Gisele Bundchen wears him on the runway, Johnny Depp wears him around his neck, and Benicio Del Toro becomes him in the new, highly acclaimed, two-part epic film from Steven Soderbergh, Che. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the revolutionary who helped found communist Cuba, is the celebrity that celebrities adore. And be it Madonna, Rage Against the Machine, or Jay-Z, musicians really dig Che.
It’s something that baffles Cuban jazz legend Paquito D’Rivera. “Che hated artists, so how is it possible that artists still today support the image of Che Guevara?” Turns out the rebellious icon that emblazons countless T-shirts actually enforced aesthetic and political conformity. D’Rivera explains that Che and other Cuban authorities sought to ban rock and roll and jazz.
“Che was an inspiration for me,” D’Rivera tells reason.tv. “I thought I have to get out of this island as soon as I can, because I am in the wrong place at the wrong time!” D’Rivera did escape Cuba, and so far he’s won nine Grammy awards playing the kind of music Che tried to silence. But D’Rivera says Che’s crimes didn’t end with censorship. “He ordered the execution of many people with no trial.” Che served as Castro’s chief executioner, presiding over the infamous La Cabana prison. D’Rivera says Che’s policy of killing innocents earned him the nickname—the Butcher of La Cabana.
“We’re rightly horrified by fascist murderers like Adolph Hitler,” says reason.tv’s Nick Gillespie. “Why aren’t we also horrified by communist killers?” Certainly, Che’s body count isn’t anywhere near Hitler’s. But what about someone Che idolized, someone whom he might have liked to wear on his chest?
“Che, Castro, all the communist regimes idolized only one thing that Mao personifies—violence.” Kai Chen grew up in China under the reign of Mao Zedong. Although he won gold medals for China’s national basketball team, Chen’s was far from the celebrity life of an NBA star. Says Chen, “You have no right to talk, and you have no right to think.”
The punishment for questioning Mao’s authority was often death. The Black Book of Communism estimates that Mao is responsible for the deaths of 65 million people—a figure that dwarfs even Hitler’s body count. “Mao is a murderer,” says Chen. “The biggest mass murderer in human history.”
And yet, like Che, Mao’s image is becoming an increasingly popular way to move merchandise. You can buy Mao t-shirts, mugs, caps—you name it. Near Chen’s Los Angeles home there’s even a restaurant called Mao’s Kitchen. “Can you imagine a restaurant called Hitler’s Kitchen?” asks Gillespie.
Neither D’Rivera nor Chen understands why communist killers are considered Chic, but each finds his own way to have the last laugh on these anti-capitalist icons.
Closing music, “Che Guevara T-Shirt Wearer,” courtesy of The Clap.