November 2005

Book Review

The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey.
By Ernesto Che Guevara
(Melbourne and New York: Ocean Books. 175 pp. $14.95, ISBN 1876175702.)

Amber Clifford

The Seat of a Revolutionary: A Review of The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey

The friendly greeting che is traditional in Argentina. Consequently, throughout Latin America che is a way to refer to Argentineans. Worldwide, however, che means only one thing: Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The iconic image of Guevara in the starred beret of a guerilla warrior continues to grace the posters and T-shirts of generations of true and would-be radicals. Since his death in Bolivia in 1968, Guevara’s legend has grown into an epic tale. The word che itself is now identified with what one historian called the “cult of Guevara” (Almond 161) and all of the revolutionary ideals and radical actions that Guevara’s legend includes. The problem with legends, however, is their beginnings. How do we know when Ernesto, the son of Argentine aristocrats, became Che, the rebel leader of millions? Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries represents one of the few times when a great turning point in history is pinpointed. In this story of Guevara’s motorcycle trip through Latin America, the reader stands on the sidelines of history as young Ernesto discovered the countryside poverty that made him Che.

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born on June 14, 1928 in Argentina. An accomplished scholar of Marxism, Guevara was working towards a degree in medicine before departing with his friend Alberto Granada on the journey described in The Motorcycle Diaries. From December 1951 until his return to school in 1953, Guevara and Granado traveled on the back of a Norton 500 motorbike they named La Poderosa II, or “The Mighty One.” When Guevara completed his medical degree in 1953, he left on another trip through Latin America that led to involvement in insurgencies in Bolivia and Guatemala that began his career as a guerilla leader. After a brief involvement with the Bolivian Revolution, Guevara arrived in Guatemala and joined the revolution to defend leftist President Jacobo Arbenz against U.S. “counterinsurgency” forces. When the Guatemalan President was overthrown, Guevara escaped to Mexico where he met a Cuban named Raoul, and later Raoul’s brother Fidel Castro. Together, Castro (who had just been released from prison in Cuba) and Guevara formed a partnership that was destined to change forever the map of the world. With the success of the Cuban Revolution in 1958-59, Castro, Guevara, and their followers set out to build a truly Marxist system in Cuba. In the late 1960s, as the challenges of economic policy building intensified, a schism grew between Guevara and his Marxist “purists” and Castro’s occasionally moderate policies. Guevara continued to push for a complete abolishment of market economics in Cuba, in favor of a system where “devotion to the common good” would be the reward that caused labor productivity (Donghi 305). After a brief period of disengagement with the Cuban system, Guevara resurfaced in the Congo in 1965 in support of a guerilla-led revolution there. Soon after, Guevara was in Bolivia once again, this time rallying indigenous peoples and rural peasants to rise against the Bolivian government. This, according to Che, would be the next step in liberating all of Latin America from a long history of colonial and imperial control. The revolution never happened. Unable to gather popular support for the revolution, Guevara was left undefended. He was captured by U.S. trained Bolivian Rangers and killed on October 8, 1967. Though Guevara was already a legend, the publication of his Bolivian diary, rescued and sent to Cuba by his supporters for publication in 1968, cemented Guevara’s position as the figurehead of radicalism in the Americas and eventually worldwide. His remains were not returned to Cuba until 1997, and in Cuba October 8 remains a national holiday, the Day of the Heroic Guerilla.

Within such a short biography is the legend of Guevara: the hero of radicalism, the leader of guerilla peasants, and the intellect behind the Cuban Revolution. It would seem, however, that the true foundation of the hero began on the back of a Norton 500 motorbike. For all but the most dedicated scholars of Guevara, his 1951 trip from Buenos Aires along the western coasts of South America to Caracas was a footnote at best. A story that Guevara recorded, edited, and mentioned frequently in speeches as the most formative of his youth was practically unknown outside the Guevara Archives in Havana. All that changed in 2004 with the production of a film version of Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries, and the publication of Guevara’s edited version as a tie-in to the film. With the film and American edition of Guevara’s travelogue, readers can watch and read as a young man becomes a legend. The 2004 edition begins with an essay by Che’s daughter Aleida Guevara and an Introduction by Cintio Vitier that locates this story squarely within the development of Che’s radicalism. The Ocean Books edition also includes a map, two timelines, and enough biographical material for even the most novice of Guevara followers to accompany Ernesto and Alberto on their journey.

The Motorcycle Diaries can be understood as three stories in one. On the surface, The Motorcycle Diaries is a well-written travelogue. Filled with insights about the people of South America, poetic descriptions of the countryside, lovesick letters home to his girlfriend, and road stories of food, drinking, and adventure, The Motorcycle Diaries can be read as a the story of a young man discovering himself, much like Kerouac’s On The Road. Guevara and his friend Granado, a biochemist and leprologist, were on an adventure. With little money and only a few contacts on the long trail, the two young men created their own prosperity. They stole food and wine from inebriated comrades, posed as doctors (regardless of their incomplete degrees) to get shelter and money, and lived on the edge of poverty (as two Argentine aristocrats defined poverty). A major theme in this entry level of Guevara’s tale is his contact with rural peasants and poor Latin American natives. With the voice of a privileged youth, Guevara’s early discussions of rural poverty are not exactly sympathetic. At one point Guevara and Granado find themselves on the streets of Chuquicamata, a copper-mining town in Chile. There the two young men talked with a married couple so impoverished they had no blanket to protect them against the cold. Guevara gave the couple his blanket and wrote, “It was one of the coldest times in my life, but also one which made me feel a little more brotherly toward this strange, for me at least, human species” (78). While this is not the voice of the legendary Che, it is the voice and thinking of young Ernesto, still new to the world he would eventually work to change.

