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Che's spirit burns on in Latin America

Supporters of the Sandinista National Liberation Front party, FSLN, waving a Cuban flag with an image depicting Argentine-born revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara during November's elections
Che's image crops in protests in Latin America and beyond

By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Buenos Aires

Fifty years ago saw the triumph of the Cuban revolution, led by Fidel Castro. A key figure in that success was Ernesto Che Guevara, who led rebel fighters into Havana on 2 January following the overthrow of Cuba's dictator Fulgencio Batista.

But Che Guevara's attempts to spread the revolution throughout the continent ended with his execution in a remote Bolivian school in 1967.

His image and ideology were suppressed in his native Argentina - and beyond - throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, a period that saw much of Latin America governed by right-wing or even military administrations.

Some in Latin America see Che as a failed revolutionary, while others say he was a misguided killer, a brutal man who ordered the execution of dozens of his opponents.

But what is clear is that Che Guevara's image and ideals have continued to resonate - and in some parts of 21st century Latin America now stronger than ever.

The reasons, for some observers, is that the region's institutions are generally weak. The people simply don't trust their governments, banks and judicial systems.

Their protests are often lost in a sea of bureaucracy or corruption, and so for many, the only way to be heard is by taking to the streets.

Iconic image

As a result, there are protests almost every day across Latin America by trade unions, indigenous groups, human rights campaigners, shantytown residents and more.

A poster of Che in a shop in Buenos Aires
People feel that he represents many of our deep needs, politically speaking
Maria del Carmen
Ecuadoran writer

And you can pretty much guarantee it - some demonstrators will be bearing the famous image of Ernesto Che Guevara captured by photographer Alberto Korda in Havana in 1960.

Buenos Aires-based journalist, Michael Casey, is the author of the book Che's Afterlife - The Legacy of an Image.

"It's much easier to put on a T-shirt and say 'I'm dedicated to self-sacrifice and to the hard slog of revolution' that Che himself, the man, pursued than it is to actually do it yourself," Mr Casey says.

"He would be demanding a lot of people. And I don't think the revolutionary fervour that drove people to imitate him in quite a real way, certainly here in Argentina and across Latin America, is quite there."

In Europe and North America, his image is used to sell everything from vodka to baby clothes to T-shirts, while in Latin America it still carries a revolutionary appeal.

Stunning comeback

Che Guevara died, defeated and with little support in a remote Bolivian village in October 1967.

So how are Che and the message he carried with such success in the Cuban revolution relevant to 21st century Latin American politics?

The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has certainly helped to burnish Che's image.

Eladio Gonzalez in his shop filled with Che memorabilia
Guevara is everywhere. He is being reborn. And nowadays, he has won. You will see.
Eladio Gonzalez
Memorabilia store owner

Mr Chavez recently marked the 10th anniversary of his own election - and he has made it clear he wants to stay a lot longer to implement what he calls his brand of 21st Century socialism.

As he spreads his message throughout Latin America, lubricated by his country's vast oil wealth, he often talks of the advice he receives from the former Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, and the inspiration from Che Guevara.

But it is perhaps in Bolivia, the country where Che Guevara's plans to spread revolution failed so dramatically, that ironically his image and ideals are most prevalent.

Indigenous leader, coca leaf grower and now president Evo Morales also says he is continuing to spread the message carried by Che.

He often talks about Guevara's self-sacrifice and cites the work he did with the poor, the sick and indigenous communities.

At the height of the Cold War, Che's CIA-backed killers hoped his revolutionary zeal was dead too. It seems that they were wrong.

"It's like people feel that he represents many of our deep needs, politically speaking," says Ecuadorean writer Maria del Carmen who has written extensively about the bearded, beret-wearing Argentine.

"So I really think that is the main point about the growing of his popularity all over Latin America. Because this is growing all the time."

Hero's shrine

Most in Latin America could probably not tell you specifically what Che stood for. They use him mainly as a symbol of hope, of independence, of freedom, of something to sing about.

Eladio Gonzalez used to run the only Che Guevara museum in Buenos Aires.

It is closed now but his shop filled with Che memorabilia acts as a kind of shrine for visitors in search of whatever they feel the Argentine revolutionary can offer them.

A homeless man rummages through rubbish by a wall adorned with Che's image
Che graffiti adorns many walls in Latin America's poorest districts
Wearing his Che T-shirt and playing a song about his dead hero over the shop's music system, he said: "Guevara is everywhere. He is being reborn."

He cites the example of Bolivia: "I am very, very happy that the seed Guevara put in this earth, Bolivia, has grown and we are seeing, are looking at, these new fruits. And nowadays, he has won. Guevara has won. You will see."

Mr Gonzalez said that successive governments and the media in Argentina have distorted the Che Guevara story because they are frightened of the message he carried.

It was only with the return to democracy in Argentina 25 years ago that his image could be legally displayed and his books read.

Although Buenos Aires remains without a Che Guevara museum, there are plans to open one in Rosario, the city in which he was born, and there is one in the northern province of Cordoba where he grew up.

Few in Latin America, it seems, want to turn their countries into new versions of Cuba.

But the spirit of the Cuban revolution, and all that it promised, is still burning strong - at least in the image of Comandante Che Guevara.



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