CHAPTER ONE HAVANA, MARCH 5, 1960 A Frozen Millisecond
Sometimes I get to places just when God's ready to have somebodyclick the shutter. —Ansel Adams, photographer Early on march 4, 1960, two massive explosions ripped through the French freighter La Coubre while it was docked in Havana's harbor with a load of Belgian weapons in its cargo hold. At least seventy-six people died, and several hundred more were injured. Cuban leader Fidel Castro immediately accused the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency of sabotage. (The exact cause remains a mystery, but Cuba maintains to this day that it was an act of terrorism.) Parallels were drawn to an explosion decades earlier whose cause was never proven, one that also sunk a foreign ship berthed in Havana: the USS Maine. The events triggered by that 1898 blast led Theodore Roosevelt to declare war on Cuba's Spanish rulers. Now, sixty-two years later, many feared the tragedy of La Coubre would have a similar catalytic effect. Castro staged a state funeral the following day, an event that attracted a massive throng of mourners. There he tapped his countrymen's nationalist sentiments. "Patria o muerte! Venceremos!" Castro bellowed. My homeland or death! We will win! This rousing call to arms would become one of the Cuban revolution's most enduring slogans. On March 5, 1960, it set the tone for an escalation in conflict with the United States. The day of the funeral was unseasonably cold, even to the point of being chilly, and the sky was overcast. Yet for one group of Cubans whose presence mattered a lot to the image-conscious Castro, the conditions were fortuitous. The self-described "Epic Revolutionary" photographers, a recent addition to the leader's growing entourage, would find that the gray conditions lent the event an evocative, funereal light. Among them was Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, a Porsche-driving fashion photographer turned photojournalist. On contract to Revolución, the flagship newspaper of Castro's 26th of July Movement, he was the nearest thing his intellectual editors had to a paparazzo. Díaz Gutiérrez, known as Korda, was in position on the corner of 23rd and 12th streets among the multitude. His eyes were at the level of the platform set up on a flatbed truck in front of Havana's stately Colón cemetery. As the Cuban leader launched into his bombast, Korda snapped shots of the celebrities in attendance, his back to a massive crowd that was by now stretching down the two intersecting streets. He got a few of Castro midtirade, with a sampling of the Cuban leader's theatrical facial expressions and hand gestures, and a couple of a pensive-looking Antonio Núñez Jiménez, the geographer and soldier whose impressively long and thick beard lent him the aura of a Victorian-era professor. Most important, he was careful to get a whole series of two special foreign guests whose visit to revolutionary Cuba he'd been assigned to follow: the French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Days earlier, he'd taken shots of them locked in an animated discussion that went into the wee hours of the morning with Cuba's young, French-speaking central bank president: an Argentine who'd impressed them immensely with his intelligence and energy. Here, however, at a memorial to a tragedy in which the dead included six of their countrymen, Korda captured the pair of French intellectuals in an appropriately somber mood. Then someone else appeared in his viewfinder. It was the central bank president, who was standing a little off to the side of Castro. Braced against the cold, the man was dressed in a leather bomber jacket zippered to the collar, and he wore his trademark beret on his head. Before sitting, he paused, an unsettled sky behind him, and looked out intently across the crowd. Little did he know, he was staring straight into the firing line of Korda's trusty Leica camera. The photographer depressed the trigger. Light rays, dim as they were on that cloudy day, bounced off the features of his subject and then raced through the lens and the open shutter. When it landed on the Kodak Plus-X film on the other side, it caused a chemical reaction among the tiny silver halide crystals embedded in the celluloid. A millisecond of time in a tiny part of our ever-changing universe had been frozen for eternity. Korda then turned his camera on its side and captured a subtly different image. Then the man sat down. The moment passed. The first frozen millisecond, manifest as a striking photograph of Ernesto "Che" Guevara de la Serna, would eventually take the world by storm. Some in Cuba would see it a year later, in a context greatly removed from the events from which it arose. But it was almost a full decade before most people knew of its existence. To some extent, this long delay between the taking of the photograph and the image's entry into public view is attributable to the appeal of the other celebrities in attendance that day. Thanks to Castro, whose provocative and history-making speech assured him of front-page press, and the two French intellectual tourists, who were superstars in the eyes of a young government eager for intellectual legitimacy, Che didn't appear in the next day's papers. Ironically, this also-ran status ultimately worked