Ernesto “Che” Guevara will forever be an undying symbol of revolution. But people still debate whether he was a hero or a monster. The popular symbol of rebellion and counterculture, Che was captured gazing upward toward the future against a sea of red in countless times on posters, graffiti, and t-shirts. So who was this guy, and what was he all about?
To many, the man is a hero: a figure to be idolized. But to others, the man is a cold-blooded killer: a violent tyrant who spread a dangerous breed of socialism to the masses. Before Che became the notorious revolutionary, he was a regular, flawed human being with his own vision of the world from which he formed his beliefs and ideas.
And it was one particular motorcycle trip that turned him into the radical he became…
(You could watch the movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, of course, which was based on Guevara’s diary entries. Or you could stick around and learn about him now…)
Before he became known as a Marxist guerilla commander, before he became a figure emblazoned on T-shirts, before he ever came to be known as “Che,” all the guy had was a buddy, a bike and an epic road trip that lay ahead of him. This trip ultimately changed the course of not only his life but the lives of many.
In fact, after this trip, he became a figure who changed the course of world history as we know it. In December 1951, as a 23-year-old Argentinian medical student who went by the name of Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna, he hopped on his friend Alberto Granado’s old-fashioned Norton 500cc motorcycle. He left Cordoba, Argentina, without ever looking back.
“All we could see was the dust on the road ahead and ourselves on the bike, devouring kilometers in our flight northward,” is what Guevara wrote in the diary that he kept on this road trip. Despite a six-year age gap between the two, Guevara and Granado, a 29-year-old biochemist, had already been friends for about a decade.
The pair shared an intellectual curiosity as well as a hunger for adventure. It’s precisely why they decided to embark on what would become an eight-month odyssey up the spine of South America. Born in 1928, Guevara grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Buenos Aires, Argentina. And, as it turns out, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree…
Guevara’s parents defied many of the social conventions of their class and their time. Even though his household wasn’t necessarily infused with radical political attitudes, there was still a tone of defiant independence, according to Marshall Beck, editor at the North American Congress on Latin America.
During his time in medical school, Guevera didn’t distinguish himself. His grades were far from outstanding. Ironically, he showed little interest in politics, and purposely stayed away from the left-wing groups on campus. There was one thing, however, that he had a love for. He had a case of the travel bug. There was an itch for an adventure in him, and he needed to get his fix.
Guevara always wanted to travel. In 1949, he embarked on a solo bicycle trip across Argentina. It was on his prior travels in Argentina and abroad that Guevara started becoming more socially aware. His interest in starting a career in medicine was an expression of his social consciousness.
Then, one day, Alberto Granada, a family friend who was working in a leprosy hospital, asked Guevara if he wanted to take a motorcycle trip with him to North America. The young and travel-hungry Guevara immediately said yes, with no explanation needed. He didn’t even mind if it meant postponing his medical exams. The two buddies left Cordoba and embarked on their journey…
After leaving Cordoba, they visited the capital of Buenos Aires and the city of Miramar before they headed into the Andes. Guevara, who was plagued by chronic asthma, had a rough start on the trip. He not only contracted the flu, which left him physically weak, but he was also tending to a broken heart after getting a break-up letter from his girlfriend.
Granado’s motorcycle was nicknamed La Poderosa II (which translates to “The Mighty One”). But the bike wasn’t that mighty; it suffered from its own weaknesses, failing to live up to its moniker. Eventually, it broke down for good when the guys were in Chile. The adventurers were now “bums without wheels,” as Guevara referred to them in his diary.
Regardless, they continued to head north, through deserts and rainforests by walking, hitchhiking, riding horses and sailing on a ship. The duo slept in garages, barns, and even police stations. At other times, they resorted to simply sleeping under the stars. They visited iconic locations like Lake Titicaca and Machu Picchu – a place Guevara called “the pure expression of the most powerful indigenous race in the Americas.”
The pair also visited less touristy locations, which happened to have a profound effect on Guevara. For instance, they visited Chile’s copper mine in the town of Chuquicamata, which was operated by an American company. It was there that Guevara witnessed the exploitation of the mineworkers.
He wrote about what he saw in his diary: “The only thing that matters is the enthusiasm with which the workers set to ruining their health in search of a few meager crumbs that barely provide their subsistence.” He continued writing, saying that the biggest effort that Chile should make is to shake its “uncomfortable Yankee friend from its back.”
By the time they got to Peru, they had sawed the miserable poverty endured by indigenous people who were clearly being treated as second-class citizens. They “are a defeated race,” as Guevara wrote. He described their stares as tame, “almost fearful,” and completely unconcerned about the outside world.
Seeing such poverty is something that Guevara just couldn’t shake. Those faces he saw in Peru never left his mind. He commented on how some of them gave the impression that they go on living because it’s simply a habit they can’t stop. But the two didn’t hang around too much; they headed onwards.
After sailing on the Amazon River, Guevara and Granado spent two weeks at a leper colony (a place to quarantine those with leprosy) in eastern Peru. There, the humane treatment of the 600 patients only confirmed Granado’s desire to keep working with people with leprosy. Guevara saw the impact the treatment had on those affected.
