Farewell to the real Poderoso
Helen Yaffe recalls her meeting with the late Alberto Granado, the loyal friend of Che Guevara who died on Saturday.
IT was late February and already a scorching hot day when I cycled from my digs in central Havana, arriving breathless and sweating outside the house of Alberto Granado. I was in Cuba for my doctoral research, working in archives and conducting interviews, endeavouring to shed light on the economic ideas of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the Cuban Revolution.
As Ernesto’s friend and travelling companion, Alberto was high up on my interview wishlist. A friend of mine, a Cuban researcher, knew his daughter and contacted her to request a meeting. After four months of eager anticipation, in February 2005 we were finally invited to Alberto’s home among the broad, clean, tree-lined streets of Miramar in Havana.
We found Alberto seated in his study, surrounded by photos of himself and Che in their pre-revolutionary days – in the striped shirts of a football team in Argentina – and together in Cuba in the 1960s after the Argentinian Ernesto had transformed into the Cuban revolutionary known simply as “Che”.
Then aged 82, Granado was full of energy and enthusiasm and for over an hour gave robust and entertaining replies in peculiar Spanish which, reflecting his own internationalist past, combined Argentinian, Venezuelan and Cuban accents.
Alberto was born in Cordoba, Argentina in 1922. At university he studied biochemistry and joined student protests against the pro-fascist military regime and subsequent president, General Juan Domingo Peron.
In 1943 he was imprisoned for one year. In 1945, he met Ernesto, who, still a teenager, was accompanying Alberto’s younger brother to visit him in police detention. The two became friends.
Alberto recalled: “Che impressed me from the first time we spoke. He was this young asthmatic, skinny kid. I saw that he had an important capacity to change seemingly negative things into positives, through his personality and intelligence.
They were united by their appreciation of literature and their desire to travel.
“We didn’t have a political position,” he explained, “just the spirit of adventure and yearning for knowledge.”
Their travels through South America from late December 1951 to summer 1952 have been immortalised in print and on screen, recounting their journey on Alberto’s 500cc motorbike which they named La Poderosa (the powerful one).
Alberto explained: “After seeing that life was harder than in the movies, that exploitation was worse than in the books, that discrimination was Machiavellian, we began to feel differently about life.”
Following that trip, Alberto stayed in Venezuela working in a hospital for people with leprosy, later studying in Italy on a scholarship. Meanwhile, on this second journey though Latin America, Ernesto met the Cuban Revolutionaries who nicknamed him “Che” and with whom he set sail from Mexico to spark the revolution against the Batista dictatorship, arriving in Cuba in December 1956.
The revolutionaries seized power in January 1959. Che took up key positions in the new government and was pivotal in radicalising the revolutionary process. In 1961, having visited Che the previous year, Alberto moved to Cuba to live with his family and took up a biochemistry post at the university of Havana’s School of Medicine. Che was then serving as President of the Cuban National Bank.
For 50 years Alberto remained in Cuba, contributing to the development of science and biochemistry teaching and research He retired in 1994, but continued his research and work representing the revolution at home and abroad. In 2002 to 2003 he assisted filmmaker Walter Salles in the production of The Motorcycle Diaries, based on Che’s diaries and his own account of their journey which was published in 1978.
I asked Alberto what he considered to have been Che’s most important contribution to the Cuban Revolution. He replied, “I believe it is the image of the new man. Che was a good lad, intelligent, a medic, poet, guerrilla, studious, brave, hard worker. Many people say, ‘You have to be like Che’, but I tell young people the most important thing is that Che never told, nor accepted lies. He never allowed someone else to do what was his responsibility. This is what makes the new man.”
Che left Cuba in 1965. “My world collapsed”, said Alberto, when the news of his death in Bolivia in 1967 reached him. “But what consoles me is to know that every day there are more people who believe in Che.”
Alberto Granado died in Havana on March 5, aged 88.
He was a key character in the formation of “Che” and, consequently, in the course charted by the Cuban Revolution. His humour, generosity and commitment to humanity will be deeply missed. According to his wishes, his ashes will be spread in Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba.
• Helen Yaffe is the author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2009