How they made a killing out of Che

And Korda, left, who took the famous picture of Guevara never made a cent, writes Graham Ball
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The Independent Online
"Che lives!" The revolutionary slogan born on the barricades of the student uprising in Paris in 1968 is as true today as it was then.

But 30 years after the Marxist guerrilla leader became the secular saint of revolutionary causes, that famous picture of Che Guevara which adorned a million student bedrooms in the 1970s and became the universal emblem of youthful defiance has been hijacked by the same capitalist forces Guevara spent his life fighting.

Today the portrait, with its instantly recognisable piercing stare, beard and beret, is worth millions.

Ever since the hard-line socialist was executed in a mud-walled school room in the tiny village of Higuera, Bolivia, on 8 October 1967, his divine countenance has appeared on countless T-shirts, beer bottles, posters, record sleeves, book-jackets, badges and designer clothes.

But the man who created one of the world's most potent icons has never profited from it.

Next month, to mark the 30th anniversary of his friend's death, the Cuban photographer who took the picture that launched an entire industry is to visit Britain for the first time.

Alberto Diaz Gutierrez, better known simply as Korda, is 69 - the same age Guevara would have been had he escaped the CIA-backed government troops who finally ran him to ground.

He took the photograph while working for a state-run newspaper in 1960, when Guevara was 31. It was never published.

But seven years later a left-wing Italian publisher, Giacomo Feltrinelli, was visiting Cuba and wanted a picture of Guevara to adorn the cover of a volume of diaries by the French socialist author Regis Debray. Korda took the picture from the wall of his home in Havana, and gave it to Feltrinelli.

A few months later it was revealed that Guevara was dead, and the publisher decided to issue a full-face poster of the fallen warrior. It was an instant international best-seller, and while Feltrinelli may have earned a fortune, Korda, the photographer, got nothing.

"Outwardly he says he does not mind - on the surface he seems quite resolved about the situation," said his British friend Steven Wilkinson, who has been writing about and visiting Cuba for the past 20 years.

"But deep down I believe he harbours a certain resentfulness. After all, it is one of the most reproduced images in the world."

In 1970 Korda visited the millionaire publisher in his Milan office. The meeting was brief, and the Guevara picture was not discussed.

Korda had given the Italian the pictures and was too proud to haggle, but he said at the time: "If he had paid me just one lira for each reproduction I would have received millions."

Yet late in the day, Korda is beginning to benefit from his photography. On 25 October he is to be the subject of a BBC2 documentary in the Decisive Moments series.

The programme producer, Elaine Shepherd, said: "It is quite clear that had he been living in the First World, he would have been a multi-millionaire by now, but he is quite resigned to what has happened. He is still working and incredibly lively, and I believe he is enjoying the late flowering of his fame."

Next month, to coincide with the anniversary of Guevara's death, the Cuba Solidarity Campaign is organising an exhibition of the work of four leading Cuban photographers, including Korda, at the London Institute Gallery.

The exhibition organiser, Rob Miller, said: "In recent years Korda has been able to realise a fraction of the profit that others have made from his labour. We intend to sell about 20 of the prints signed by Korda for between pounds 200 and pounds 300 each."

In July this year, on cue for the anniversary celebrations, Guevara's body was unearthed in the mountains of central Bolivia, in a communal grave beneath the airstrip at Valle Grande, former headquarters of the Bolivian army in the region.

The identification of the skeleton was helped by the body having no hands. Guevara's hands were cut off after his death and sent to Cuba as proof, where they are said to reside in a jar in President Castro's office. Now his body has been repatriated, and a mausoleum is being built.

In the Caribbean's only Marxist republic, the hope is that the return of this political hero will help stimulate the island's biggest hard currency trade, tourism.

The Bolivians are not lagging behind. They have just instituted an adventure holiday where travellers can recreate the final steps of their most famous terrorist.

"It is no use being too post-modernist about this," said Wilkinson. "In Cuba and in Latin America generally, Guevara is still extremely highly regarded.

"Korda's picture is extraordinary. It has elevated Guevara beyond simple politics.

"The image has a religious resemblance and a strong sexual symbolism which different people in different cultures relate to in diverse ways. Che may be dead, but he is never going away."

Che Guevara holidays. See Travel.