Debunking “Che Guevara, racist” again

A tertiary effect of Mandela’s death has been the reactivation of right-wing criticisms of Che Guevara, the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary hero. In an effort to slur both, the South African leader has been liberally quoted praising the latter. Critics have drawn their own seedy parallels between the two legacies, some dubbing Mandela “the Che Guevara of Africa.”

The “Che as mass-murderer” trope has long been an anti-communist staple. Only more recently are critics eager to establish that Che was also an anti-black racist. From what I can tell, this conceit is directly traceable to the “scholarship” of Humberto Fontova, a Cuban expat numbskull whose sources are almost entirely reducible to (a) Che’s travel diaries, predating his revolutionary turn, and (b) “shit some Cuban person told me.”

The evidence for Che’s racism is a single sentence from those diaries—one which, by the way, Fontova typically misquotes. As recounted (correctly) by Che’s biographer:

“The black is indolent and fanciful, he spends his money on frivolity and drink; the European comes from a tradition of working and saving which follows him to this corner of American and drives him to get a head, even independently, of his own individual aspirations.”

So. What to make of this?

In context, this is a young man’s single, private impression on seeing black people for the first time. Note that these are particular black persons; there is no evidence Che would extrapolate from his localized experience in a Caracas slum to “the black race” in a general sense. As a diary entry, it was a thought which happened to be written down, unfiltered, unedited, unintended for publication. While chauvinistic, naive and snooty in a vein typical of the writer’s upper-class Argentine background, the quote is not particularly nasty. (As with Barbara Bush’s observation that the Superdome was a nice vacation for the Katrina refugees, it isn’t clear the speaker has bad feelings toward his subject.) It was written—for fuck’s sake—in 1952, two years prior to Brown vs. Board of Education formally ended segregation in the US.

Most importantly, to repeat, the quote is all we ever get. From this alone Fontova and his appropriators deduce Che’s racism. They thereby summarize the man as “a racist”—not “an ex-racist,” not “a man capable of bad ideas about race.”

Is that enough, though? Is the quote (is any quote?) so bad that there is absolutely nothing the speaker might have conceivably gone on to think or say or do in his remaining years which might have atoned for or mitigated it? Is there nothing else that matters—that could matter?

We can debate the severity of the statement. The important point is that, whatever it means, Che changed his fucking mind. We know that he went on to condemn racism explicitly, privately and publicly, and in terms far less ambiguous than the above “affirmation.” He went on to lead one of the most effectively “unracist” lives in history:

In his 1964 address to the UN, Che railed against color segregation in the American south, which persisted despite the recent passage of the Voting Rights Act. Arguing the federal government hadn’t done enough to restrain the KKK:

“Those who kill their own children and discriminate daily against them because of the color of their skin, those who let the murderers of blacks remain free—protecting them, and furthermore punishing the black population because they demand their legitimate rights as free men…How can those who do this consider themselves guardians of freedom?… The time will come when this assembly will acquire greater maturity and demand of the United States government guarantees for the life of the Blacks and Latin Americans who live in that country, most of them U.S. citizens by origin or adoption.”

In the same speech, Che called slain Congolese president Patrice Lumumba a “hero” for resisting the white Belgian colonists; lauded the black singer Paul Robeson, who brought the Negro Spiritual into American pop culture and who was persecuted by American intelligence for socialist ties; and condemned South African apartheid when nobody in the West was yet talking about that issue.

Following the military success of the Cuban revolution, Che aided the African independence struggle in the Congo. He led an all-black contingent of a dozen Cuban soldiers and native Congolese against the colonial forces, requiring him to shoot at white South African mercenaries. Later, Che met with leaders of Mozambique’s independence struggle, offering similar help to the black FRELIMO army (which was declined). (Of course, as Cuba’s own population is largely black, Che’s assistance to that revolution falls in the same category as the above.)


Che with his Congolese army

Che also led the integration of Cuban schools, beaches and other facilities years before the island’s American neighbor. Finally, at risk of playing the “some of my best friends are black” card, Che’s most constant companion during the revolution (and consequently his personal bodyguard) was Harry “Pombo” Villegas, who was, like almost all the men in the units Che led, a black Afro-Cuban. Pombo is still living and has in his memoirs attested to Che’s anti-racist credentials. (In this assessment, he joins black leaders like Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and Stokely Carmichael.)

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The charges of racism are laughable enough. But equally so, the straining uses to which this fantasy is put. The slander is clearly an effort to discredit not just the man but his entire legacy and those global efforts which continue to draw inspiration from it. This amounts to a clownish hyper-idealism by which the man’s inner feelings are lent the power to taint whatever he may have touched. Not only, as we have seen, is a diary blurb not “Che”; but neither is Che himself “the Cuban Revolution.” Whatever unsavory ideas Che might have carried around in his head, the Revolution effected real, tangible progress on race in an historical sense—no small thanks to Che’s own actions:

The greatest literacy bump in human history occurred after the Revolution. Illiteracy went from nearly a quarter of the population to less than four percent in under a year. This mostly affected rural Cubans of color.

The Revolution instituted an immediate 50 per cent reduction in rents and subsequently granted tenants full ownership of these houses. As a result, more blacks per capita own their homes in Cuba than in any country in the world.

Cuba’s revolution is well known internationally for its aggressively anti-racist foreign policy. Most impressive was Cuba’s role in the helping end the racist South African apartheid regime. From late 1975 to 1988, 300,000 Cuban internationalist volunteers participated in the war in Angola, routing the invading South African armed forces, thereby hammering a final nail in the coffin of apartheid. Angolan textbooks will forever teach this episode to elementary school children.

Finally, just as we cannot equate a youthful, renounced journal scribble with “Che,” neither can we equate Che, nor his Revolution, with “socialism.” It is certainly possible for either to have wronged and the socialist project remain theoretically viable. To this end, who gives a shit what Che thought, or even did? Those things are an interesting historical aside, but they don’t bear the load his critics want them to. Social science and activism isn’t religion; condemning the prophet has no power to indict the theory, or anyone else’s practice of the theory.

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I will briefly address the other peg of the right-wing assault, the “Che killed a bunch of people” modality. In truth, nobody has sound figures on how many “loyalists” died in the Cuban Revolution—sure as hell not Fontova’s dumb ass. In any case, Che did run a prison for a brief time, and some people were tried and executed there. Unless these critics are against the death penalty in every conceivable case whatsoever, they must give us more here. They must critique the trials themselves, the evidence used and so forth.

Note also the death penalty was largely applied, and summarily so, as a humane preventative to the locals’ mobbing the prisoners—their former brutalizers—limb from limb. This is acknowledged by the most unsympathetic historians of the episode.

Justifiably or not, however, none of this business amounts to “Che killing people.”