“He was a man surrounded by good photographers,” is how a clever self-employed tour guide describes Ernesto Guevara to his clients in the streets of Santa Clara. The man lives by showing the face of the Argentine and telling of his hyperbolic exploits. This Sunday he has had good profits, taking advantage of the 87th anniversary of the birth of one who long ago stopped being a hero and turned into a fetish.
With the passage of the years, the plundering of the guerrilla’s image and the commercialization of his likeness have been imposed on this island. “Santa Clara, the city of Marta and of Che,” says the motto of the provincial capital, although Guevara was not born here. The Villa Clara capital tries to extract a return from the cheesiest ornaments with his name, and the whole tourist network is fed with some bit of his story.
Canek Sanchez Guevara, recently deceased musician and writer and grandson of the Cuban revolutionary commander, hated the t-shirts and pictures of his grandfather. “There is one that unifies his face with that of Christ that is really degrading,” he told his friends.
Since his death in 1967 and when the Havana photographer Korda gave his mage to an Italian publicist, international trade has encouraged a Che-rebel pseudo-fashion. Although t-shirts with his face abound in stores all over the world, it is in Cuba where that image of beret and jacket has profited most. As with other excesses so characteristic of our idiosyncrasy, in this also we overdid it.
“Here in this city can be found almost all the ways of remembering him that would have annoyed him.”
In Santa Clara there is even a Mate House, home of a historian who collects those traditional Argentinean accessories used for drinking the beverage extracted from the herb of the same name. “I began with the first mates, and when I had many, I placed them decoratively, then I put the image of Che Guevara on the door,” says the man who made a killing from then on. “My objective is to collect them and for people to come to see the display and drink the mate,” is how he explains his publicity strategy.
“Cuba commercializes Che,” says an alert tourist. From berets to bad songs, allegorical t-shirts, bags, bad oil paintings and ashtrays where tobacco is put out right in that face with the majestic gaze. Everyone wants to take advantage of the Argentine. From government institutions and artists to prostitutes or old men who exchange three peso bills with his image for one convertible peso. Che Guevara has become a bargaining chip.
“Santa Clara bases its tourism on the remains of the guerrilla,” the tour guide says ironically. “Here in this city can be found almost all the ways of remembering him that would have annoyed him.”
Another of his grandchildren organizes, in his name, motorcycle tours of the Island on nothing less than Harley-Davidsons. “In memory of the trip through Latin America on the Ponderosa,” he explains to interested clients. Although everyone knows that he made that historic journey “on a Norton 500,” wryly reminds a mechanic who has his garage a few meters from the sculpture complex where official propaganda asserts that the remains of the politico together with 29 of his companions are found.
In Santa Clara his image swarms in the Artex premises like a provincially manufactured product. “The myth is not sold, it is collected with the image,” says a local, tired of stumbling over that gaze everywhere.
Billboards and walls show phrases and drawings that sometimes do not match his face or were not even uttered by him
Opposite the monument to the armored train, a kiosk overflowing with t-shirts, berets, and postcards. A kilometer further, another statue of the guerrilla stands across from the headquarters of the Provincial Party Committee. They receive many foreigners there, who frequently place flower bouquets at the feet of the statue, “because the guidebook says so,” says a Canadian with the look of one who blindly follows to the letter everything that those travel books say.
Another line of exploitation, less profitable but equally petty, is the use of Guevara’s image for ideological purposes. Billboards and walls show phrases and drawings that sometimes do not match his face or were not even uttered by him, but the purpose is to show that his myth and his ideology are believed in.
Che is not only used in the revolutionary exhibition plan, but also to hide some things. Like in the Santa Clara mausoleum, where a giant fence across from the monument prevents foreigners from seeing the marginality of the neighborhood that surrounds Revolution Plaza. His eyes are directed there from the main sculpture; so that, as a popular saying recites, “In Santa Clara, Che watches the poor.”
Translated by MLK