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Thread: Was Che Guevara a murderer/homophobe/racist?

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    Default Was Che Guevara a murderer/homophobe/racist?

    With the furore over the Che Guevara mural in Clare and the resultant discussions about the man, the usual chestnuts have been brought up about Che being homophobic, racist and a murderer. I came across a series of excellent posts about these controversial accusations on the AskHistorians section on reddit, written by a historian, who goes under the name ainrialai. She/he has kindly agreed to let me reproduce these posts here, I feel that they are worth a read and discussion given all the nonsense which is going around on other forums. (After a while things have a habit of disappearing on reddit or becoming very hard to find, posted here the info is easily accessible).


    The following was originally posted here - "Was Che a murderer, a homophobe, and racist who needs to be viewed much more critically?"

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    Ernesto "Che" Guevara is perhaps the most polarizing figure in modern political history. It's no surprise that there are a lot of ideas and claims flying around about him by those who want to idealize or criticize him without properly understanding him, both as a human being and as a powerful revolutionary force.

    There are certainly problems with those who wish to idealize Guevara without properly understanding all that he did, but you have asked about three specific claims often made by those who oppose Guevara and his ideology, so I'll try to stick to those for the body of the post, and perhaps make some larger statements about how "el Che" is viewed and why he seems unique in his image. Was Che Guevara a murderer? Did he hate gay people? If he did hate gay people, did he act on that to repress them? Was he racist? If so, did he act on racism? I would say that each of these major claims (Guevara was not just a killer but a murderer, Guevara killed/oppressed gay people, Guevara was a racist) are lacking in historical evidence, but that there is a clear source for each claim that can help us understand something larger (and hopefully better) about Guevara and the revolutions in which he fought.

    Was Che a racist?

    The answer to this question relies upon a follow-up: When?

    From the diary that Ernesto wrote before he was Che, before he was a communist, when he was only 24, and when he had just made significant contact with blacks for the first time (Argentina being overwhelmingly white), we can draw the following passages.

    "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."


    "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."

    These are the oft-quoted passages used to establish Guevara's prejudice, and they are undoubtedly racist, and completely typical for an Argentinian professional of his time. It is safe to say, historically speaking, that the 24-year-old Guevara was in fact a racist. However, with further experience and his conversion to Marxism, Guevara became a committed anti-racist and anti-imperialist.

    In his 1964 address to the United Nations, Guevara said the following.

    "The final hour of colonialism has struck, and millions of inhabitants of Africa, Asia and Latin America rise to meet a new life and demand their unrestricted right to self-determination."


    "We speak out to put the world on guard against what is happening in South Africa. The brutal policy of apartheid is applied before the eyes of the nations of the world. The peoples of Africa are compelled to endure the fact that on the African continent the superiority of one race over another remains official policy, and that in the name of this racial superiority murder is committed with impunity. Can the United Nations do nothing to stop this?"


    "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 government of the United States is not the champion of freedom, but rather the perpetrator of exploitation and oppression against the peoples of the world and against a large part of its own population."


    Cementing his unique role in history as a revolutionary leader who won his revolution, yet left the land he could rule to fight until the death making revolutions all over the world, Guevara eventually moved on to fight as a "revolutionary adviser" to rebels in the Congo. This demonstrates his belief that the peoples of Latin America, Africa, and Asia had to join together in order to break the back of Western imperialism. While in the Congo, however, Guevara became disillusioned with the rebels he had joined, and wrote frustratedly of their lack of discipline and attempted to impose a strict order, based upon his successful experience, and for these comments and actions, some have claimed that Guevara had demonstrated that he felt himself superior to black Africans. However, I find this to be an inadequate analysis; it would be more accurate to say that Guevara was frustrated with any revolutionary group that did not observe strict discipline, and would have spoken harshly to any such group.

    Given the lack of evidence for any statements of racism after he became a communist revolutionary, the hardline anti-racist stance of his ideology, his role in the Cuban Revolution that guaranteed the full rights of Afro-Cubans, and his public statements in support of the struggles of blacks in the United States and South Africa, it is safe to say that by the time he became internationally renown, Che Guevara was no racist.

