Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Che: The Ronald McDonald of Revolution

From WorldHum via Art & Letters Daily.

Visit the Museo de la Revolución in central Havana, and two things about the museum’s photo displays will immediately capture your attention. First, it’s clear that the battle to control Cuba in the late 1950s was ultimately won by the cool guys. Young, bearded and ruggedly handsome, the rebel warriors of Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement look like Beat hipsters and rock stars—Fidel tall and imposing in his fatigues; Camillo Cienfuegos grinning under his broad-brimmed cowboy hat; Ernesto “Che” Guevara looking smolderingly photogenic in his black beret. By contrast, the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista and his cronies look bloated, balding and unquestionably corrupt in their stubby neckties and damp armpits and oversized paunches. Even without reading the captions, it’s easy to discern the heroes from the villains.

Look closer, however, and you’ll notice that the triumphant photos of Fidel and Che are faded and mildewed, their corners curled by age and humidity. The photo captions are spelled out in a clunky die-cast typeset that hasn’t been used in a generation, and contain glowing present-tense references to the magnanimity of the Soviet Union—a country that hasn’t existed since 1991. Despite the grungy glamour of the young men who toppled a tyrant all those years ago, the anachronism and decay of the museum’s exhibits reveal just how tired and toothless Cuba’s revolutionary myths have become in Havana. In many ways, the building is a museum of a museum—a yellowing relic of how the communist regime chose to portray itself in the 1970s.

Step outside the Museo de la Revolución into the humid Havana air, and the glamorous sheen of the bygone Cuban revolution seems to have been distilled into a single image—Alberto Korda’s famous 1960 photo of a bearded Che Guevara looking steely and determined in his beret. In a city where few buildings outside the restored Habana Vieja district have seen a new coat of paint in half a century, freshly retouched renderings of Che’s mug adorn countless walls and billboards. Moreover, in a country largely devoid of public advertising and religious iconography, Guevara’s ubiquitous image appears to fill the role of both Jesus Christ and Ronald McDonald—a sainted martyr of unwavering purity who also happens to promote a meticulously standardized (if not particularly nutritious) political menu.

Rolf Potts

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