Mireskandari said. “The plan of action was to target one of these, which was Smirnoff, and then, when we got the judgment, we were going to go against everyone else,” he said in an interview. 

After the photographer's death, his heirs never contacted the lawyer for further action and are disputing among themselves copyright ownership of the famous picture.  

Image protection

A woman wears a Swatch wristwatch with Guevara's image.
Korda's daughter Diana Diaz has continued to fight political misuse of the picture. 

In 2003 she won a lawsuit against a Paris-based press rights group for using the Che photograph in a poster campaign aimed at dissuading French tourists from vacationing in Cuba after the jailing of 29 dissident journalists. 

Reporters Without Borders had superimposed Che's face on a picture of a baton-wielding riot policeman. The caption said: “Welcome to Cuba, the world's largest jail for journalists.” 

Che fever was stoked last year by The Motorcycle Diaries , a film about his eye-opening trip through poverty-stricken countries of South America as a medical graduate. 

Even Cuba sells Che's image. Postcards and posters of Guevara playing golf at the Country Club shortly after the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 are popular with tourists. 

So are Cuban banknotes issued when Guevara was Central Bank governor, simply signed “Che”. – Reuters

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