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He's the face that launched a thousand T-shirts, but was Che a villain or a hero?

The word 'icon' is grossly overused nowadays, but for Che Guevara, it literally applies. Soon after his death in 1967, the Argentine revolutionary was immortalised by Dublin artist Jim Fitzpatrick's famous monochrome rendering of an Alberto Korda photograph.



The beard and hair, beret with star, that tough, handsome face gazing out to some imagined future: it has become one of the most recognisable and iconic images in the world, alongside Jesus, Elvis and Coca-Cola.

Che's face has adorned countless posters and T-shirts, helped sell products and ideas, and been imitated, pastiched and honoured in homage. Perhaps this is why the legend of Che has endured so long.

Even the way we ordinarily use just his first name attests to the fierce grip he continues to hold on our imagination. And the ferocious passions he arouses, on both sides.

Galway City Council is considering a proposal to erect a statue in Che's honour. There are direct family links to the area -- Che's great-grandfather was Lynch from near Claregalway; his father's name was Ernesto Guevara Lynch.

He also visited Ireland in 1962. During a stopover in Shannon Airport Che toured Co Clare and met the young Jim Fitzpatrick, then a student working in a Kilkee hotel. He later flew to Dublin where he was interviewed by RTE; an Aer Lingus flight attendant translated.

These are presumably not the only reasons, though, Che's allure is incredibly potent. He's still seen by millions as a symbol of hope, a voice for the powerless, a brave and compassionate warrior-poet who gave his life for the people -- and probably always will be.

A certain "guerrilla chic" also clings to the man and his deeds, and though we may not like to admit it, that can be very attractive on some subconscious level.

When we're younger, it chimes with our fundamental need to rebel, as we age, it indulges our nostalgia and angst by reminding us of a time when we, too, were (we imagine) cool and idealistic.

But not everyone feels this way. Libertas founder Declan Ganley, who lives in Galway, has lambasted the memorial plans in forceful language. He called it a "monument to a mass murderer" and likened Che to Stalin, Pol Pot and Idi Amin. He was "just as violent, just as brutal, just as insane", he added.

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While it might seem extreme to equate Che with abominations like Stalin or Pol Pot, it's equally disingenuous to paint him as some whiter-than-white superhero. The man had serious flaws and committed some dreadful acts. The question is, were those acts justified? He used and advocated remorseless political violence. He proselytised for global Marxist revolution -- a stark ideology, now thoroughly discredited.

He disagreed with most of the tenets of democracy: properly free elections, due process, private property ownership. He was damned for ordering the execution of hundreds of Batista supporters, although many, it was alleged, were guilty of war crimes.

Che declared, chillingly: "To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail... A revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate."

However -- and it's a big however -- we must assess these actions in context. It's easy to retrospectively damn terrorist violence, unfortunately though, people rarely cede power voluntarily or solely on account of political agitation.

Certainly not a vicious dictator like Batista, and the CIA spooks and corporate interests supporting him. But it's amazing how quickly people will listen when you carry a big stick into negotiations. Violence, sadly, is often a necessary precursor to liberation.

Yes, Che was ruthless and fanatical and sometimes murderous. But was he a murderer? No, not in the sense of a serial killer or gangland assassin. He was one of those rare people who are prepared to push past ethical constraints, even their own conscience, and bring about a greater good by doing terrible things.

Whether morally justifiable or not, there is something admirable in that -- pure principle in a world of shabby compromise. Maybe this is why Che remains such an icon, both in image and idea.


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