- The Washington Times - Friday, September 24, 2004

NEW YORK — This fall season, iconic communist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara is conquering the bastion of capitalism: the mall.

Thirty-seven years after his death in the jungles of Bolivia, it’s hard to miss the classic image of a beret-clad and bearded Che on T-shirts, posters, books, beanie hats and even children’s clothing.

Che’s rise in popularity of late as a marketing tool has been interpreted both as capitalism’s final victory over one of the last untouched revolutionary icons and as a demonstration of the enduring relevance of his ideals.

Opening amid this heightened interest in Guevara is the movie “Motorcycle Diaries,” distributed in the United States by Focus Features, the specialty films unit of Universal Pictures, a division of NBC Universal.

The movie depicts a young Guevara, the son of a bourgeois Argentine family, on a life-changing trip through South America with a close friend.

Another film directed by Steve Soderbergh and starring Benicio del Toro that will touch on Guevara’s days as a revolutionary is scheduled to open in 2005.

Major film releases often spawn a number of tie-in promotional and retail deals and Guevara is no exception despite the fiery anti-capitalist views he espoused.

“The movies are making middle America more aware of Che,” said David McWilliams, president and founder of Fashion Victim, an apparel and accessory company based in Atlanta that makes a “substantial portion” of its $4 million to $5 million in yearly sales on dozens of items emblazoned with the most recognizable image of Che.

It’s the classic photograph taken by Alberto Korda in 1960 of a fierce-looking Guevara at the height of his popularity after the triumph of the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro.

Mr. McWilliams, who wore Che Guevara T-shirts and worked at a store that sold them in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a student at Ohio State University, said his company acquired exclusive licensing rights in North America for the Korda image from French legal firm Legend LLC that represents the interests of Mr. Korda’s daughter.

Mr. Korda, whose real name was Alberto Diaz Gutierrez, died in 2001. The year before he successfully fought an attempt by Smirnoff vodka to use the image on an advertising campaign in London’s High Court. After the ruling that granted him copyright protection of the photograph, Mr. Korda said he was against the exploitation of the image for the promotion of alcohol, “or any other purpose that denigrates the reputation of Che.”

“There is a banalization of the myth behind all this, but it didn’t start in capitalist societies,” said Alcibiades Hidalgo, a journalist, former Cuban ambassador to the United Nations and one of the highest-ranking officials from Cuba to defect to the United States, where he has lived since 2002.

Mr. Hidalgo, who met Guevara several times in the early- to mid-1960s and remembers him as an authoritarian figure who inspired fear, traces the origins of the commercial cult of Che to the opening of the Cuban tourism sector in the mid-1990s.

“There was a conscious decision by the regime to exploit a certain perverse curiosity about Cuba as a museum, a country that resembles nothing else in the world. The opening of Cuba to tourists coincided with sale of Che paraphernalia and it had nothing to do with the Che’s ideals,” Mr. Hidalgo said.

“I can see how commercialization may turn some people off, but it also brings attention to someone who fought for his ideas and some people may start learning about him as a result,” said Mr. McWilliams.

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