He is called a revolutionary. He is a cherished hero to some, a simple face in an iconic photograph to others. His image is used by fashion designers for marketable kitsch, which ironically goes against the politics he stood for. His legacy is used as a symbolic force for political goals but is also used by a certain section of hardcore socialists as propaganda to manipulate angry young people. Turn a corner on any city street in Ireland and his image dons the face of a t-shirt, usually worn by somebody convinced it highlights their liberalism. However, Che Guevara, the man worshipped for fighting the capitalist system to try and instil a fairer and more generous left-wing socialist system, also helped instil a system that could be considered to be an embodiment of far right-wing styled bigotry, when it came to human rights and most notably gay rights. For decades this side of his and the Cuban revolution's history has been misinterpreted and misunderstood by mostly misguided anarchists who seem to turn a blind eye to the safety of minority groups.
The initial and watered down rhetoric of Guevara’s story, carefully chosen by his supporters is one which revolves around a young man from Argentina, who on his travels in Latin America witnessed the extreme poverty and starvation of one section of society while the other side basked in great wealth and riches. From here the story escalates into a narrative of a man trying to dismantle the capitalist structures which can be argued to cause such economic inequality. His story tells of a guerrilla fighter who subsequently constructed a socialist regime. He set out on adventures to overthrow American supported leaders in Cuba, was supported by insurgents and became a key figure of the Cuban revolution, working with Fidel Castro under a new government. His ethic of fighting and supporting class struggle is one to be easily admired and one which I, as somebody who is highly supportive of a redistribution of wealth, commend. However, regarding the 1960's Cuban revolutionaries specifically, this take is unfortunately used as a knee jerk reaction for reverence and glorification.
Under the new Cuban revolution, a revolution which was supposed to be about bringing about socialist principles of a classless society and true equality, various groups of vulnerable people were singled out for persecution. Having fought their way into power the Cuban revolutionaries lead an abuse of power excluding and banning what they desired even if it had nothing directly to do with their specific cause of a classless society. This notably included, among all things rock ‘n’ roll music and homosexuality.This thinking immediately aligns them with the conservatives in America who also opposed these things. However, unlike the American conservatives, Guevara and his associates had past leaders within their political spectrum whom to learn from such as Vladimir Lenin, whose new acts in 1922 decriminalised homosexuality. This had been a daring move, later overturned by Stalin.
Although there are apparently no glaringly obvious quotes to highlight any hardcore homophobia on the part of Che Guevara, he does allude to a disgust of homosexuality in his memoirs, where upon speaking about a particular individual he notes "the episode upset us a little because the poor man, apart from being homosexual and a first rate bore, had been very nice to to us...". Highlighting the man's sexuality as a point of negative criticism may appear mild to some, but for a man of this power and persuasion, his comment projects a homophobic thinking.
Under the Cuban revolution, the system fought for by Guevara and his associates, established ‘labour camps’, known as the UMAP labour camps, to incarcerate gay people, among other groups, which mostly included people of a religious background. These were Cuba's new concentration camps, set up so the new socialist government could rid their nation of homosexuality, which was somehow believed to be a product of capitalism. Gay artists were censored and gay people in government lost their jobs. The UMAP camps subjected homosexuals to brutal torture and some inmates committed suicide. Not only gay men were incarcerated but effeminate men were also imprisoned. People who did not fit into the fascist vision of masculinity were imprisoned without charge or trial and forced to adhere to the notion of masculinity through slave labour.
In these camps gay men who had been rounded up were subjected to rehabilitation and re-education. An argument that “the times” were different is nullified by Lenin's 1922 acts, and the fact that the revolution was setting out to change “the times” but whatever it did, gave no thought or consideration to minorities. If socialism, as revolutionaries in Cuba saw it, was supposed to be this greater, fairer advancement on capitalism and human rights, where was the advancement for homosexuals? It appears the price paid for an improved social welfare system was the freedom of a minority. A claim that Guevara was not in Cuba during the existence of these camps, therefore excusing him, is irrelevant as it didn't take him to physically be around for the ideology to be enforced. The fact that he had enormous power over the way Cuba operated, implicates him as an important part of this brutal treatment. Under no circumstances is it or was it ever acceptable to persecute people based on their sexuality, not now and not then, especially when the whole point of the revolution was only to end an aggressive and greedy capitalist and right-wing system.
While the pre-revolution Cuba was no safe haven for gay people, the man who would go on to be so revered for being a revolutionary was incapable of going the distance with a fight for human rights. It was not until after Guevara was killed in 1967 that these camps were closed by Castro when he witnessed first hand the harsh conditions, as well as their negative attention worldwide. Nonetheless, homosexuality was not decriminalised in Cuba until 1979.
By the 1980's some homophobic attitudes were relaxed including the Ministry of Culture stating that homophobic bigotry was unacceptable. Castro has even expressed regret for the treatment of gay people during the earlier period of the revolution. Nonetheless, in the fifty years since, there has been very little revolutionary practice on behalf of human or civil rights for gay people. Gay clubs and organisations are banned and as of 2011, gay people are not allowed either marriage or civil partnership and there are no laws prohibiting 'hate speech'. For all the differences claimed and fought for between socialism and capitalism, one thing is for certain and that is that gay rights seem to be insignificant, even within the system that parades itself on being egalitarian and revolutionary. Che Guevara may have revolted against corrupt capitalists, making him an admirable and iconic symbol of social change. Nevertheless, while mostly young people succumb to the promotion of a false hero, with regard to all round human rights, and don the face of who they think was some noble warrior (or a rock star), it must be remembered that the UMAP camps were stringently homophobic and a serious part of what his revolution instilled. On the other hand, an entire section of the consumer market may have no idea who this face belongs to, accepting it as some random mass market pop culture figure, something Guevara himself scorned.
- Ivor Casey
- Bejel, Emilio. Gay Cuban Nation (University of Chicago Press, 2001)
- Dore, Elizabeth & Carrie Hamilton. Sexual Revolutions in Cuba: Passion, Politics and Memory (Envisioning Cuba) (The University of North Carolina Press, 2012)
- Goldman, Dave E. Out of Bounds: Islands and the Demarcation of Identity in the Hispanic Caribbean (Bucknell Studies in Latin American Literature and Theory), (Bucknell University Press, 2008)
- Guevara, Ernesto. The Motorcycle Diaries (Ocean Press, 2003)
- Improper Conduct, (Dirs. Néstor Almendros & Orlando Jiménez Leal, 1984)
- Lumsden, Ian. Machos, Maricones and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality (Temple University Press, 1996)
- Tatchell, Peter. 'Gay Rights and Wrongs in Cuba', http://www.pinktriangle.org.uk/glh/213/cuba.html