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That Photograph of Che Lives On in Cuba

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the Che Day sales, business is booming.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Che Guevara’s attempt to liberate South America from oligarchs and foreign domination--the “Thirtieth Anniversary of the Fall in Combat of the Heroic Guerrilla Che Guevara and his Companions,” as it is being called here in Cuba. You see those words on the government letterheads and in the daily papers; you hear them on the air.

At the Plaza de Armas, all the stalls feature books by and about Guevara, enough to fill a small library. A few blocks away at the Plaza de la Catedral, where artisans and purveyors of folk craft hawk their wares, every few steps you bump into the image of Guevara.

The ingenious homemade creations include a large box made from ice cream sticks, painted so that you see Fidel Castro if you look from one side, Cuba’s founding father Jose Marti from the other, and Guevara head on. There are carvings of Guevara made from tortoise shell, Guevara key rings, hand-tooled Guevara on a leather cushion.

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But as always, one item stands out: the world-famous photograph of Guevara, the one of him gazing intently over the horizon, long hair covered by a beret.

It was shot by Alberto Diaz Gutierrez, widely known as “Korda.” Before the revolution, he had earned a living snapping fashion shots and cheesecake. In March 1960, before a major Castro speech at the Colon Cemetery, he was on the grandstand as Guevara made his way down the front row.

Guevara came into the viewfinder of Korda’s Leica. The photographer saw the hard and determined visage, the head tilted slightly, the eyes burning just beyond the foreseeable future. “I was shook,” he has recalled. “Physically taken aback.”

Guevara appears in only two frames on Korda’s contact sheet. Korda cropped out a palm tree to one side and an anonymous fellow on the other.

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The picture appeared in a Cuban newspaper and was tucked away. Then, in 1967, when Guevara was killed, it reappeared overnight, magically and majestically, 10 stories high on the side of a government building. A shrewd Italian took a print back to Europe where it was made into a poster; millions have been sold. Cuba even made a documentary about it, “The Photo That Circles the World.”

It has become one of the most ubiquitous photos ever taken, common to banners in Third World demonstrations, head shops in Europe, galleries in the old Eastern Bloc, and decals plastered on Latin American buses. It’s on billboards, T-shirts, walls, currency and black velvet.

And what of Korda, who was almost 40 when he took the picture? He still lives here, selling prints for up to $300 each. But through a combination of ideological obligation and Cuba’s withdrawal from international copyright conventions, he didn’t claim control of the rights to his famed Guevara photograph. A colleague from that era says Korda would have been a millionaire “if only he had lived in a different system.”

* Tom Miller is the author of “Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba” (Basic Books).

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