Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The communist economist

I am a big fan of black and white photographs. Somehow, for me,  the shades of gray are much more soothing to the soul than colors. And if the photograph has some important historical event connected to it, I can stare at it for hours. Recently, I came across a very intriguing photograph. Of historical importance. And, in black and white.

At first, it might seem like a bunch of ragtag guys in a forest, with a bunch of guns hanging from their shoulders. But, if you look closely, you will see that the man standing in the center, and looking very tall, is none other than Fidel Castro, who brought the communist revolution to the new world and outlived every American president who vowed to overthrow his government. The man kneeling  right in front of Fidel is his younger brother Raul, who became the president of Cuba, after Fidel stepped down. These guerrilla fighters were probably getting ready for a gunfight in the jungles of Cuba, right before their El-Revolucion made and changed history as we know it. But, in the same picture, you can see a rather insignificant looking young man standing close to the edge of the photograph. I put a small arrow next to him, although, it was quite painful defacing a classic photograph like this.

In case you cannot recognize this face, let me show you another one, which has almost become a fashion symbol around the world, in a strange irony of sorts. It is the same young man, but, with a countenance that the world has come to recognize. Decades after his death, he continues to inspire left leaning wanna-be revolutionaries and fashion designers equally. He is known to the world as Ernesto Che Guevara, or simply as El Che, the ultimate revolutionary. Young people love the face of this long dead man for the simple reason that he was a rebel, a trait that characterizes young people of all generations.

Born in Argentina, Che Guevara was trained as a physician. When he came across abject poverty in Latin American countries, he became convinced that a communist revolution was the only way out. He joined Fidel and Raul Castro to bring the revolution to Cuba and was instrumental in shaping many long term educational, health and agrarian reform policies of that island nation. But, being the rebel he was, he could not stay stuck to power and went back to the jungles with his ragtag guerrillas and was eventually caught and executed by CIA-assisted forces in Bolivia. He was barely thirty nine when he died, which is why the forever young rebel tag goes with El Che more than with anyone else. And even today, he is the dream come true for every marketing genius trying to sell neckties to people under twenty.

If you have grown up in India, at some stage or the other in your life, you have come across a comic-book character called Tintin, who is a an intrepid news reporter. And, many of his adventures have taken him to Latin-American jungles, where he has a friend called General Alcazar. The cigar smoking general is a perpetual revolutionary, always dressed in fatigues and fighting to grab control of an imaginary banana republic called San Theodoros.His arch-rival is another general called Tapioca. Between the two of them, they have brought many revolutions to their small country, and would have continued to do so had Mr. Georges Remi, or Herge, the creator of Tintin been alive. Tintin and the Picaros was Herge's last creation, and in that book, Tintin joins General Alcazar and his ragtag group of fighters in another revolution, with no bloodshed! And, Alcazar and his band of revolutionaries is supposedly modeled on Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. It is another thing that Alcazar is shown as a henpecked husband in this book. I firmly believe that Fidel Castro got his hands on this comic-book and, as a result, vowed to stay a bachelor all his life.
Now, back to El Che. People find it rather ironic that someone who rebelled against a capitalist society has now become a cultural icon, whose face is on all kinds of capitalist products, from T-shirts to handbags. And, even more ironically, these are typically manufactured in communist China, by proletarians,  who are paid lower than acceptable minimum wages in the rest of the world. Strange are the workings of free-market capitalism. I am sure Karl Marx must be turning in his grave.

I once heard a strange story about the early days of the communist government in Cuba. Fidel Castro, was looking for a finance minister. So, in one of his public addresses, he asked, "Is there an economist here?". And, Che Guevara stood up. So, Castro made him the finance minister. Later, in private, Castro asked him, "I thought you were a physician, I did not know you were an economist as well?"

Guevara replied, "Economist? I thought you were looking for a communist, which is why I promptly stood up."  Apparently, just as in English, the two words sound very similar in Spanish.  That is how, the revolutionary communist state of Cuba, got its finance minister. Che Guevara, the communist economist.


  1. Interesting post..
    I think, Che,as in that single pic, has a rougish charm about him :)

  2. Che fancied himself as an economist... and anyways, he was better than those free market proponents who believed in simply assuming away all sorts of imperfections and complications in markets. Atleast he recognised the issues of exploitation and poverty... unlike those phd holding economists who simply choose to close their eyes and say that markets are sacred!
    It is painful to see Che on T-shirts, lingerie and what not...

    Nice post... thanks for bringing Che back in discussion. Most people in India are simply unaware that such a man ever existed... and er... some think he was a lead singer of some rock band (yes, this is true!)!!

  3. Thanks Ruhi. Che was very real but sometimes, people who are a cut above the rest of us become legends, and then, it is so hard to believe that they could have been real.

    Lead singer of rock band? Now, that is funny indeed!

  4. Great post! Loved the connection you brought out between Che and Tintin, both intrepid gentlemen!