Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries


At the risk of sounding incredibly foolish, I did not know that The Motorcycle Diaries was written by Che Guevara before I read it. I knew that the book was a travel diary of two young men though South America with a motorcycle. I knew there was a movie that came out in the 1990s staring Gael García Bernal.

The book is a diary written by Guevara as a youth in the early 1950s, published posthumously by his daughter Aleide Guevara in the 1990s. She writes the introduction to the book, and I found her thoughts the most moving of any other part of the book:

“There were moments when I literally took over Granado’s place on the motorbike and clung to my dad’s back, journeying with him over the mountains and around the lakes. I admit there were some occasions when I left him to himself, especially at those times when he writes so graphically things I would never talk about myself. When he does, however, he reveals yet again just how honest and unconventional he could be.
To tell you the truth, I should say that the more I read, the more in love I was with the boy my father had been. I do not know if you will share these sentiments with me, but while I was reading, I got to know the young Ernesto better: the Ernesto who left Argentina with his yearning for adventure and his dreams of the great deeds he would perform, and the young man who, as he discovered the reality of our continent, continued to mature as a human being and to develop as a social being.
Slowly we see how his dreams and ambitions changed. He grew increasingly aware of the pain of many others and he allowed it to become a part of himself.”

It’s hard to reconcile with the contents of the book because I can only assume it was heavily edited by his family, as it was published posthumously thirty years after his death, long after his cultural legacy was cemented. I didn’t do any research to see if this is true or not, but in some places I could feel a heavy hand come in and attach with a few sentences visions of his later worldview. I haven’t done any research on this, but it was hard to shake while reading how ripe this topic would be for myth making.

Other parts of the book were so absurd they could not have possibly been manufactured. Guevara, for instance, one night is overcome with a bad stomach ache, and rather than soiling his hosts bedpan, stuck his butt out the window in the middle of the night to do his business. When he woke up in the morning, he discovered he had soiled the family’s tray of fresh fruit that was drying.

I was struck by how frugally they lived. Guevara and Granado left home with virtually no money and relied almost solely on the generosity of strangers for shelter, food, and after their motorcycle gave out, transportation. It’s a testament to society there and then that they were able to do this.

Guevara was an asthmatic, and it sounded from reading the book he was on verge of dying at several points along the trip. It struck me as very silly that the most famous guerilla leader who spent most of his adult life on battlefields could have an illness like asthma.

Another line of the book I found moving that was indicative of his changing worldview throughout the journey was in a toast he gave revealing a growing united Latin American worldview.

“Although our insignificance means we can’t be spokespeople for such a noble cause, we believe, and after this journey more firmly than ever, that the division of [Latin] America into unstable and illusory nations is completely fictional. We constitute a single mestizo race, which from Mexico to the Magellan Straits bears notable ethnographical similarities. And so, in an attempt to rid myself of the weight of small-minded provincialism, I propose a toast to Peru and to a United Latin America.”

Only a few years passes between the events of the book and his change into Guevara the revolutionary. The pivotal moment came when he witnessed The United Fruit Company, the CIA and then Secretary of State and United Fruit Company stakeholder and attorney John Foster Dulles overthrow the president Jacobo Árbenz and establish a US-backed right-wing dictatorship under Armas. Re-reading all of this disturbing history reminded me of an 1892 quote from Pjotr Kropotkin:

“…mankind has not yet found the proper form for combining, on communistic principles, agriculture with a suddenly developed industry and a rapidly growing international trade. The latter appears especially as a disturbing element, since it is no longer individuals only, or cities, that enrich themselves by distant commerce and export; but whole nations grow rich at the cost of those nations which lag behind in their industrial development.“