Fifty years after he was killed in Bolivia, the legacy of Ernesto Guevara is, for many people and in many places, sandwiched between a coming-of-age travelogue and a t-shirt logo — both available on Amazon.com for under Rs 500. But in the time after he wrote Motorcycle Diaries and before he became a cheap, royalty-free way to market merchandise, Che (friend) was a communist and a revolutionary. And while the giants of that ideology, from Joseph Stalin onwards, have fallen — both politically and morally — Che’s popularity has only grown.
Since Che’s killing, left movements and protests, particularly in the West, have had students and the youth at the forefront. Less than a year after he died, the May ‘68 protests erupted in France and swept across Europe. As a political icon of the Left, Che had an advantage over his contemporaries and predecessors: One of the architects of the Cuban revolution, he did not stay back to build the country but chose to travel across Latin America and Africa to foment revolution. The moral nomad from the Motorcycle Diaries never lost his sheen. He was not accused of human rights violations, of gulags and forced collectivisation. For students in particular, the idealism of Che was resonant. But as the Left — both organised and otherwise — died out, the icon has increasingly become an empty signifier in many parts of the world.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Che’s face has certainly become more ubiquitous — along with the merchandise, there have been multiple films on his life. But even the more thoughtful among them — the film on Motorcycle Diaries by Walter Salles, for example — look at the man as a moral agent than his view of history, capitalism and colonial exploitation. And while there are those who still celebrate his politics — thousands collected in Bolivia to commemorate him — for the most part, the system he sought to overthrow has managed to subsume what he stood for.