The Big Question: Who was Che Guevara, and does he deserve his iconic status?

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The Independent US

Why is the V&A dedicating an exhibition to a photograph of Che?

Maybe it's because of the famous picture of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, snapped by Alberto Korda, later to become Fidel Castro's personal photographer, during a memorial service in Cuba in 1960 (though first published seven years later), is said to be the most reproduced image of all time. First adopted as the standard of protesting students in 1968, and espoused by successive generations, its potency as a symbol of leftist rebellion and a statement of non-conformity never dies.

How did he become a symbol of revolutionary zeal?

Born in Argentina in June 1928, Ernest Guevara studied to be a doctor, but lost interest in his putative career after travelling throughout Latin America and concluding that armed revolution was the only solution to the continent's cruel social inequities. In Guatemala, in 1954, he witnessed the overthrow of the leftist government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in a coup orchestrated by the CIA; some time later he joined a band of Cuban exiles in Mexico City committed to overthrowing the corrupt, American-friendly regime of Fulgencio Batista.

With Fidel Castro at its helm, the exiles returned to Cuba and eventually succeeded in an armed revolution that ousted Batista on 1 January 1959. A hero of the revolution, Guevara became Castro's No 2, overseeing the execution of Batista loyalists and later running the industry ministry. Che disappeared from view in 1965, spurring speculation - never entirely settled - of a rift with Castro. If there was such a parting of ways, it may be that Castro began to resent his friend's burgeoning popularity.

Guevara was later to be found attempting to repeat his socialist revolution elsewhere in the world, first in Congo and then in Bolivia, where he was captured and executed in 1967. Guevara has since been rehabilitated by Castro, once again he is a hero and father of the revolution.

Yes, but who wants to wear his T-shirt?

Actually, I purchased one at Havana airport on a recent visit. Most times, what you see is actually the high-contrast stylised version of the photograph drawn by the Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick. The black and white portrait was thus transformed into a Pop Art icon, with help also from Andy Warhol, who reproduced it with the same graphic processes he used on Marilyn Monroe.

Korda could have exerted copyright control over the image, but only did so shortly before his death in 2001, when he sued to prevent a vodka company using it as a marketing tool. (Che was a teetotaler.) Consequently, the image has been expropriated by everyone from Madonna - it was the cover of her album American Life - to an ice-cream company in Australia, to makers of tacky mugs and fridge magnets. Nowadays it spells less Marxist revolution and more fashion chic - or fashion tat.

Toddlers in Knightsbridge wearing "Che" shirts will have no clue who he was, but nor do many of the adults happily buying into Che-mania. They just like to be part of what they think he represents. Che has become a commodity of western consumers in search of cool. Who knows if he smiling in his grave at the irony, or rolling?

Did someone say 'ruthless terrorist'?

Jean-Paul Sartre once described Guevara as "not only an intellectual, but also the most complete human being of our age". Yet some might consider it curious that so many of us continue to romanticise a founder of the Communist regime in Cuba that, despite its real accomplishments in health and education in particular, has consistently ranked in the top five human rights abusers worldwide.

A hero of democracy, Che surely is not. His record as head of the industry ministry was bumbling - during his tenure Cuba was forced to begin food rationing. As the man in charge of cleansing Cuba of Batista elements, he was merciless, ordering thousands of executions. He once famously proclaimed: "Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become..."

What keeps the myth going?

Aside from the T-shirt manufacturers, there is Hollywood. The legend was given a boost by the 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries, co-produced by Robert Redford, that explored the formation of his egalitarian idealism during his travels through Latin America before going to Cuba. The film enraged some critics, including the writer Anthony Daniels, who noted: "It is as if someone were to make a film about Adolf Hitler by portraying him as a vegetarian who loved animals and was against unemployment. This would be true, but ... rather beside the point."

An entirely less rose-tinted take on Guevara and Castro can be seen in the newly released independent film The Lost City, directed by the actor Andy Garcia (who fled Cuba with is family aged five), starring Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray.

Is Che relevant today, nearly 40 years after dying?

Yes, if only because the revolution still lives with Castro, who turns 80 in August, remaining in charge. More compellingly, leftist governments are in power today in nearly every South American nation. True disciples of Guevara have a new, living figure to idolise: Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Chavez, who frequently cites Castro's Cuba as his inspiration, shares and preaches the dream first articulated by Guevara of a continent united in shared values of socialist egalitarianism. He is the new mouthpiece of the anti-American fervour first felt by Guevara during his sojourn in Guatemala. With the recent election in Bolivia of Evo Morales, a like-minded populist who rattled nerves in the West by partially nationalising his country's energy sector, Chavez has been further energised in his quest.

The horizons on this world view may be closing in, however. Chavez is a divisive force in Latin America, with other leaders in the region increasingly shunning his affections. On Sunday, his chosen favourite in Peru's presidential elections, Ollanta Humala, suffered defeat at the hands of the newly moderate Alan Garcia.

Was Che Guevara a hero or a villain?

Hero ...

* Che was, and remains, an inspirational figure for revolutionaries against imperialism and social oppression the world over

* The rise of anti-American, left-wing elected governments in South America shows that Che's ideals still hold great appeal

* Che was right to show with his life that the Cuban example could be followed only by spreading the revolution beyond Cuba's shores

Villain ...

* If it were not for the Korda photograph hardly anyone would think about Che - after all, he was a flop as a revolutionary

* The myth of Che - whether films, Andy Warhol artworks, or wall posters - mainly attracts style victims, not serious political activists

* When he did, briefly, wield power in Cuba, he was a merciless killer of supporters of the previous regime - hardly a human rights hero