in the photo's favor, at least in terms of its effect on the world. The delay meant that the image, years later dubbed "Guerrillero Heroico" (Heroic Guerrilla), enjoyed a perfectly timed global launch in late 1967. At that moment, a generation of strong-willed youth was rising up in rebellion across the industrialized West, while their contemporaries in the third world were taking up arms in the hope of replicating Cuba's revolution. With its sudden appearance on the world stage at that time, Korda's image became the defining icon of that generation. Almost half a century since he captured it, Korda's frozen moment is etched into the consciousness of our global society. Some say that only the famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe, her skirt rising as she stands over a subway grate, has been more reproduced-and that may be so in terms of official reprints. But Marilyn hasn't traveled like Che has. With Korda's image as his vehicle, he has gone to the far corners of the earth. Anyone who's tried to track the multiple and varying representations of the Korda image-the vast bulk of them done as unauthorized, stenciled copies that escape the bounds of any official count-knows that Che beats Marilyn hands down. That same captured millisecond now travels the world's supply routes, stamped on myriad consumer knickknacks. At TheCheStore.com, offerings include T-shirts, pants, caps, bandannas, lighters, key chains, coffee mugs, wallets, and backpacks, all bearing a reproduction of the Korda classic. The image has been used to sell car air fresheners in Peru, snowboards in Switzerland, beer in Korea, and wine in Italy. It has appeared on advertisements for consumer brands such as Smirnoff vodka and Converse sneakers and in a campaign by a British church group equating Christ with revolution. Australian ice cream maker Magnum used it on the wrapper of its Cherry Guevara line, which described the eating experience in this way: "The revolutionary struggle of the cherries was squashed as they were trapped between two layers of chocolate. May their memory live on in your mouth!" Sometimes it appears as a subtle nod to the original, such as in the beret worn by a suave, wavy-haired young man surrounded by bikini-clad girls in a Mexican billboard ad that urges tipplers to "Chemix" their drinks with Torres brandy. But its most common usage is in a generic two-tone format, the same one found on mouse pads, doormats, beach towels, cigarette cases, condoms, lip balm, hair combs...The list goes on and on and on. The image frequently makes the rounds of the fashion and celebrity scenes. Taking the form of a pastel-colored Che bikini, it has sashayed down a São Paulo catwalk on the curvaceous body of supermodel Gisele Bündchen. It subtly appeared on a cover of Rolling Stone, where Johnny Depp sported it on a necklace. It was spotted on a T-shirt worn by actress Liz Hurley during a night of club-hopping in London. (Hurley chose to accessorize her look with a Louis Vuitton handbag, the Miami New Times reported.) And it lives permanently in the form of a rough ink profile on the tattooed torsos of such bad-boy sport stars as boxer Mike Tyson and Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona. Meanwhile, Al Saadi Mootsam, the playboy son of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, is the owner of what is quite likely the most expensive item bearing the Korda image: his ninety-foot luxury yacht, the Che Guevara II, has the image on its bow. It's impossible to overlook the irony: the commoditization of an anticapitalist rebel who opposed all that his hyper-commercialized image now represents. But despite the conversion of Che into what political commentator Alvaro Vargas Llosa describes as the "quintessential capitalist brand" and the fact that most young Americans know him only as a T-shirt logo, for millions more around the world the Korda image remains a powerful indicator of rebellion and resistance. The twenty-first-century, media-friendly "Che"-a multipurpose banner flown by a wide range of political causes-is a long way from the idealistic Che of the 1960s, he who believed a Marxist utopia could be attained through self-sacrifice and guerrilla warfare. Yet everywhere, people living lives nothing like Che's are drawn to the Korda image. It is instantly recognizable, identifying the wearer as someone outside the conservative mainstream. This is especially so in Che's old stomping ground. Amid a resurgence in populism and left-wing politics throughout Latin America, Korda's snapshot is again the symbol of choice wherever regional activists give the middle finger to the U.S.