The Miami Herald
October 30, 2000

After dying for revolution, Cuban lives as dollar magnet


 Rebels of the world, borrowing a Cuban revolutionary
 slogan, say that Ernesto ``Ché'' Guevara lives and indeed
 he does, although not in the way he intended.

 Thirty-three years after Ché was killed trying to start an
 uprising in Bolivia, his face is a buck-making image -- for
 beer brewers, ski fabricators, mouse pad manufacturers,
 record companies, T-shirt peddlers, women's underwear
 designers and other capitalists who have turned Fidel
 Castro's comrade-in-arms into a salesman to the
 wide-eyed youth of the world.

 Even Cuba, which enshrined the remains of the Argentine-born doctor-warrior in
 1997 with a ceremony worthy of a saint, has made him a dollar magnet.

 State-run ``artisan markets'' sell Ché puppets, and state-owned travel agencies
 offer tours to the sites of Ché's legendary exploits -- not including, of course, the
 wall at La Cabaña fortress where his firing squads shot the revolution's enemies.

 Some of this commercial exploitation -- for example, Smirnoff's attempt last year
 to market a spicy Vodka with an ad campaign using Ché's likeness and a chili
 pepper replacing the sickle in the communist party emblem -- has prompted


 But no one has complained yet about the latest twist, however.

 In fact, Canadian John Trigiani's online supermarket of Ché products has resulted
 in hundreds of orders from the United States for trinkets, and a flurry of interest by
 some of his youthful customers in the short life of a man who died before they
 were born.

 Ché smiles enigmatically from made-in-Cuba alarm clocks and from collector
 plates pictured in Trigiani's catalog. Clad in fatigues and wearing a beret, Ché
 strikes a fighting pose in kitschy figurines.

 Swatch watches unearthed by Trigiani in a Havana warehouse -- part of a
 shipment of 10,000 bought by Cuba's government -- use Ché's face to tell time.

 ``My site is not a political site,'' says Trigiani, a Toronto photographer who travels
 frequently to Cuba to mine for memorabilia and who said he became interested in
 Ché when he began dating a Cuban woman who went to university with one of
 Ché's sons.

 Trigiani says he is just satisfying collector curiosity, and interest among young
 people for whom Ché is an icon of the rebellious '60s. He gets 25 to 30 e-mail
 requests a day, mostly from the United States. He turns aside demands for rum
 and cigars.

 Some things are sacred, Trigiani said.

 He knows old timers in Havana who have photos and letters signed by Ché and
 he has not tried to buy them. A woman offered him four Cuban 3 peso bank notes
 she claimed were personally signed by Ché for $2,750 each, but he declined.


 For left-leaning idealists, the use of Che's visage in commercial products can be
 jarring. They deplore guest book comments by T-shirt buyers on sites like such as ``Who is and what happened to the revolutionary?''

 West Palm Beach-born Aaron Shuman, 28, a social critic for counter-culture
 publications, said he went to see a Rage Against the Machine concert last year
 and was amazed at how many people wore Ché T-shirts. The group used Ché's
 image for its ``Bombtrack'' single.

 This month Shuman visited an executive of the chic Urban Outfitters chain and
 found the man using a mouse pad with Ché's face on it.

 The negative effects of commercial exploitation are, Shuman said, outweighed by
 the fact that some people may go beyond wearing a T-shirt or buying souvenirs
 and actually read one of Ché's books on making revolution.

 ``I think that is happening,'' he said.

 For many members of South Florida's Cuban-American population, the subject of
 Ché is not a welcome one.

 ``I don't think anyone wearing a Ché Guevara T-shirt would be welcome in Dade
 County,'' community activist Armando Gutiérrez said. ``Not even at the flea
 market have I seen anything with Che's face on it.''

 Rocio Izaguirre, who sells T-shirts at her Little Havana store, said, ``I can't
 understand why young people would want to wear that man's face. What do they
 know about history?

 ``It is like kids wearing a peace symbol because they think it is cute -- so sad, so

 The mere suggestion of Ché can also offend.

 In 1998, many Cuban Americans objected when Taco Bell sold toy Chihuahuas
 sporting Ché's trademark beret with the red star which, when squeezed, said
 ``Viva Gorditas'' -- a popular meal.

 Other Hispanics voiced displeasure with the whole ``Yo quiero Taco Bell''
 campaign, claiming it was offensive and that it stereotyped Latinos.

 Alberto Korda, the 72-year-old Cuban photographer whose famous photo of a
 fierce-eyed, long-haired Ché has been appropriated without his permission for
 many commercial products, has led the fight to halt the practice.

 He photographed Ché during a funeral for the 136 people killed when a munitions
 ship exploded in Havana harbor in 1960 -- an incident Cuba still blames on the
 United States.


 Korda, who wears a Ché pendant around his neck, had remained silent through
 the years. But he sued Smirnoff in a British court over its ad campaign. Last
 month he won, getting a cash settlement and copyright protection for his
 much-used image.

 He told the court that using his photo, and his hero, to sell vodka was
 disrespectful because Ché did not drink and, he said, the revolutionary was ``the
 greatest person in history, after Jesus Christ.''

 Which is why, perhaps, a group of British churches last year at Easter dared to
 substitute Ché's face for that of Jesus Christ in advertising designed to reclaim
 the souls of disaffected rockers.

 The revolutionary was pictured wearing a crown of thorns, with a slogan reading,
 ``Meek and Mild. As if. Discover the Real Jesus. Church!'' The Rev. Tom Ambrose
 of Britain's Church Advertising Network explained at the time that ``Jesus was a
 revolutionary figure and more revolutionary than anyone in the 21st Century.''

 There was intense criticism. Conservative Christians claimed it was a sacrilege.
 But it was a ploy, the churches said, that resulted in thousands of young people
 finding religion again.