When rapper Jay-Z and his pop star wife Beyonce went to Cuba to celebrate their wedding anniversary in April, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., criticized the rapper’s choice of heroes.
"Well, I won't rap it, but I'll say, first of all, I think Jay-Z needs to get informed," Rubio said during the April 14 interview on ABC News’ This Week.
"One of his heroes is Ché Guevara. Ché Guevara was a racist. Ché Guevara was a racist that wrote extensively about the superiority of white Europeans over people of African descent. So he should inform himself on the guy that he's propping up."
It was a whirlwind day for Rubio as he taped seven interviews on Sunday news shows in anticipation of releasing immigration legislation with other senators.
"You know, Jay-Z's a guy that wears the Ché Guevara t-shirt and he doesn't realize Ché Guevara was a racist," Rubio said on Meet the Press. "Ché Guevara was a murderer and a killer. So look, (Jay-Z is) an entertainer, obviously. He's not in the middle of any public discourse here. But I think it's important to point out when people take stances like this that are absurd."
Clearly, Ché Guevara is a controversial figure, but we hadn’t heard before that he was a racist. We set out to fact-check whether he "wrote extensively about the superiority of white Europeans over people of African descent."
Ché Guevara’s quotes about blacks
Ernesto "Ché" Guevara was a Latin American guerrilla leader and Marxist revolutionary, and a major figure in the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro in the late 1950s. Although hailed in some circles as a legendary icon of rebellion, the Argentine-born doctor is also reviled by many Cubans for ruthlessly ordering the execution of more than 150 prisoners in Cuba without a fair trial.
But was he a racist? Rubio spokesman Alex Conant sent us links to a few articles and book passages.
The most compelling evidence was from The Motorcycle Diaries, a book based on diaries he kept while traveling through Latin America in the early 1950s. (The book was also made into a 2004 movie.)
"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. And the two ancient races have now begun a hard life together, fraught with bickering and squabbles. Discrimination and poverty unite them in the daily fight for survival but their different ways of approaching life separate them completely: 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."
Another comment came from Guevara’s writing about his time fighting with revolutionaries in the Congo and included this line: "Given the prevailing lack of discipline, it would have been impossible to use Congolese machine-gunners to defend the base from air attack: they did not know how to handle their weapons and did not want to learn."
Finally, there’s this line after the revolution in 1959: "We're going to do for blacks exactly what blacks did for the revolution. By which I mean: nothing."
Experts on Guevara’s words
We interviewed two authors who wrote books about Guevara: Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer for the New Yorker, who wrote Ché Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, and New York University professor Jorge Castañeda, author of Compañero: The Life and Death of Ché Guevara. We also interviewed multiple professors who are experts in Cuban or Latin American studies.
There wasn’t a debate among the experts about Guevara’s quote calling blacks "indolent." But many said it had to be evaluated within the context of his life at the time. Several said that it was an exaggeration to suggest that Guevara wrote "extensively" about the superiority of whites. They pointed to other statements by Guevara that have either been misinterpreted or were clearly not racist.
First, let’s start with the Motorcycle Diaries quote.
Guevara wrote the passage in The Motorcycle Diaries about blacks being "indolent" after visiting workers’ slums in Caracas. His observations were "stereotypical of white, especially Argentine, arrogance and condescension," Anderson wrote in his book. (Anderson called Rubio’s claim "pure twaddle.")
Castañeda said the diary entry reflected Argentinians "who maybe have a tendency to see themselves very differently from the rest of Latin America. .. I think it is a stretch to call him a racist. ... There are so many other things to criticize Ché Guevara. That’s not one of them."
Mark Sawyer, a UCLA political science professor who called Rubio’s claim a "gross exaggeration", wrote that Guevara’s quote was from when he was 24 years old and "reflects a Ché whose views evolved on the issue of race and who eventually saw black liberation as synonymous with ending oppression."
Sawyer dismissed Guevara’s remarks about fighters in the Congo lacking discipline as not racially motivated. Rather, the line is "the same kinds of concerns he expressed about peasants wherever he went to help foment revolution," Sawyer wrote in a blog post.
As for this quote -- "We're going to do for blacks exactly what blacks did for the revolution. By which I mean: nothing" -- some sources on the Internet claim it is from a 1959 speech or press conference, but we were unable to find an original source or context for the quote.
Sawyer wrote in his blog that "Ché is referring to the concept that he saw blacks as participating in the revolution not as blacks but as patriots. That is, the Revolution would be universal and color blind." (Sawyer told PolitiFact that he was uncertain of the source of that Guevara quote.)
Without an original source for context, we can’t independently verify this interpretation.
Guevara’s comments on racial equality
At least a couple of our experts pointed to a famous speech Guevara made at the University of Santa Clara in 1959 in which he called for greater representation in all parts of Cuban society.
At workers rallies around that time, Guevara and Raul Castro talked about the need to "advance the revolution’s anti-discrimination program," wrote Alejandro de la Fuente, a University of Pittsburgh history professor in his book A Nation for All: Race, Inequality and Politics in 20th Century Cuba. In the speech at Santa Clara, Guevara called for the university to "paint itself with black, paint itself with mulatto" students and teachers, Fuente wrote.
In 1964, Guevara spoke before the United Nations and criticized "racist" intervention by the west in the Congo, Anderson wrote in his book.
People who have studied Guevara said he was racially inclusive in his actions.
"Blacks did do plenty for the revolution," said University of Texas Latin American history professor Jonathan Brown who has read declassified CIA reports on Guevara’s speeches in the early 1960s.
Brown said Guevara had Afro Cuban troops who followed him into battle and stayed in his army after the victory. Guevara also had Afro Cuban bodyguards and other advisers, he said.
Brown noted this even though he is not a fan of Guevara. "His books and influences led a lot of young men to an early grave throughout Latin America," Brown told PolitiFact.
Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska who teaches Latino politics, said that Guevara underwent a transformation from his early days in Argentina.
"While there is evidence to support the claim that Ché made such statements, or harbored them in his mind as a young man, his role in the revolution was one where he openly espoused anti-racist, egalitarian ideals," Benjamin-Alvarado told PolitiFact in an email.
Andy Gomez, a senior fellow University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said that being racist isn’t one of the top 10 descriptors he would use of Guevara.
"There are other things he was better known for," he said. "A strategist, a thinker, also very cold-blooded murder, which history has proven."
Jaime Suchlicki, the head of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American studies, said that it is "absolutely true" that Guevara was racist against blacks. Suchlicki noted several shortcomings of the Cuban revolution for blacks as outlined in a recent New York Times article.
Guevara has become an icon of rebellion, and he's also been reviled for ordering executions without trial. But did he write "extensively about the superiority of white Europeans over people of African descent," as Rubio said?
Guevara’s words in The Motorcycle Diaries were highly critical of the blacks he came across in that Caracas neighborhood, and he placed them beneath Europeans. The experts we consulted said the remarks are real and would not have been unusual coming from a 24-year-old from Argentina at the time.
Guevara’s quote about the Congo fighters lacking discipline could be interpreted as a criticism of their military readiness -- not a commentary on their race. We can’t fully evaluate the quote about blacks and the revolution without seeing it in full context. Experts said it was an exaggeration to suggest Guevara wrote "extensively" about racial superiority.
Rubio’s comments gave the impression that Guevara wrote much more about the superiority of white Europeans over blacks than he did. And later in his life, Guevara made comments supporting racial equality.
We rate this claim Mostly False.