The Real Che Guevara

Many communists uphold the ideas and achievements of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. Communists seek to follow his example in liberating the oppressed worldwide. The capitalist class has taken note of this. In response, they have propagated numerous lies about Che, in an effort to not only discredit the gains of the Cuban revolution, but also to sully the moral character of those communists who see him as an inspiration. In this essay, I want to counter two of these claims, and thereby restore the good name of Che and his supporters.

One of the most common claims is that Che was racist against black people. The only evidence of this ever cited comes from a section in Che’s book The Motorcycle Diaries, in which he writes about his experience in a Venezuelan slum. He writes that the black people he encountered there were ‘indolent and lazy.’ He also states that the black people in Caracas were racially inferior to the Portuguese [1]. These statements were written by Guevara in 1952 when he was 24 and encountered black people for basically the first time in his life, during his motorcycle trip around South America. This kind of culture shock would understandably produce an emotional reaction, though this is of course no excuse for bigotry. It is, however, important to provide this context.

Many scholars object to the characterization of Guevara as racist. These include Mark Sawyer, a UCLA political science professor, and New York University professor Jorge Castañeda, author of Compañero: The Life and Death of Ché Guevara [2]. Capitalists and their apologists attempt to pass off Che’s racism as an undisputed fact, but not even bourgeois academics are willing to concede this point.

This can also be said of those who knew Che. Che’s Congolese teenage Swahili interpreter for his African expedition,  Freddy Ilanga, lived in Cuba until 2006, and his dying wish was to erect a lighthouse memorial to Guevara in Africa. In 2005 he told the BBC that Che “showed the same respect to black people as he did to whites” [3]. (Emphasis mine)

The full context of this particular statement is addressed by biographer Jon Lee Anderson in Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, which is said to be Che’s most well-researched biography [4].  Anderson notes they were “stereotypical of white Argentine arrogance and condescension” [5]. These statements, while obviously indefensible, were by no means exclusive to Che himself. The fact that those who accuse Che of racism do so without also indicating the broader cultural issues of white Argentinians shows that they are being dishonest. They do not care about the well-being of black people, they are only interested in slandering communism and continuing the subjugation of oppressed working people the world over.

At the end of his continental trip, Guevara announced himself a transformed man and even denounced the racism he encountered while living in Miami for a month, awaiting his return to Argentina [6]. Essentially, the quote was from before he was “Che,” in both literal nickname and political beliefs.

While the statements regarding black people are certainly despicable, Che more than made up for them through the actions he took later in life. In August 1961, (nine years after his “indolent” remark), Guevara attacked the U.S. for discrimination against black people and the actions of the KKK [7]. This matched his declarations in 1964 before the United Nations (Twelve years after his “indolent” remark), where Guevara denounced the U.S. policy towards their black population [8]. Further, in 1953, while traveling through Bolivia with his friend Carlos “Calica” Ferrer, Guevara became indignant when he observed that all the dark-skinned indigenous Indians had to be sprayed with DDT (ostensibly to kill lice) before being allowed to enter the Ministry of Peasant Affairs [9].

In 1959, Che pushed for racially integrating the schools and universities in Cuba, years before they were racially integrated in the southern United States [10]. For context, the Alabama National Guard was needed to force Governor George Wallace aside at the University of Alabama in 1963 and forced school busing wasn’t enacted in the U.S. until 1971 [11]. These are just a few events that disprove the idea that Che was a racist. There are numerous others, such as Che leading all-black revolutionary group in the Congo [12].

Many prominent figures in the black liberation movement took note of these great deeds, praising Che as a friend and comrade. The black anti-colonial philosopher Frantz Fanon proclaimed Che to be “the world symbol of the possibilities of one man” [13]. African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela also praised Che for his efforts in the struggle for liberation [14]. Stokely Carmichael followed suit [15]. In light of all this, we can say that the idea that Che was racist is at best intellectually dishonest and at worst totally false.

The other major lie is that Che was a mass murderer, killing thousands of innocent people in pursuit of personal power. This was also debunked succinctly in Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. In it, he says, “I have yet to find a single credible source pointing to a case where Che executed ‘an innocent.’ Those persons executed by Guevara or on his orders were condemned for the usual crimes punishable by death at times of war or in its aftermath: desertion, treason, or crimes such as rape, torture, or murder. I should add that my research spanned five years and included anti-Castro Cubans among the Cuban-American exile community in Miami and elsewhere”  [16]. Many of the people Che killed were former members of the Batista government, a fascist dictatorship put in place by the US to serve corporations [17]. There is certainly discussion to be had about whether it is morally correct to kill people for desertion during wartime, but it is incorrect to say that Che was a “mass murderer.” On the contrary, Che Guevara was a freedom fighter. All those who dream of a better world would do well to follow his example.

