Alberto Granado, Che Guevara's motorcycle companion, dies at 88

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 11:00 PM

Alberto Granado, an Argentine whose 1952 journey across South America with his friend Ernesto "Che" Guevara began as a youthful adventure but turned into a political awakening that helped make Guevara a leftist radical and an icon of revolution, died March 5 in Cuba. He was 88.

Cuban state-run television announced the death but did not report a cause.

The epic trip, which was recounted a half-century later in the film "The Motorcycle Diaries," was Dr. Granado's idea. At 29, he had full-time work as a biochemist, but he also had a taste for beautiful women, fine wine and dancing the tango. He sought one final thrill before settling into a life of middle-class comfort.

"I needed to see the world, but first I wanted to see Latin America, my own long-suffering continent," Dr. Granado wrote in his diary. "Not through the eyes of a tourist, interested only in landscapes, comforts and fleeting pleasures, but with the eyes and spirit of one of the people."

Guevara, an asthmatic 23-year-old one semester short of graduating from medical school, agreed to go along. They set out from their native Argentina in December 1951 on a 13-year-old motorbike nicknamed "La Poderosa" - the powerful one.

The $800 bike was a mess of failed brakes and broken chains. It broke down early in the journey, and the pair continued on foot, hitchhiking and stowing away on boats whenever they could manage.

With little money, they charmed and schemed their way into meals and lodging. Unabashedly pursuing the company of local beauties, they were once run out of town when Guevara tried to seduce another man's wife.

Over seven months and 8,000 miles, the journey was less defined by its mishaps and hedonism than by the travelers' growing awareness of the poverty and disease that plagued the continent's cities and far-flung villages.

The two men were deeply affected when they visited an American-owned copper mine in Chile and met workers toiling for pennies and suffering from silicosis.

Dr. Granado wrote that he and Guevara were impressed by the mine's high-tech machinery. "But this is eclipsed by the indignation aroused," he wrote, "when you think that all this wealth only goes to swell the coffers of Yankee capitalism."

The pair also volunteered their services for a month at a Peruvian leper colony before they reached the end of their journey in Caracas, Venezuela.

By then, Guevara was convinced that working as a doctor would do little to alleviate the struggles of the poor and disaffected people he had met.

His political convictions hardened. He joined Fidel Castro in ousting Cuba's U.S.-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, in 1959, and went on to serve in several top positions in Cuba's communist government.

Guevara continued traveling to spread his message of armed revolt against capitalist governments, becoming one of the 20th century's most infamous guerilla leaders before he was killed while trying to spark an uprising in Bolivia in 1967.

Dr. Granado took a less political tack, continuing to study the treatment of leprosy and committing to a career in research science. He visited Cuba at Guevara's invitation in 1960 and moved there the following year, teaching in Havana and later founding a school of medicine in Santiago.

Though he helped Guevara recruit guerrilla fighters in Argentina during the 1960s, Dr. Granado never agreed with his friend's conviction that violent uprising was the best way to achieve social and political reform.

Both men kept diaries during their journey together. Guevara's became a bestseller when it was published in 1992. Mr. Granado's was published in 1978.

The two journals were the foundation for the well-received 2004 film "The Motorcycle Diaries," starring Gael Garcia Bernal as Guevara and Rodrigo de la Serna as Dr. Granado.

Dr. Granado said he appreciated the movie's effort to dig beneath the mythical Che, whose defiant image appears on T-shirts and posters around the world, to reveal the flawed, flesh-and-blood Ernesto beneath.

"The film shows what we were," Dr. Granado said in 2004, "which was two young men - boys, really - who went looking for adventure and found the truth and tragedy of our homeland."

Alberto Granado Jimenez was born Aug. 8, 1922, in the Cordoba province of central Argentina, where his father was a railroad clerk.

He was 20 when he befriended Guevara, who had moved to Cordoba in the hope that its mountain air would alleviate his severe asthma.

Before their journey, Dr. Granado was the more politically active of the two - in 1943, he was jailed for participating in protests against Argentina's military government.

He received master's degrees in chemistry and biochemistry from the University of Cordoba. He was working in the laboratory of a leprosarium when he and Guevara took to the road.

At the end of their journey, Dr. Granado stayed in Venezuela. He married a Venezuelan, Delia Maria Duque Duque, in 1955. She survives him, along with several children and grandchildren.

He later received a doctorate in biological sciences, according to his diary, and founded the Cuban Genetics Society. He worked to develop a breed of Holstein cattle for tropical environments before retiring in 1994.

In 2005, Dr. Granado appeared in a BBC documentary, "My Best Friend Che," and offered an explanation for Guevara's magnetism.

"He was a man who fought and died for what he thought was fair, so for young people, he is a man who needs to be followed," Dr. Granado said. "And as time goes by and countries are governed by increasingly corrupt people . . . Che's persona gets bigger and greater, and he becomes a man to imitate. He is not a god who needs to be praised or anything like that, just a man whose example we can follow in always giving our best in everything we do."

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