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Irish Che Guevara artist: 'Criticism is to be expected from the usual quarters'

The artist who created the iconic Che Guevara print says he’s “immensely proud” of his artwork, and says many misunderstand the Cuban revolutionary.

Image: An Post

THE ARTIST WHO created the iconic image of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara has said that he’s “immensely proud” to have his artwork on an Irish stamp.

Last week, An Post announced that it was launching a stamp to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of Che Guevara’s death with the iconic two-tone artwork by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick.

The commemorative stamp has sparked both sharp criticism and a robust defence of Guevara, who is adored as an icon of freedom and liberty by his supporters, and defined as a violent murderer by his critics.

Speaking on Morning Ireland today, Cuban-American journalist Ninoska Perez said that many Cubans who contacted her radio show on Miami 710 AM were incensed by the “offensive” stamp design.

“I don’t know what’s there to honour about Che Guevara,” she said.

Former Renua leader Lucinda Creighton said that the stamp was “glorifying a terrorist and murderer”.

But Fitzpatrick says that the criticism the stamp is coming under is nothing new, and that he’s ”very proud that there’s an Irish stamp with my artwork on it”.

I think any Irish artist who’s put on his own country’s postage stamp, you swell with pride when you see it.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, he said that the image has caused controversy since it was first created, and that’ he’s almost getting used to it: “I think it’s to be expected from the usual quarters.”

He says that the criticism was “much worse when I first created it than now” but he still doesn’t understand the logic to it.

“If people want to be free, as we’re witnessing in Catalonia, what do you do?”

Incidentally a lot of the criticism [the stamp is] getting is from people like Lucinda Creighton. She was in Fine Gael, started by Michael Collins – who I’m a great admirer of by the way, because he wiped out the Cairo Gang – and that wasn’t done with oranges and potatoes or melons, that was done with bullets.

Michael Collins Fitzpatrick's depiction of Irish revolutionary and politician Michael Collins. Source: Jim Fitzpatrick

He said that there are many groups, mostly from the US, who are very anti-Cuba which is part of the reason why there’s so much criticism of Guevara, who fought to overthrow a capitalist US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista with communist Fidel Castro during the 1960s.

I’m an Irish Catholic pacifist. I support liberation theology… [but] sometimes there’s no other way. How do you overthrow the mafia, America and the power structures of Batista? By throwing watermelons at them? I don’t think so.
There’s no easy path to human rights. Sometimes, they have to pick up a gun.

When asked if creating a stamp could be offensive to the families of those who died during the revolution, Fitzpatrick draws parallels between Ireland’s path to independence and the Cuban revolution.

I think there’s victims on all sides in any conflict, and the Cuban civil war which was Castro’s attempt to overthrow Batista, one of the most brutal regimes in Latin America full of rapists and torturers and murderers… In a similar situation, what side do you think I would be on?

He added that he’s a great admirer of Irish revolutionaries, though he didn’t support the actions of the provisional IRA.

“I remember being at Bloody Sunday last March with a friend who had been out of prison. He said ok you’re coming down with your son, his partner and your grandchildren and their grandfather or grandmother, and right in there where they’re going the British troops opened fire on them, and what would you do?”

And I thought, I wouldn’t be a pacifist.

“So it’s easy to be a pacifist in Ireland, where we’ve had enough of physical violence and force, but you can’t apply that across the board, there are people who are severely oppressed even today who have no choices in these matters.”

Fitzpatrick’s Che Guevara poster, based on a photograph by a Cuban photographer, became the iconic image of revolutions around the world. It’s been used by the anti-Vietnam war protests, is the symbol of the since-disbanded FARC militia in Columbia and the Zapitistas of Mexico in their fight for autonomy.

Nelson Mandela once described him as ”an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom”.

It’s also become a common fashion symbol or statement, used on t-shirts, jackets, and posters (mostly because Fitzpatrick kept it copyright-free in order to allow ordinary people to use it liberally). Could the flippant usage of Che’s image without understanding the complexities of his history be the reason for the backlash?

Cuba Che Guevara People wave pictures at an event paying tribute to Cuban Revolution hero Che Guevara today. Source: Desmond Boylan via PA Images

“My next campaign is called Reclaim Che,” he says “and seriously it’s time to take the image back. It’s used on cigarette packs in France for god’s sake, and it’s using my image and my copyright.

“What I do want to do is reclaim the image from the crass commercial interest that absolutely exploited it.

I don’t care about people using it on t-shirts or sticking posters up on a wall that they print out themselves. But big business exploiting this image annoys me intensely.

The Motorcycle Diaries

There’s another criticism levelled at Che Guevara: that he was a racist and homophobic. This is mostly based on extracts from his book The Motorcycle Diaries written by Che Guevara during the 1950s. One extract goes:

“The black is indolent and a dreamer; spending his meager wage on frivolity or drink; the European has a tradition of work and saving, which has pursued him as far as this corner of America and drives him to advance himself, even independently of his own individual aspirations.”

Accusations of homophobia stem from the persecution of the gay community by Castro and Guevara during their revolution. Fitzpatrick acknowledges these, but says that they’re not giving the entire picture of Castro’s and Che Guevara’s approach.

“Let me put an end to… the ‘black propaganda’ on Che. That he’s a mass murderer – more people die on American roads than in the entire Cuban revolution. Castro and Che were not in the habit of executing prisoners, they simply captured army people and gave them a choice: they could join the revolution or go home unarmed.”

“And many of them made the choice to join the revolution because of their treatment by Che and by Castro.

That he hated blacks – I mean, he went to the UN and denounced the attacks on civil rights marchers and denounced the American government for its treatment of blacks and Latinos as well.

‘Worth remembering’

Fitzpatrick says that the enemies of Cuba’s revolution wanted Che Guevara to be forgotten. But he’s glad that he could honour a man that he described as “humorous” “gregarious” and “heroic”.

I’m proud that I refused to let him die. He’s well worth remembering.

He says that when people ask for a reason why he should be commemorated, they should look at Cuba having achieved the highest literacy rate in Latin America, and its affordable, accessible medical care.

As an Irish man and as an Irish artist, I’m immensely proud to see my work on an Irish stamp and I really mean that. I’m incredibly grateful to whoever made the decision and I honestly don’t know who made the decision because it’s a government decision.
If I have to thank Enda Kenny, god forbid, but I’ll do it!

Read: An Post marks Che Guevara’s 50th anniversary with new commemorative stamp

Read: Some Cubans are outraged with Ireland’s ‘offensive’ Che Guevara stamp

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