    Did Che hate gay people?

    This is a difficult one. I can't recall if Guevara ever wrote anything specifically on homosexuality, and I'm not aware of him taking any actions to repress or harm gays. However, it is certain that Guevara contributed to the culture of machismo that made the repression of homosexuals possible in Cuba.

    Cuban society had been strongly homophobic for so long as there had been public awareness of a homosexual community, and the Revolution, though promising progress in almost every sector of society for almost every repressed group, did nothing to combat discrimination against LGBT Cubans for the first two decades of its rule, and the government under Fidel Castro even worsened things in some regards, by decrying homosexuality as bourgeois and decadent and enforcing new anti-homosexual laws. The prospects of LGBT Cubans were worsened after it was discovered that several groups of gay men had entered the pay of the CIA in counterrevolutionary activities, a crime that was unfortunately generalized to all gay Cubans by many.

    The Cuban government required all men to serve a term in the military, but those who would not serve (Jehovah's Witnesses, conscientious objectors) and those who were not allowed to serve (gay men) instead did their terms of service in agricultural camps, as a part of "Military Units to Aid Production" (UMAP). The idea was for non-combatants to still strengthen the revolution, domestically. Things quickly got out of hand and these became downright abusive, a mark of the repression LGBT Cubans faced even after the Revolution. Those serving in these domestic military camps were beaten, worked long hours, and, for all their service, were viewed with the mar of the "decadent". To describe these as "concentration camps" would be going too far, as their primary function was as a replacement for mandatory military service, but they sometimes got dangerously close to that categorization.

    Around three years after these camps were established, several concerned guards informed Fidel Castro of the abuses taking place within these camps. Curious, Fidel went under cover as a gay man into one of them at night, and revealed himself as a guard was about to beat him the next morning. Following Castro's visit, and the undercover visits of 100 heterosexual Communist Youth following Fidel's example, the UMAP camps were shut down. However, new camps, under a similar purpose, were established. Though they did not reach the levels of abuse of the UMAP camps, they were often still unequally harsh in treatment compared to what faced those serving in normal positions in the military.

    While the idea of the domestic support division of the military wasn't to repress gay men, that was certainly the effect. At the time, Castro said that, while the camps were out of hand, they were better than what gay men would suffer in the military. However, he has since taken personal responsibility for the horrid treatment of LGBT Cubans at the hands of the cult of machismo. The camps are long since gone. In 1979, Cuba's slow march forward in the arena of LGBT rights began. Today, gay Cubans do serve in the military, there are more equal rights, sex change operations are covered by universal medical care, and transgender Cubans have been elected to the government.

    This question wasn't about Cuba, it was about Che, but there isn't really much to say about Guevara here. The aforementioned camps didn't open until Che was gone to fight revolutions in the Congo and Bolivia, having stepped down from all government positions. Would he have spoken out against them? Would he have followed Fidel into the camps? Would he have stood by Castro in continuing the repressions? As a historian, I have little grounds to speculate there. Guevara certainly didn't go out of his way to speak in favor of homosexuals and trans people, when he was speaking out in favor of other oppressed groups. So was Che a homophobe? I don't know, but he certainly did contribute to a culture of machismo.


    So, was Che a murderer?

    I would say that the answer here depends upon your conception of the charge of murder. Is killing a soldier in battle or an agent of the government you are at war with considered murder? Is the death penalty murder? Is shooting deserters, traitors, murderers, or rapists within your own ranks murder? If you answer yes to any of these, you may call Guevara a murderer. If you answer no, I would argue that there is no evidence to accuse Guevara of murder.

    In Cuba, and in the Congo, and in Bolivia, Guevara was certainly both directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of soldiers, police, and other agents of the governments against which he fought. Guevara, as a Marxist-Leninist, certainly believed in the necessity of violent struggle.

