The Most Powerful Latino is Dead

Posted: April 18, 2011 in Culture and movies, Education, Iraq War, Latino Politics, Obama, Power, Race, U.S. Politics, Uncategorized

Forbes Magazine recently presented their list of the world’s most powerful people.  Of the 68 most powerful people, only three are Latinos.  One is Sebastian Pinera, the billionaire president of Chile at number 51.  Another was Eike Batista, another billionaire and CEO of a large Brazilian holding company EBX, at 58.  Finally, there was Joaquin Guzman Loera, another billionaire and Mexican drug lord, at number 60.  Aside from the fact that Latinos were at the low end of the power spectrum, this listing raises a number of issues.

Why were there no powerful Latinos in the U.S., where the second largest population of Latinos in the world now lives?  What good is a list like this?  Does it represent a true depiction of the reality of power?  The truth is that this Forbes list does not really capture who is more powerful, especially among Latinos.  In fact, the most powerful Latino in the world is actually dead and not on the list.

Forbes explains that the “people on this list were chosen because, in various ways, they bend the world to their will.”  Perhaps. But their methodology, the rules they followed to establish the amount of influence, was flawed.  They utilized four measures.  All sprung from an assumption that power comes from things and official titles.  First, Forbes measured influence by counting the size of their followers ON PAPER.  Thus, they assumed that a person had influence if they occupied a position where they had many employees, listeners, and followers.

For heads-of-state we looked at population; for religious figures we measured the size of their flocks; for CEOs we counted their employees; and for media figures we considered the size of their audience.

That’s like thinking that just because my Christmas tree has a lot of light bulbs that I can also make the room bright.  It’s a possibility but not always automatic.  It’s not automatic because I may not have any access to or the ability to turn on the light switch that sends electricity to those bulbs.

Second, Forbes “checked to see if they have significant financial resources relative to their peers.”  They gave “power” points for such things as GDP, net assets, sales, and profits.  Again, Forbes assumed that possessing valuable material is the same as power.

Third, Forbes awarded bonus points to those who “were powerful in multiple spheres.”  Presumably, someone has more power if they are not just a prime minister, but also a media mogul and a billionaire.  Thus, power comes from possessing multiple “things.”

Fourth, Forbes awarded points if someone actively wielded their power.  This measure makes the most sense except that it is a nominal measure; it is either on or off.  It really does not add much to the evaluation of how much power people have, though it points in the right direction.

These measures explain why so few Latinos made it to the list and why the ones that did are basically rich.  There are not that many wealthy Latinos and few who occupy positions with large numbers of employees, audiences, or citizens.  The Latino men on the Forbes list are not household names, even among Latinos.  Are there more powerful Latinos who did not make it to the list?

The most powerful Latino may actually be dead.  Most polls show that el defunto Ernesto “Che” Guevara has reached such high levels of respect and adoration around the world that he has become an almost cult-like and saintly figure.  There are plenty of reasons for this, not the least being that the image of Che has become a valuable commodity with world wide commercial demand.  In any case, Che is definitely very popular.  Check out this online poll.  His popularity has actually risen in recent years.

If we followed Forbes’ methodology, we see that Che is head and shoulders above most of people on the power list, especially the Latinos.  He has captured the attention of people all over the world from young to old, from Latinos to Asians, from developed to developing countries, etc.  In Bolivia, where Che met his death in 1967, he has become a surprising saint-like figure.  Bolivians hang pictures of Che alongside Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the Pope.  They refer to him as “San Ernesto de La Higuera.”
In fact, Bolivians seem to believe that Che’s assassination has even been avenged…by God.  They point to the violent deaths suffered by six of the Bolivian politicians and military officers, including Bolivian President René Barrientos, who were involved in Guevara’s assassination as proof of what they call the “curse of Che.”

Bolivian peasants are not the only ones to draw comparisons between Che and Jesus.  In 1999, the Church of England created controversy when they launched a campaign to attract parishioners by depicting Che as Jesus.  Both were healers and devoted

their lives to advocating for and protecting the poor and meek.  Thus, the Church slogan, “Meek. Mild. As if. Discover the real Jesus.”

