Throughout the storied history of Cuba over the past 600 years, there have been many famous and even infamous characters to emerge that are worthy of exposure and further study (from Christopher Columbus to Jose Marti to Ernest Hemingway to Fidel and Raul Castro). But, in modern times, there is arguably no one person more recognizable or famous than Castro co-revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Perhaps there is just something about a handsome, bearded physician who goes out of his way to help the man in the street. Or, perhaps it is the value of an iconic image that resonates with the masses, since as they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” But, whatever the reason, one cannot argue with the assertion that the image of Che Guevara taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda in 1960, is globally the most recognizable photographic image of the 20th Century. The images seems to just appear whenever there is a cause, a revolution, or a Bob Marley concert. Shot from a low vantage point with a clear background that gives the subject great impact and even heroic qualities, the image arguably is now a symbol for revolution, opposition to the establishment, and even freedom.
This image known as Guerrillero Heroico (Spanish for “the heroic revolutionary”), was taken on March 5, 1960, during a march to the memorial service for victims of the explosion of La Coubre, a French freighter that was carrying 76 tons of Belgian munitions to be used to support the Cuban Revolution. While no one has explained why La Coubre was allowed to unload such dangerous cargo directly onto the docks in Havana against existing harbor regulations, many believe that the explosion was the work of a man named William Alexander Morgan, operating under the direction of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency or CIA. Even though Morgan fought side-by-side with Castro in the Revolution and led the forces (he started the famous Segundo Frente Nacional de Escambray–the SFNE) that along with Che ultimately captured the city of Santa Clara on December 31, 1958 (which led to Dictator Fulgencio Batista’s rapid departure from Cuba within 12 hours of the fall of Santa Clara), and even though Morgan was one of only three foreign nationals to have been awarded the title Comandante (Argentinian Doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Spaniard Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo were the other two foreigners who, along with Morgan, were bestowed this very high honor and recognition of leadership), the Cuban Revolutionary government executed Morgan by firing squad on March 11, 1961, for his potential role in the sabotage of La Coubre on March 4, 1960, as well as his potential involvement in leading young, student counter-revolutionaries in the Escambray mountains who were in favor of a parliamentary, democratic regime over the socialism and Pro-Soviet approach that Castro began to favor.
The memorial service for the 81+ killed in the explosion was to be held in the famous Cuban cemetery, Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón (subject of a future blog post), located in the vibrant Vedado neighborhood of Havana. On March 5, 1960, less than 24 hours after the explosion, a memorial funeral march began in Old Havana at the the seawall boulevard known as the Malecon (subject of a future blog post), and continued to 23rd Street where Fidel Castro issued a eulogy for those who died in the explosion and continued with a fiery speech in support of the Revolution, in which he first publicly uttered the words, Patria o Muerte (Spanish for “Country or Death”). According to the book, Cuba by Korda, during Fidel’s fiery speech, at about 11:20am on the morning of March 5th, Che Guevara stepped forward to survey the reaction of the crowd. While only in sight for a few minutes, Korda, who was working for the newspaper Revolucion, captured a set of frames, with one that will be remembered by millions forever:
While it may disappoint the “purist” photographers who believe that a photographic image must be visualized and then captured “in full frame” in the camera, similar to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic 1932 image Derriere La Gare Saint-Lazare, and Martin Munkacsi’s iconic 1932 image Boys at Lake Tanganyika, Korda’s iconic 1960 image Guerrillero Heroico is a cropped and slightly rotated version of the original full-frame image. It may also delight amateur photographers to note that the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Revolucion chose to run an image of Fidel Castro instead of the later-to-be-global-icon image of Che (and also recall that Fortune magazine turned down Agee and Evan’s epic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Arnold Newman’s iconic image of Igor Stravinsky at the grand piano was also initially rejected for publication).
In the book Cuba by Korda, Korda remarks: “At the foot of the podium draped in black crepe, my eye pressed to my old Leica, I was focusing on Fidel and the people around him. Suddenly, through the 90mm lens, Che loomed above me. I was surprised by his look…. By reflex, I snapped twice–one horizontal shot and one vertical. I didnt have enough time to take a third photo, as he stepped back discreetly into the second row. Back in my studio, I developed the film and made a few prints for Revolucion. Because there was a head showing over his shoulder in the vertical shot, I cropped the horizontal photo. The editor-in-chief chose to publish a photo of Fidel on the front page instead, but I liked the Che portrait so much I later made a bigger print, 11 by 14 inches, and hung it in my studio…” So, in just seconds, and from a cropped image, emerged one of the most iconic photographicimages of all time!
Of the three “famous Cubans” discussed in this blog post, only one was born in Cuba: Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, later to be better known as just Korda, was born in Havana on September 14, 1928. The other two were born outside of Cuba: Ernesto R. Guevara de la Serna in his native Rosario, Argentina on June 14, 1928, and William Alexander Morgan in his native Cleveland, Ohio on April 19, 1928. Ironically, only Morgan died on Cuban soil, as Che was was put to death on October 9, 1967, while supporting revolution in Bolivia, by Bolivian soldiers that were trained, equipped and guided by U.S. Green Beret and CIA operatives; and Korda died in Paris of natural causes on May 25, 2001. Yet, the final resting place for all three men is in Cuba. Alberto Korda and Alexander Morgan were both buried in the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón. On a recent visit to this truly exceptional cemetery named for Christoper Columbus, I was able to find the simple but quite beautiful marble grave marker for Alberto Korda. I was unable to find a similar marker for William Alexander Morgan, but am told that he was burried there after the firing squad ended his life and controversial roles both for and, apparently against, the Revolution in Cuba. Perhaps the grave marker is no where to be found due to Fidel Castro’s agreement with the requests made on a visit to Cuba in April, 2002, by U.S. House Representatives Charlie Rangel and Marcy Kaptur to return Morgan’s remains to the U.S.
The remains of Che Guevara were found in Bolivia in 1997, exhumed, and returned to Cuba. They are now housed in the Che Guevara Mausoleum in the city of Santa Clara, the very same Santa Clara that Morgan and Che liberated on December 31, 1958, that led to the depature of Fulgencio Batista from Cuba within 12 hours of the fall of Santa Clara.