    It is important, I think, to understand why Guevara held this belief. Prior to meeting with Cuban exiles in Mexico and joining the invasion of Batista's Cuba on the Granma with the Castros and other revolutionaries, Che Guevara had spent time living in Guatemala. In 1950, President Jacobo Árbenz was popularly elected on the promise of a land reform program, meant to remedy some of the ills of colonial and foreign domination of Guatemalan land and resources. Setting about this land reform, Árbenz's government began to seize unworked land owned by large landowners, compensating them at the values they had stated for their property on their taxes. This threatened the profits of the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita), who owned wide swaths of fallow land, the value of which it had been understating for decades to avoid taxation. The head of the CIA and Secretary of State in the U.S. both happened to be on the board of United Fruit (in addition to being brothers), and orchestrated a U.S.-backed campaign of terror and violence to overthrow the democratically elected government and replace it with a military dictatorship. Successive regimes maximized profits for multinational corporations while, in collaboration with the United States, violently suppressed dissent, as in the Mayan Genocide in the 1980s.

    Guevara was in Guatemala City for the coup, and initially sought to resist it. However, he found workers' groups under-armed and under-prepared. Publicly known to be a leftist who had resisted the coup, Guevara fled the country. Just as the coup shaped his disillusionment with liberal democracies, the state of the working class convinced him that for progress to be secure, the workers and other lower classes must be armed. Guevara had not emerged from Argentina one day convinced that violence was the only way. He had seen a popular leader make some headway, and then seen him brutally overthrown and a repressive regime installed by the owning class. This disillusionment would be mirrored in much of Latin America two decades later, after the 1973 coup against the Chilean government of Salvador Allende.

    However, I think that killing your enemies in war is generally understood by most people to be different from killing innocents in cold blood. It is this latter accusation that is implied when one calls Guevara a murderer.

    Following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Guevara was assigned for a time to oversee the prison at La Cabaña. His duties involved overseeing the executions of those convicted of war crimes at the prison. Because of this duty, Guevara is sometimes called the "Butcher of La Cabaña" in the Cuban ex-pat community. The revolutionary government claimed to be basing its trials for war crimes upon the international precedent set by the Nuremberg Trials. The process consisted of two tribunals, one of which tried civilians and one of which tried members of Batista's military. Only the latter could order an execution for those convicted of war crimes. Guevara's role, like that of governors in the United States, consisted of reviewing the verdicts, offering pardons, and setting execution dates. Guevara remained assigned to this role for several months, during which he oversaw between 55 and 105 executions.

    On the popularity of the execution of war criminals, and on the role of Guevara in the process, historian Paco Ignacio Taibo II writes in Guevara, Also Known as Che,

    "Fidel launched a counterattack to the U.S. campaign in a speech he gave January 21 at the National Palace, comparing the crimes committed during the dictatorship with those judged at Nuremberg and asserting the people's right to see justice done and to carry out the executions. He asked for a show of hands: was justice meted out to the torturers? According to Carlos Franqui, who was editor of Revolución at the time: "Fidel's question was answered by an overwhelming 'Yes!' A private nationwide survey showed 93 percent in favor of the trials and shootings." Che was present at the gathering, but took no part in the demonstration."

    ...

    "Without a doubt Che was in favor of the summary trials, but the tales woven by Cuban exiles, in which he was the "Butcher of La Cabaña," presiding over most of the shootings in Havana, are flights of fantasy. Revolutionary Tribunals No. 1 and No. 2 did sit at La Cabaña, the first trying policemen and soldiers, the second (which did not pass death sentences) trying civilians. RT1, presided over by Miguel Ángel Duque de Estrada, did pass the death sentence in some cases, at least two dozen of which were in January. Che did not sit on either tribunal, but did review appeals in his capacity as commander. He could have had no doubts as he ratified the sentences; he believed in the justice of what he was doing and over the previous years had become very tough-minded about such situations."


    On the quality of polls in Cuba at the time, Carmelo Mesa-Lago argues in "Availability and Reliability of Statistics in Socialist Cuba (Part One") that before the Bay of Pigs (1961), they were generally free and objective. The above poll would have taken place in 1959.

    Whether or not you believe Guevara was a murderer should depend upon your judgement of war and the practice of executing war criminals, rather than upon unfounded accusations that Guevara massacred innocents.