Che’s popularity is also extremely wide and infused into multiple realms of human life. His ideas and image has spread to movies, television, music, books, magazines, advertising, business, art, fashion, political campaigns, and even computer games.  His life has been portrayed in at least 10 major motion pictures from the Francisco Rabal performance in El Che Guevara (1968) to the Benicio del Toro portrait in Che (2008).  Che also continues to be a constant source of inspiration and reference in scores of television shows from The Simpsons to The Colbert Report to the Che Guevara t-shirt worn by the character Steven Hyde on That ’70s Show.    Artistic reference as well as tributes have also been made to Che in hundreds of songs and music.  As early as 1968, the German composer Hans Werner Henze dedicated oratorio Das Floß der Medusa as a requiem for Guevera. American rock bands, French alternative rock, Australian punk rock, as well as Jamaican reggae bands have all included specific songs, images, and references to Che.  In fashion, not only does Johnny Depp wear a Che pendant around his neck but also the New York Public Library‘s gift shop offered a Che Guevara watch for sale in 2004.  The popularity of Che’s image is not just a commercial phenomenon.  Artists from around the world, from Harlem, New York to Ireland, have turned to Che to provoke and capture the public imagination.  In fact, commentator Hannah Charlton of  The Sunday Times claimed that

“Possibly more than the Mona Lisa, more than images of Christ, more than comparable icons such as The Beatles or Monroe, Che’s image has continued to hold the imagination of generation after generation.”

Che wears Che

Che’s appearance and ideology even informs games, both virtual and real.  For instance, Che was referenced multiple times in the computer game Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.  Also, a domino-toppling exhibition conducted in the Netherlands in 2008 where 4,345,027 falling dominoes tumbled for two hours resulted in the depiction of an image of Che.

The point is that Che has tremendous, wide, and deep influence all over the world.  A large portion of that influence is political. In Latin America Che remains an iconic revolutionary figure that both political leaders and political insurgents draw upon to enlist support and to symbolize a hopeful and heroic vision of the future.  Che, however, has also been popular in places much farther remove from Latin America. The Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda refer to the rebel group he leads as the “Group of Che” and the rebels wear Che Guevara t-shirts as their uniform as recently as 2008.  The celebrated Hong Kong political activist  Leung Kwok-hung wears a Che Guevara t-shirts during his many public protests demanding increased democracy.   Desi Bouterse, elected President of Suriname in 2010, often appears in public wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt.

One can even argue that Che has had considerable influence on the democratization movement in the Middle East.  Observe the Iraqi protester in the picture at left.  I think this is not just a fashion statement but also a political gesture on his part since he sports a beret as well as the Che tee shirt.  He is also sitting with others who are dressed in more formal and traditional garb.

The point of all of this is to show that the ability to move others, to influence the way others think, act, and feel, cannot easily be captured in the amounts of money or people that are putatively under someone’s control.  It is also true that power may not always be in the hands of the living.  As this essay shows, the dead are often more powerful than the living.  Senores Pinera, Batista, and Guzman Loera have some power.  They can get some things done.  I’m pretty sure, however, that their ability to move millions of people and resources come, if at all, mostly from the positions they hold.

Che’s influence comes, however, from the place he occupies in people’s hearts and imaginations.  Che, of course, is no longer here.  His power, however, is real, dynamic, and expansive.  Latinos as a community, ethnic group, nation, raza, or people want and need to improve their ability to influence others.  Our economic, cultural, and political future demands it.  I think the best place to start is with Che and not with Forbes’ Pinera, Batista, and Guzman Loera.  I’m not sure what this would entail.  Do we also make use of Che’s image?  Do we invoke his message in our dealings with other groups and our respective states?  Does he inspire Latino politics and policies?  Who knows at this point?  All I know is that Latinos should find a way to harness the electricity and power that Che continues to generate around the world.

  1. […] far less obvious like public recognition.  Latino scholars and performers have long criticized the dearth of Latino actors in movies, television, and theater.  One recent example was playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis […]

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