It is in knowing the legend of Che, however, that the book creates a window into the development of the hero. Beneath the travelogue lies the story of Guevara’s struggle to reconcile his armchair radicalism with the reality of oppression. This transformation into a guerilla leader actually began in Chuquicamata, when Che slowly realized that the Chilean couple using Guevara’s blanket addressed him with “underlying disdain for the parasitic nature he saw in our [Guevara and Granado’s] aimless traveling” (78). From then on, Guevara begins to question his own vision of radicalism, and gradually book-smart Ernesto shows glimpses of Che. The initial stages of that transformation come when Guevara and Granado arrive in Peru to tour the ruins of the Inca Empire. Two things struck Guevara: the power and influence of the Incan Empire, and the ethnocentric behavior of tourists (especially Americans) at the ruins. Watching a processional of Quechuas, Guevara wrote: “Standing over the small frames of the Indians gathered to see the procession pass, the blond head of a North American can occasionally be glimpsed. With his camera and sports shirt, he seems to be (and, in fact, actually is) a correspondent from another world lost amid the isolation of the Inca Empire” (112-113). Touring the Incan ruins began Guevara’s thoughts about a revolution of Latin America, and his belief in a system that would return autonomy and power to Latin America’s peoples. Near the end of his journey, Guevara celebrated his birthday at a leper colony in Venezuela where he and Granado were volunteering. In his birthday toast, Guevara revealed the ways in which his motorcycle journey was transforming idealistic Ernesto into radical Che: “I would also like to say something else, unrelated to the theme of this toast. 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” (149). In that toast by twenty-four-year-old Ernesto, the seeds of Latin American revolution that became the central piece of Che’s political theory are evident, and they eventually became the foundation of the most important radical thinker in recent history.

At the end of this edition of The Motorcycle Diaries, two of Guevara’s recollections demonstrate the formative role that La Poderosa II played in the life of Che. In the last chapter, Che recounted an exchange between himself and a poor man in the darkness. It is unclear whether the exchange is real or imagined, but Che listened intently as the old man told him that the people needed revolution. After the unknown man walks away, Che described his place in the people’s future: “I see myself, immolated in the genuine revolution, the great equalizer of individual will, proclaiming the ultimate mea culpa. I feel my nostrils dilate, savoring the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood, the enemy’s death; I steel my body, ready to do battle, and prepare myself to be a sacred space within which the bestial bowl of the triumphant proletariat can resound with new energy and new hope” (165). It is these and other revelations that Che alludes to in the last section of this edition of The Motorcycle Diaries. The second recollection is the Appendix, “A Child of My Environment,” a speech Che Guevara gave to graduating medical students in Cuba in 1960. By then a leader in the young Cuban revolutionary regime, Che explained to the students the role that his motorcycle journey had on his development as a political leader. In that speech, Che compared a revolution to the map of his journey—one filled with trials and joys, and one which was intended to bring maturity and dedication to the people. In this speech is the legend Che Guevara, looking back on his travels with Granado as a journey to the hearts of the people to which he was dedicated. “We should not draw closer to the people to say: ‘Here we are. We come to give you the charity of our presence, to teach you with our science, to demonstrate your errors, your lack of refinement, your lack of elementary knowledge,’” wrote Guevara. “We should go with an investigative zeal and with a humble spirit, to learn from the great source of wisdom that is the people” (173). No longer the young man loaning a blanket to starved Chilean workers, Che had evolved into the icon that stands today.

The words and deeds of Che Guevara are still in practice. Che’s image still stands over the public squares in Cuba, and his use of guerilla warfare, based among peasants in rural areas, is still an important concept in revolutionary actions throughout the Americas. Just as we academics and scholars read about Che’s successes, just as people worldwide canonize Che as the leftist of action, the rebels of Chiapas, Mexico, hold tight to his theories of guerilla peasant action in defense of their land and homes. Immigrant Latino and Latina workers in North America seek methods of direct action to gain some of the most basic human rights. Worldwide, the poor and oppressed see Che not as the image on a T-shirt, but as the father of a strong belief in autonomous liberation. Che often spoke of guerillas as the Jesuits of a revolution, reversing the colonial image of Jesuit missionaries among indigenous peoples. It is that revolution, the mutiny of the people, that Che’s image represents. In the pages of The Motorcycle Diaries, the distant pop culture image of Che becomes a person readers can join on the back of a Norton 500 motorbike, and in the end experience a small part of the journey that changed the world.

Works Cited

Almond, M. Revolution: 500 Years of Struggle for Change. London: DeAgostini Edtions, 1996.

Donghi, T.H. The Contemporary History of Latin America. Ed. and trans. John Charles Chasteen. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

Guevara, Ernesto “Che.” The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey. Melbourne and New York: Ocean Press, 2004.


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