He wrote: “The psychological lift it gives to these poor people — treating them as normal human beings instead of animals, as they are used to — is incalculable.” The two medically-oriented travelers couldn’t help but be impacted by what they were witnessing and experiencing on their life-changing trip.
It made Guevara, in particular, more conscious of a common South American civilization, and a pan-American vision was roused in him. The way he saw it, dividing the continent of America into “unstable and illusionary nations, is completely fictional.” During a birthday party thrown in his honor at the leper colony, he said, “we constitute a single mestizo race, which from Mexico to the Magellan straits bears notable ethnographical similarities.”
He then proposed a toast to Peru and to “a United Latin America.” The buds of radicalism were forming. Continuing on their travels, the two ventured down the Amazon River on a wooden raft called Mambo-Tango until they were met by swift currents and swarms of mosquitoes. That’s when they took refuge in Leticia, Colombia, for nine days.
There, they played with a local soccer team; the future guerilla leader played goalie. After a flight to Bogota, the capital of Colombia, on “a cocktail-shaker of an airplane,” Guevara and Granado traveled by bus and truck to Caracas, Venezuela, where the duo split up.
Granado decided to start working at a local leprosy clinic. Guevara, on the other hand, flew to Miami. He spent three weeks in the US before returning home to Argentina after his eight-month trip came to an end. But, in many ways, his journey was far from over. The 8,000-mile trip, spanning the Andes to the Amazon, made an impact on the aspiring medical student.
For the first time, and alarmingly, he was exposed to poverty and economic inequality, social injustice, capitalist exploitation and political repression. As soon as he returned home, he wrote: “I am not the person I once was.” He was coming to terms with the fact that his wanderings around “Our America with a Capital A” had changed him more than he thought.
In many ways, Che’s politicization was a product of his travels. When he was in Guatemala and later Mexico, not only did he see first-hand the poverty and inequality in Latin America, he also met a number of left-wing and right-wing political figures. He was generally was more impressed by the former.
Finally, he saw the United States as a major factor in the problems that Latin America was facing. This essentially led him to align with left-wing Marxist views. On December 10, 1953, Guevara sent his Aunt Beatriz a letter telling her he swore on the photo of the recently-deceased Joseph Stalin that he won’t rest until he sees “these capitalist octopuses annihilated.”
Those “capitalist octopuses” he was referring to were the huge corporations in the United States, like the United Fruit Company, for instance. Guevara saw these companies as corrupting. By the time he wrote that letter, however, Guevara was already in Guatemala in the middle of a US-backed rebellion – an experience that changed his life forever.
Under the orders of then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower, the US was backing rebels who had invaded Guatemala and bombed its capital. They broadcast anti-government propaganda to overthrow the country’s elected president, Jacobo Árbenz. Árbenz was redistributing land to the poor. By 1952, he had seized 225,000 acres from rich landowners and large corporations. It ultimately affected the United Fruit Company more than anyone else in the country.
Guevara wasn’t alone in thinking that the entire coup was just an American scheme to support the United Fruit Company’s business interests. It turns out that he was right. John Foster Dulles, then-secretary of state, was a lawyer for the company, and his brother was on the company’s board of directors.
The multinational corporation had annual profits amounting to twice the annual revenue of the government of Guatemala. Guevara was determined to help and joined the Communist Youth League. He tried to rally the Guatemalans to resist. Twice he offered to fight, but few matched his revolutionary passion. He found himself angry but in an army that was unwilling to let him act upon it.
About seven months after Guevara sent that letter to his aunt, the country of Guatemala fell. The dictator Carlos Castillo Armas took over, and the United Fruit Company’s land was returned. A new military began rounding up and executing suspected Communists. Guevara was forced to flee the country and hide in Mexico.
At the end of the day, he failed to change Guatemala in the way he had hoped. But, ironically, Guatemala ended up changing him. While he was in exile in Mexico City, he met a famed revolutionary leader who helped him change the world and create the change that he was looking for. I’m guessing you know to whom I’m referring to…
Guevara met Fidel Castro in Mexico in 1954. Not long after, he joined the Cuban Revolution. He didn’t forget about his dear friend Granado, though. At his invitation, Granado moved to Cuba in 1961 and co-founded a medical school. In Guevara’s eyes, Fidel Castro was a man worth dying for.
In many ways, he was like Guatemala’s Árbenz – a man willing to risk everything to assist the poor who were pitted against a dictator who was also backed by the United States. Guevara and Castro were introduced by Cuban exiles Guevara had met in Guatemala. At their first meeting, they spent 10 hours chatting. They talked about revolution and the future of Latin America.
Castro was precisely the person Guevara was looking for. By the next morning, he joined Castro’s band of rebels. “To tell the truth,” Guevara wrote in his journal, “after my experiences across Latin America, I didn’t need much more to enlist for a revolution against a tyrant.” In November of 1956, the men of Castro’s revolution (the 26th of July Movement) set off for Cuba.
