Was Che Guevara a racist?

Recently GOP Florida Senator Rubio criticized rapper Jay-Z’s comment that Guevara was his hero. Who was right?

I’m Rick Young in Washington. And online from Santiago, Chile, is Jon Lee Anderson. He’s author of the book “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life”.

Jon, how are you doing?

“I’m well. Good morning, Rick. How are you?”

Good. Recently Che Guevara has been in the news only because Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio was criticizing rapper Jay-Z. Jay-Z said that Che Guevara was his hero, but Marco Rubio said that Jay-Z should do his history, that Che Guevara was a racist, that he didn’t like black people and there was evidence to prove that. You’ve written exhaustively about him, you’ve got a best-seller acclaimed book. What’s your response to that kind of statement that Sen. Marco Rubio made?

“Frankly, I don’t give it much credit. He’s a politician looking to screw a point with an American celebrity who made a controversial visit to Cuba. He has a very strong and a very conservative point of view, so I think you have to look at it in that context. Che Guevara is not a racist. He was born in the late 1920s in a very white country. In one of his very young diaries he made remarks before he really had met any black people characterizing them as indolent and Europeans as more industrious. But you know, this was a kind of thing that many people, especially in previous in previous decade before the world was fluid and mobile and in contact with one another, as it is nowadays, he underwent a real learning as he travelled throughout the continent and indeed formed a very empathetic relationship with people of all races and colors. We may or may not share his political point of view, but Che Guevara is known for his inclusiveness. In Cuba he was an army commander and many people went under him and fought next to him, be it people of black or mixed race. And later on, in Bolivia war as well. He had previously been in Congo as well, trying to form a revolution there. I think Rubio’s remarks are baseless.”

Well, the early writings you’re referring to are the Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara. As a young medical student he was motorcycling around South America, and he made these remarks, he wrote it down in the book again as a very young man, as he was discovering not only South America, but probably himself. But you bring up another point that if Guevara is a racist, why would he go to a very black country which Congo is and fight on the side of the rebels?

“Well, yes. Exactly. It’s interesting, because, in fact, a man who ran him out of the Congo was a white racist working for the CIA in 1962, he barely killed Che. African and Cuban forces, almost all of them black had to flee the Congo. Che had to define the place to go, which eventually was Bolivia where he was killed fighting for the rights of people of color, whether Indian, brown or black.”

But you think in your research that when individuals who take up a course – usually course for human rights and they go beyond race, they go beyond class, they go beyond social and economic status, they truly become dangerous.

“I suppose that’s true. I mean that all depends on one’s perspective. Che was a very dangerous man for the U.S. at that time. He’d decided that Marxism was the correct political ideology and that armed revolution was a way to overturn the power in the American empire, but again I think one has to see everything in its context. He came of age at a time of great apocalypse, during the congregation of WWII and the Holocaust. And I think the great deal of young Utopians came out, it was really very popular at the time. And you saw in the 50s, in the 60s, in the 70s a man – Che Guevara amongst them – who sought to change the world order, in some cases through a violent revolution. But I think we have to go back to that period how he was evolving. There was great inequality and great injustices that were part of the political institutions of a time.”