-backed free market system. In Latin America the symbolic battle between left and right now effectively boils down to Che versus Uncle Sam-or in the wider globalization debate, Che versus the golden arches of McDonald's. It is spray-painted onto walls across the continent, both as large, colorful murals and as rudimentary graffiti, and it is the model for folksy statues on university campuses. It is on a lectern used by Bolivia's new socialist president Evo Morales as he announces the nationalization of foreign oil companies' gas reserves. Draped from the second tier of an Argentine soccer stadium jammed with left-wing activists, it offers a striking prop for Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez as he lists the evils of free trade at a "People's Summit" in Mar del Plata. (The massive banner is a de facto snub to Chávez's nemesis, George W. Bush, who is attending an official Summit of the Americas a few miles away.) And when Colombian government soldiers infiltrate FARC-run camps to free Ingrid Betancourt from her leftist guerrilla captors, some of the undercover operatives don Che T-shirts. (The disguise works: No one doubts the rescuers' rebel bona fides.) In fact, wherever young people rise up, Korda's Che is there, crossing religious, ethnic, and even political divides with abandon. Palestinian youths have worn it in both past and present intifadas against Israel; Iranian students wore it when they ousted the shah and turned their country into an Islamic state in 1979. Go to genocide-racked Sudan, however, and you'll find U.S.-supported Christians displaying it as a mark of defiance against that country's ruling Muslim ethnic group. Che was prominent among socialist antimonarchists in Nepal and the Portuguese-backed guerrillas of East Timor, who modeled their struggle against Indonesian occupation on Castro and Che's Cuban campaign-right down to the beards. He continues to inspire those with both peaceful and violent agendas throughout the world: antiglobalization crusaders, antiwar protesters, gay rights activists, environmentalists, and indigenous and immigrants' rights groups-they all wear Che. How did this frozen millisecond become so powerful? How was it filled with meaning and then repeatedly emptied and refilled again with new meanings? How was it transformed into a universally recognized and bitterly contested icon? What does its popularity say about the society that created it? One simple answer is that it's a sexy photo of a sexy guy. It's true: Linking rebellion and sex has always sold well. Look at Elvis, the Beatles, or-most relevant to the Che comparison-James Dean, another "rebel" who died young and left a pretty poster. Che was the ultimate alpha male: good-looking, intelligent, and phenomenally tough. He is a model for anyone who dreams of striking back against a cruel and unjust world. He sells. But the fact that Che looks or seems hip-however that's defined-is an inadequate answer. The Che phenomenon goes far deeper than commercialized sexiness. If it had been nothing more than the superficial packaging of chic rebellion, the mass marketing of the image would have milked it dry years ago, killing its appeal. Witness the demise of grunge or indie rock once the major record labels co-opted them under the contrived label of alternative music. And who these days believes tattoos or body piercing are proof of a rebellious spirit? As Naomi Klein, the bestselling author of No Logo, notes, Che is different. He is among a select set of counterculture symbols so deeply rooted in political struggle that they can survive appropriation by corporate marketers. The resilience of the Che cult and its dominant icon, the Korda image, lies in the political reality that gave it life in the first place, not in the stylistic interpretations advertisers later gave to it. To comprehend the phenomenon, we must examine the social, cultural, and political forces behind it. Amid the rampant commercialization of Che's image, it's tempting to downplay the significance of the man himself. But if Che's rich and fascinating life had not come to a violent end at an epochal moment, Korda's photo would be an eye-catching and memorable portrait of a bygone public figure, but not a ubiquitous global symbol. And yet it's also true that without the photo, Che would be recognized as a significant historical figure, a prominent inductee to the ideological left's pantheon of heroes, but he'd hardly have become the hero. These two parts of Che's public image mutually reinforce each other, driving a process that separates Ernesto Guevara from his flesh-and-blood self. When Spanish speakers refer to him as El Che, it helps distinguish him from the Argentine slang word ché, from which his nickname is derived. But the definite article also has the effect of objectifying him, detaching the idol from the historical person. No longer a man, Che is now a subject of quasi-religious adoration for many. A somewhat different process has occurred in the West, where the image is now more powerful than the story behind it. Korda's image has so infiltrated public consciousness that many know the face but not the man. (Asked to name him, many people often cite the guy on the T-shirt as a rock singer or a hippie artist from the 1960s.) In such cases, the Korda image itself is an icon in its own right, quite separate from the concept "Che Guevara." In this way, Korda's photo has simultaneously given Che an afterlife and robbed him of it. So the sexy photo does matter. But why this one? With his photogenic looks, his penchant for provocative gestures, and his high-profile international status, Guevara was a magnet for press photographers. Why did the icon emerge from this photo and not from one of the countless other Che moments captured by the world's media?
Excerpted from Che's Afterlife by Michael Casey. Copyright © 2009 by Michael Casey. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.