Briefly, I would like to address the claim that Che burned books and music. This, like the above claims, is completely false. This claim was popularized by Humberto Fontova, a Cuban exile, in his book Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him. This book has been exposed as false even by bourgeois academics.  Journalist and Buenos Aires bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires Michael Casey reviewed Exposing the Real Che Guevara in his 2009 book Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image. Casey described it as “an art form of mixing frustration with ridicule.” Casey said that Fontova’s prose was a marriage of Ann Coulter with the Gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, and that Fontova “basically yells at his readers, mixing a sarcastic wit with a touch of self-deprecation until it is overwhelmed by disdain for his opponents.” Lastly, Casey observed that Fontova often “lathers himself into a rage” when it comes to the issue of Che Guevara, noting that his barrage of hyperbole leads him to describe Guevara as an “assassin”, “sadist”, “bumbler”, “fool”, and “whimpering-sniveling-blubbering coward” who is “revered by millions of imbeciles.”Other descriptions by Fontova of Guevara, cited by Casey, were “shallow”, “boorish”, “epically stupid”, “a fraud”, a “murdering swine”, an “intellectual vacuum”, and an “insufferable Argentine jackass” [18].

The book is nothing more than propaganda, unsubstantiated and politically motivated. Even the former CIA officer Robert Chapman admits that Humberto exaggerates his claims [19] If even the imperialists are unwilling to support the author’s claims, then we can reasonably claim that the claims are false.

Anti-communists, as we have seen, are more than willing to perpetuate lies about Che Guevara. Many would be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, saying that they are merely unaware that they are making false claims. I am not so kind. Anti-communists are well aware that their statements about Guevara are lies. They deliberately perpetuate these myths. The reason for this is simple. Anti-Communists know that Che Guevara represents something for the working class. He is proof that the workers can liberate themselves from the oppression of capitalism and imperialism. This is why it is important to defend him: he is a symbol of what struggle can accomplish.

  1. Guevara, Che. The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey. Melbourne: Ocean, 2003. P. 62
  2. “Did Ché Guevara Write ‘extensively’ about the Superiority of White Europeans? Rubio Says Yes.” @politifact.
  3. Doyle, Mark. “BBC NEWS | Africa | DR Congo’s Rebel-turned-brain Surgeon.” BBC News. BBC, 2005.
  4. “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.” Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life Columbia University
  5. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Grove, 2010. P. 92
  6. Guevara, Che. “Economics Cannot Be Separated from Politics.” Economics Cannot Be Separated from Politics
  7. Babbitt, Susan E. José Martí, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and global development ethics: the battle for ideas. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
  8. Ibid
  9. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: a revolutionary life. New York: Grove Press, 1997 p. 101
  10. Pedro Pérez Sarduy, AfroCuba, Center for Cuban Studies, p. 88
  11. E. Culpepper Clark, The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation’s Last Stand at the University of Alabama Oxford University Press, 1995. P. 180
  12. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: a revolutionary life. New York: Grove Press, 1997, p. 769. Op. Cit.
  13. Winter, Mick. Cuba for the misinformed: facts from the forbidden island. Napa, CA: Westsong Publishing, 2013 p. 59
  14. Samuel Willard Crompton, Nelson Mandela: Ending Apartheid in South Africa Chelsea House Publishing. New York. 2006.  p. 45
  15. Winter, Mick. Cuba for the misinformed: facts from the forbidden island. Napa, CA: Westsong Publishing, 2013 p. 59 Op. Cit.
  16. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: a revolutionary life. New York: Grove Press, 1997, p. 92. Op. Cit.
  17. Timothy Alexander Guzman, “Cuba Pre-1959: the Rise and Fall of a U.S. Backed Dictator” Global Research July 26, 2015
  18. Casey, Michael (2009). Che’s afterlife: the legacy of an image. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 249–50.
  19. Chapman, Robert D. “Righting Cuban History”. International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. 27 (2): 421–4.