Che Guevara’s image is probably one of the most famous in the 20th century. Known as the Guerillo Heroico it is the popular image of him staring stoically in the distance. That image has been reproduce millions of times over on T shirts, plaques and statues across the globe to symbolise many things ranging from defiance, to martyrdom to revolution. The historical context of the image however is what is called the “La Coubre Explosion”.
Basically a French vessel that had left the port of Antwerp in Belgium full of munitions and landed in the harbors of Havana. Che was at a meeting of what was called the National Institution of Agrarian Reform to implement the Cuban revolution’s land reform program. When the vessel exploded it ended up killing 75-100 people and wounding 200. Che was in the vacinity and drove his car to the area. Because he was a doctor by training Che personally administered first aid treatment to the victims. In the aftermath of the incident a national funeral was held. Fidel Castro presided over the funeral and many Cuban officials as well as international delegates were present. The famous French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and his romantic partner and feminist author Simone De Beavoir were in the crowd with Che Guevara listening to Fidel Castro’s speech. In this context Fidel Castro delivered a blistering condemnation of America, accusing them of being behind the sabotage of the La Coubre. There is no hard evidence for this accusation. However the context of this accusation was the deteriorating relations with the U.S during the Eisenhower Administration in 1960. Castro and Che had nationalised American industries and pursued land reform as well as stronger ties with the Soviet Union. As a result the Eisenhower Administration began the policy of economically isolating Cuba as well as plots to overthrow Castro’s government by training counter revolutionary movements(Escambray Rebellion), assassination attemptions, and preparations for the Bay of Pigs which would take place in 1961. In the context of this speech when he was in the crowd of delegates with Sartre and De Beavoir Che’s stoic image was caught. Since the Cuban revolutionaries believed America was behind the explosion(which we don’t have definitive proof of) its almost as if Che is looking defiantly at the circumstances and also expecting the worst later on(which would happen in the Bay of Pigs).
The second interesting context that’s hinted at is the French. This was a French vessel that exploded in Havana. That contextualises Sartre and Simone De Beavoir’s presence. But they had visited Cuba months earlier to have philosophical discussions with Che due to the fact that French intellectuals and political activists had been fascinated by the Cuban revolution and Che himself. Che would later go on a official state visit to France in 1964 and in 1967 when he was leading his insurgency in Bolivia before execution one of the combatants in his rank was a French intellectual and philosopher named Regis Debray. Debray would eventually go to serve and be a major advisor to the French President Francois Mitterrand. Now does anyone think this historical context ads any significance to the image(regardless of what you think of Che personally) or does the image itself just stand alone?
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