    Che Guevara in mind and history

    "Why Che?" This is a question many have asked, seeing images of the fallen revolutionary emblazoned upon murals, movie posters, and t-shirts. Guevara was young, ruggedly handsome, and a seasoned revolutionary leader when his image first exploded upon the global scene, and that enough secured him lasting fame. But it's something much more than that, which elevates el Che to an unmatched stature, inspiring intense love and intense hate.

    In [1] this New York Times review of two biographies on Guevara, the writer hits the nail on the head:

    "Three decades after he was captured and killed by the Bolivian Army on still another revolutionary mission, Guevara remains an icon of leftist idealism and subversive mystique, inspiring a mini-boom of recent biographies, film projects and post-cold-war nostalgia. From the tin-roofed barrios of Lima to the coffeehouses of Prague, he represents that most romantic of political contradictions -- a rebel who won yet continued to rebel".

    I have written responses to questions on [2] Guevara's military prowess and [3] his successes and failures in his brief tenure in the revolutionary government of Cuba. A physician and a lover of learning, Guevara is perhaps the most responsible individual for unparalleled Cuban programs in medicine and literacy, as well as the driving force behind sweeping land reform (which sparked U.S. bombings and and an invasion, in an impotent echo of the 1954 Guatemalan coup). Had Guevara remained in Cuba, he could have been one of the leaders of its government, and might even be alive with Fidel Castro today. However, after assuring himself that Cuba was on the revolutionary track ([4] I have also written on the course and goals of the Cuban Revolution), he went on to fight until death around the world.

    Che Guevara is seen as a romantic symbol by many, and is hated by many. It is important, in the conflict that this creates, to remember that he was a man, and that he was, at the core of his being and until the very end, a violent communist revolutionary. All of his actions, from Cuba onwards, should be viewed in this light. He sought to use force of arms to overthrow the capitalist owning class, which he saw as brutally oppressing the peoples of the world, and replace it with Marxist-Leninist states that would build socialism and one day transition to communism. He did not seek to kill innocents or those he saw as oppressed, but he had no problem violently overthrowing oppressors and killing their soldiers, and believed that he was acting for the ultimate good of mankind. If he were to hear criticisms today, he might echo Fidel Castro, in saying, "History will absolve me."

    In reinforcing the idea that Guevara was a man embroiled in violent struggle, one might be tempted to say "Remember, he was no saint". [5] However...

    Anyway, I hope that answered everything. Feel free to ask any clarifying questions.

    [6] [For More Answers on Latin America]

    __________________________________________________ _________________________________________
    The United Irishman. Updated 5/2/14

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    Default Re: Was Che Guevara a murderer/homophobe/racist?

    Until I read this, I had no idea that Che Guevara ran a concentration camp and killed prisoners there as well as so-called deserters. Quite a bloodthirsty individual it seems.

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    Default Re: Was Che Guevara a murderer/homophobe/racist?

    Also, 24 seems quite old not to have found socialism, and to have a racist attitude.

    But I don't know too much about Guevara's life, and cherry picking one or two phrases does not seem like a good foundation for finding out more.

    Is there a good biography, that doesn't villify or idolise?
    “ We cannot withdraw our cards from the game. Were we as silent and mute as stones, our very passivity would be an act. ”
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    Default Re: Was Che Guevara a murderer/homophobe/racist?

    Quote Originally Posted by C. Flower View Post
    Also, 24 seems quite old not to have found socialism, and to have a racist attitude.

    But I don't know too much about Guevara's life, and cherry picking one or two phrases does not seem like a good foundation for finding out more.

    Is there a good biography, that doesn't villify or idolise?
    Why does 24 seem quite old? He would have been familiar with Marx by that point and was left leaning, brought on by his family but more importantly his motorbike trips through South America where he saw all kinds of poverty firsthand. He also lived through and took part in a series of momentous events, coups etc, any one of which could have radicalized him/changed his politics/opened his eyes with regards to his previous racist thoughts (which were typical for his time).
    The United Irishman. Updated 5/2/14

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    Default Re: Was Che Guevara a murderer/homophobe/racist?

