April 29, 2013

Che Guevara’s Racism

By: Joseph Hammond

When Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., chastised Jay-Z and Beyonce in a TV interview for their recent trip to Cuba, he especially criticized Jay-Z for his adoration of Che Guevara.

“I think Jay-Z needs to get informed,” Rubio said. “One of his heroes is Che Guevara. Che Guevara was a racist. Che Guevara was a racist that wrote extensively about the superiority of white Europeans over people of African descent, so he should inform himself [about] the guy that he’s propping up.”

Jay-Z, Carlos Santana, and Johnny Depp — who have all been spotted in Guevara t-shirts in the last decade — have, as Rubio correctly noted, largely ignored the issue. Yet, some leftist defenders of Guevara do occasionally deal with this troubling issue. A blogger named Faraji Toure at “Afro-Punk” a notes a troubling passage from Guevara’s 1952 diary:

“The blacks, those magnificent examples of the African race who have maintained their racial purity thanks to their lack of an affinity with bathing, have seen their territory invaded by a new kind of slave: the Portuguese.”

And: “The black is indolent and a dreamer; spending his meager wage on frivolity or drink; the European has a tradition of work and saving, which has pursued him as far as this corner of America and drives him to advance himself, even independently of his own individual aspirations.”

Toure is quick to defend Guevara, noting that he was then only 24 and that this was his first experience with the African diaspora. Yet, this is an unlikely excuse. Jon Lee Anderson, who recounts the incident in his oft-cited biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, notes that Che had already visited Trinidad and Brazil prior to making this statement. Indeed it is quite likely that Che in his travels had already encountered scores of Latin Americans of African heritage in Colombia and Bolivia.

The other argument often made in defense of Che is that he wrote such racist language before his participation in the Cuban Revolution and that he subsequently condemned racism. Guevara did just that in a number of post-revolutionary speeches after overthrowing Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista.

(A brief aside about Batista, who (though largely forgotten today) was just as colorful and ambitious a dictator as the Castro brothers of Che. Batista was a Cuban of Indio, African, Spanish and Chinese heritage who maintained power with the support of various socialist groups in Cuba and had during World War II asked the United States to declare war on Fascist Spain.)

Che In The Congo

In 1965 — writing during his failed involvement in the Congo, with his Foco theory of guerrilla war disintegrating around him – Guevara lashed out at his African “comrades” with statements like: “Given the prevailing lack of discipline, it would have been impossible to use Congolese machine-gunners to defend the base from air attack: they did not know how to handle their weapons and did not want to learn.”

Guevara had particularly dismissive words to say about the rebel leader Laurent Kabila. Guevara focused on the character flaw of Kabila, noting that he was a hard-drinking womanizer. Given Guevara’s own social behavior as revealed in his diaries, sober living was hardly necessary to be a Marxist guerrilla. Guevara’s reading of Kabila seems even more incorrect when we consider that Laurent Kabila (without the help of Cuba) eventually seized power in 1997.  Kabila’s son Joseph still rules the Democratic Republic of the Congo to this day.

The racist passages in Che’s diaries are also surprising given that they were certainly censored before release. Indeed, the diary of Guevara’s time in the Congo was only released by the Castro regime in 2002.

Jeanette Alcon, whose grandfather was a member of the unit that eventually captured Che Guevara in Bolivia, has a rather offered this rather balanced view of Guevara’s racial history

“Che Guevara was a doctor that helped villages cope with leprosy before the revolution,” Alcon told Doublethink. “A lot of the villages had indigenous people living in them. I don’t think he was racist per se, but then again I don’t think he cared much for the Bolivian people. Communism needed to spread and Bolivia was seen as ripe for communist revolution.”

Che’s views on racism smack of similar political opportunism. When it was useful to abandon his previous racial views to fight in the Cuban revolution, he readily did so. When it was convenient to use racial stereotypes to castigate his Congolese comrades and cover-up the deficiencies of his fellow Cubans he didn’t hesitate.

In fact, an increasing number of modern leftists and left anarchists are likely to see Che, not as a revolutionary hero, but just one of a long line of communist murderers of the 20th century.

Che should be remembered for the political terror he was involved in and publically defended on a number of occasions. This was a man who was a defender of the North Korean regime and who deeply mourned the death of Joseph Stalin.  Even sympathetic biographers, such as John Anderson, concede that Che oversaw many executions at Cuba’s notorious La Cabaña prison following the 1959 revolution. Though the exact number of killed is unclear, thousands were killed in Cuba’s post-revolutionary purge and forced labor camps. There is even some evidence that Guevara personally carried out some of the murders associated with the revolutionary period. As the Huffington Post points out, Guevara hoped the Soviets would launch nuclear attacks on American cities, for some reason confident that the communists would win such a war.

Thus, the best reason for condemnation of Guevara isn’t the racist statements buried away in his diaries but, the very visible blood on his hands.

Joseph Hammond is a writer based in Cairo, Egypt. Che Guevara image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.