Irish postage stamp homage to Che Guevara stokes criticism

DUBLIN (Reuters) - The unlikely choice of Argentinian communist guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara, hero of the Cuban revolution, as the face of the new 1-euro postage stamp in Ireland is stoking controversy on both sides of the Atlantic.

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The traditionally Catholic country, which has never had a left-wing government, only established diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1999, 40 years after Guevara helped lead the Cuban revolution with Fidel Castro.

However Guevara’s father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, was a civil engineer of Irish descent -- and the iconic red and black print of the long-haired Che known from t-shirts and posters around the world was produced by an Irish artist, Jim Fitzpatrick.

On this basis Ireland’s postal service this week issued the new stamp featuring Fitzpatrick’s image of Guevara to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.

The postal service described Guevara, killed by CIA-backed Bolivian soldiers in Bolivia in 1967, as “the quintessential left-wing revolutionary.”

It said demand for the stamp has rivaled that of its two previously most popular releases, commemorating the sinking of the Titanic and Ireland’s 1916 Rising against British rule.

But it was quickly reminded that Guevara remains for many symbol of the violent abuses of Cuba’s communist government, with one Irish senator describing Guevara as “a barbaric interrogator, jailer and executioner of hundreds of supposed ‘class enemies’.”

“It is my belief that he is most definitely not a suitable candidate for such an honor,” said Neale Richmond, a member of Irish governing party Fine Gael in a letter to Ireland’s communications minister.

Cuban-American radio host Ninoska Perez Castellon joined the fray urging listeners to write to the postal service to ask for the stamp to be scrapped.

Fitzpatrick, whose 1968 print based on a picture taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda was adopted by left-wing students on t-shirts and posters, turning it into a global sign of rebellion, said he was not surprised by the response.

Irish anti-communists threatened to throw a brick through a local shop window when it displayed the image when he first produced it half a century ago.

“It’s not totally unexpected. It was a revolution and you have two parties of opposites and we had the same after the Civil War in this country,” Fitzpatrick told Reuters at his Dublin home, where the front room doubles as a studio with old drawings and sketches scattered about the desk.

“I thought it was amazing that they (the postal service) wanted to do a stamp of Che and It was a great honor for me,” he said.

Fitzpatrick, who has designed album covers for Irish rock star Sinead O’Connor and the band Thin Lizzy, said in 2011 that he was seeking to obtain the copyright to his image of Che, to prevent “crass, commercial” use of it.

A spokesman for the postal service said neither Fitzpatrick nor the estate of the photographer Korda was being paid for the use of the image on the stamp.

Writing by Padraic Halpin; editing by Peter Graff