    Quote Originally Posted by Saoirse go Deo View Post
    Why does 24 seem quite old? He would have been familiar with Marx by that point and was left leaning, brought on by his family but more importantly his motorbike trips through South America where he saw all kinds of poverty firsthand. He also lived through and took part in a series of momentous events, coups etc, any one of which could have radicalized him/changed his politics/opened his eyes with regards to his previous racist thoughts (which were typical for his time).
    Yes, I'm probably underestimating the extent to which racism was prevalent and acceptable at the time.
    “ We cannot withdraw our cards from the game. Were we as silent and mute as stones, our very passivity would be an act. ”
    — Jean-Paul Sartre

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    Default Re: Was Che Guevara a murderer/homophobe/racist?

    Quote Originally Posted by Holly View Post
    Until I read this, I had no idea that Che Guevara ran a concentration camp and killed prisoners there as well as so-called deserters. Quite a bloodthirsty individual it seems.
    When did he run a concentration camp?
    The United Irishman. Updated 5/2/14

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    Default Re: Was Che Guevara a murderer/homophobe/racist?

    While very unlikely to be 100% factually accurate Motorcycle Diaries is an excellent film. Before he left on that trip he would have led a very insulated life in wealthy Buenos Aires.
    Do the right thing.

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    Default Re: Was Che Guevara a murderer/homophobe/racist?

    Quote Originally Posted by C. Flower View Post
    Yes, I'm probably underestimating the extent to which racism was prevalent and acceptable at the time.
    The history of south america has been littered with rascism, even up until the present day. Ever since the spanish colonists came over and took over, instead of anhiliating the locals they used them as slaves and installed a system similar to the cast system in India. (It defined people by their racial purity .. i.e. 3 white (spanish) grandparents and 1 either black or indian grandparent - had a specific name. Mulato is one of those terms which persists to the present day.

    Anyway, that system, though informal in modern times, maintained a huge racism all around south america. Argentina, even to the present day, and speaking in very general terms, maintains a huge chip on its shoulder regarding the rest of south america precisely because its almost completely ''white'' with minimal proportions of indigenous or black ethnic groups.

    This is also a huge factor in the ridiculing and huge opposition to Evo Morales in Bolivia, the only state when indigenous peoples are still in a majority. (i.e. this racism was one of the principal reasons for the santa cruz elite trying to break up the country).

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    Default Re: Was Che Guevara a murderer/homophobe/racist?

    Quote Originally Posted by C. Flower View Post
    Also, 24 seems quite old not to have found socialism, and to have a racist attitude.

    But I don't know too much about Guevara's life, and cherry picking one or two phrases does not seem like a good foundation for finding out more.

    Is there a good biography, that doesn't villify or idolise?
    There's a very good biography by John Lee Anderson called 'A Revolutionary Life'. I made the mistake of lending it to someone who 'forgot' to give it back.
    Always the sign of a good book.

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    Default Re: Was Che Guevara a murderer/homophobe/racist?

    Quote Originally Posted by Ogiol View Post
    The history of south america has been littered with rascism, even up until the present day. Ever since the spanish colonists came over and took over, instead of anhiliating the locals they used them as slaves and installed a system similar to the cast system in India. (It defined people by their racial purity .. i.e. 3 white (spanish) grandparents and 1 either black or indian grandparent - had a specific name. Mulato is one of those terms which persists to the present day.

    Anyway, that system, though informal in modern times, maintained a huge racism all around south america. Argentina, even to the present day, and speaking in very general terms, maintains a huge chip on its shoulder regarding the rest of south america precisely because its almost completely ''white'' with minimal proportions of indigenous or black ethnic groups.

    This is also a huge factor in the ridiculing and huge opposition to Evo Morales in Bolivia, the only state when indigenous peoples are still in a majority. (i.e. this racism was one of the principal reasons for the santa cruz elite trying to break up the country).
    One thing I liked about Cuba was the lack of racism there. Everyone is Cuban, regardless of skin colour or ethnic origin
    Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other. ~Oscar Ameringer

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