It didn’t take long for Guevara to learn first-hand just how brutal war truly is. As soon as they got off the boat, their small band of brothers was attacked by the troops of Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s US-backed dictator. Only 22 of Castro’s men survived, and they were then scattered across the Cuban jungle.
Over the next few days, the few survivors struggled to find each other. Maybe it was this brutal welcome that turned Guevara into a cold, ruthless soldier. What he became was a far cry from the doctor-in-training who provided free medical care to an Amazonian leper colony. But this was his passion, and he was ready to die for the cause.
Guevara quickly gained a reputation as harsh and demanding – a man who wouldn’t hesitate to kill whomever got in his way. He wrote about a moment when one of his brothers-in-arms was accused of treason: “The situation was uncomfortable for the people. So I ended the problem by giving him a shot with a .32 pistol in the right side of the brain.”
Guevara was undoubtedly ruthless, but that was exactly what the Cuban revolutionaries needed. With his help, the 22 remaining men set up their own propaganda radio station. They also recruited supporters and managed to cut down Batista’s army with hit-and-run warfare. With time, Guevara became Castro’s second-in-command.
He led the men through the Battle of Santa Clara. On December 31, 1958, Guevara captured the city after a seven-week-long march. As soon as the news of Guevara’s victory got to Batista, he fled the country. Cuba thus fell into Castro’s hands. That was when Cuba, as a nation, changed. Under Castro, income inequality was drastically lowered. And areas like housing, healthcare, and education were all reworked.
The country that was once only 60 percent literate, eventually skyrocketed to a 96 percent literacy rate – all thanks to Castro’s reforms. Throughout 1961, over 700,000 Cuban adults were taught how to read and write. But still, there was no denying that they used a Marxist approach to achieve their ends.
Factories, banks, and businesses were nationalized, and Guevara wrote a new law in which large farms and foreign-owned sugar plantations were redistributed to the poor. It included about 480,000 acres of land that had been owned by American corporations. This, of course, upset the Americans…
This revolution didn’t sit well with the United States. President Eisenhower tried to strike back economically by reducing US imports of Cuban sugar. He was hoping to financially bully Castro into submission. But when he saw that Castro wasn’t backing down, he took even harsher measures.
On March 4, 1960, a French freighter called La Coubre, carrying 76 tons of grenades and ammo, exploded in Havana’s harbor. It killed about 100 people. Guevara, who was on the scene, personally rushed toward the explosion, tending to his wounded people. Castro later insisted that the attack was orchestrated by the CIA. And he also assumed that more was coming. Guevara himself believed that America was terrified of what Castro represented.
Following the Cuban Revolution, Guevara had a few key roles in the new government. He reviewed the appeals for those convicted as war criminals, instituted agricultural land reform, spearheaded a nationwide literacy campaign. And he served as national bank president, instructional director for Cuba’s armed forces, and a diplomat on behalf of Cuban socialism.
Guevara was also a prolific writer. He created an influential guerrilla warfare manual, as well as a best-selling memoir about his motorcycle journey. More than 50 years after his death on October 9, 1967, Che Guevara is an icon for the fight against Western domination around the world. Having chosen to continue fighting abroad after the success of the Cuban Revolution is what really sealed his fate.
His capture and eventual execution in Bolivia at the age of 39 secured his spot in the history books forever. Before he was killed, Guevara was dragged outside by Felix Rodriguez so that his men could take pictures gloating over their captured enemy. Rodriguez then sent one of his men to kill Guevara in a way that made it look like he died in battle.
“I know you’ve come to kill me,” Guevara famously said, as he stared his executioner straight in the eyes. “Shoot, coward! You are only going to kill a man.” The US actually wanted to keep him alive, according to declassified documents. But the government wasn’t that upset. After all, it was American-trained Bolivians who got him in the end.
After his death, Castro proclaimed three days of mourning in Cuba for his fallen comrade, telling the people: “If we wish to express what we want the men of future generations to be, we must say: ‘Let them be like Che!’” Around the world, Guevara became the symbol of standing up against the powers that be.
After learning of his death, British artist Jim Fitzpatrick took an existing photo of Guevara and made a red-black-and-white image of him. That image resonated further than he ever expected. “I thought he was one of the greatest men who ever lived,” Fitzpatrick explained. “I felt this image had to come out, or he would not be commemorated; otherwise, he would go where heroes go, which is usually into anonymity.”
Che Guevara was never forgotten. That image was spread around the globe in countless ways, showing up on posters, t-shirts, graffiti, and album covers. At the end of the day, they killed the man, but not the idea. To this day, Guevara lives on as a symbol of rebellion, Socialism, and even the dreaded word “Communism.”
But no nation appreciates him more than Cuba, the country whose history he effectively changed forever. Decades after his death, Cuban school children begin each Friday morning by making a pledge: “Pioneers for Communism, we will be like Che!”
Who knew that such a future was in stock for a once travel-hungry student who hopped on a motorcycle with a friend on a whim?
Some have likened Guevara’s motorcycle trip to that in the famous film Easy Rider. If you want to stick around for another bike trip, here you go…