Below is the text of an open letter published in The Huffington Post on September 19, 2012 by Thor Halvorssen, Founder of the Human Rights Foundation. The letter is useful for Business Ethics courses in discussions of marketing and advertising using popular political figures, especially political figures with a record like Guevara’s.
An Open Letter to Urban Outfitters Regarding Their Che Guevara Merchandise
CEO, Urban Outfitters
30 Industrial Park Blvd.
Trenton, SC 29847
Dear Mr. Marlow,
The Human Rights Foundation recently became aware of the sale of merchandise at Urban Outfitters emblazoned with the image of communist leader Che Guevara, at times accompanied by the word “revolución.” As a nonprofit organization dedicated to the defense of human rights, we would like to bring your attention to Guevara’s bloody and anti-democratic legacy.
Although Guevara’s image has appeared on countless items for consumption over the last few decades as a symbol of change for the better, Guevara’s actual record is that of a brutal tyrant who suppressed individual freedom in Cuba and murdered those who challenged his worldview.
Guevara undoubtedly played a key role in the overthrow of the dictatorial Batista regime in January of 1959. However, despite promises of a new democratic government, within a few months he and Fidel Castro had designed and installed a full-blown police state that deprived the overwhelming majority of Cuban citizens of democracy and human rights.
From 1959 to 1960, the new government carried out summary executions of at least 1,118 people by firing squad. Guevara himself presided over the notorious La Cabaña prison, where hundreds of the executions took place. For comparison’s sake, the Batista regime was responsible for 747 noncombatant deaths between 1952 and 1959. The Cuban revolution under the direction of Guevara also saw the rise of forced labor camps which gave way a few years later to full-scale concentration camps. These were filled with dissidents, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Afro-Cuban priests, and anyone else who had committed “crimes” against the new moral revolution.
Despite the mountain of evidence for these abuses, much of which comes directly from Guevara’s own meticulous journals, popular culture still largely views him as a revolutionary of the people. Urban Outfitters is certainly not the only company to take advantage of Guevara’s fame to sell merchandise.
We urge you to consider that the image of Guevara represents tyranny and repression for the millions of people who have suffered under communism. Fifty-three years after Guevara’s rise to power, Cuba is still ruled by the Communist party, while all alternative political parties and dissenting civil society groups are outlawed. Any expression of dissent is considered a subversive act, a free press does not exist, and the government regularly imprisons those who speak out. Mr. Marlow, the Cuban government of today, a legacy of Guevara, is the most repressive regime in the Western hemisphere.
These facts forced Polish lawmakers to recently propose a ban on t-shirts with Guevara’s image, as part of a previous law banning fascist and totalitarian propaganda. HRF does not advocate the banning of an image — no matter how offensive. Freedom of expression is a human right, and of course Urban Outfitters is free to choose how to design its merchandise.
However, HRF does question the motives of Urban Outfitters in lionizing a murderer who did not even make an attempt to hide his bloody ideology. In a speech in front of the United Nations in 1964, Guevara proudly admitted that “yes, we have executed, we are executing, we will continue to execute.” He boasted of murdering Eutimio Guerra, bragging in his diary how he “ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain.” He believed in doing anything it took to achieve “the greater good” he envisioned for Cuba — including nuclear annihilation of the United States.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Guevara favored engaging in nuclear war to “build a better world.” After the crisis was averted he lamented Soviet inaction, stating that if the missiles had been under Cuban control, he would have fired them. There is evidence that Guevara was involved in a November 1962 terrorist plot to use 1,200 pounds of TNT to blow up Macy’s, Gimbels, Bloomingdale’s, and Grand Central Station on the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year. “At every stage of his adult life,” one historian noted of Guevara, “his megalomania manifested itself in the predatory urge to take over other people’s lives and property, and to abolish their free will.”
Is this really someone that Urban Outfitters wants to emblazon and celebrate on its products?
For the sake of the 1.47 billion people still living under the yoke of communist rule, for the sake of the thousands who perished in the Cuban revolution, and for the sake of the 11 million Cubans who still endure a totalitarian system, we hope Urban Outfitters will reconsider its marketing strategy and set a moral example for the apparel industry.
Human Rights Foundation
The first image is of a romanticized poster of Che Guevara that was available for sale on the Urban Outfitters website.
Urban Outfitters subsequently decided to drop its Che Guevara marketing campaign and line of fashion merchandise.