By Damian Wroclavsky
HAVANA (Reuters) – With his picture on rock band posters,
baseball caps and women’s lingerie, Marxist revolutionary Che
Guevara is firmly entrenched in the capitalist consumer society
that he died fighting to overturn.
The image of the Argentine-born guerrilla gazing sternly
into the distance, long-hair tucked into a beret with a single
star, has been an enduring 20th century pop icon.
The picture — taken by a Cuban photographer in 1960 and
printed on posters by an Italian publisher after Guevara’s
execution in Bolivia seven years later — fired the imagination
of rioting Parisian students in May 1968 and became a symbol of
idealistic revolt for a generation.
But as well as being one of the world’s most reproduced,
the image has become one of its most merchandised. And
Guevara’s family is launching an effort to stop it. They plan
to file lawsuits abroad against companies that they believe are
exploiting the image and say lawyers in a number of countries
have offered assistance.
“We have a plan to deal with the misuse,” Guevara’s Cuban
widow Aleida March said in an interview.
“We can’t attack everyone with lances like Don Quixote, but
we can try to maintain the ethics” of Guevara’s legacy, said
March, who will lead the effort from the Che Guevara Studies
Center which is opening in Havana later this year.
“The center intends to contain the uncontrolled use of
Che’s image. It will be costly and difficult because each
country has different laws, but a limit has to be drawn,” the
legendary guerrilla’s daughter, Aleida Guevara, told Reuters.
Swatch has used Guevara on a wristwatch. Advertising firms
have used his image to sell vodka. Supermodel Gisele Bundchen
even took to the runway in Brazilian underwear stamped with
Guevara collectibles — from Zippo lighters to belt buckles
and key chains — can be bought online at thechestore.com.
But a successful copyright lawsuit against Smirnoff vodka
in Britain in 2000 set the precedent for legal action,
establishing ownership of the photographic image.
Lawyers say it will be an uphill struggle to deter
non-photographic use of such a widely reproduced image, other
than in countries like Italy where laws protect image rights.
KORDA VS SMIRNOFF
The famous picture was shot by Alberto Diaz, a fashion
photographer better known as Korda, at a funeral for victims of
the explosion of a French freighter transporting weapons to
Cuba one year after Fidel Castro’s revolution triumphed with
the help of Guevara.
Korda’s group photograph was not printed by his newspaper
the next day. Seven years later, when Italian publisher
Giangiacomo Feltrinelli showed up looking for a cover picture
for an edition of Che’s “Bolivian Diary,” Korda gave him two
prints for free.
Guevara was captured six months later in the Bolivian
jungle, where his bid to start an armed peasant revolution
ended in fiasco. On news on his death, Feltrinelli cropped the
photo and published large posters that quickly sold 1 million
The guerrilla fighter was transformed into martyr, pop
celebrity and radical chic poster boy.
Korda said he never received a penny from Feltrinelli.
But a year before his death in 2001, the photographer won a
lawsuit against London agency Lowe Lintas for unauthorized use
of the picture in a Smirnoff vodka advertising campaign. The
Smirnoff brand is now owned by Britain’s Diageo Plc .
Korda later donated the $70,000 award to children’s health
care in communist Cuba.
Razi Mireskandari, the London lawyer who filed the
copyright case, said Korda worried that the image of Che, who
did not drink, was being trivialized by its use in promoting a
alcoholic beverage that bore no relation to Cuba or his
“We felt there were so many people you could take action
against that we had to start somewhere,” Mireskandari said.
“The plan of action was to target one of these, which was
Smirnoff, and then, when we got the judgment, we were going to
go against everyone else,” he said in a telephone interview.
After the photographer’s death, his heirs never contacted
the lawyer for further action and are disputing among
themselves copyright ownership of the famous picture.
Korda’s daughter Diana Diaz has continued to fight
political misuse of the picture.
In 2003 she won a lawsuit against a Paris-based press
rights group for using the Che photograph in a poster campaign
aimed at dissuading French tourists from vacationing in Cuba
after the jailing of 29 dissident journalists.
Reporters Without Borders had superimposed Che’s face on a
picture of a baton-wielding riot policeman. The caption said:
“Welcome to Cuba, the world’s largest jail for journalists.”
Che fever was stoked last year by “The Motorcycle Diaries,”
a film about his eye-opening trip through poverty-stricken
countries of South America as a medical graduate.
Even Cuba sells Che’s image. Postcards and posters of
Guevara playing golf at the Country Club shortly after the
overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 are popular
So are Cuban banknotes issued when Guevara was Central Bank
governor, simply signed “Che.”