From roadside billboards to the side of the Ministry of the Interior building in Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, to T-shirts and every souvenir shop trinket imaginable, the hero of the Cuban revolution is omnipresent across the Caribbean island – even though he’s been dead for 43 years.
Born in Argentina, his given name was "Ernesto" but he was — and is — almost universally referred to by his nickname, "Che," which means "buddy." He was Fidel Castro’s right hand man during the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959 and served under Castro during his early years as president. But the call of the battlefield was too strong for Che and he eventually left his government jobs in 1965. He was murdered two years later in Bolivia, reportedly by Americans, at the age of 39.
But his spirit couldn’t be killed, thanks in no small part to Castro’s official photographer, Alberto Korda. He snapped a picture of Che at a memorial for more than 100 people killed during an explosion in the Havana harbor in 1960. Che, a doctor by training, provided first aid to the victims. He was reportedly furious at the perpetrators and did little to hide his rage that day.
That iconic snapshot, dubbed Guerrillero Heroico, has been called the most famous image in the world.
Che’s image in Cuba is often accompanied by the words, “Hasta la victoria siempre” which means either “until victory always” or “until the everlasting victory.” That was the signoff he used in the last letter he wrote to Castro as he resigned his government posts and donned his battle fatigues once again. It was a reference to Cuba’s continued resistance to the U.S. but also to his own battle for liberation in Bolivia.
But Che was recognized in more than revolutionary circles for his accomplishments, both good and bad. Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
Frank Llabres, a Varadero-based manager of travelling Cuban musicians and a rarity among islanders – he also has a U.S. passport and can leave Cuba as he pleases – says the iconic image of Che has meaning for both tourists and locals alike.
“It’s a powerful thing to have the people still honor his image and his liberating all of Latin America. It’s an international figure and it sells. Even if you’re a martyr, it still sells,” he says.
Llabres says Che was known as a fearless fighter who had little patience with soldiers who didn’t share his passion.
“He was ruthless. If you wanted to back out of a battle, he’d probably shoot you,” he says.
Che was so revered by Castro that he was given his own memorial in the city of Santa Clara, located about three hours from Havana. If you’re not sure which building it is, look for the 22-foot bronze statue of the man standing on top of it – in full army fatigues, naturally.
Inside the museum is a black-and-white picture gallery, featuring shots of Che from his childhood in Argentina, his rise up the ranks in Cuba to his final days in Bolivia.
Encased in glass are a wide range of items from his life, including his Grade 3 report card (history was his best subject, he got a B in cleanliness and his behavior was appropriately described as "defiant") letters he wrote, his camera, chessboard, rifle, machine-gun, an assortment of knives, dental equipment, his inhaler and an assortment of hats.
The memorial was built in 1987 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his death. A decade later, his body was discovered in Bolivia and it was decided among Bolivian, Cuban and Argentine authorities that his final resting place should be in Cuba.
As Che’s remains were brought to their final resting place, Castro addressed the thousands in the crowd.
“Why did they think that by killing him, he would cease to exist as a fighter? Today he is in every place, wherever there is a just cause to defend. His unerasable mark is now in history and his luminous gaze of a prophet has become a symbol for all the poor of this world,” he said.
Robert Warren, a marketing professor at the I.H. Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, is a fan of the Cuba government’s branding strategy.
“Che is a national hero in Cuba for his role in the revolution. Plus, his image has been appropriated by a variety of people. If you walk around North American university campuses, you’ll lose track of how many T-shirts you’ll see with his image on it,” he says.
“It’s a great image for Cuba to build on because it’s one people know about. It’s timeless.”
It also helps significantly that Che died near the peak of his popularity and therefore hasn’t aged in the eyes of the public. That’s in stark contrast to his best friend, Castro, now 83, who handed Cuba’s reins of power over to his brother, Raul, a couple of years ago as he steeled himself to battle cancer.
“An old man isn’t a good brand symbol for something that’s exotic, exciting and on the edge. Using Che represents all of those things. Cuba is anxiously awaiting tourism with the U.S. to open up (and if President Barack Obama lifts the half-century-old blockade) Cuba will pitch itself as this edgy place that the U.S. was afraid of for 50 years. 'Come experience why.' Che was one of those reasons. He was public enemy No. 1 and spreading revolutionary thoughts around Latin America,” he says.
Warren says the beauty of branding with a dead person is that every dastardly deed he or she ever did has likely been well publicized and as time goes on, many of those acts actually get romanticized.
He says Cuba’s use of Che has a number of precedents. For example, Jamaica still brands itself using the image and music of its late reggae superstar, Bob Marley, who died in 1981, while the Soviet Union used Vladimir Lenin and the Chinese used Mao.
“Cuba wasn’t the first one (to brand itself with a dead icon) and it won’t be the last,” Warren says.
Hasta la victoria siempre, indeed.