By Madeline Baro Diaz | Sun Sentinel
Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s face is a familiar one around the world, stamped on shirts, hats, postcards, lighters and other items.
To some, the famous picture of the revolutionary with the beret, long hair, scraggly moustache and faraway gaze, symbolizes idealism and rebellion.
To many Cuban exiles, however, he’s a ruthless killer who helped establish a totalitarian regime in their homeland.
Today, those exiles seem to be feeling a heightened Guevara presence. The movie The Motorcycle Diaries had screen star Gael Garcia Bernal as Guevara and, until recently, clothing with Guevara’s face on it could be found at Burlington Coat Factory.
“There’s a whole phenomenon going on with Che Guevara that’s really difficult to explain,” said Valentin Prieto, a Cuban-American who has written about Guevara in his online Babalu Blog, where he also posted information on protests against Guevara merchandise.
“You have kids who don’t even know who Che Guevara is wearing his clothes. Che Guevara to Cubans is a murderer.”
An Argentine doctor, Guevara fought alongside Fidel Castro in the revolution that overthrew Fulgencio Batista’s government in Cuba. He held various posts with the new government and was involved in attempts to export Cuba’s revolution to other countries. During one such attempt in 1967, he was caught and executed in Bolivia, cementing his legend for those who saw the Marxist as an anti-establishment icon.
The growing myth bothers people such as Prieto, who say it glorifies a man who put scores of Cubans to death by firing squad.
“I think of my father or my mother who lived seeing people get taken away by Che Guevara and his henchmen,” said Prieto, 39. “I can’t imagine the pain that they must feel to see a kid on television rapping, wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.”
Teenagers in Che wear, such as one featured in a Burlington Coat Factory television commercial earlier this year, were offensive enough for those who bristle at Guevara goods. But a baby outfit featured in Time magazine’s recent gift guide really riled them up.
The Guevara onesie is sold by La La Ling, a Los Angeles children’s store that promotes the outfit online with a description that reads, “Do you have a little revolutionary on your hands?”
“It’s one of our top sellers,” said store owner Ling Chan. “The Che image is just trendy right now.”
After appearing in Time, Chan’s online sales increased, but so did the hate mail. Last weekend a handful of protesters showed up outside her store.
Chan said she doesn’t know much about Guevara’s history and has heard both from those who view Guevara as a hero and those who call him a villain.
“I don’t think people are buying the shirt necessarily because of his exact politics,” she said. “I have a baby store, and in my eyes it’s just a T-shirt.”
Both Chan and Appaman, the company that makes the baby clothes, say they will keep selling Che items.
Burlington Coat Factory, however, has pulled Che clothing off its racks. In a statement, the company said it sold Che Guevara T-shirts earlier this year “as a trendy item” but removed the shirts from stores after receiving complaints.
Gloria La Riva, who has coordinated efforts to free five Cuban men convicted of spy-related charges in the United States, said she had a college roommate in the 1970s who had a Guevara poster. Curious about who he was, she ended up learning about and supporting the Cuban revolution.
“I think he represents an ideal of justice and of equality and sacrifice,” she said. “He made the sacrifice of his own life. ... He was trying to help the people of Bolivia.”
La Riva said Guevara is hated because of his efforts to spread socialism. She disputes the characterization of him as a cold-blooded killer.
She contends the government Guevara helped put in place has saved millions of lives through programs such as immunization for children.
La Riva said more young people are taking an interest in learning about Guevara, and seeing his face on clothes might stoke that interest.
At one point, Prieto tried to sell his own shirts with an anti-Che sentiment on them, but copyright issues over the Guevara image, snapped by the late Cuban photographer Alberto Korda, ended that effort. One aspect of Guevara merchandise, however, brings a bit of satisfaction to detractors.
“Che Guevara was a communist Marxist anti-capitalist,” Prieto said. “There’s people making money off his image. That’s the delicious irony of it. He must be spinning in his grave.”