The melodrama surrounding one of the world's most famous photographs does not a pretty picture make. "Heroic Guerrilla," the 1960 shot that portrays a 32-year-old, beret-topped, long-haired Ernesto "Che" Guevara gazing sternly into the distance, has served the Cuban Revolution's image-makers like no other. It has helped to keep a fierce, dashing, and above all youthful countenance on the Western Hemisphere's great socialist experiment. It is the face of young Che that tends to appear on billboards and banners throughout the island, not the creased and sagging faces of his now elderly comrades. Likewise it is the Guevara photo that has maintained a larger-than-life presence abroad, via T-shirts, posters, coffee mugs, and CDs.

But appearances deceive. This year the Argentine leftist would have turned 74 years old, had he eluded the Cuban CIA agents and Bolivian soldiers who executed him in 1967. The man who took the immortalizing photo, Alberto Korda, died of a heart attack last May while in France. He was 72. His death set in motion a less-than-revolutionary struggle over the ownership of his photographic corpus (as well as his apartment and one of his three old cars).

Korda's 44-year-old son, Fidel Alberto Diaz, flew from his home in Norway to Paris to accompany his father's body back to Cuba. At the burial four days later he was joined by the rest of Korda's five children and two of his three ex-wives. They broke down into three familial groups. There was 25-year-old Alejandra, a gallery owner who had flown in from Miami; 27-year-old Dante, a freelance videographer residing in Havana; and their mother Monica Guffanti, an Argentine actress who lived with Korda from 1962 to 1984. There was Fidel Alberto, his 42-year-old sister Norka, and their mother Norka Mendez, who was with Korda for seven years prior to his relationship with Guffanti. Finally there was his eldest child, 44-year-old Diana, an assistant at the National Ballet of Cuba. Her mother, Julia, was Korda's first wife (that marriage lasted about a year); she did not attend the funeral.

Such a hero was the fallen photographer that President and Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro showed up at the burial. So did Vice President Carlos Lage, Minister of Culture Abel Prieto, and the director of Cuba's Union of Writers and Artists, Carlos Martí.

Guffanti reports that while at the cemetery, el Comandante en Jefe offered her the services of the latter two. "Fidel knows me from when I was married to Alberto," Guffanti explains. "He says, “Monica, who is taking care of you all?' I say, “Fidel, no one.' And he said, “No, no. Whatever problem you have, go to Abel Prieto. Go to Carlos Martí.' And I said, “Perfect, Fidel. I know them.' Because I work in culture. I know them and they know me."

Fidel Alberto, who followed his father into professional photography, also spoke to Castro at the funeral, particularly about preserving the hundreds of Korda's negatives archived at the Council of State, where the patriarch's office is located. "I did mention, very strongly, the urgent necessity of conserving my father's archive," the son recalls from Oslo. He told Castro he possessed the state-of-the-art Macintosh computers required to make high-quality digital copies of the negatives. He was willing to stay in Cuba as long as necessary to finish the work.

Alejandra, who notes she was standing next to her half-brother at the time, remembers it like this. "Fidel [Castro] tells him, “Yes, yes, that's good.' And he points to an aide and says, “Get in touch with this man so you can do that work, etc.'" She then provides some corroborating details. "Fidel was dressed very elegantly the day of the burial. And he told my mom, who was right next to me, “That is very interesting. I know that there are very modern things now and those negatives need to be taken care of better.' I was right next to him, looking at his teeth," Alejandra added. "He has those fake teeth, and they move when he talks."

After the funeral the relatives gathered at Korda's modest ocean-view apartment on the ground floor of a mid-rise in Havana's Miramar section. The preservation plans were overshadowed by an unexpected development. Diana passed out copies of a will Korda had apparently signed more than a year earlier on February 5, 1999. "I reacted with disbelief," Fidel Alberto recounts. According to the text, Korda had named Diana the "only and universal heiress" to his "possessions, rights, and effects."

Fidel Alberto informed Diana his father had turned over control of his work to him several years earlier. "I have legal documents where my father, in the presence of witnesses, assigned, to me Fidel Alberto Diaz Mendez, all the rights to his lifework, which includes all original negatives and photos which were owned by Alberto Korda himself and also all photos and negatives that were nationalized by the Cuban authorities." It was uncertain how he had intended to exert those rights, given that most of the photos documenting the early years of the revolution were possessed by the Cuban government.

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen