Rodrigo Orihuela
Rodrigo Orihuela

Che Guevara, marketing icon and Puma inspirer

“I feel sorry for the family of Che Guevara, people who knew him before he became a T-shirt.”

The quote belongs to Jeremy Hardy, a British comedian, and came to memory on Tuesday when I saw a few dozen teenagers march in Buenos Aires to commemorate the 40 anniversary of the death of the famed guerrilla fighter.

Nowhere in the world is the media approach to Che Guevara’s memory as complicated as in Argentina, his country of birth. In Cuba, the Castro-regime treats him like a state hero; in the anti-Castro-dominated Miami area he was no more than a bloodthirsty killer; in the rest of the world, the media, politically detached from his legacy by now, talk about him as a fascinating historical character, while millions of people consider his face an excellent image to wear on shirts, hats, pins and so forth.

The toughest problem with Guevara for most media outlets in this country is that what he stood for goes against their own ideologies. Also, not so long ago, he was a rather obscure character in whom the greater public had little interest.

Yet, the media need to talk about him when important anniversaries such as Tuesday’s come around because, thanks to his ever-growing popularity, he has become a marketing executive’s dream. Most newspapers and broadcasters find an easy way out: they depict him as an idealist, a romantic rich boy who abandoned the chance of a career in medicine to dedicate his life to helping the poor of Latin America (and Congo).

This approach allows the media to focus more on the Bolivian city where he was killed than on thorny issues such as the mass killings Cuban dissidents say he committed; it allows to retell the stories his wrote in his Motorcycle Diaries (the book that inspired the movie by Walter Salles) rather than analyse the stubbornness of a fighter who failed more than he succeeded as a leader of guerrilla warfare.

Guevara was not, however, a simple idealist. Quiet the opposite. He was a man of action and a dedicated student and analyst of politics and economics, who died fighting as he tried to attain his objective. He could never be accused of spending a life on an armchair dreaming of how to change the world, as idealists do. He went out to change it, whether or not you agree with what he wanted.

The soft-handed approach to the memory of Che Guevara was fuelled more than ever in recent days with the story that he serves as inspiration for the Pumas, the Argentinian national rugby team who are enjoying their best-ever run in a World Cup. The story started off with an interview (French) with Agustín Pichot, Pumas captain and poster boy, in the French newspaper Le Parisien. The interviewer was Jean Cormier, a Guevara biographer.

Pichot told Cormier he is proud Guevara was Argentinian and that he was a former rugby player (in junior teams). He said Guevara applied strategies he learnt from rugby to his guerrilla fighting and he called Guevara “Argentina’s most emblematic personality”.

Cormier’s story spread swiftly and was picked up, for example, by Britain’s Daily Telegraph and Guardian newspapers, by the Spanish sports daily As and by several Argentinian papers.

It is a wonderful colour story. After all, everybody wants a hero and everybody loves idealists, as long as we are not asked to follow them. The question that remains eternally unaddressed is what Guevara would think if he knew that the legacy of his ideas have come down to the headline-catching talk of a rich sportsman and the fashion trends of youngsters uninterested in undertaking world-changing crusades.