According to Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s birth certificate, he would have turned 89 on June 14, 2017. That is, had he not been killed in Bolivia by CIA-trained counter-revolutionary forces in October of 1967.
Some say he was actually born a month earlier on May 14, a fact hidden by his parents to dissimulate that he was conceived out of wedlock.
Myth or not, the date is still an emblematic one for his admirers around the world. Even outside of Latin America, Che has remained a notable if controversial figure. T-shirts bearing his likeness are ubiquitous worldwide, though their popularity is often combatted by those who claim that the true Guevara was no hero.
The primary support of this argument hinges around three major claims about Che Guevara: He was a murderer, a homophobe, and a racist. To varying degrees, all of these things are true about Ernesto. He was very much a product of his time despite his involvement in revolutionary politics, but it’s important to take note of how his less palatable aspects compare to his contemporaries — especially the leaders of his most loathed target: the United States of America — as well as some the personal evolution he experienced during his short lifetime.
Che was racist
While Argentina was primarily inhabited by people of European descent, there is evidence that Africans did exist in the city of Buenos Aires at the time Che lived there. Still, it’s likely that they were rarely seen, which would make it an uncommon occurrence when Guevara saw black people as he moved further up the coast into Brazil and Venezuela.
“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.”
Of all the criticisms of Che, this one is perhaps the most hollow. Although he obviously held prejudiced and stereotypical views toward black people at one point early in his life, he risked his life to fight for their liberation in the Congo. During a speech before the United Nations General Assembly in 1964, Guevara also condemned South Africa for their politics of apartheid and the U.S. for their treatment of African Americans.
“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?”
Furthermore, it’s another revisionist criticism that neglects to take Che in with his surroundings. The current U.S. president the time of Guevara’s death, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, may have pushed through landmark civil rights legislation, but he was known to use the word “n***er” frequently, even to address black people directly on occasion. He also opposed other civil rights legislation earlier in his career, reported MSNBC.
Che was homophobic
It’s absolutely true that Fidel Castro and Che weren’t friends to the gay community, but it’s disingenuous to push this issue to the forefront of their politics. Treating homosexuality as a mental disease at best and a crime at worst was the norm in even more progressive countries at the time. When the armed struggle against the regime of Fulgencio Batista finally triumphed in 1959, Cuba was already a heavily homophobic country burgeoning with Catholics and rife with machismo — much like the rest of the world.
Still, that doesn’t excuse what Castro did to the LGBT community in Cuba, and that’s by his own admission. In 2010, he told Mexican newspaper La Jornada that “if someone is responsible, it’s me [for the persecution of gay Cubans],” reported BBC News. As far the camps where the worst abuses were suffered by the LGBT community, Che can’t take much blame. By the time that the Military Units to Aid Production were set up in 1965, Guevara was no longer in Cuba. What his level of involvement would have been in the subsequent persecution remains a mystery.
Of course, it’s understandable why some people might be irked by images of Fidel or Che at a gay pride parade. There was nothing progressive or forward-thinking about the attitudes toward gay people in 1960s revolutionary Cuba. But, then again, there wasn’t anywhere else either. Sodomy was still a crime in many states in the U.S. until 2003, when Lawrence V. Texas ruled against such laws across the nation. During the time Che was alive, LGBT people in the U.S. were also routinely fired from government positions and gay establishments frequently raided, also resulting in incarcerations.
Che was a murderer
Did Guevara kill people? Absolutely. It was his mission. He a guerrilla fighter with the intention of bringing down a military government and raising up the repressed through any means necessary. Che was ferocious on the battlefield, and he demanded the same of those who joined him, often summarily executing deserters. Yet as Jon Lee Andersen, his definitive biographer, argues, the idea that he ran wild through Cuba killing dissidents has little basis in fact, the author told PBS News Hour.
“While Che did indeed execute people [an episode I have gone into at length in my book] 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.”
Was Ernesto “Che” Guevara perfect? Absolutely not, but the same could be said for practically any other venerated figure subjected to revisionist history, many of whom could also be called racist, homophobic murderers. Neither is that to say that the hero worship should make Che immune to criticism. Particularly in Latin America, his sustained influence is palpable, with several social organizations and political movements across the continent using his likeness as their emblem to this day. To nitpick his failings is to honor his legacy: An unquenchable, if at times bloodthirsty, thirst for progress.
[Featured Image by Keystone/Getty Images]